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Art on the Record

[whitespace] John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Thendara M. Kida

Recording Art: The exhibit 'Artists' Recordworks' lays out a blueprint for the history of both underground art and music, as seen in John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over),' a 45-rpm picture-sleeve single currently on display at 871 Fine Arts through Oct. 8.

A new show at 871 Fine Arts tracks complex combinations of artists and musicians

By Mark Athitakis

In the most basic sense, Artists' Recordworks is nothing more than an exhibit of old record covers. Which is no small thing. In the age 3raphers are often forced to compress their visions into a 5-by-5-inch space, it's refreshing to see examples of how a larger canvas--um, cardboard--allows artists to experiment freely with both art and packaging. So, taken at face value, the collection of vinyl record jackets and related paraphernalia can be intriguing in and of itself.

That's partly due to the fact that many of the displayed covers are the works of established artists. Five come from Andy Warhol, including the famous "banana" cover of 1969's The Velvet Underground & Nico. The Talking Heads--who were, in their time, both art punks and art patrons--released a limited edition of Speaking in Tongues with a translucent sleeve designed by pop-artist Robert Rauschenberg, and the fascinating proselytizing of folk artist Howard Finster graced the cover of Little Creatures (both are on display).

Rock and pop musicians--particularly punks--have always had a close relationship with artists in other media, and the exhibit has a solid grouping of some of the best examples, from Barbara Kruger (Consolidated) to Salvador Dali (Jackie Gleason) to Gerhard Richter (Sonic Youth) to Robert Mapplethorpe (Patti Smith).

But Artists' Recordworks isn't simply an exhibit about how high art has insinuated itself into a (supposedly) low-brow culture like pop music, though the above examples prove that it's happened often. Nor is it merely a celebration of cover art, showing how smart design can suggest a musician's sound. Taken as a whole, the show tells a much more fascinating story. It lays out a blueprint for the history of both underground art and music, and how closely they worked together in various forms after WWII.

Let's start from a familiar place, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," whose 45-rpm picture-sleeve single is on display. Before she became known as the woman who broke up the Beatles (wrongly and uncharitably, an argument probably derived from sexism and racism too), Ono was a participant in the New York-based Fluxus art movement, a loosely formed collective focusing on sound poetry, experimental art and "happenings," which involved things like taking a hacksaw to a piano or simply cleaning a block of sidewalk.

Avant-garde composer and early electronic experimenter John Cage was affiliated with Fluxus, as was Glenn Branca, who would later work with Sonic Youth in their early days. Minimalist composer La Monte Young, another Fluxus alumnus, would teach a young John Cale, who would later join the Velvet Underground, and Warhol would also do the artwork for the cover of Cale's second solo record, The Academy in Peril. Cale would later collaborate with Brian Eno, whose ambient work would draw in part from Cage, and Eno would later work with Laurie Anderson, as well as the Talking Heads, who solicited work from Rauschenberg, and so forth--samples from those individual artists are all on display.

And if the tangled spider web of musicians and artists working together seems confusing, then you get the point: as artists, they were working deep and fertile territory, and it only seems natural that they would work together, since they shared the singular goal of changing the way people looked at the world and listened to sound.

But the exhibit's method of presentation can be frustrating in helping the viewer draw those conclusions. Little information is presented along with the pieces themselves, and it's never quite clear whether the exhibit wants to draw attention to those connections or to separate them. It breaks the works into discrete sections--"Cover Art," "Experimental/New Music," "Happenings and Fluxus," "Periodicals and Artist Publications," "Sound Poetry" and "Industrial Music"--a tactic that takes the paths of experimentation apart when it might make more sense to put them together.

Although the actual records are there next to a turntable, no music was playing on two visits. Merely displaying the cover of Eno's Music for Airports isn't particularly revealing to a person trying to make sense of the wealth of images, however smartly collected. Playing the music from that album, at once both jarring and soothing, would at least provide a fuller sense of the avant-garde spirit of the exhibit. But even that wouldn't tell the whole story, since the music inside the sleeves is so wildly different, ranging from the scratches and thuds of Neubauten to the soul-pop of Aretha Franklin (another Warhol cover) to the hard-core punk of Black Flag. And besides, listening to the caterwaul of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation won't shed much light on German artist Gerhard Richter, whose Kerse series of candle paintings is used on the album's cover.

Artists' Recordworks suggests that this beautiful commingling of artistic and musical visions screeched to a halt at some point in the mid-'80s--around the same time that the first wave of punk ended. After that, music started to become smaller, both in the size of its packaging (those darn CDs) and in terms of its genres. Punk itself splintered into hardcore, post-punk, punk-pop and any number of politicized pieces; art movements like Fluxus splintered as well, as its founders either passed away or moved into more specific trains of experimentation.

Blame the fracture on history. Generally speaking, experimental art and music sprang out of the Cold War: with a common political cause to get outraged about, artists mobilized. And it informed much of punk music, both sonically and visually. For the cover of its 1984 Family Man record, Black Flag's guitarist solicited his brother, Raymond Pettibon, to draw the artwork. What he came up with was representative of the mood of the times: a jarring rendering of a father with a gun to his head, the bleeding bodies of his son and daughter visible across the room. The caption reads, "November 23, 1963," the day after the John F. Kennedy assassination. In its 12-inch form, it's a brutal, haunting work with a tone that doesn't appear much in cover art today, both in the underground and the mainstream.

Reclaiming such a ferocious level of vision might not require another Cold War, but it will certainly have to accomplish the impossible task of conquering the CD. For better or for worse, Artists' Recordworks proudly presents a dead art.

Artists' Recordworks runs through Oct. 8 at 871 Fine Arts, 49 Geary St.; 415/543-5155.

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From the August 10-23, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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