Modern music listeners are used to seeing album art as tiny thumbnails in an iTunes library or a Spotify playlist. But during the heyday of vinyl records, albums were a comparatively huge 12-by-12-inch canvas, and artists used the space to create eye-catching covers.
Through the end of September, the Lansing Mall’s Keys to Creativity Community Art Center is hosts “The Golden Age of Album Art,” an exhibit of over 50 album covers. The exhibit is curated by Doug Sjoquist, a visiting scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University who recently retired from a full-time professorship at Lansing Community College. Sjoquist defines the “golden age” of album art as 1967 through 1983.
“Before the 1967 stuff, you get all this album cover stuff with conventional lettering styles and boring band photos,” Sjoquist said. “Then you get to ’67 you get Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears,’ Hendrix’s ‘Axis: Bold as Love,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and Andy Warhol’s banana. All of a sudden they just let go, and it’s all in 1967.”
Sjoquist, 65, traces his love of album art back to his first year of college.
“I was in the dorm room with one of my friends, and we used to listen to music,” he recalled. “He put on King Crimson’s, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man.’ I said, ‘What is that?’ And then he showed me the album cover, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ This was an exciting time to be living in when you get this stuff.”
But “The Golden Age of Album Art” is designed to be more than just a nostalgia trip into a classic rock record bin. Sjoquist has a true appreciation of the album covers and the artists who created them. The exhibit includes a wide variety of album art styles, including photo collages, references and reproductions of classical and modern art, psychedelic designs and Eastern-influenced covers.
“During that golden age, album cover artwork and the music went together hand in hand. You took it together, like a pill to increase the efficacy of both,” Sjoquist said. “During that period, the experience that you had was much more totalitarian because it involved the senses of touch, hearing and seeing. The visual experience was just as important as the auditory one.”
Fittingly, music from the classic albums featured in the exhibit washes over viewers as they walk through the gallery.
The artwork on album covers, Sjoquist said, was often educational, albeit not purposefully.
“What we used to call ‘fine art’ just started flowing into popular culture,” he explained. “I think it wasn’t intentional, but a lot of young people got exposed to art history that probably had no interest or no knowledge of it before. But now we’ve got people like Escher and Magritte and Dali and John Curry and all these other people that are showing up on album covers, and people are asking, ‘Where is the stuff coming from? It’s cool.’ You get fired up about art history.”
The exhibit includes a section focusing on the influences of Asian and African themes in album covers, such as Santana’s “Abraxas” album, which features the 1961 Mati Klarwein painting “Annunciation,” and Jimi Hendrix and his band portrayed as Hindu deities on “Axis: Bold as Love.”
“The artists that were doing that were thinking of themselves as world citizens before we even started talking about ‘global perspectives,’” Sjoquist said. “They were way ahead of the game.”
Sjoquist marks the end of the golden era with pop records from the 1980s. Albums put out by Madonna and Michael Jackson, he explained, feature a return to traditional portrait photography. The introduction of the compact disc also changed the way artists thought of album art.
“All of a sudden you’ve got artwork that’s like this big,” Sjoquist said, making a CD-sized square with his fingers. “It’s like watching ‘Star Wars’ on your cell phone. It doesn’t work.”
The Golden Age of Album Art
On display through Sept. 30 Viewing hours: noon-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday FREE
Curator lecture and live performance
With Doug Sjoquist and Thornetta Davis 6-9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25 $20/$15 adv.
Keys to Creativity Community Art Center (In Lansing Mall) 5746 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing (517) 657-2770, keystocreativity.net