From Keith Haring to Kara Walker, 10 Artists Who Designed Album Covers
At their best, record covers double as artworks. So it should come as no surprise that fine artists have a long history of collaborating with musicians to create eye-catching, controversial, even iconic imagery to accompany their tunes. Drawn partially from Francesco Spampinato’s new book Art Record Covers, here are 10 artist-designed record covers—from Andy Warhol’s endlessly-reproduced banana for The Velvet Underground to Cindy Sherman’s sinister photographs for cult favorites Babes in Toyland.
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Warhol designed numerous covers during his illustrious career, from little-known jazz albums when he was a commercial illustrator to The Rolling Stones’s infamous cover for Sticky Fingers (1971). His most iconic album art, however, is the ripe banana featured on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico. The phallic fruit hinted at the album’s sultry themes and unbridled depictions of lust and sensual pleasures. Early editions even featured peelable stickers, which allowed buyers to disrobe the printed banana—encouraged by the titillating textual suggestion to “Peel Slowly and See.”
Kanye West, Graduation (2007)
When West first got in touch with Murakami, asking to see one of his sculptures up close, the Japanese artist didn’t even know who the American rapper was. But Murakami agreed to the meeting anyway—and three months later, West called to suggest a potential collaboration that culminated in the cover design for 2007’s Graduation. Bears had been a continuous presence on West’s previous album art (see The College Dropout and Late Registration), and this one was no different. Murakami noted in an interview that the musician, with the help of studio assistants, created 70 percent of the design. “That is our making process,” the artist explained.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (2009)
It took just a handful of eggs to get this crisp-yet-messy photograph right, according to lead singer Karen O (whose hand is featured). Inspired by Sonic Youth, who have worked with artists from Gerhard Richter to Mike Kelley for their covers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs wanted to collaborate with an artist from New York City for their album art. Fischer—Swiss, but based in New York—fit the bill. “It's exactly what I was looking for,” Karen O told Pitchfork in 2009. The album signaled the band’s turn toward danceable indie pop, and Fischer’s artwork certainly differs from the darker, more saturated covers the band used before (and after) It’s Blitz!
David Bowie, “Without You” (1983)
Keith Haring's cover for “Without You” by David Bowie, 1983. © Keith Haring Foundation.
This disco-flecked single—which appeared on Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance—sports a cover drawn by Haring in his graffiti-infused style. Featuring two figures locked in a radiant embrace, the simple image reflects the song’s message of love and connection. Haring was deeply invested in music, blasting everything from hip hop to classical music in his studio at all hours of the day. When he traveled, he packed mixtapes made by his friends and DJs that he played at openings or while working on one of his many murals. For his part, Bowie was an avid art buyer and even snapped up a few of Haring’s works for his own collection.
Babes in Toyland, Fontanelle (1992) and Painkillers (1993)
When Sherman saw Minneapolis rockers Babes in Toyland play at New York venue CBGB, she was hooked on their grungy punk riffs. After the band paid a visit to her SoHo studio, Sherman ended up collaborating on two album covers and even appearing in one of their music videos. The album art for both Fontanelle and Painkillers drew from drummer Lori Barbero’s lifelong interest in dolls. But it wasn’t an entirely new subject for Sherman—although the majority of her work consists of cinematic self-portraits, some photographs (and videos) feature dolls as well.
Mason Williams, Music (1969)
Ruscha and Williams grew up together, leaving their hometown of Oklahoma City for Los Angeles in 1956. One went on to become a celebrated Pop artist, while the other established a successful career as a musician and comedy writer. But the friends continued to collaborate frequently over the years, publishing several art books (including 1967’s Royal Road Test, in which they photographed themselves throwing a typewriter out of a moving car). Williams’s 1969 album Music was another joint project, featuring a simple cover design that exemplified Ruscha’s typographic explorations. Warner Bros executives, however, were less than pleased that the initial album art didn’t feature Williams’s name at all. In a cheeky response to the record label’s frustration, the credit on the back reads: “Sorry. Cover by Edward Ruscha.”
Arto Lindsay, Salt (2004)
Known for her silhouetted scenes depicting issues of power and agency among black figures, Walker’s work brings a sense of gravity to this experimental album. A sound artist himself, Lindsay has shown his work at a number of exhibitions (including one in London, curated by Laurie Anderson). He’s also featured the work of other contemporary artists, including a sculpture by New York-based artist Matthew Barney, on later album covers.
Black Flag, Nervous Breakdown (1979)
Now an established artist with a New Museum retrospective under his belt, Pettibon got his start designing punk rock album covers in the 1970s and ’80s. In some ways, it was a family affair—as the brother of Black Flag’s frontman, Greg Ginn, Pettibon created a number of covers for the band, including this early EP. Several of his Black Flag album covers, as well as a whole slew of promotional posters for the group, are now held in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Marvin Gaye, I Want You (1976)
Barnes’s 1971 painting The Sugar Shack was already famous when Gaye selected it to serve as the album artwork for his 1976 classic I Want You. Barnes—an American football player turned neo-mannerist painter—had made the artworks for a fictional artist character in the TV comedy Good Times. The Sugar Shack in particular had been featured during the popular show’s closing credits. For the album, however, Barnes adjusted the painting by adding a Marvin Gaye banner to the others scattered among the dancehall rafters. The jiving, elongated figures offer a visual embodiment of the album’s sensual spirit.
Big Star, Radio City (1974)
Eggleston’s saturated, stark photography lends itself well to album covers, his first being Big Star’s 1974 masterpiece Radio City. Since then, he’s shot covers for Joanna Newsom, Primal Scream and Silver Jews, among others. There is no meaning behind this cover, however; Eggleston admitted that he simply offered the image to Big Star’s lead singer Alex Chilton on a whim. The photo was actually taken in Greenwood, Mississippi, the year prior and exemplifies the photographer’s intense focus on color. “I don’t know of any totally red pictures, except in advertising,” Eggleston said of the image. “The photograph is still powerful. It shocks you every time.”