A Beatle and a banana: Examples of Warhol's work.
A Beatle and a banana: Examples of Warhol's work.
© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Andy Warhol's Album Covers Collection Comes to Boca Raton

In a sense, Andy Warhol was as much a symbol of the pop culture he celebrated as he was an artist whose work helped define it. With his pale complexion, white wig, and soft-spoken demeanor, he represented everything that was surprising and unusual about art and music in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Though the casual observer may know him only for his paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and Brillo boxes, Warhol was also largely responsible for the synergy between the visual arts and the explosive, experimental sounds emerging at the time. Indeed, given his eccentric personality, it was only natural that he would become a key player in the modern music scene. Courting both rockers and wannabes, he delved headfirst into music-making, producing the debut album by the Velvet Underground and Nico and shooting music videos for the Cars, Miguel Bose, and others.

Consequently, it wasn't surprising that Warhol would also apply his talents to album cover art, a practice he began with his first commission in the late '1940s and continued until his death in 1987. In the interim, he conceived dozens of iconic covers, among them such distinctive designs as the peel-off banana that graced that first Velvets album and the working zipper that adorned the Rolling Stones record Sticky Fingers. He was responsible for more than 50 covers in all, spanning an array of genres and musicians, from Prokofiev, the Boston Pops, and Toscanini to Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw. Still, pop music appeared to inspire him most, and his later commissions included the Rolling Stones, John Cale, Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Billy Squier, the Smiths, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, and Debbie Harry.

In addition, Warhol did covers for recordings of readings by Tennessee Williams, a soundtrack for a Fassbinder film, a Spanish language lesson LP, and a recording of a radio broadcast about America's obsession with drugs. His stylized designs, which featured such varied techniques as silkscreens, dominant color schemes, bold and blotted line drawings in pen and ink, and several striking portraits of the subjects themselves, were part of a signature style that made an indelible impression in the record racks and on the musicians themselves. Notably, he never recycled his works for these projects, making each cover unique.

"Artists have always had a connection with music and vice versa, but Warhol was the first to be so closely associated with popular music," Kathy Goncharov explains. As curator of contemporary art at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, she's overseeing an exhibition of Warhol's album art titled "Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949-1987+" that will be on display at the museum from January 26 to April 10. "Warhol was drawn to the music scene because it represented pop culture, it was glamorous, and its accessible everyday themes appealed to the youth market. It reached millions of people and was commercially successful, as he wanted his art to be."

Andy Warhol's Album Covers Collection Comes to Boca Raton
Courtesy of the Cranbrook Museum

Indeed, Warhol's pop-art career seemed to mimic the ascendancy of popular music. He was known to love and celebrate celebrity, and he mixed with many of music's new hip elite at New York's Studio 54. He also enjoyed going to concerts and often shared his fondness for Duran Duran, Billy Squier, and Elton John. In 1963, he talked about starting own rock band, and he briefly managed a dance club. While working, Warhol would listen to deafening rock 'n' roll or opera, often playing the same song over and over again because he said it cleared his head and emptied his mind for painting, thus allowing him to work on instinct alone. It was little wonder, then, that his Interview magazine frequently featured musicians in its individual issues.

The Boca Raton Museum's exhibit arrives intact from the Cranbook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which last featured it in mid-2014. In addition to his better-known work, the exhibition features three album covers that had never been displayed before. As Goncharov notes, the showing spans his entire career, beginning in 1949 with a design commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for a program of Mexican music that accompanied one of its exhibitions. It concludes with a cover he completed just before his death, created for MTV High Priority, an album that raised funds for breast cancer research and featured such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, the Eurythmics, Whitney Houston, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, and Patti LaBelle.

"In a way, Warhol's career spans the life of vinyl," Goncharov points out. "It became popular after World War II and immensely so from the 1960s to the late 1980s, mirroring the time of his greatest success. With America's transition into a consumer society after the war and the advent of advertising as a major marketing tool, record covers became part of a pop culture that Warhol became obsessed with. Record covers were the ultimate serial images, as they were produced in the thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands. Having started as a commercial artist, Warhol was obsessed with the new medium of advertising and celebrated it in his art. The record cover was meant to cleverly advertise what was inside and thus spur sales. It was packaging as much as the Brillo boxes Warhol was famous for."

Consequently, the exhibition should garner wide appeal, from music obsessives to students of design and art history. Indeed, Warhol's cover designs have historical interest due to the fact that they were never displayed in museums or galleries. "Warhol was a populist and wanted his work to reach the widest possible audience," Goncharov suggests. "The record covers did exactly that, because they reached millions of people and not just a limited art audience."

"Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949-1987+"
On display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, January 26 to April 10, 2016. Admission is free for members, children 12 and under, and students with ID; $12 for adults; and $10 for seniors 65 and up. Call 561-392-2500, or visit bocamuseum.org.

Two programs will complement the exhibition. From 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday, February 21, exhibit curator Laura Mott, will discuss Warhol's career through the history of his record covers; free for museum members, $12 for nonmembers. And from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 3, DJ Luis Mario will present an evening of music featuring a playlist culled from albums in the exhibition; free with museum admission.

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