Interview with Taschen’s Julius Wiedemann about his newest book – Art Record Covers
By Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
March 8, 2017
Last month, I reported on the latest effort by the prolific album cover art book editor and author Julius Wiedemann of the famed Taschen publishing house, who had recently announced the details of a new book just released in the U.K. (with buyers in the U.S. having to wait patiently until later in February to get theirs) titled Art Record Covers that, according to the press announcement, “showcases an alphabetized collection of artists’ record covers from the 1950s to today. Highlighting the relationship between image-making and music production, the anthology presents 500 covers and records by visual artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha and many more.”
The new book was assembled by “contemporary art and visual culture historian, writer and artist” Francesco Spampinato who, in addition to be an art professor at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, has authored two other recent books on design, including 2015’s Can You Hear Me? Music Labels by Visual Artists, published in 2015 by Onomatopee (Eindhoven, NL).
While some of you may recall that I’ve been working on a book based on the interviews I’ve done over the years with many of the best-known album art creators (due out later this year, I’m hoping), I am the first to admit that, as I’m not a trained art historian, I have always lobbied for the inclusion of album cover art/artists in the bigger ongoing discussion about the relationship between music and the visual arts, so it is inspiring to read books written by educators that further that conversation. Based on what I’d read and seen on this new book, I knew that I’d need to work to get a more-detailed look at the book and its contents, and the always-interesting Mr. Wiedemann was kind enough to work with me on a special feature for the ACHOF that I’m presenting to you today.
At 448 pages, this thoroughly-comprehensive, album cover-sized book provides (in three languages simultaneously, no less!), as the publisher puts it, an exploration of “how modernism, pop art, conceptual art, postmodernism and contemporary art have all informed the art of album visuals over the years.”
To begin the overview of the book’s contents, I asked Julius to select a small number of the covers selected for inclusion in the book and to let us know why each one is significant. The following are his chosen covers, each followed by a brief description and Mr. Wiedemann’s observations about the artists and their inspirations:
Julius Wiedemann – There is so much diversity in art today, and we do not realize that the connection between visual arts and music (of course, not forgetting the fact that music is a form of art) is much deeper than we think. I consider this book the best contemporary guide for young art collectors, so I have selected records that I think appeal to both music and art lovers. That is, of course, a big umbrella, so the book is a great place to launch a larger exploration.
Doug Aitken worked extensively in video installation, photography, sculpture, sound and book publishing. He looks at art everywhere. Mostly known for his multi-screen cinematic works like Electric Earth (1999) and Sleepwalkers (2007), he also organizes live multimedia “happenings,” such as the nomadic Station to Station (2013–15), which has involved numerous artists and musicians. Aitken’s main focus is to explore states of mind through the depiction of deserted spaces and suspended time.
ACHOF notes – The Sleepwalkers soundtrack recording was released as a limited-edition (1000 copies) box set that, in addition to the 12″ vinyl picture disc that contains unreleased tracks of music from the film and a live recording of an Aitken-penned opera titled The Handle Comes Up, The Hammer Comes Down, included a number of value-added items: an artist-signed certificate of authenticity; a 23″ x 36″ double-sided poster with original artwork by Doug Aitken; a 96-page visual diary of the making of the film, with sketches, production photos, film stills, script fragments, and inspirational found images; two flipbooks with motion sequences excerpted from the film and the film’s projection on the host museum’s (Museum of Modern Art in New York City ) facade; a CD soundtrack (packed in a triptych gatefold case) features the tracks on the picture disc plus bonus tracks by Bibio, Ranphorynchus, Steve Roden, Tim Hecker, and Canyon Country and a DVD which includes an edit of Sleepwalkers cut specifically for this box set and a street-level walkthrough of the show as it was installed at MoMA.
Julius W – What Banksy does really is to get people to ask themselves questions, from “what is art” to the function of protest. Most of the 40-plus record covers which feature the art of Banksy are either unofficial or, indeed, unauthorized. Given the artist’s mystique, it is difficult to determine whether or not they were produced with his blessing or input. The sleeve designs have featured graphics done in the artist’s trademark stenciled graffiti, such as a rioter poised to toss a bunch of flowers instead of a brick, or a dead chimpanzee denouncing the cruelty of scientific experiments on animals whereas, in this rare case, the artist was commissioned to produce the cover art for American musician/producer Danger Mouse’s 2007 double mix album From Man to Mouse. The record, which raises the issue of surveillance—a theme at the core of Banksy’s work – is housed in a package where the front cover features a lone surveillance camera focused on the title, while the rear cover shows a drawing of a character hiding his/her identity under a rather large diving helmet. Banksy and Danger Mouse had already collaborated the previous year on a guerrilla stunt in which they illegally replaced 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s debut album (titled Paris) in British music stores, complete with manipulated sleeve images and a 40-minute reworked instrumental mix that featured samples of a dialogue by the socialite.
JW – It is rare to see so much harmony in someone’s work. There are works that you are immediately attracted to, and the works of Angela Bulloch had that effect on me. But, when you go into it, it is much more profound. This vinyl issue from En/Of— a label known for its pairing of art and music in ultra-limited editions—reveals a creative dialogue between the improvisational electronics of Chicago-based laptop trio TV Pow and the multi-screen installations of Angela Bulloch. Born in Ontario, Canada, and trained at Goldsmiths College in London, the artist came to the fore through her association with the Young British Artists (YbA) movement in the United Kingdom during the 1990s. For the group’s 2002 very limited-edition release America Says Farewell (100 copies, plus 30 Artist’s Proofs, with each package containing a signed, numbered laser print of a work titled Worm Hole & Doodle Drawing On 10 Time Codes Of Z Point, Cropped), the artist created covers featuring one of 10 different computer prints displaying a grid of 36 screens, illuminated in flat colors with worm-like white elements coming in and out of them as if they were live organisms contaminating a strictly geometric functional system. Indeed, the whole composition transmits a sense of natural randomness—as in many of the artist’s interactive video installations based on bio-feedback mechanisms.
JW – We should never forget the role of women in the arts and in the world. Born and raised in South Africa, Marlene Dumas moved to the Netherlands as an art student in the mid-1970s, where she has lived ever since. Imbued with a sense of melancholy and loneliness, her portrait of Amy Winehouse — painted shortly after the British pop singer’s death in 2011 — is a representative example of the artist’s feminist approach to personal memories and media images. She is depicted through an expressionist as much as an evanescent style of figurative painting, with hints of the Flemish tradition. Dumas has painted a range of female subjects, including friends and media celebrities—from pregnant women and newborns, to introspective models’ heads and sex scenes from pornographic magazines. “Friends and Celebrities/Family” is also the title of the only release by Dutch synthpop band The Divorce, a single for which Dumas painted what looks like a contemporary visual interpretation of the classic brothers Grimm fairytale, The Frog Prince.
JW – Fairey is a natural protester, and has shown that through his art and his music. It is great to have someone like him with such a loud voice. Some of Fairey’s record covers display symbols of power and glory that have lost their original meaning. Both Led Zeppelin compilations – first 2007’s Mothership (2007) and then their 2012 live concert album release titled Celebration Day – feature an airship flying over Glasgow and London. The band chose to name itself after the rigid airships used by the German army to bomb Great Britain in World War 1. In contrast to the flying machine’s ill- fated military history, Fairey’s covers depict these airships as celebratory icons. Another symbol of impoverished glory – the now-ubiquitous heraldic lion – becomes a key emblem for the single cover of “Little Lions” (2014) by Nøise, an electronic band project co-founded by Fairey and released on his own Obey Records label. More conceptual is the meaning behind New York rock band Interpol’s 2015 single “Everything is Wrong”. In that example, the artist has played with the specular image of two hands clapping feebly whilst the words “power” and “glory”— along with anagrams of the title (“The Very Growing Sin” and “Every Growing Insight”) — question, as Fairey himself has explained, the concept of hegemony and complicity within a failed social system.
JW – From shopping bags, high-heeled shoes and cosmetics to fashion magazines and TV fitness shows, Geneva-born mixed-media artist Sylvie Fleury has been appropriating and critiquing branded luxury items and putting words like “glamour” and “amazing” into her fine art projects since the 1990s. With a rather ambiguous — part feministic and part fetishistic —attitude, Fleury’s recurring use of the color pink and soft materials like synthetic fur are employed as visual cues to expose the subliminal strategies within the mix of packaging, advertising, and marketing of products that target the female consumer. In a similar vein, she looks at automobile culture – in particular, the world of Formula 1 motor racing—presenting silver engines, gold tires, pink muscle cars, and glamorized women drivers in an all-female, she-devils-on-wheels-like world. The electronic soundtracks to Fleury’s videos, composed by artist and musician Sidney Stucki (AKA “DJ Sid”), shift in style between “chill out” and “two step”. A CD collection of works titled Sylvie Fleury & Sidney Stucki Sound Collaborations 1996–2008 was released by Villa Magica, a record label founded by Fleury, together with her artist partner John Armleder and his son Stéphane.
After looking through Wiedemann’s selections (some of which, I must admit, I’ve never seen before…a sad commentary on the “life in a bubble” I must be living here in the Midwest!), it motivated me to question Julius more about the book and its intentions…
Mike Goldstein – Julius, while I was going over the description of your book on the Taschen site, I noted that the premise was to explore “how modernism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, post-modernism, and various forms of contemporary art practice have all informed this collateral field of visual production and supported the mass distribution of music with defining imagery that swiftly and suggestively evokes an aural encounter.” Can you point out a couple of examples of just where and how these specific album covers “evoke an aural encounter” so that I can perhaps provide fans with my take on what that phrase means?
Julius Wiedemann – That can be shown in many ways, and that is actually the coolest thing about the book. Just to pick a couple of examples – the first, Damien Hirst, loves music so much that he became the producer of the British underground band The Hours and also does their vinyl covers. In another case Kim Gordon, who first started writing and doing art and then went on to found Sonic Youth, has recently returned to art, doing not only record sleeves, but also exhibitions of her work. It is these symbiotic relationships that interests us the most and, when not epitomized by one person, are highlighted by the mutual attraction between musician and artist. The funny thing is, if we were talking only about music, we would call musicians “artists” and, in this book, just for the avoidance of doubt, we used the unique terms “artist” and “musician”. It is just a detail, but it helps to exemplify the depths of their individual practices.
Mike G – So, as a follow-up on the same quote from your book, I’d like to ask whether you think that there are also examples of where album covers have informed one or more of the various genres of modern art in some notable ways – I’m thinking of Peter Blake’s work, or Jamie Reid’s? As a music fan and record art collector, I’ve always felt that the visual aspects of the rock music business – at least, the most-iconic examples, such as Reid’s imagery for the Sex Pistols, Gerald Scarfe and Storm Thorgerson’s imagery for Pink Floyd, Mouse and Kelley’s imagery for the Grateful Dead and others used in the stage props, lighting, video, and the graphics developed to promote and sell music – in many ways had a noticeable effect on Pop culture. What’s your take on this?
Julius W – There will certainly be subtleties connecting art genres with music, and sometimes only time will tell if a particular assertion in the past was correctly put in context. But there are certainly more explicit ways for assessing that. The best example I can think of are the covers for band-leader and recording engineer Enoch Light’s “Percussion Series” of albums on Command Records released back in 1959 and 1960, with artwork by Josef Albers. The pair’s work – their music and art, are so modern, and so minimalist. These records captivate both your ears and eyes. The instrumental and electronic music genres may be the best places to see the connection for they are very often quite conceptual and offer subjective experiences at their core. But I also think that Punk Rock also offers that connection, in a quite direct way.
Mike G – Agreed. Those records were also amongst the first to become hits as they also both tested out and helped show off your new “stereo” system. But let’s move on…we have all seen examples of album cover imagery, such as Art Chantry’s hand-assembled collages, Tom Wilkes’ cover for The Concert for Bangladesh, the blighted landscape cover found on System of a Down’s Toxicity or most all of the covers Winston Smith did for the Dead Kennedys and others, that were all used to make sharp political statements and, ultimately, each became an image that was used by both music fans and politicians to help illustrate their takes on a variety of subjects. You saw these images on posters, t-shirts and stage props and they became symbols for their causes.
With that being said, do you think that musicians and graphic artists/designers worked consciously on creating images that would be noticed by, and have an impact on, audiences beyond the record buying public?
Julius W – I think that intent is there most of the time. Surprises do happen here and there, for the good and for the bad, but the artist works deliberately to make people feel and think. Sticky Fingers has a zipper for a purpose, but so does also Gerhardt Richter’s candle on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. What we are talking about ultimately is the degree of subtlety that was employed. If something is in your face, like the bloody photo cover for Metallica’s Load shot by Andres Serrano, or is a bit less obvious, even when figurative, like the Björk portraits by Nobuyoshi Araki, it is almost always the result of great thought.
Mike G – So what would you say, perhaps more generally, to the question of whether album cover imagery help us document modern human history and, in particular, Pop Culture? In the most-impactful examples, does it provide any direction, or is it merely reflecting the culture, or ??
Julius W – It has been documenting our contemporary history. History, as a whole, is a much bigger thing. But album covers can also take us back to the past, especially in the classical music genre. But the focus of the book is really much more contemporary. The images from Robert Frank, for example, will always remind us of certain events. His journalistic language aims to tell a story, and transferring those images to record covers is a great way to immortalize historical events. There are record albums in millions of homes and, beating the odds, their numbers and importance to fans are increasing dramatically.
Mike G – Let’s talk a bit more about what it was like to edit your new book. I’d like to know how, for such a wide-ranging book, you went about choosing the artists – whether they be designers, illustrators/painters, photographers, art directors, etc. – you’d profile in your writing?
Julius W – The selections for the book were made by using four basic objective concepts. The first is that we wanted to include records that were legendary and so popular that they’d be found in almost everyone’s record collections. Second, we focused on records with great stories which, more often than not, involved their records sleeves. The third was simply to select beautiful records, and the last group is comprised of rare records. This way, we were able to cover a broad scope of products. Every selection is also subjective, and the choice of an author. Since we were limited to a certain total of pages available, gaps might exist for readers because of their personal ideologies and local markets and preferences. But, even so, we are confident that this selection covers a wide spectrum of interests.
Mike G – The book’s description also notes that it includes a number of interviews with people such as Tauba Auerbach, Shepard Fairey, Kim Gordon, Christian Marclay, Albert Oehlen, and Raymond Pettibon in which they add personal accounts on the collaborative relationship between artists and musicians. Did you note any commonalities between how these noted visual artists approached and then managed the projects they participated in?
Julius W – The commonality is their incredible curiosity and ability to understand how people react to both music and art. People might choose different tools to create impact, but both artists and musicians have made it an integral element of their work.
Mike G – In the examples you sent me, you included Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers Box 2012 which, according to my research, is a special, limited-edition product that includes art, books, DVDs and CDs of music derived from his 2007 MOMA exhibition. Do you see more works like these coming from artists that work in several areas, such as graphic design, music, video, etc.? In your opinion, is this just another – perhaps, better – way for artists to sell something different and collectible?
Julius W – Creating a motivation for sales is not a new thing, so artists are just using a type of structure that exists. Limited editions are also pieces of art and many things, like a signature, or the guarantee of exclusivity, make them valuable. That is where music and art differ. Music can be reproduced in much easier ways, while copying art is more complicated and, sometimes, nearly impossible. Selling and buying is part of how we live, and I do not see it diminishing the value of these works. Of course, volume counts and, with so many releases, it is hard to keep track of the various productions, but I think the more, the merrier.
Mike G – Yes, it can be hard to keep up with who’s doing what these days. So, taking into account what you learned while putting this book together, can you tell me what your feelings are about album artwork-related design and photography these days? Besides the noted artists included in your book, are there any musical acts, labels, art directors, etc. that you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art matters anymore?
Julius W – Cover art is still important for sure, especially considering the recent surge in vinyl sales. The differences between the kind and quality of work is quite broad, simply because there are hundreds of new labels doing really good stuff. But I will mention Vinyl Factory as one of the leaders in the field. They have been able to maintain quality, and have put out great work in the last several years, both as it relates to music and art. They are one of the heroes in the field for me.
Mike G – You’ve touched on vinyl, but I’d like to know what your views are regarding the future of graphic and visual design in the music industry as it moves on to the many new distribution platforms and ways to own or “rent” music products? Do you wonder whether there are any lesser-known artists creating album cover images now that will be memorable as fine artists 20 years from now? In other words, will the work of album cover artists ever gain the respect of the fine art community and the support of well-heeled collectors?
Julius W – If we take vinyl out of the equation, the importance of design might seem diminished indeed. But that is probably the reason for the resurgence of vinyl. Music lovers seem to insist in maintaining the connection between music and the visual arts. The demand for art in different formats will probably dictate the future of the field. It is pretty open at the moment.
Mike G – Do you think, or did you hear anything from your interviewees on the topic, that there is any more or less enthusiasm within the music industry overall to invest time and money in promo images and packaging designs that appeals to their fans and helps extend their “branding”?
Julius W – There is certainly ongoing investment but, better than that, there is a huge interest from all sides… musicians, artists, retailers and music lovers. This is what will create ongoing competition with products delivered electronically. The more we want to know about the things we’re buying, the more material we will need. If we want to see a reminder of our favorite music, it is great to be able to see that album cover in your living room. We are now in the fifth book on the subject, and its importance has grown dramatically over the last years.
Mike G – While doing the research for the ACHOF site, I have often found examples of something that made me want to work harder to make sure that credits are given where due – those being several incidents over the years where an artist’s work had been used and, on occasion, abused by labels, print publishers and other artists without permission or without giving proper credit for the work being used. It seems that, in an age where people seem to find it permissible to “borrow” – it sounds so much better than “steal” or “plagiarize” – an artist’s work to help them promote and sell their own products, folks that create original art have been forced to police the media to do what they can to either stop this unauthorized use or, at least, receive credit for the work they’ve done. As a publisher and author, have you – or any of the artists you’ve spoken with – been victimized in this way? Is there anything that can/should be done about it, or do they simply chalk it up to being one of the costs of doing business these days?
Julius W – This is a good question. We’ve never really felt taken advantage of in that way. On our end, we take care that all credits are given, and we spend a lot of time with fact checkers, researchers, etc. I can say that, these days, it is almost 50% of our work. And on top of that we work with all the various agencies to make sure the books are done properly. We live in a world of the users can appropriate from almost anything, and post, share, etc. This is a widely-accepted practice. For publishers, the rules are very different, but at times it is almost impossible to register each bit of history. But I think that this is a dilemma that will never cease to exist, and we will continue to debate the concepts of “fair use”, Creative Commons agreements and other similar approaches. There are no easy answers.
About our interviewee, Julius Wiedemann –
Julius Wiedemann was born in Brazil, where he studied design and marketing, and has lived and worked in Japan, Germany and in the UK. He is the executive editor for Design and Pop Culture at TASCHEN Publishing House and, in his over 15 year career at the company, he has edited over 70 books. Wiedemann’s publications have sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide, and among his most popular titles are Information Graphics, Understanding the World, Product Design in the Sustainable Era, the series Illustration Now!, Logo Design, Japanese Graphics Now!, along with several books about record covers and web design. He is a regular contributor to magazines, and has been on the jury of several noted award organizations based all over the world.
To read more about this new book and others that Julius has produced, simply follow the links to the Taschen site –
Recent JW titles – https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/search/wiedemann
This article Copyright 2017 Mike Goldstein & AlbumCoverHallofFame.com. All text and images used to illustrate this article are used by permission of the respective copyright holders and cannot be used without their consent.