An Interview with Victor Moscoso

Almost On The Road to California

GROTH: In ’59 — let me quote it from one of the biographies I read about you: “After reading Kerouac’s On the Road, Victor was smitten with wanderlust and left the East Coast for mystery and adventure in California.”

MOSCOSO: Yeah, that’s close, but that ain’t really it. After ’59, I went to Nantucket, and worked as a waiter. I needed the money! Throughout all of my college career, I worked one job or another, and at Yale I worked at the Law School dining room. I was a waiter, ’cause what other kind of job can you do when you’re a student, where you got money in your pocket that day, never mind waiting a week? And also, you eat. So you get at least one meal, which is all you really need. One meal, and you’ve got money in your pocket. Cool. That’s why I went back to Nantucket. And I was comin’ to California anyway, but when I read On the Road, it was like he gave me the road map.

GROTH: It was, in its own way, a romantic vision of that kind of thing.

MOSCOSO: Oh, it suited me perfectly. I remember one section where he’s pissing off the back of the truck. “Coo-o-ol, man! This is the way to go, man. Go to the Promised Land while you piss off the back of a truck!” This is real! This isn’t some romantic — it was a romantic novel, actually, but it was of a kind that really appealed to me, and I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing. The interesting thing about it is that Kerouac did not like the counterculture, the so-called hippies.

GROTH: He was almost a reactionary.

MOSCOSO: Yeah. He was — I saw a picture of him and his wife; I thought it was him and his mother! I couldn’t believe it.

GROTH: Did you get into the Beats’ work?

MOSCOSO: Not directly, but I did see Gregory Corso at Yale. I was very impressed. A Yale literary club had invited him and he had shown up there, and they had this bottle of bourbon up on the podium for him to drink. They’d already taken a couple of swigs out of it, and he very gracefully picked it up with two fingers and put it on the floor. He wasn’t there to drink; he was there to read poetry. “Shall I get married? Shall I be good? Astound the girl next door, with velvet suit and faustus hood. Penguin dust! Bring me penguin dust!” I haven’t read that poem since I heard it. I remember it. I said, “This guy is good!” “Shall I get married? Shall I be good?” Beautiful, man! And this was one of the guys hanging out in California — all the more reason why I should be in California! There’s something going on!

GROTH: So, what was your cultural milieu like at the time you spent at Yale? I mean, what were you seeing, and —

MOSCOSO: Oh, Mister Hulot’s Holiday, Jacques Tati. I nearly pissed in my pants. I had no idea who Jacques Tati was. I went to see it cold, which is the best way to see something. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I mean, this guy just cracked me up, one gag right after the other.

GROTH: I would think that he would especially have appealed to you, because he has kind of a spatial humor, all of his humor is so impeccably designed, visually.

MOSCOSO: It is. That’s a good word for it. It’s designed, man. Here’s a guy who’s basically silent, a pantomime, but boy, does he use sound good! And I just missed seeing him, I saw this flyer an hour after he had given a talk at the drama school, which is right next to the art school. I could’ve met him, I could’ve shook hands with him, I probably could’ve got his autograph, and it was out doing commercial freelance art, but really keeping my eye on the scene because it really bothered me that I was not able to accomplish what these self-taught artists were doing and having success with.

GROTH: Tell me who Chet Helms is.

MOSCOSO: Chet Helms was the manager of the Family Dog, not the first one, but he took it over after the first group left.

GROTH: Why did you consider “Stone Façade” a failure?

MOSCOSO: The failure was in not understanding what Wes Wilson was doing. The failure was that I had learned my rules of what was good art and bad art so well that I had actually imprisoned myself within the rules. Wes had no such problems, because he didn’t go to art school, so he could just respond intuitively to what was going on and what was “in the air.” As a result, he was successful where I was not, because I was trying to fit what he was doing, which was treating the background the same as the foreground, not giving a shit about legibility and lettering. Basically, he and Chet were creating a new form of poster. This was already going on. But he took a step there that was noticeable to me on a particular poster that he did for the Paul Butterfield band. And the fact that I could not successfully do what they were doing. Mouse and Kelley came along right after, did the Zig-Zag poster; knocked my socks off because it was so obvious! After all, we were talking to a bunch of dope smokers! What could be more obvious than a package of Zig-Zag papers? With all of my schooling, I wasn’t getting it. I was trying to make it traditional. I was trying to make the illegible lettering legible. I was trying to make it fit my preconception of what the poster was that I had learned in school, rather than examine what Wes, Mouse and Kelley were doing. So I did that; it took me five months before I did my next poster. I thought the train was gonna leave the station, but I managed to hop on in time, and I did it by reversing all the rules.

GROTH: You made the lettering difficult to read.

MOSCOSO: Exactly. The lettering should be as difficult to read as possible! Use vibrating colors as much as you can, and irritate the eye as much as you can. Hang the viewer up for as long as you can! A week! A month! A year, if you can! An hour will do.

GROTH: Was inverting everything you’d learned disturbing?

MOSCOSO: No! It was exciting! It was liberating, because I knew all the tricks, I was just using them the wrong way! Once I got it, once I reversed everything, I knew the tricks better than anybody, because I had learned the tricks. I had to rewire myself. I rewired myself and then I took off. When it came to picking vibrating colors, I was the best! When it came to reversing figure ground, I was the best.

A Doors Poster. © 1967 Neon Rose (A DBA of Victor Moscoso).

GROTH: Define what you mean by “vibrating colors,” please.

MOSCOSO: Where two colors from the opposite ends of the color scale are at equal intensity, your eye will not be able to tell which one is in front of the other. It’s what Albers called “simultaneous contrast.” They have to be equal, though, in intensity and in value. You see this at Christmastime; they’ll pick red and green for decorations because red and green are on opposite sides of the color scale; you’ll see where there’re colors buzzing at the edges. Now if it was a dark green and a light red, that wouldn’t happen. They have to be of the same value and intensity. At that point your eye cannot distinguish which one is in front and which one is back — you’re really fucking with the limits of your eyesight, of the physical limitations of your optic system. And what you see is this buzz of confusion! Excellent. People have said, “Aww, gee, I really like the way you use florescent colors.” I have never used florescent colors! They’re transparent, and they’re not permanent, and you have to run two colors to get a good coverage with florescents. Unless you’re silk-screening, and even then I’m not sure — probably if you’re silkscreening, you can silkscreen ’em on thick enough — but on offset litho, florescent colors you have to run through twice. Metallic inks, too. I use standard colors; International Printing Inks, I was using at the time, and we were printing on Springhill White Tag, which isn’t really a true white paper. But, because I picked the right vibrating colors — and yes, they’re irritating to the eye — they caught your attention; if you were across the street, you would notice it, whereas you might not notice another poster.

And not only that, since we were into “can you read this?,” it helped because it made it more difficult. Not only are you fighting the positive/negative reversal of lettering, on top of that I’d pile on vibrating colors so you’d have to deal with that as well! What happens is the poster becomes a thing of entertainment unto itself! You don’t have to go to the concert. You could spend an hour with the poster! Not that that was the point. The whole point of the poster was the advertisement. It was the only advertisement for the event; no radio, no newsprint, nothing but posters and either flyers or handbills. They were first and foremost advertising art, just like Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters for the Moulin Rouge were advertising art. For Aristide Bruant at his theater — advertising art. And I felt a special kinship for Toulouse-Latrec, because he was highly trained as well. And how does he make it? As a commercial artist, doing advertisements for dance halls. Wow!

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