For over half a century after recorded music began to be marketed, music was simply delivered on a labeled disk in a blank paper sleeve. It wasn’t much to look at, but it sounded (relatively) good.
Then in 1939 designer Alex Steinweiss developed a cardboard sleeve with a picture on it called an “album cover,” and for the next half century or more, art and music went together.
Spruill Gallery director Hope Cohn tracked down Steinweiss in Sarasota, Florida, for a phone interview that helped shape one of her wall texts. Nevertheless, her Run for Cover exhibition (up through March 6) is more an homage to the medium of album covers than a detailed history of their evolution.
The exhibition makes only an incipient effort to separate the design masterworks from the guilty-pleasure dreck, because that’s not how the audiences for these album covers originally experienced them.
The covers at Spruill were formative early art experiences during several very consequential decades, from the years immediately pre-Beatles through ’60s psychedelia to the decade of classic punk and a few years beyond. If album covers taught graphic design by osmosis, they communicated so many contradictory lessons that some people never got it. Others may have been launched on careers as artists, or as art critics, and the guilty pleasures may have been as important as the major treasures.
The album covers on Spruill’s walls are on loan from a number of unacknowledged owners, many of whom are not necessarily vinyl enthusiasts. A good many covers show the hard use they received once upon a time.
Overall, Run for Cover is a light-hearted introduction to an aspect of American visual culture that has now mostly passed into history, and one that could use a more intensively scholarly closeup in the future, especially on the somewhat neglected local level. Cohn’s show has one section devoted to a selection of musician-designed covers (a reminder of how many rockers started out as art students). It also singles out the career of Atlanta artist Flournoy Holmes as a creator of album covers, but much more could be done. There is a history of Atlanta artists’ contributions to cover design that continues through the CD era and to the present day, and Flournoy Holmes, however well known and deserving, is only one such artist.
Despite the show’s deliberately impressionistic take, much historical insight can be gleaned from a little informed browsing. As the floor-to-ceiling display in the hallway gallery shows beyond question, the album cover began life as a simple piece of eye candy. Then it morphed into an art medium, complete with interactive features propelled by big production budgets.
Some covers alluded to then-contemporary strategies in art: A case in point is Warhol’s grid of slide photos viewed through a matching grid of holes cut out of the outer album cover. Such devices as Warhol’s “Peel slowly and see” yellow banana skin covering a suggestively pinkish banana (an image reduced to unpeelable modesty on later pressings of The Velvet Underground & Nico), or the actual zipper on the trousers of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, brought an air of experimentation and naughtiness if not outright transgression to the world’s record bins.
For the cognoscenti, one highlight of this show is Robert Mapplethorpe’s cover photo of Patti Smith on her debut album Horses. As with the Warhols, you’ll have to know what you’re looking for, but most people who know Mapplethorpe also know the Smith photograph. (For the record—sorry, but the bad pun is intended—Smith has just published an elegantly poetic memoir of her years as Mapplethorpe’s partner—it was long, long ago, when they hadn’t yet figured out their respective history-making gender-bending sexual orientations.)
The covers cited above are from the generally acknowledged glory years of the album cover as such. As the years went by, record company budgets shrank, punk contributed a tighter visual grittiness, and a dozen different aesthetics contended for audience attention. Then the smaller format of the CD left a smaller playing field for the visual games of designers.
Today the sheer range of multimedia software and the ease of digital downloads mean that almost all the moments of the history of art’s interaction with recorded sound are being reprised—except for the tactile pleasure of handling that book-like album cover.
Spruill Gallery‘s Run for Cover continues through March 6.
A well-known critic, poet, and ART PAPERS staff member, Dr. Jerry Cullum has been a keen observer of the metro Atlanta scene for decades.