Record Art as Fine Art – Major Museum & Gallery Shows
Whenever I attend a fine art exhibition, I tend to pay a lot of attention to a number of production-related details, such as how the gallery has been laid out, where the informational signs have been placed and, stepping back a bit, the overall impact the show has on my senses. Most museums and galleries also work to help attendees better-understand what it is that we’re seeing via posted show and section introductions, the wording on the info cards and audio accompaniments, show maps and, in particular, exhibition catalogs. When written with a range of audiences in mind, these texts can be a great help to attendees, whereas I’ve been witness to one too many shows where the authors seem to have forgotten that we all might not have PhDs in Art History and, thusly, are left rubbing our eyes and scratching our heads in bewilderment about what we’re being told.
I mention this to you because, when the subject of an exhibition attracts fans of both art AND music – as is the case in shows that feature rock & roll-related design and photography – I believe that curators and gallerists ought to either be well-versed in both subjects or, if not, at least willing to enlist the help of others who can provide both the needed expertise and a counter-point to a curator’s basic instincts, which are to entertain and educate, even if the curator is less-than-passionate about the topic. Yes, both art and music touch us deeply, and in similar ways, but when the two are so completely intertwined (as is in the case of memorable album cover images), I just don’t see how a show can be successful unless a certain balance is achieved, leaving attendees with a feeling of happiness for having attended, well after their visits have been completed.
Although it has been 60+ years since the first album covers were released and nearly that many years since the first awards were given for album cover design, since then there have only been a handful of significant exhibitions of album art (by “significant”, I mean shows organized and hosted by museums, professional organizations and internationally-known art galleries), so I thought that it would be interesting to do the research about these shows (who organized them, what was featured, why they were put together and how well-received they were by the public, the press and “the fine art world” in general) and then be able to organize that research in such a way that fans of album cover art could see a number of the details regarding these shows and their impact on the institutions – academic, profession and commercial- that often serve to either lift up or drag down the egos of those people associated with this type of work. Since the staging of the first of these shows, many have served as educational events, featuring speakers from the worlds of music & album cover design and production and other special activities held to give attendees more insight into the people that influence and create album art as well as the works they’re associated with.
In order to make an overall presentation of these shows a bit easier to understand, I have developed a timeline that will present some of the “red letter” events that first brought consumers to link art with music (and drove the creation of album cover art as an occupation) since, as many of you know, recorded music was not always sold in pretty packages, and the people that ventured to work in the field were regularly forced to deal with being classified as “commercial” rather than “fine” artists, with commercial often having negative connotations which caused professionals to wonder whether they “sold out” (although it always left me questioning what exactly “selling out” was – aren’t all professional artists looking to sell their products?). In any case, advances in recording technology and consumer playback platforms required a certain degree of nimbleness from music marketing/packaging pros along the way, with those most-willing and able to “roll with the changes” finding themselves testing their skills in a variety of media, using a wide range of tools and successfully meeting consumer and client demands throughout their careers.
Record Art Milestones – 1933 to present
– In 1933, RCA Victor released the first “picture disc” – while there were a number of examples of promotional recordings released on cardboard – similar to the promo records that were delivered for years on cardboard and/or plastic (and typically required that you put a weight on them – I used a penny or two – so that they’d stay affixed to the turntable mat) – the first picture discs were produced in a fashion quite similar to the records of the day, with a rigid core disc sandwiched between two printed illustration sheets and then topped with a layer of plastic onto which the recording was pressed. Titles of the day included “Music In The Air”, “Cowhand’s Last Ride” by Jimmy Rodgers and “As Thousands Cheer” by Paul Whiteman.
– In 1939, Columbia Records released Rogers & Hart’s “Smash Song Hits” record, packaged in the first illustrated cardboard album cover, featuring artwork by ACHOF “Early Influencer” inductee Alex Steinweiss.
– According to a December, 2011 article in Antique Week magazine by Brett Weiss, the first rock concert T-shirt was produced by one of Elvis Presley’s fan clubs during the late 1950s, while shirts featuring pop icons such as The Beatles were seen as early 1964. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that rock concert T-shirts arrived on the scene as a way for concert promoters and musical acts to sell items as collectible souvenirs (now known as “merchandise” or “brand extensions”) for attending performances by their favorite acts at their favorite venues. Many artists that worked to create concert posters and t-shirts (both licensed and not-quite-licensed) would also go on to find work producing imagery for recording acts.
– In 1959, the first Grammy Award is presented for “Best Recording Package “. The award that year went to executive producer Frank Sinatra for his Songs For Only The Lonely LP, with cover painting by celebrity portraitist Nicholas Volpe.
– 1965 found consumers being offered the first pre-recorded compact music cassette products. Mercury Records (a subsidiary of Philips, inventor of the format) released several examples in Europe that year, releasing a series of 49 titles in the U.S. in mid-1966. in 1968, over 2.5 million cassette were sold, with the format becoming the standard for home audio recording by the end of the decade. It wasn’t until Dolby-B noise reduction was added (first available in the Advent deck that hit the market in 1971) that sales pre-recorded music on cassette – with their much-improved quality – really took off. Add to this the introduction of the first “boomboxes” in the mid-1970s, Sony’s Walkman/Roundabout portable players in 1982 and the creativity of some consumers – who recorded their favorite tracks onto cassettes, added their own storage box inserts (with artists provided with a 2.5″ high by 4″ wide canvas to work with) and invented the first “mixtapes”, which lead to a huge industry backlash (remember the “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaigns of the 198os?) against these (at the time) illegally-recorded compilations, and the format’s popularity continued unabated. Once the CD came out, though, consumers quickly abandoned the format and most major music labels had discontinued releases on cassette by end of 2002.
– Shortly after the launch of the compact cassette, 8-track, continuous-loop players, designed by Lear Jet for a consortium of automobile and electronics manufacturers, first appeared in Ford model cars in 1965 and were first popularized via a library of approximately 175 tapes from the catalogs of RCA Victor and its related labels (which sported sleeves approx. 4″ wide by 5″ high). Within a few years, “8-tracks” had become the most-popular popular music category in the English-speaking world but, with their somewhat-lower audio fidelity (as compared to the always-improving quality of music delivered on cassette media), by the late 1970s, sales began to slow, with the advent of the compact disc sealing the doom of the format, with the many companies that specialized in providing hardware/content for the format also slipping away into History.
– In 1971, as part of a series of limited-run books he created to showcase images of everyday items that he felt had something inherently artistic, celebrated artist Ed Ruscha creates a photo book titled Records using photos of 30 vinyl LPs (including records by James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt and the Velvet Underground, among other) and their covers from his personal collection.
– In 1973, art historian and curator (and, since 1993, the artistic director at the Prada Foundation in Milan, Italy) Germano Celant curated a show at the Royal College of Art – “Record As Artwork: 1959 – 73” – that promoted album art as examples of what he called “Arte Povera”, a more-industrial take on the “pop art” genre popularized in the U.S. and U.K..
– In late 1977, Celant returned with a series of new album cover-centric shows, beginning at the Fort Worth (TX) Art Museum titled “The Record as Artwork from Futurism to Conceptual Art“. The exhibition, which also traveled to the Moore College of Art Gallery in Philadelphia, the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, featured artists’ records from the curator’s personal collection. Artists whose works were featured in the displays included Jan Dibbets, Allan Kaprow, Yvs Klein, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Tinguely and many others.
– The first commercial pre-recorded music CD – Billy Joel’s Grammy-winning 1978 record 52nd Street (featuring design and photography by John Berg and Jim Houghton) – was released in this new format in Japan in October, 1982, followed in December, 1982 by ABBA’s The Visitors, while the first CD produced entirely in the U.S. was Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 classic Born In The U.S.A., sporting cover imagery by the team of Andrea Klein and Annie Leibovitz. After slow initial sales, 1985 brought us the first million-selling CD (Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, which featured a front cover photo of Mark Knopfler’s 1937 National guitar taken by Deborah Feingold and a back cover painting of the same instrument by artist Thomas Steyer) and, by 1986 50 million CD units were sold in one year and, in 1988, sales of CDs overtook that of music on vinyl records. By 1989, the CD accounted for over 200 million units and the LP was beginning to disappear from record stores. Production teams charged with creating the inserts for CD jewel cases found themselves having to attract consumers – and communicate basic info about what was inside the package – using a 4.75″ square canvas, which was nearly 85% smaller than the cardboard covers they’d been creating for 12″ LPs. Quite the challenge.
– CD “Long Box” packaging, launched in 1988 as transitional packaging for LP retailers, were 12″ tall by 6″ wide and often featured re-worked album artwork. This style of package was phased out in April 1993 due to artist and consumer complaints about wastefulness, since most of the package was empty.
– In 1988, Ursula Black and Michael Glasmeier debuted a show at the Daadgalerie in Berlin, Germany called “Broken Music: Artist’s Recordworks” which explored art related to the medium of the record disc from several different angles and featured album covers, sculptures and other mixed-media works made from records and, interestingly, books and other printed collections that were accompanied by records containing related audio (music, lectures, audio tours, etc.). The show was taken on the road through 1992, with stops at the Gemeentemuseum (The Hague, Netherlands) and the Magasin contemporary art museum in Grenoble, France.
– In June, 2001, an exhibition at Exit Art in NYC titled simply “The LP Show” and featuring nearly 3000 albums from 1940 – present was put on display at this alternative art gallery, organized by art critic and music writer Carlo McCormick and project manager Joni Hanel. The show plotted the history of album cover design from its earliest manifestations to the images created for digital-age products, showing just how impactful the work of the various craftspeople assigned to album art projects has had on popular culture during the years since recorded music became a consumer staple. Taking a somewhat unique approach to curating the display, the designers of the show arranged cover art according to “themes” such as “seduction”, “religion”; “aliens”, “war”, “comic superheroes” and “escapism”. The accompanying literature included a narrative that provided an examination of these social themes and how they related to events taking place over time.
After its initial run in New York, the show travelled to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA in early 2002, then on to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA from June 22 – August 18, 2002 and returned again, in truncated form – only 1500 records! – for a showing at the EMP in Seattle in early 2006.
– A 2002 show at the Huddersfield Arts Gallery in Huddersfield, U.K. – “Groove: Artists & Vinyl” – was one that was curated by David Briers and presented the work of artists and musicians working “at the edge” of vinyl record-based culture. Built around examples of original mixed-media artwork, writing and music, the show included work by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Mauricio Kagel, Cornelia Parker and DJ Matt Wand and Project Dark.
– In 2005, in a show at the Neves Museum Meserburg in Bremen, Germany titled “Vinyl Records and Covers By Artists“, visitors were treated to a display of over 800 covers. This same show went on to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (and published a book by the show’s curator, British collector Guy Schraenen, in collaboration with Bettina Brach)in 2006 and completed its run with shows first at the Museu Serralves in Porto in the Spring of 2008, then at La Maison Rouge in Paris, France in Spring of 2010 and finally at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, Russia in January, 2011.
– The 2008 show at USC’s Doheny Library – “A Sound Design: The Art of the Album Cover” paid homage “to a medium that charmingly wrapped utilitarian function in aesthetic expression. Co-curated by music library manager Robert Vaughn along with Tyson Gaskill and Andrew Wulf (currently Executive Director at New Mexico History Museum and the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico), the exhibit showcased 52 iconic record jackets – from jazz to rock, punk and hip hop – spanning the expressive potential and stylistic variety of this popular art form.”
– Historian and writer Gail Buckland’s 2009 – 2012 travelling show (launched at the Brooklyn Museum in New York) – “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 – Present” played to large audiences in every venue it was presented in. The museum had learned about Buckland’s efforts to pen a comprehensive book on the subject and then partnered with her to assemble a large display of photos – over 175 images from over 100 contributing photographers, including many that were used on well-known album covers. When the show moved on to its run at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, CA, it was enhanced by the showing of a specially-produced documentary that included over 600 photos, along with interviews and other related footage.
– Patrick Murphy’s 2009 comprehensive album art show at the Gallery at The Civic in Barnsley, UK – “REVOLUTIONS: From Gatefold to Download, the Art of the Album Cover” – traced the history of album artwork from its beginnings in the 1930-40s with Columbia records’ first art director, Alex Steinweiss, to the contemporary images of the present day. By digging into the stories told by the designers, photographers and other creatives working in the album art world, the exhibition aimed to explore how the covers have both influenced and reflected popular culture.
– In September, 2010, curator Trevor Schoonmaker organized a show at the Nasher Museum at Duke University titled “The Record: Contemporary Art & Vinyl“. According to the show’s literature, this was “the first museum exhibition to explore the culture of vinyl records within the history of contemporary art. Bringing together artists from around the world who have worked with records as their subject or medium, this groundbreaking exhibition examines the record’s transformative power from the 1960s to the present.” The show was built around 99 works – drawings, paintings, sculptures, performances and video installations – created by 41 different artists from all over the world, including both artists with significant international statures (Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Carrie Mae Weems, as examples) and those little-known in the U.S., including Kevin Ei-ichi deForest, Jeroen Diepenmaat and “outsider artist” Mingering Mike.
After completing its original run in February, 2011, the show went on to tour other museums and large galleries in the U.S., including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (April – September, 2011), Miami Art Museum (March – June, 2012) and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle from July – October, 2012
– In 2011, curators from the London-based publisher/gallery called Hypergallery staged a show at the A&D Gallery in London, UK featuring fine art prints of some of the “most iconic album covers of all time”, including works by the famed Hipgnosis design group (Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and others), Sir Peter Blake’s cover for Paul Weller’s Stanley Road, new prints of covers by fantasy illustrator H.R. Giger and Peter Corriston’s collection of seminal images he created for the Rolling Stones, including the covers for Some Girls, Tattoo You and Undercover.
– A 2012-13 show at the Design Museum Danmark in Copenhagen , Denmark – “Album Covers: Vinyl Revival” – presented a selection of over 400 LP covers in order to comprehensively cover “the visual culture of album cover art”. The exhibits were built around themes that dealt with the differences between art created for the various musical genres, the styles (fashion, art, politics) and social norms of the different eras (50’s, 60’s, etc. to present) and, interestingly, the psyches of the producers of album art, seeing that most of these talented people work in relative anonymity. From their catalog (translated from the Danish – thanks, Google Translate!) – “Designmuseum Danmark presents a large special exhibition on the graphic development of the record cover – from early LP covers from the 1950s to today’s vinyl revival. “With the exhibition ALBUM COVERS – VINYL REVIVAL, Designmuseum Danmark appeals to a broad audience – from young and old with a general interest in culture to design aficionados and music lovers…Among the main names showcased in the exhibition are Alex Steinweiss, Cassandre, Warhol, Peter Blake and Damien Hirst and design firms such as Hipgnosis, Stylorouge and Me Company. In addition, the exhibition has a special section devoted to Danish cover design represented by Peder Bundgaard, Peter Ravn, Hvass&Hannibal and others.”
This show was recreated in Summer, 2015 at the Museum of Decorative Arts & Design at the National Museum of Art, Architecture & Design in Oslo, Norway. Along with the Danish exhibition, Forlaget Vandkunsten published a book titled Pladecovers – Vinylens Revival (in Danish only), edited by Lars Dybdahl and Laura Liv Weikop.
– Done as part of their celebration of African American Music Month, a 2013 show in the Martino Gallery at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, MD included an album cover display that showcased the works of influential African American music makers throughout the years. A follow-up to a show originally mounted at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore, MD in 2011. The album covers included in this show were be provided by local radio station WEAA FM, the Record and Tape Traders retail chain and several private donors.
– Launched on Record Store Day (April 14), Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art senior curator Rene de Guzman’s 2014 show “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” invited visitors to “explore the social and cultural phenomenon of listening to, collecting, and sharing record” and to “delve into a uniquely Californian take on this popular medium with experiences ranging from individual and group listening stations to informal talks and live performances.” Integral to the amazing collection of record-collecting memorabilia, multi-media displays (including video interviews with several major record collectors) and recording equipment, part of the show allowed visitors to “explore the history of album cover art with a film exploring the medium and an exhibit of notable album cover art.”
– A 2014 exhibition of album covers on display at Oklahoma City College’s Inasmuch Foundation Gallery, titled “Tailored Jackets“ (which was on display in the college’s gallery – part of the school’s Visual & Performing Arts Center – from September through October, 2014 and which included 55 autographed albums, including examples from Patti Smith, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel and many others, was followed up in 2015 with a new show (organized by Scott A. Tigert, Cultural Programs Assistant) called “Tailored Jackets: Second Fitting“ which tapped the same collector’s expansive private collection of autographed album covers to bring 59 of them to the gallery’s appreciative audience.
– Visitors to a show organized by Department of Architecture & Design curator Juliet Kinchin and curatorial assistant Luke Baker called Making Music Modern: Design For Ear and Eye that ran at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City from November, 2014 through January, 2016 were able to, according to the museum, explore “alternative music cultures of the early 20th century, the rise of radio during the interwar period, how design shaped the “cool” aesthetic of mid-century jazz and hi-fidelity culture, and its role in counter-cultural music scenes from pop to punk, and later 20th-century design explorations at the intersection of art, technology, and perception.” As part of the collection on display, there was a wall of classic album cover art shown that included examples from muscial acts including The Beatles (Help!, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and others), the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street), Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Cream, The Clash, the Sex Pistols and many more. The museum has a number of other examples of album cover art in its collection, adding veracity to the contention that great album cover art truly is “modern art” (vs. merely examples of utilitarian graphic design).
– In February, 2015, a major album cover art retrospective was launched at the art museum at Forest Lawn Cemetary in Los Angeles called “Revolutions 2 – The Art of Music”, featuring hundreds of examples of album cover and music-related fine art from an impressive line-up of designers, illustrators, photographers and other contributors to great cover art. On display through August 2nd, visitors found prints and original works by artists including Hugh Brown, Ernie Cefalu, Roger Dean, Joe Garnett, Rick Griffin, Kadir Nelson, Joe Petagno, Tom Recchion, Mike Salisbury, Alex Steinweiss, Drew Struzan, Guy Webster and many others. There were several events staged along with this show, including a moderated panel discussion titled “Record Breakers: Artists Who Revolutionized Visual Music Culture” that featured eight working and retired album art producers (including Ernie Cefalu, Hugh Brown, David Edward Byrd and others), with each of them sharing their stories and opinions of the past and future states of the album cover art genre.
– Librarian and accomplished record collector Robert Garzillo’s 2015 show at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Fleet Library in Providence, RI – “Jackets Required: 40 Years of Album Cover Design” – included 100 covers of records that were released during the years 1940 – 1980 featuring the work of many ACHOF “Early Influencers”, including Alex Steinweiss, Saul Bass, Jim Flora, Josef Albers, Andy Warhol and others. The covers represent music released in a number of different genres and give the viewer a good sense of how album art both reflected the designs of the times and also helped take record packaging in new directions.
– As part of the 2015 Les Recontres d’Arles international photo exhibition in Arles, France, there was a good-sized album art exhibition that ran from June through September at the Atelier Des Forges titled “TOTAL RECORDS:THE GREAT ADVENTURE OF ALBUM COVER PHOTOGRAPHY” which worked to show the broad range of photographic imagery that’s been used to create some truly-memorable record packages over the years. Works by Guy Bourdain, Linda McCartney and many others were included, as was a display of fan-created “Sleevefaces” that combine album images with real people and places. In its 55th year, this show ran alongside another exhibit featuring music art, photography and video work collected by the aptly-named LP Company.
It seems clear that, as long as there are retail music packages, there will be collectors of these packages and an ongoing appreciation of the talent of the people that create the wonderful images that wrap them. Of course, I invite you to visit the Album Cover Hall of Fame site and subscribe to its news feeds so that you’ll always know when these exhibitions are being staged.
Written and updated July 17 and November 25, 2015 by Mike Goldstein
Links to additional show information –
2001 Exit Art show – http://www.exitart.org/exit_archive/history/2001.html
2005 Neves Museum show – http://www.weserburg.de/index.php?id=201&L=1
2008 Doheny Library show – http://news.usc.edu/32711/Doheny-Gets-Its-Groove-on-With-Album-Art/
2009 Who Shot Rock & Roll show – https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/rock_and_roll/
2009 Revolutions show (article on Dezeen.com site) – http://www.dezeen.com/2009/02/22/revolutions-from-gatefold-to-download-the-art-of-the-album-cover-at-the-gallery/
2010 Nasher Museum show – http://nasher.duke.edu/therecord/
2011 Hypergallery London show (article on The Standard web site) – http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/iconic-album-covers-to-come-of-age-in-new-exhibition-6366465.html
2012-13 Vinyl Revival shows (Denmark and Norway) – http://designmuseum.dk/en/udstillinger/arkiv/2013/pladecovers-vinylens-revival and http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/Album+Covers.+The+revival+of+vinyl.b7C_wlfU29.ips
2013 Martino Gallery show – http://www.marylandhall.org/news/2013/06/12/album-cover-art-exhibition
2014 OMCA show – http://www.museumca.org/exhibit/vinyl-sound-and-culture-records
2014-15 Tailored Jackets shows – https://albumcoverhalloffame.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/achof-exhibition-tour-tailored-jackets-second-fitting/
2014-2016 MOMA show – http://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1473?locale=en
2015 Forest Lawn show – http://forestlawn.com/event/revolutions-2/
Images used to illustrate this article are used with permission of the copyright holder, Copyright 2015 Scott Tigert and the Oklahoma City Community College