PRINT Summer 2002


“The LP Show”

IN THE HISTORY OF GRAPHIC DESIGN there are few surfaces more burnished with dreamland desire than album covers. That’s probably the fault of Alex Steinweiss, a designer who in 1939 talked Columbia Records into letting him spruce up some of their standard blank sleeves. First was Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart, for which Steinweiss created a collage of Broadway marquees floating over a red and black spiral. Sales spiked on Smash Song Hits, and soon enough, faux-surreal album covers were de rigueur. Every big label cleared space for an art department, and the rest, as they say, is Dark Side of the Moon.

Growing up in some very dull places in the ’60s and ’70s I was glad for the epiphanies provided by albums on display at the local chain stores. My first encounter with anything like the art of the insane was seeing a trippy painting of Neil Young on the cover of his first album. Staring at it in Woolco, my fragile teenage psyche was moved to the core. The pervy goof of Tiger Morse's costuming for the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money had the same, if funnier, effect (snaggletoothed hippies in babydoll dresses—whoa). And for months after I saw Hipgnosis’s pastoral-pop sleeve for Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, cows seemed just somehow very profound. Record covers were where every conceptual, photo, and design trend, however ingenious or dumb, got equal and unmitigated time. Their iconic power came from lacking a middle range. Thus were they my introduction to the cantankerous world of contemporary art.

All this makes me a prime audience for “The LP Show,” a staggering exhibition of twenty-five hundred covers from the age of vinyl that debuted at New York's Exit Art last summer. Here was my kind of treasure chest, with almost everything on display causing either wonder, perplexity, or envy. I wasn’t alone. The exhibition was an instant hit, and for weeks Exit Art was filled with punks, socialites, homies, lawyers, janbos, fogies, and Parsons grads, all seemingly spellbound before walls of twelve-inch mandalas.

The show winds up its tour this summer at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh after a run at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This last version will be somewhat scaled back, as some of the lenders wanted their records returned (one dreamed his covers had been vaporized in a terrorist attack). It may be a blessing in disguise, however, as the project will now be more digestible.

The exhibit’s organizing principles are deceptively simple. For one, curator Carlo McCormick decided against using design “quality” as a benchmark for inclusion. Rather than present award-winning covers merely to reify the more vernacular ones, he reasoned that each cover had to speak for itself. McCormick, a vinyl fetishist himself, also knew that many rare records have uninspired covers. So the collecting mantra that equates rarity with value was pretty much ignored. To get what he wanted, he posed a question to those whose collections he culled from: “Ever bought an album you didn’t really like but kept it because the cover was amazing?” A reductive point maybe, but one that kept things lucid.

There are sections of “The LP Show” devoted to such minigenres as Christian ventriloquism, trucker/CB songcraft, and Rupert Pupkinesque fellows on their own labels. There's an ample array of covers in black-and-white and X-rated ones in pinks and purples. One wall even celebrates the pre-Photoshop pastime of “improving” one's album covers with a Magic Marker (I recall doing this myself once, retooling Bowie’s Aladdin Sane into a shy coed with buck teeth).

Josef Albers is among legions of artists who were drawn to the format, and there is a terrific selection of his work for the Command label’s Provocative Percussion series on display. Salvador Dalí is here, too, with a 1955 cover commissioned by Jackie Gleason that wouldn't have looked out of place a dozen years later on an Iron Butterfly album. Other artists in the show include Raymond Pettibon, David Wojnarowicz, even the Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch.

McCormick’s refreshing stance toward the high/low dialogue made it possible for him to install the show in a strikingly unusual manner. The covers are mounted along the gallery walls in long, floor-to-ceiling grids. At first glance it seems as if they’re merely grouped by theme. There are cleverly suggestive flows—battle scenes into astronauts, astronauts into bad drug trips, bad drug trips into mushroom clouds, mushroom clouds into drag queens, drag queens into women with rather odd hair, and women with rather odd hair into either LA metal bands or plush toys, depending on whether your gaze moves up or down. A sort of visual hypertext begins to reveal itself, with hermetic connections zipping between the hundreds of chockablock images. Step back a few paces and you’re even more aware of the synaptic pulse of information moving around you. It’s a fun-house sensation whereby the show itself becomes a living work.

Taken in total these small-scale works of “art” do more than just represent moments from a past that’s increasingly unrecognizable. McCormick is after an anodyne effect. Presented with this display of bygone longing and faith, no matter how kooky, we might grasp our own time with a little more of each.

Steve Lafreniere is an independent curator and an editor at Index.