Arnold Skolnick, a graphic designer whose last-minute design for the poster promoting the 1969 Woodstock rock festival was one of the era’s most indelible visual images, died June 15 in a hospice in Amherst, Mass. He was 85 years old.
Woodstock poster artist Arnold Skolnick dies at 85
Mr. Skolnick had worked on advertising campaigns and designed film titles, book jackets and corporate logos early in his career, but none of his earlier work had the poster impact that he created in four days in the summer of 1969.
A poster designed by another artist had been rejected because it showed a nude woman and left no room for the performers’ names. Mr Skolnick got the emergency assignment after one of the Woodstock organizers saw a logo he had designed for a hotel in the Virgin Islands.
Inspired by the paper constructions of Henri Matisse, Mr. Skolnick set to work, incorporating occasional drawings he had made. He finally decided on a design with two main elements – a bird standing on a guitar, balanced in the opposite corner by bold letters 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 out this catbird from the sketchbook I was using. First of all, he sat on a flute. I was listening to jazz at the time, and I guess that’s why. But anyway, he sat on a flute for a day, and I finally ended up putting it on a guitar.
At first, Mr. Skolnick tried a blue background before switching to a brighter 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 grips the guitar, which is depicted 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 and Music”. (Mr. Skolnick’s signature appears under the letter M in “music”.) Early editions of the poster gave the location as Wallkill, NY, before it was changed to White Lake, NY In the end, the festival took place near Bethel, NY
The poster described the festival as “An Aquarius Exhibition” and contained a list of performers, dates (August 15-17), descriptions of food and crafts, and price of admission. A three-day pass cost $18, but the event was so poorly organized that few people paid for the tickets.
“They gave [the assignment] mine on Thursday,” Mr. Skolnick told the Stamford Advocate in 2010. “And I brought it to them on Monday afternoon.
The poster quickly came to symbolize not only the Woodstock festival but the ideals of a youth movement then at its height. 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 are a million ways to approach something like this,” Skolnick said in 2019, “so you just pick one and see if it works.”
Although he had little interest in rock music—he preferred classical music and jazz—Mr. Skolnick had a backstage pass at the festival, which drew more than 400,000 people.
“Pure chaos,” he told Massachusetts’ Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2019. “Cars were parked everywhere for miles. People kept coming, people couldn’t get there in time.
When he saw the forecast calling for 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 out of the parking lot,” he recalls. “I had to push cars and hit them… The highway was blocked. People camped on the median for miles and miles.
Arnold H. Skolnick was born on February 25, 1937 in Brooklyn. His father was a typographer and his mother kept the accounts of an advertising agency.
Mr. Skolnick began drawing at an early age and attended the former High School of Music & Art in New York. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 1958 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 going freelance.
The Woodstock poster wasn’t Mr. Skolnick’s only memorable visual image. In 1971 he designed the jacket for Ralph Nader’s book “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 body of the truck, then put lemon instead.
“I put it on my kitchen table and turned it around and used it,” he recalled.
From the 1970s to the 2000s, Mr. Skolnick designed numerous art books, and he was a prolific painter in his own right, with many 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, Pennsylvania, and Peter Skolnick of Turners Falls, Mass.; a sister; and two grandchildren.
Original copies of Mr. Skolnick’s Woodstock poster now sell for thousands of dollars, and it has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its design has been copied and adapted countless times over the years. The bird he cut out in his sketchbook in 1969 formed the basis of a postage stamp 2019 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.
Mr. Skolnick received a one-time payment for the Woodstock mission, but in the more than 50 years since then, he said he received less than $20 in residuals for the thousands of t-shirts, mugs and posters that featured his design.
“There are no royalties,” he said. “Anyone in rock and roll knows you can’t get royalties from anybody. You’re lucky to get paid.