For decades, Taschen has had a reputation for publishing stellar art books, including some really great album cover books; a few years back, they put out Funk & Soul Covers, which a few Wax Poetics writers contributed to. Their recent release, Art Record Covers by Francesco Spampinato and edited by Julius Wiedemann, takes the concept of the album art book to another level, focusing on the visual artists. The hardback, nearly twelve inches by twelve inches and over 400 pages long, is a massive art reference book, with countless write-ups on modern artists as well as interviews with Tauba Auerbach, Shepard Fairey, Kim Gordon, Christian Marclay, Albert Oehlen, and Raymond Pettibon. It is available now.
I spoke with its author, Francesco, about what makes this book different.
Wax Poetics: I really want to know why you chose to do this particular book. For example, many of us think album covers as art, but it seems you are choosing very specific types of covers. Can you explain this further?
Francesco Spampinato: Ten years ago, I started noticing that some records in my collection had a cover made by an artist. I hadn’t bought them for the cover but for the music. Yet, all of a sudden, these records started to signify something more for me than for the music recorded therein. The reason is that although officially I’m a contemporary art historian, I’ve always been fascinated by the convergences between art and daily life such as art and music, art and design, art and advertising, art and politics—that is when art becomes so inextricably linked to the everyday that you can no longer distinguish it as something separate.
As a passionate music lover and collector, I’ve always considered records and some covers as art too, but in this case, my intention was to focus on those covers realized by modern and contemporary artists. The main question I wanted to pose with this book is: when an artist like Salvador Dalí, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Damien Hirst realizes the artwork for a record cover, can we still consider it the same as his other artworks that we see in museums and galleries? So I started looking for more, and over the years, I collected data for about 3,000 records, and bought some of them.
From the first moment I started this research, I had the goal in mind of reconstructing modern and contemporary art history through record covers, in such a way that each movement, tendency, and style of the twentieth and twenty-first century was well represented, from Modernism to Pop Art to Conceptual art up to the various tendencies and styles emerged in the past thirty years. More than an anthology, I hope that with its almost 600 covers by over 250 artists, Art Record Covers could become a reference. For the moment, it is certainly the only book on the market that presents and explores in depth this transversal phenomenon.
In the book, do you not consider graphic designers as visual artists? Or are there times when these two crafts overlap? And can a graphic designer “become” an artist with a piece they create?
A graphic designer is a peculiar type of artist who normally works on commission and is asked to provide his/her clients functional solutions. But designers have always longed for ways to free themselves from the obligations to which they are normally subjected when accepting a work on commission, and record covers have offered them a particular freedom in doing so. However, even when graphic designers and illustrators are free to express themselves, making record covers is not something unusual for them; it is part of their production. Their work could be considered art but always within some paradigms of the context for which it was conceived.
With this book, instead, I wanted to understand what happens when it is a so-called “fine artist”—who normally makes paintings, installations, videos, or performances and so on destined to museums and galleries—to realize a cover artwork. Does the change of the context impact the definition of art? Is it art less valuable in intellectual terms when it is conceived for a record cover? In this sense, I think that Art Record Covers offers a paradigmatic example not only of the fact that art stays art despite the context in which it circulates, but also of how art, music, and visual communication converge in creating a new hybrid art genre in its own right.
Art and design overlap quite often and record covers are a recurring area where this happens. It is known how art history has influenced design and illustration. Elements of Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, for example, resonate in the record covers made by major graphic designers and illustrators like Roger Dean, Hipgnosis, and Peter Saville. But the opposite is also true; indeed, there are several “fine” artists whose work is inspired by record covers. Someone like Shepard Fairey, one of the six figures I interviewed, is paradigmatic to understand how the distinctions between art and design are increasingly obsolete and that decontextualization is a proper tactic employed by both artists and designers to make a bigger impact on society, no matter how we call what they do.