Revolutions – The Album Cover Art of Shepard Fairey

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Growing up, I had an amazing older brother who always made it his mission to instill in me an appreciation for all things cool. He made my parents get MTV for me just months after it first aired, he took me to my first concert while I was still in elementary school (Culture Club at the Warfield in San Francisco), and he took me on countless trips to Tower Records to check out endless rows of records. It was during these hours of standing in the flourescent light of Tower, flipping through album covers, that I began my life-long appreciation of album art.

Weird self-portrait of me while flipping through records in Brooklyn, 2007.

The album cover, a 12” square canvas that holds on it so much responsibility… the visual window that, besides the name of the band and name of the album, is really the only thing giving the potential listener an idea of what the music packaged inside is all about. According to Wikepedia, Columbia records hired Alex Steinweiss as its first art director in 1938. He is credited with inventing the concept of album covers and cover art, replacing plain covers used before.

World's first album cover, designed by Alex Steinweiss, 1938.

Album art has come a long way in the last 73 years and has had such an impact on the world of art that it was the inspiration behind Shepard Fairey’s current gallery show in LA, ‘Revolutions’ which opened on March 12th and runs through April 23rd at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. I had to go check it out. The thing I didn’t realize before that night was that the show was not a collection of Fairey’s actual album cover art, but rather, a collection of album-cover-art-inspired pieces designed to emulate the size and style of a record sleeve. This art was ironically not packaging any music at all.

This was my first Shepard Fairey art opening and I must admit, it was quite the affair! Waiting in the line for over an hour was actually a surprisigingly good time. Two dudes from Long Beach behind us made for great conversation (sharing cold beers consumed out of brown bags), a never-ending variety of interesting people-watching, being serenaded by Metalachi (a heavy metal marichi band playing classic heavy metal songs) and a general excitement and feeling that we were in on something special… all made the time fly by. And before you knew it, we were in.

The crowd…

Once inside, the crowd was noisy and packed shoulder-to-shoulder. It was overwhelming and I immediately thought how I’d like to come back and check out the art once the room was empty and still. However, I dove in and wiggled my way across the crowd to set myself up front and center. Eighty record sleeves were hanging tightly together on the wall before me. My eyeballs didn’t know where to start, each 12” square had so much detail and balance, like an old stamp or the back-side of a playing card.

For me, each individual sleeve was a masterpiece itself, but, to see 80 of these sleeves together, made me realize how prolific Fairey is. Though each sleeve followed the same format and style (a classic look for lots of Fairey’s work), they each exuded their own strong personality, message and vibe. I was delighted to examine the small nuances and detail deep within the illustrations. I’d be so curious to know which piece he created first. I’d also love to know exactly how he created these. Does he have a team of people working to help him produce these? Is all the lettering by hand? Is he alone at a drawing table illustrating each one from scratch? Yes, folks, I am curious. Regardless of his methods, I was impressed.

This one was a favorite…

As we were walking out of the gallery, I had a brief run-in with the man of the hour, which was nice. All in all, my first Shepard Fairey show was a grand success. I loved the art. It was a good-spirited crowd, full of energy and positive vibes. Unfortunately we missed Fairey’s late-night dj set and missed seeing Billy Idol fist-pumping as Fairey blasted ‘Rebel Yell’ through the night sky. That fact alone verified to me that all my brother’s hard work to teach me how to find and appreciate all things cool did not go to waste. Next Shepard Fairey opening, I bring my big bro as my date!