The fine arts have long held a place in the realm of coffee-table books, but with the ongoing vinyl resurgence, album cover design has increasingly joined these august ranks, with books devoted to vinyl artwork in disco and library music. Published in conjunction with a San Francisco gallery show Art & Vinyl generously displays the crossroads of these worlds. The sophisticated art lover and the grizzled crate digger alike will eat it up like overpriced museum café pastries.
Exhibit curator Antoine de Beaupré notes that this is not a comprehensive account of album covers by established artists. You won’t find Big Star’s Radio City, with a cover photo by William Eggleston, for instance, or any of the photographer’s work for that matter, because his work wasn’t commissioned specifically for the album. But Art & Vinyl still documents hundreds of album covers, from the impossibly rare to the occasional million-seller.
The book starts on the arcane side with a Paul Robeson 78 released by the 1949 World Congress of Partisans for Peace. The disc it earns its place in these pages with a Pablo Picasso sketch of a dove printed directly onto the shellac. While Andy Warhol’s cover designs for Blue Note records and the Rolling Stones are well known, the first of his entries here is a startling illustration of a junkie shooting up—not for a Velvet Underground record, but for a 1951 spoken word release of crime reports originally broadcast on the CBS Radio Network.
Album covers, which are reproduced close to actual size, appear chronologically, which makes for unexpected juxtapositions. While it may not seem unusual to have an Yves Klein blue followed by a series of Josef Albers abstracts, what’s remarkable is that the Klein was made for a limited edition record of the artist’s lectures, while Albers’ work was made for the Persuasive Percussion series of mass-market easy listening records.
Photographers naturally make up much of the book, and you may know the jazz and R&B covers that Lee Friedlander shot for Atlantic, and that Robert Frank shot the cover for Exile on Main Street—but did you know that Frank also shot Kraftwerk’s 1973 album Ralf & Florian? You may be surprised which fine art photographers shot covers for some of your favorite artists. Who knew that William Klein shot a Serge Gainsbourg cover, or that Nobuyoshi Araki shot a Bjork album, or that Irving Penn shot one of Miles Davis’ final works?
It’s fun to match the artist to the musician, and perhaps even more entertaining to learn of artists who made their own albums – like David Shrigley, whose hilariously crude illustrations grace a few of his own releases. The only shortcoming to Art & Vinyl may be that the editors provide almost no context. For instance, you may have to be familiar with the text-based work of pop artist Ed Ruscha to appreciate his minimal design for Mason Williams’ 1969 album Music. This may not be a problem for someone coming to this material from the art world, but readers looking for the finest in album cover design may be disappointed by such unassuming work. The cover image, taken from a Gerhard Richter abstract painted directly onto a limited edition of Glenn Gould’s 1984 Goldberg Variations, doesn’t quite capture the playful spirit of the medium. And weighing in at almost five and a half pounds with an open spread spanning more than two feet, it’s almost impossible to make use of the book without a sturdy coffee table. But these are minor quibbles for such a lavishly designed reference.