May 11th, 2009
Andy Warhol is an artist who has certainly received his share of coverage over the years by art critics, writers, journalists, filmmakers, and even Mr. Warhol himself. In fact, it often seems as if there wasn’t a minute of Warhol’s life that hasn’t been documented in some way. That’s why I found the recent release of the book “Andy Warhol: The Record Covers: 1949- 1987″ so interesting. I had no idea that Warhol had created so many covers or that he had done them throughout his entire career as an artist. In fact, one of his first commissions was an album cover. “Andy Warhol: The Record Covers 1949 – 1987″ is a fascinating look into Warhol’s work in this design medium, and it led me to seek out the book’s author Paul Maréchal, himself an avid Warhol cover collector. Paul is the curator of the art collection at the Power Corporation of Canada by day, but his love of Warhol drove him to create this definitive collection of Warhol’s album cover design work and we are thrilled that he agreed to speak to us about this aspect of Warhol’s work as an artist.
Figment: Most people are familiar with the album covers that Andy Warhol created for The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Rolling Stones, but I for one had no idea how many album covers he designed over the years he was alive. How did you find out about the breadth of his album cover design work?
Paul Maréchal: My collection and the book on Warhol’s record covers were born from an intuition: if one can design revolutionary record covers such as the Velvet Underground’s peelable banana and the working zipper for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, it is because you certainly know a great deal about record covers. I thought that an artist who can come up with such creations must certainly have done a lot of them to demonstrate such mastery and understanding of the medium. It is the main reason why I suspected Warhol had done many more. It then became a conviction that drove my research all along the way. I already knew about those two covers of course, like most people. From as early as 1996, my goal was to write the catalogue raisonné of those records covers, a type of book or compendium listing each and every work of an artist in a field of creation (the words catalogue raisonné are also used in the English language and also refer to the same thing). The purpose of publishing a catalogue raisonné is to make people aware of the existence of a body of work by an artist, the most complete one that exists, and to have people submit you other works that are unknown and that might be added in a further edition of the book.
Figment: Was there one cover in particular that prompted you to put together this book?
PM: The cover that started the whole adventure (a collector’s journey and an author’s creation) was unfortunately the Paul Anka cover for the The Painter album. I say unfortunately because this cover was done from two of four existing portraits of himself Anka commissioned to Warhol in 1976 and shortly after asked Warhol to use as an album cover in exchange of a substantial fee. It is too bad I have to mention this one because, contrary to 95% of all Warhol covers, this cover was not a creation designed specifically by Warhol to be an album cover and represents what I consider to be a “recycled artwork”, i.e. a work of art that was not created for the sole purpose of a cover design but is used in that purpose or an art work used after an artist’s death for the same purpose. Warhol knew it and agreed to it so I guess it is OK. It is unfortunately not the case for most artworks reproduced on album covers in the big music business, even today. Especially in the field of classical music: Aren’t you tired of seeing reproductions of impressionist paintings on the cover of classical music albums, or even worst, a touched up photo of the artist? It is so sad and pathetic. But when I came across this cover for the Anka album flipping through the bins of a Montreal record store, it is the one that fired up my imagination and made me [see] a connection with other potential albums Warhol could have created. It could have been any other album but it was that one.
Figment: How did Warhol first get started designing album covers?
PM: Warhol started designing album cover as soon as he arrived in New York in 1949, fresh out of Carnegie Tech School in Pittsburgh. It is most probably the very first commercial job he landed a few weeks upon his arrival in the Big Apple. It is his friend and classmate George Klauber who introduced him to Columbia’s then-artistic-director Robert Jones who gave him an assignment for three little drawings to illustrate three different album covers (A Program of Mexican Music and Alexander Nevsky). My book reproduces those two while the third one remains unknown to this day. I can’t wait until someone comes up with the third one! It is one of my great hopes for this book is that someone somewhere knows about the third one. Even the specialists and the people at the Warhol Museum don’t know about it. And don’t forget this third one is certainly unsigned which adds to the difficulty of identifying it. Many people have submitted me with potential third ones but no luck so far.
Figment: Do you think he viewed this work as an extension of his art or was it merely a job to pay the bills?
PM: Designing album covers was certainly a job any graphic designer would anticipate to do in the course of his/her career at the time. Designing album covers was done more and more since 1938 after an experiment, in that sense, convinced Columbia records executives that cover design did increase sales. Some 11 years after, Warhol arrived in New York City. Warhol certainly didn’t view it “as a job to pay the bills“. When you come to think of it, designing album covers is one of the most difficult job a graphic designer could take. It is probably the reason why I consider that at least 80% of the album cover design is so lame. The challenge is beyond imagination: you have to suggest the musical content of an album without imposing your own vision with the image you create. It is more about suggestion than persuasion. It is all about letting the listener develop his/her own world from the creation you offer to the listener as an artist. To put it in a few words you literally have to draw music! Warhol was certainly well trained at that since he did exercises such as creating an album cover while he was in school at Carnegie Tech.
Figment: Did Warhol develop some of the elements of his style from designing album covers? And if so, what stands out about his album cover designs’ that sets them apart from other designs of the time period?
PM: Warhol certainly realized very early on in his career that album covers would be a fantastic vehicle of communication to attract new audiences to his art. His art would enter the lives of classical, foreign or jazz music listeners but also those of fans of spoken words creations like radio crime drama, documentary, foreign language students etc… My book is a witness to those very eclectic creations Warhol harnessed his skills to. A brand new and varied audience [was exposed] to his works and an audience he wouldn’t certainly have reached in the normal course of a normal career as a graphic designer. I think by designing album covers, Warhol strongly developed the receiver side of his personality along with his transmitter side abilities; basic communication skills. When you consider Warhol’s oeuvre as a whole, you realize he was extremely efficient at transmitting what he had received from the society he lived in, namely the consumerism and the celebrity-obsessed society so characteristic of his and our times. You have to admit he was extremely prescient in that respect.
Another aspect one should consider in regards to his early works is the depiction of movement clearly visible in his early designs for album covers: Warhol drew hands playing musical instruments, dancers dancing, angels playing trumpet etc…, in one word: action. His early works for album covers is not static. He knew how to draw lively figures, contrary to a lot of fine arts of the times depicting static scenes such as still life and portrait of models sitting or standing still. This preoccupation for movement is certainly an indication of his involvement in cinema that would come up a few years later.
Figment: Was Warhol drawn to music in the same way that he was drawn to other forms of pop culture?
PM: Warhol certainly realized at some point, and very early on, that pop music would somehow translate into the fine arts as well. Evidence of that can be found in a painting he did as early as 1956, a work he titled Rock n’ Roll. That painting has disappeared since but we know it from a photograph that was rarely reproduced. With Elvis and the Beatles in mind, Warhol had this intuition that culture in general was opening to a brand new youth market the same way it opened in the music field. Music became pop so the fine arts had to become pop sooner or later, so one might think of Warhol’s understanding of his times. Warhol musical environment was extremely present in his life: he would listen to deafening rock music while painting with the radio blasting opera AND the TV set on (but without the sound). Warhol was listening to art while creating art. It is very easy to see he was sort of translating all this musical presence into his own art.
Figment: If you had to pick one album cover that you think really captures his esthetic which one would it be?
PM: That is always a difficult question, but if I had to keep only one it would be the Kenny Burrell on Blue Note 1543 Warhol designed in 1956. The movement of the hands playing the guitar along with the low angle point of view borrowed from the photography and cinema speaks to Warhol’s future as an artist using photography and cinema extensively. For some reason I also like the John Lennon cover for the posthumous Menlove Ave. he did in 1986. The way the portrait is closely cropped is a sign of closeness between Warhol and Lennon. You even feel a sort of intimacy between the artist and his model. The choice of colors is also very sensitive: the black background and the orangey hue are very reminiscent of the countless candle lights vigils held after Lennon’s death while the pink and blue colors of Lennon’s portrait on the back cover reflect Lennon’s peace activism.
Figment: What is the importance of album cover art in Warhol’s total body of work?
PM: It is the most constant vehicle of creation of the artist who is considered a commercial illustrator from 1949 until 1963, a painter from 1960 until 1963 and from 1972 until 1987, a filmmaker from 1963 until 1972, but also a sculptor (the Brillo boxes for instance), a record producer, a television host, a publisher of the magazine Interview, an author of books, a show designer etc…But Warhol designed record covers from 1949 until 1987.
Figment: I understand you are involved in helping Stéphane Aquine, the curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, develop a show around Warhol’s album covers. What was that experience like and where can people see that exhibit? Is your book an extension of this show?
PM: My collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for this exhibition was an exemplary one. First of all, I must say that I always thought that museums would not exist without collectors which is kind of an oxymoron…I like very much the idea that a museum can developed an exhibition from one collector’s collection and can actually listen to a collector and understand his collection. To recognize the importance of collectors, like the Museum does, is a good sign of humility in a sense; it acknowledges the fact that museums are not omniscient on all levels, and they don’t live in a closed world. I was very impressed with how the Museum perfectly understood what to make of this exhibition. My collection of record covers and the book I wrote about it were just the basis or the start for this exhibition. A very enthusiastic Stéphane Aquin put together this exhibition in such a fantastic way, [that allows you] to fully explore Warhol’s creative process through music. It is a world premiere I am very proud of and I want to congratulate the Museum for this tour de force. Warhol specialists suspected the importance of music in Warhol’s works but surprisingly enough nothing had been done before on that subject alone, despite the countless books written on Warhol so far. Most are just coffee table books of course. I like to think of mine as a scholarly coffee table book…but like every good idea, it seems very simple once it is done. The signs were everywhere in Warhol’s works: the portrait of musicians and signers, the Merce Cunningham and John Cage connection, the six music videos he did, the Velvet Underground album he produced and design the album cover for. In fact, it seems that this collection of record covers created the missing link to associate all those parts together and expressed a continuous thread, in terms of the narrative, to explore Warhol’s involvement in music…and dance! So to answer your question, no, my book was not an extension of this show but its basis in fact. The exhibition is currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (they had 22,000 visitors on the opening weekend alone!) and it will open at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh on June 10.
Figment: What do you think Warhol would think about a site devoted to creating fake bands and albums?
PM: Warhol would be an absolute fan of the Internet and your website. Warhol was extremely into new technologies and media. He made sure his film and video equipment were of the latest models. Later he created with Beuys and Higashiyama the first artwork created by fax in 1985, and even went on in 1986 with the creation of the first computer generated portrait, a portrait of ex-Blondie signer Debbie Harry. That portrait made the cover of New Musical Express newspaper edition of January 11 1986. But to answer your question more directly, Warhol would certainly have liked the idea of a website devoted to creating fake bands and albums. Warhol once declared that “If someone faked my art, I couldn’t identify it” (ref.: Giant Size, Phaidon, 2006, p.166).
Figment: Are you a music fan? And if so, do you have any plans to do further books on the subject of album artwork or was this merely a labour of love by a big fan of Andy Warhol?
PM: Like everyone on earth, I think, I am a music fan. Music is part of every life. People’s tone of voice, a language, the sound of the rain falling, everything is music. Music is about rhythm. Rhythm is even found in silence to paraphrase John Cage! Every single thing in life has a rhythm. I learned to appreciate Warhol’s through his album covers but I also like a lot the works of other artist who did album covers. My other favorite artist certainly is Reid Miles with whom Warhol worked on a few jazz covers. Jim Flora is also one of the best. If I am ever to write another book on record covers it would definitely be on Reid Miles. His creativity, his invention of creative typography carried so well the modernity found in jazz.
We’d like to thank Paul for taking the time to speak to us about his book and encourage you to check it out the book and the exhibit at either the de Young or Warhol Museums. If you’d like to read more about how Paul put the book together I encourage you to check out this NY Times article.