7 Rock Album Covers Designed by Iconic Artists: Warhol, Rauschenberg, Dalí, Richter, Mapplethorpe & More


The art of the album cov­er is ground we cov­er here often enough, from the jazz deco cre­ations of album art inven­tor Alex Stein­weiss to the bawdy bur­lesques of under­ground comix leg­end R. Crumb. We could add to these Amer­i­can ref­er­ences the icon­ic cov­ers of Euro­pean graph­ic artists like Peter Sav­ille of Joy Divi­sions’ Unknown Plea­sures and Storm Thorg­er­son of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. These names rep­re­sent just a small sam­pling of the many renowned design­ers who have giv­en pop­u­lar music its dis­tinc­tive look over the decades, and with­out whom the expe­ri­ence of record shopping—perhaps itself a bygone art—would be a drea­ry one. Though these cre­ative per­son­al­i­ties work in a pri­mar­i­ly com­mer­cial vein, there’s no rea­son not to call their prod­ucts fine art.

But in a great many cas­es, the images that grace the cov­ers of records we know well come direct­ly from the fine art world—whether appro­pri­at­ed from pieces that hang on muse­um walls or com­mis­sioned from famous artists by the bands. Such, of course, was the case with the much-bal­ly­hooed cov­er of Lady Gaga’s Art­pop, a can­dy-col­ored col­lab­o­ra­tion with pop art dar­ling Jeff Koons, who gets a namecheck in the Gaga sin­gle “Applause.” Gaga has put a unique spin on the mélange of pop and pop art, but she hard­ly pio­neered such col­lab­o­ra­tions.

Long before Art­pop, there was Warhol, whose pro­mo­tion of the Vel­vet Under­ground includ­ed his own design of their 1967 debut album, The Vel­vet Under­ground & Nico. The cov­er orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured a yel­low banana record buy­ers could peel away, as Fla­vor­wire writes, “to reveal a sug­ges­tive­ly pink flesh-toned banana.” The “saucy cov­ers” required “spe­cial machin­ery, extra costs, and the delay of the album release,” but Warhol’s name per­suad­ed MGM the added over­head was worth it. It’s a gam­ble that hard­ly paid off for the label, but pop music is infi­nite­ly bet­ter off for Warhol’s pro­mo­tion of Lou Reed and company’s dark, dron­ing art rock.


Of the many mil­lions of bands inspired by that first Vel­vets’ release, The Smiths also looked to Warhol for inspi­ra­tion when it came to the even more sug­ges­tive album cov­er (above) for their first, self-titled record in 1984. This time, the image comes not from the pop artist him­self, but from his pro­tégée Paul Mor­ris­sey—a still from his sala­cious, Warhol-pro­duced film Flesh. Just one of many savvy uses of mono­chro­mat­ic film stills and pho­tographs by the image-con­scious Steven Patrick Mor­ris­sey and band.

Smith Horses

Ten years ear­li­er, anoth­er Smith, Pat­ti, posed for the pho­to­graph above, a Polaroid tak­en by her close friend, Robert Map­plethor­pe. At the time, the two were room­mates and “just kids” strug­gling joint­ly in their starv­ing artist­hood. In her Nation­al Book Award-win­ning mem­oir of their time togeth­er, Smith describes the “exquis­ite­ly androg­y­nous image” as delib­er­ate­ly posed in a “Frank Sina­tra style,” writ­ing, “I was full of ref­er­ences.” Map­plethor­pe, of course, would go on to infamy as the focus of a con­ser­v­a­tive con­gres­sion­al cam­paign against “obscene” art in 1989, which tend­ed to make his name syn­ony­mous with sen­sa­tion­al­ism and scan­dal and obscured the breadth of his work.

Like the Vel­vets and Pat­ti Smith, the mem­bers of Son­ic Youth have had a long and fruit­ful rela­tion­ship with the art world, pur­su­ing sev­er­al art projects of their own and col­lab­o­rat­ing fre­quent­ly with famous fine artists. The rela­tion­ship between their noisy art rock and the visu­al arts crys­tal­izes in their many icon­ic album cov­ers. My per­son­al favorite, and per­haps the most rec­og­niz­able of the bunch, is Ray­mond Pet­ti­bon’s cov­er for 1990’s Goo, inspired from a pho­to­graph of two wit­ness­es to a ser­i­al killer case. Pet­ti­bon, broth­er to Black Flag founder and gui­tarist Greg Ginn, is much bet­ter known in the punk rock world than the fine art world, but Son­ic Youth has also col­lab­o­rat­ed with estab­lished high art fig­ures like Ger­hard Richter, whose paint­ing Kerze (“Can­dle”) graces the cov­er of their acclaimed 1988 album Day­dream Nation (above).

New Order Power

Anoth­er exam­ple of a band using already exist­ing artwork—this time from a painter long dead—the cov­er of New Order’s Pow­er, Cor­rup­tion & Lies comes from the still life A Bas­ket of Ros­es by 19th cen­tu­ry French real­ist Hen­ri Fan­tin-Latour. Design­er Peter Sav­ille, who, as not­ed above, cre­at­ed the look of New Order’s pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion, chose the image on a whim. Writes Art­net, “the art direc­tor for the post-punk band… had orig­i­nal­ly planned to use a Renais­sance por­trait of a dark prince to tie in with the Machi­avel­lian theme of the title, but failed to find any­thing he liked. While vis­it­ing [the Nation­al Gallery in Lon­don], Sav­ille picked up a post­card of the Fan­tin-Latour work, and his girl­friend joked that he should use it as the cov­er.” Sav­ille thought it was “a won­der­ful idea.” As Sav­ille explains his choice, “Flow­ers sug­gest­ed the means by which pow­er, cor­rup­tion and lies infil­trate our lives. They’re seduc­tive.”


Anoth­er art-rock band, the Talk­ing Heads—formed at the Rhode Island School of Design and orig­i­nal­ly called “The Artistics”—went in a very high art direc­tion for 1983’s new wave mas­ter­piece Speak­ing in Tongues, their fifth album. Though we’re prob­a­bly more famil­iar with front­man David Byrne’s cov­er art for the album, the band also pro­duced a lim­it­ed edi­tion LP fea­tur­ing the work of artist Robert Rauschen­berg, which you can see above. Byrne, writes Art­net, approached Rauschen­berg “after see­ing his work at the Leo Castel­li Gallery” and Rauschen­berg agreed on the con­di­tion that he could “do some­thing dif­fer­ent.” He cer­tain­ly did that. The cov­er is a “trans­par­ent plas­tic case with art­work and cred­its print­ed on three 12 inch cir­cu­lar trans­par­ent col­lages, one per pri­ma­ry col­or. Only by rotat­ing the LP and the sep­a­rate plas­tic discs could one see—and then only intermittently—the three-col­or images includ­ed in the col­lage.” The artist won a Gram­my for the design.


You can see many more fine art album cov­ers by painters like Banksy, Richard Prince, and Fred Tomasel­li and pho­tog­ra­phers like Duane Michaels and Nobuyoshi Ara­ki at Art­net and Fla­vor­wire. The selec­tion of entic­ing album cov­ers above will hope­ful­ly also pro­pel you to revis­it, or hear for the first time, some of the finest art-pop of the last four decades. Final­ly, we leave you with a bizarre and seem­ing­ly unlike­ly col­lab­o­ra­tion, above, between pop-sur­re­al­ist Sal­vador Dalí and Hon­ey­moon­ers come­di­an Jack­ie Glea­son for Gleason’s 1955 album Lone­some Echo. No weird­er, per­haps, than Dalí’s work with Walt Dis­ney, it’s still a rather unex­pect­ed look for the come­di­an, in his role here as a kitschy easy lis­ten­ing com­pos­er. Gleason’s many album cov­ers tend­ed toward the Mad Men-esque cheap and tawdry. Here, he gets con­cep­tu­al. Dalí him­self explained the work thus:

The first effect is that of anguish, of space, and of soli­tude. Sec­ond­ly, the fragili­ty of the wings of a but­ter­fly, pro­ject­ing long shad­ows of late after­noon, rever­ber­ates in the land­scape like an echo. The fem­i­nine ele­ment, dis­tant and iso­lat­ed, forms a per­fect tri­an­gle with the musi­cal instru­ment and its oth­er echo, the shell.

Make of that what you will. I’d say it’s the one album on this list with a cov­er much more inter­est­ing by far than the music inside.

via Art­net

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ground­break­ing Art of Alex Stein­weiss, Father of Record Cov­er Design

Andy Warhol Cre­ates Album Cov­ers for Jazz Leg­ends Thelo­nious Monk, Count Basie & Ken­ny Bur­rell

Under­ground Car­toon­ist R. Crumb Intro­duces Us to His Rol­lick­ing Album Cov­er Designs

A Short Film on the Famous Cross­walk From the Bea­t­les’ Abbey Road Album Cov­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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