LP album covers recognized as art form

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Aug. 6, 2002 at 10:00 AM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- LP record album covers have become a collecting category in recent years and have inspired an exhibition at the Exit Art gallery in Manhattan's Soho district that recognizes the covers as a modern art form.

The exhibition titled "The LP Show," to run through Aug. 24, is the result of three years of organization by Carlo McCormick, a senior editor at Paper magazine who persuaded more than 60 cover collectors to loan their treasures, some 2,500 in number. The show includes rare designs by Alex Steinweiss, an artist who invented the album cover for Columbia Records in 1939.

Steinweiss, now 86 and living in retirement in Sarasota, Fla., said on a visit to the show that he considered his cover designs as "mini-posters" that reflected his interpretation of the music.

"For me, designing an album cover was always about making something attractive that would appeal to consumers and also say something about the music inside," Steinweiss said. "The album covers I designed spelled the end of the plain brown paper sleeves in booklike bindings that served as covers for multiple 78-r.p.m. discs."

Steinweiss recalled that his first cover, printed on a cardboard sleeve, was for a collection of Broadway show tunes by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart performed by an orchestra conducted by Rodgers. It showed a theater marquee exhibiting the names of the artists and the content.

The early album covers combined photography and illustrative painting, unusual graphics design and typography, and eye-catching color including a lot of reds. Steinweiss observed with regret that toward the end of the long play era painterly touches finally gave way to photographic imagery of a less artistic and therefore less memorable nature.

Now that the limitations of compact disc packaging has virtually ended an art that flourished for half a century, LP album covers have become collectors' items and can fetch hundreds of dollars, and occasionally thousands, in the market. One of the high-end market items, Jackie Gleason's "Lonesome Echo," with a cover painting by Surrealist master Salvador Dali, is in the show.

McCormick said one of the most popular collectible covers, not represented in the show, is The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with a photo of wax dummies by Jann Haworth and Peter Blake. Another, which is in the show, is "Highlights From the Modern Chinese Revolutionary Ballet, 'Red Detachment of Women,' depicting a military clad Chinese ballerina on point brandishing a pistol above her head.

A very special category of covers includes those that were designed to be viewed with 3D glasses provided along with the album, a sort of rub-off from the popularity of Mike Todd's 3D movies. Two of these on display are the Cramps' "Off the Bone" and Grand Funk Railroad's "Shinin' On."

The covers on exhibition are hung to form solid walls of albums that from a distance look like huge swathes of patchwork quilts. They are organized according to music category and theme such as Christian music, exotica, children's songs, and electronic space age music, but there are no wall labels to get in the way of the viewer and his own associations with subject matter ranging from Dimitri Shostakovich's symphonies to Tiny Tim's concerts.

"It's an homage to a dying art form," McCormick told UPI. "Music and how it's packaged is something that evolved along with the rest of popular culture. We have covers that refer to a wide range of themes from religion to sex, seduction, alcohol, narcotics, and tattoos. To the collector, these covers are precious bits of history."

Exotica has proved to be one of the most popular themes with visitors to the show. Of particular interest is conductor Andre Kostelanetz' recording, "The Lure of the Tropics," featuring the phenomenal voice of "Peruvian Bird Woman" Yma Sumac, a popular singer of the 1950s who claimed descent from Inca royalty.

The cover shows the exotically beautiful Sumac making her way hesitatingly through shadowy verdure toward a beckoning rain forest sorceress half hidden in a bower of ferns and palms. How could a customer resist such seductive advertising of an LP's contents? Not easily, according to McCormick.

"That was the whole idea of the album cover," he said. "It was designed to hook the buyer. And that was an art in itself."

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