THE LP SHOW
Experience Music Project, Seattle Center, 325 Fifth N., 770-2702 Feb. 1-April 14 Alex Steinweiss slide show and question-and-answer session $7 6:30 p.m.>"/>
THE LP SHOW
Experience Music Project, Seattle Center, 325 Fifth N., 770-2702 Feb. 1-April 14 Alex Steinweiss slide show and question-and-answer session $7 6:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 2
WHEN COMPACT discs supplanted vinyl records in the early '90s as the dominant medium for recorded music, debates over the discrepancy between digital and analog sound quality abounded. But for New York writer Carlo McCormick, the primary concern was the loss of visual—not aural—data.
"From the very beginning, it was a cultural shift which was systemically and fundamentally wrong," insists McCormick. With the reduction in size from LP jackets to CD booklets, "there was this huge loss. The people who worked on that 12-inch-by-12-inch square had mastered all sorts of different ways of utilizing this great canvas." (There were other, more practical concerns, too. "Albums were for rolling joints on, and CD covers are for doing lines of bad drugs off of," he chuckles.)
So last summer, McCormick did what any art lover would do with great canvases: He hung them on display. Originally hosted by Exit Art Gallery in lower Manhattan, The LP Show featured 2,500 record sleeves, ranging from the earliest designs of Alex Steinweiss—a Columbia Records art director who in 1939 had the bright idea of packaging Smash Hit Songs by Rodgers & Hart in something other than a plain paper sleeve—right up to the present. A modified version of the show, which attracted over 10,000 visitors in New York, opens at Experience Music Project's Special Exhibits Gallery this Friday and runs through April 14.
To highlight the "visual language of seduction and coded information that has existed since the birth of the LP art form," specimens are grouped along visual, rather than musical or historical, lines. "I looked at [the material] in the ways that you look at art, using different conceptual frames that aren't applied very well or often to popular culture," says McCormick. Seemingly incongruous sleeves end up commenting upon each other, and running gags unfold across extended conceptual threads. There are entire segments devoted to subjects like telephones, flames, or keyboards; visual artist Christian Marclay composed a piece from nothing but different jackets for The Sound of Music. And iconic chestnuts like the Beatles' "butcher baby" were passed over in favor of one-of-a-kind oddities, including an array of defaced covers "that people had done whatever [to] . . . painted over the face of Johnny Cash or written 'Allman Brothers' on some crappy thrift store record because they needed a cover for their Allman Brothers album."
Persuading the 60-plus DJs, musicians (including Thurston Moore and John Zorn), record store owners, vinyl fetishists, and others involved to loan pieces took two years. "Record collectors are a particular breed," McCormick notes. "To coax these albums out of them was really difficult. These people aren't art collectors. A lot of them work really shitty jobs to save up their pennies just to spend way too much money on some record they just absolutely have to have, and they're really precious about them."
Consequently, when offers to mount The LP Show again came flooding in, complications ensued. "Most of these collectors don't give a damn about the art world or museums. A lot of institutions wanted this show, and they didn't want [their records] to be gone for that long." In the end, he convinced the majority to let The LP Show be revived twice, at EMP—"because they had all heard of Hendrix"—and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "For me, it was really nice to do it in Seattle," he adds, "because at a point where we were all pretty sick of music, Seattle rescued us."
McCormick had to trim the show down to 1,500 sleeves to accommodate space considerations as well as a small number of collectors who couldn't be swayed. ("One DJ pulled out of the show after Sept. 11 because she had a dream that Experience Music Project got blown up while her records were in there.") Regardless, he's pleased with the outcome. "In a way, it's more concise and packs a sharper punch," he says.
But sometimes, McCormick concludes, bigger is still better. "There are records in the show which are more contemporary, and when you look at the vinyl versions of things which were designed in the CD era, I think you can see there's a difference. And it's not a size queen thing, I swear."