Spring 2009

When Andy got his sticky fingers on an album . . .

Andy Warhol: The Record Covers 1949-1987, Catalogue Raisonne

By Paul Marechal
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / Prestel, £40

Andy Warhol (1928-87) is the artist who will not die. His life and work helped alter the way art was perceived and practised in the latter half of the twentieth century, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t keep on giving. Last year alone there was Andy Warhol in China (photographs of his 1982 visit, by Christopher Makos), Warhol’s Jews (the catalogue of a show at the Jewish Museum in New York) and the ‘Warhol Live’ exhibition that explored his role in music and dance. This touring show (which ends at the Warhol Museum in his home town of Pittsburgh in June 2009) also spawned Paul Marechal’s Andy Warhol: The Record Covers 1949-1987, which reproduces (often with discoloration and other imperfections) 51 of his covers (often front and back on contiguous pages) at expansive LP scale.

As a historical document, Marechal’s impressive book is well worth the shelf space. And as a record of Warhol’s significance in bridging fine and commercial arts, it is an essential archeological resource.

Everyone who knows anything about Warhol is aware that he began as a designer / illustrator (best known for promotions for I. Miller Shoes, though he also did his share of book jackets, advertisements and brochures). When he went to New York to make something of himself, he was introduced to Robert M. Jones, art director at Columbia Records (1945-53) and later at RCA Victor. Marechal quotes Jones on his first meeting with Warhol: ‘Andy came up that afternoon . . . And I gave him three little spots to do for the corners of the standard albums. He needed money. I never kept any records but I know that these little spots must have been amongst the first things he did.’ These illustrations (two of which are reproduced large) were blotted line drawings, one a replica of an Aztec frieze and another an interpretive battle scene to illustrate Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky (copied, Marechal notes, in a primitive way from Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the same name).

Warhol’s early covers were not exactly illustrious, but showed his potential as an illustrator. This is when he introduced his blotted line technique, which, according to Marechal, he claimed to have discovered when he accidentally spilled ink onto a sheet of paper and reproduced the stain motif by applying a second sheet onto it. ‘Warhol particularly liked the mechanical aspect of this technique, which distanced the artist from his creation,’ Marechal says. (Although Warhol credited himself with its invention, Ben Shahn was probably the first to employ it for book covers and illustrations.)

While some of the album covers here are familiar, the earlier ones are a revelation. Marechal sees Warhol’s blotted portrait for Count Basie (RCA, 1955), for example, as heralding the cult of celebrity that would characterise his first Marilyns and Jackies: ‘Already by 1956, his weakness for stars would find expression in a series of shoes paying tribute to Mae West, Judy Garland, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.’

Not all the albums were drawn. For a recording of Daphnis and Chloe (RCA, 1955), which had a photographic cover, he illustrated the special edition booklet of the dancers in motion, which highlights a significant aspect of his work. ‘In the 1950s, the artist generally drew subjects in static positions, sleeping or sitting. In contrast, his record covers show figures in motion, most often musicians playing their instruments.’

For me, the most revealing part comes about halfway through the book. In 1963 he used a shoddy store sign (‘Giant Size .57 each’) as the cover for a record released in conjunction with the exhibition ‘The Popular Image’ at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, which featured his own work, along with Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and other pioneers of Pop Art. From this point forward Warhol was no longer the commercial illustrator, he was the artist using commercial art as his metier.

The second half of the book is filled with the iconic covers such as The Velvet Underground & Nico banana (1967) and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers crotch zipper (1971), and the painted, high-contrast portrait covers for Diana Ross, Mick Jagger (solo), Aretha Franklin and John Lennon’s posthumous Menlove Ave (1986), among others. This emblematic style became a source of great wealth for Warhol, but was a cliche in terms of design. During the mid to late 1980s, his Factory workers produced a few unimpressive throwaways, including a close-up of Joe Dallesandro for The Smiths (1984).

Despite the surface glitter, then, the portrait album covers are fairly dreary. Still, to have a record cover designed by the Pop master was to have his blessing. In the end, that is exactly what his cover designs were, validations that the recording artists were worthy of his attention, rather than the other way around.