Boy, did Exit Art get this one right. First, Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo—the founders and guiding spirits of this venerable alternative space—come up with an idea for a show that is so simple no one ever thought of it before: the short but fabulously fluctuating, infinitely excessive history of the LP cover. It’s an idea that intersects with art, music, design, and fantasy; that audiences from all over the taste map can get into; that is flush with nostalgia, pleasure, salaciousness, and tastelessness; that is so rich in cultural and stylistic diversity it could have been called “The American Century.” Then they job out this idea to the perfect curator: that most excellent art critic cum hipster cum music writer Carlo McCormick, who (with project manager Jodi Hanel) had the good sense and magnanimity to enlist a crew of collectors, fans, and fanatics to help round up material for this awesomely all-over-the-place show.
At almost 3000 album covers, not only is “The LP Show” one of the best exhibitions of the season, it’s one of the busiest blurs of visual activity I’ve seen in a long time—but a beautifully poetic, staggering blur. McCormick set out to create “the grooviest record store of all time,” and he did. There could have been more. Wanting to avoid “obvious choices,” there are no Beatles albums here, no Doors, Hendrix, Four Tops, or Led Zeppelin—which means Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, with its tacky kiddie porn, isn’t here. Neither is Andy Warhol’s great Sticky Fingers jeans-and-zipper cover, although that album’s sexy insert of a man in his underpants is (the man, by the way, is none other than writer and former Interview editor Glenn O’Brien). There’s not much disco, rap, or punk, and only one bootleg. John Currin’s Pulp cover didn’t make it, nor did Perry Hoberman’s cool design for Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s striking photo of Patti Smith for Horses.
More interesting than McCormick’s choices, however, is the whimsical way he installed this show. Sidestepping chronological or musical groupings—after all, where would you put Sound Effects of Godzilla, volumes I and II, Music for Hangovers, Songs About Trees, John Wayne’s America, Why I Love Her, or My Pussy Belongs to Daddy?—he proceeds according to themes, subthemes, quirks, and passing fancies. “The LP Show” unfolds in what the Situationists would call a drift, albeit a delirious one.
There are clusters of covers grouped according to clowns, couples, kids, and comix; plagues, war, electric chairs, and skulls; midgets, giants, astronauts, and aliens. There’s a formalist coterie of circles, spirals, and monochromes (included here is the meanest jacket on view, Durutti Column’s 1980 sandpaper front that destroys anything shelved next to it); a special transgender clique with albums by Amanda Lear, Lady Bunny, and Divine; subdivisions of superheroes, storm troopers, and stuffed animals; and arrangements according to body parts. There are LPs with art by “real” artists on the front, including pictures by Hermann Nitsch, Robert Longo, Josef Albers, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Raymond Pettibon, David Wojnarowicz, and a doozy of a Dalí that Jackie Gleason commissioned. My fave subclusters include self-published albums (don’t miss The Singing Psychic or Logger’s Music), trucker records, defaced fronts, mushroom clouds, Hawaiian schmaltz (where one Caucasian model in brown body paint is used on several sleeves), the sex wall (see Linda Lovelace’s The Sounds of Deep Throat), and my number one category: Christian ventriloquist children’s albums.
On top of that, there are six special artist surveys, including sections devoted to Alex Steinweiss, who evidently designed the first illustrated album cover; Art Chantry, the protopunk designer; and musician J.G. Thirlwell, who created all the sleeves for his group, Foetus. McCormick also invited four guest curators to do whatever they wanted. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, provides a good-looking bank of black-and-white covers; composer John Zorn goes with all Japanese jackets (one of the best overall sections in the show); DJ Spooky lays an egg with an arty arrangement of cut-up white generic sleeves; and Christian Marclay contributes two witty grids, one of 25 Sound of Music albums, each different.
LP covers may or may not be art, but they certainly were an art form. I say were because, by the mid 1980s, record companies began phasing out vinyl discs, CDs took over, fans had greater access to the music through video, and the form waned. It’s also important to remember that LP covers were primarily a way to make people spend money. They were products first. As pop artist Richard Hamilton put it, “A product must aim to project an image of desirability as strong as any Hollywood star. It must seduce.”
And seduce LP covers did. For me, growing up, there were no bad album covers. Kitsch or camp, elegant or cheesy (and cheesy is one of the main ingredients here), every record jacket told a story, delivered a message, and lifted me out of my home into the cosmos. These covers were 12-by-12-inch dream machines, one square foot of heaven—objects of infinite scrutiny, fetishization, and wonder. They were skeleton keys for how to act and how to dress, and—before MTV—the closest most of us got to our heroes. When it comes to LP covers, it turns out, size matters. A 5-by-5-inch CD case just doesn’t do it.
LP covers form an important part of our visual literacy, incorporating an encyclopedic range of genres and styles. Suffice it to say, they are a hybrid form of the first order, sites of stylistic compression and originality. It’s possible you, like me, have spent more time looking at some covers—alone, up close, and with rapt attention—than you’ve spent looking at most works of art. This doesn’t mean you’re a philistine. It’s just that if you’re lucky—really lucky—in a lifetime, you might get to have three or four hours in the Sistine Chapel, or in Giotto’s Arena Chapel, the church containing Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross, or standing before Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar. You will probably never get an unobstructed look at the Mona Lisa or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus ever again. Crowds make these works all but inaccessible to us. Album covers aren’t great works of art, but once upon a time they taught us how much rapture there was to be had in the simple act of looking at a static image for hours.