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Album Art: Where Sound Meets Design

Exploring the art of record covers

Posted 08.18.15 by Aaron Blickenstaff

"Touchable Sound" by Brian Roettinger, Mike Treff and Diego Hadis, eds. (NC 1883 .U6 T68 2010 Stacks)

The relationship between the auditory and visual arts has always been one of mutual admiration and influence. Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead painting series in the 1880s would inspire Sergei Rachmaninoff's orchestral tone poem some 20 years later. The composer Enrique Granados was so enamored with the work of Francisco Goya that he was compelled to write an opera, Goyescas, nearly a century after the artist's death. Frederic Leighton named his 1861 painting Lieder ohne Worte in honor of the piano pieces by Felix Mendelssohn. Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress (1951) was based on the painting series by William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress (1732-33). In turn, Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella inspired Picasso's Three Musicians. And, of course, there have been quite a few paintings, statues and stained glass homages to Saint Cecilia through the ages.

With some exceptions (music boxes, cuckoo clocks, player pianos, etc.), the auditory and the visual arts had not really intersected until the advent of the gramophone. In the 1930s, records became easier to produce, higher in quality and widely available. But records were still being sold in drab paper wrapping or plain bags. That changed in 1938 with Alex Steinweiss. Serving as the first art director for Columbia Records, he initiated the practice of putting graphics, colors and unique typography onto record sleeves to market them to consumers. Other companies soon followed his lead and the art form was born.

Many renowned artists have contributed album covers to musicians: Andy Warhol's cover of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Robert Mapplethorpe's photo of Patti Smith for her album Horses, R. Crumb's cartoon for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, Jeff Koons' ARTPOP cover for Lady Gaga and Nobuyoshi Araki's cover for Björk's Telegram are but a handful of examples. Other artists, like Paula Scher, Cal Schenkel and Mati Klarwein, may be unknown to you despite their prolific output and contributions to graphic design.

Cover art creates for musicians a representation of themselves, their work, and their sociocultural influences and message before a listener even takes the record from its sleeve. Give a look through our collection of books on the subject (in addition to a few iconic and favorite record sleeves brought in by library staff) and see if you think any are worth giving a listen!

August 18 - September 5, 20215
Curated by Aaron Blickenstaff

Circulation Policy for Books on Exhibit

Circulating books on display in the museum cases are available for check out at any time. Please see a staff member at the circulation desk to request a book from the cases. Titles, when available, may be checked out at any time from the MRC. For books on display from the Special Collections (Cage), please see a reference librarian.

Image Information

This Page: Touchable Sound by Brian Roettinger, Mike Treff and Diego Hadis, eds. (NC 1883 .U6 T68 2010 Stacks)
Thumbnail: Album: Style and Image in Sleeve Design by Nick de Ville (NC 1882 .D4 2003 Quarto)

Founded in 1826, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is the oldest continuously degree-granting college of art and design in the nation. The College enrolls nearly 3,500 undergraduate, graduate and continuing studies students from 49 states and 52 countries in fine arts, design, electronic media, art education, liberal arts, and professional studies degree and non-credit programs. With art and design programs ranked in the top ten by U.S. News and World Report, MICA is pioneering interdisciplinary approaches to innovation, research, and community and social engagement. Alumni and programming reach around the globe, even as MICA remains a cultural cornerstone in the Baltimore/Washington region, hosting hundreds of exhibitions and events annually by students, faculty and other established artists.