Arnold Skolnick, designer of Woodstock posters, dies at 85

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Arnold Skolnick, a graphic artist whose last-minute design for the poster promoting the 1969 Woodstock rock festival was one of the most indelible visual images of that era, died June 15 at a hospice in Amherst, Mass. He was 85 years old.

He had vascular dementia and a heart condition that caused him to stop breathing, his son Alex Skolnick said.

Mr. Skolnick had worked on advertising campaigns early in his career, designing film titles, book covers and company logos, but none of his earlier work had the impact of the poster he took four days to create in the summer of 1969.

A poster designed by another artist had been rejected because it showed a nude woman and left no space for the performers’ names. Mr. Skolnick got the emergency order after one of the Woodstock organizers saw a logo he was designing for a hotel in the Virgin Islands.

Inspired by the paper constructions of Henri Matisse, Mr. Skolnick set to work, processing incidental drawings he had made. Ultimately, he settled on a design with two main elements – a bird perched on a guitar, balanced in the opposite corner by bold lettering describing the event.

“I was drawing catbirds all the time,” Mr. Skolnick told Canadian news service CanWest in 2004. “I just took the razor blade and cut this catbird out of the sketch pad I was using. First it sat on a flute. I was listening to jazz at the time and I think that’s why. But anyway, it was on a flute one day and I ended up putting it on a guitar.”

First, Mr. Skolnick tried a blue background before switching to a bolder red. He placed the white bird (often assumed to be a dove) in the upper left corner, standing on one leg on the neck of a guitar. A disembodied hand grasps the guitar, shown in green and blue and without strings.

The hand-cut orange and white paper lettering in the lower right corner announces “3 Days of Peace & Music”. (Mr. Skolnick’s signature appears under the letter M in “Music.”) Early editions of the poster listed the location as Wallkill, NY before changing it to White Lake, NY. In the end, the festival took place near Bethel, NY

The poster described the festival as “An Aquarius Exhibition” and included a list of performers, dates (August 15-17), descriptions of food and crafts, and the price of admission. A three-day pass cost $18, but the event was so poorly organized that few people paid for tickets.

“They gave [the assignment] to me on Thursday,” Mr. Skolnick told the Stamford Advocate in 2010. “And I brought it over to them on Monday afternoon.”

The poster quickly symbolized not only the Woodstock Festival, but also the ideals of a youth movement at its peak. At a time when much of the artwork associated with rock music had elaborate lettering and imagery meant to evoke the psychedelic spirit of the time, Mr. Skolnick’s design stood out for its simplicity: a bird representing peace, a guitar representing music.

“There’s a million ways to approach something like this,” Mr. Skolnick said in 2019, “so you just pick one and see if it works.”

Although he had little interest in rock music – preferring classical music and jazz – Mr. Skolnick had a backstage pass for the festival, which drew more than 400,000 people.

“Pure chaos,” he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Massachusetts in 2019. “There were cars everywhere, parked for miles. People kept coming, people couldn’t get there on time.”

When he saw a weather forecast predicting rain, he decided to leave in the middle of the first day’s performances.

“It took me about an hour and a half to get my car from the parking lot,” he recalls. “I had to push cars around and slam cars… The freeway was closed. People have camped for miles on the median.”

Arnold H. Skolnick was born on February 25, 1937 in Brooklyn. His father was a typesetter and his mother was an accountant in an advertising agency.

Mr. Skolnick began drawing at a young age and attended the old High School of Music & Art in New York. In 1958 he graduated from New York’s Pratt Institute and later studied at the Art Students League of New York. He was an artist and designer for the advertising agency Young & Rubicam for several years before becoming self-employed.

The Woodstock poster wasn’t Mr. Skolnick’s only memorable visual image. In 1971 he designed the book cover for Ralph Nader’s What to Do With Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners.

“I looked and said, ‘Just put a lemon on wheels!'” Mr Skolnick told the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

He bought a lemon and a toy truck, removed the truck’s body and then put a lemon in its place.

“I put it on my kitchen table and spun it and then used it,” he recalls.

From the 1970s through the 2000s, Mr. Skolnick designed many art books and was a prolific painter himself with numerous gallery exhibitions.

His marriages to Iris Jay and Cynthia Meyer ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Alex Skolnick of Dresher, Pa., and Peter Skolnick of Turners Falls, Mass.; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Original copies of Mr. Skolnick’s Woodstock posters sell for thousands of dollars today, and his design has been copied and adapted countless times over the years. The bird he cut from his sketch pad in 1969 formed the basis of a 2019 stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

Mr. Skolnick received a one-off payment for the Woodstock order, but in the more than 50 years that have passed since then, he says he has received less than $20 in final payments for the thousands of T-shirts, mugs and posters , which showed his design.

“There are no royalties,” he said. “Everyone in the rock ‘n’ roll business knows you can’t get royalties from anyone. You’re lucky to get paid.” Arnold Skolnick, designer of Woodstock posters, dies at 85

Chris Estrada

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