The Art of The Velvet Underground

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Thumbnail for Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

Most people know two things about the Velvet Underground: Its original fan base was absurdly out of proportion to its later influence, and it benefited from a brief association with Andy Warhol. But the band had a striking visual history apart from Warhol, a fact that was made clear two weeks ago at the New York Public Library, where Lou Reed, Moe Tucker, and Doug Yule were promoting a new book, The Velvet Underground: New York Art (Rizzoli; $50), edited by Johan Kugelberg, which collects posters, rare photographs, and assorted other visual ephemera.

Photo by Jonathan Richman

The visual was an essential part of the band’s existence: For instance, the uniform of sunglasses and black clothes was partly a response to the barrage of films projected onto them, even pre-Warhol. “We were like human screens,” said Tucker. Reed explained the inspiration for the iconic banana cover art for The Velvet Underground & Nico: “The thing about the banana is you peel it. That’s where the fun started for Andy. Nobody ever saw a pink banana.” In the book, Kugelberg recalls the difficulty of turning the print into production: “We tracked down Craig Brown, who’s the man who printed the album covers, and he said that it was an absolute nightmare to affix the banana sticker onto the LP cover.” Brown had to rent a specific machine just to put the sticker on.

Most of the book’s visuals, however, come from far less famous artists and designers, who often worked in the contemporary fashion of balloon letters and butterflies—it’s sometimes jarring to see the punk godfathers’ name on psychedelic flyers. But many of the posters wedded the band’s hard-edged style to the hippie aesthetic and came up with interesting interminglings, including a poster by Bob Driscoll that renders a Charlie Brown–like zigzag in Pop tones; a baroque Arthur Hahn design of overlaid prints that begs comparison with Ryan McGinness; and a crude drawing by Steve Nelson presenting the band as stick figures. Collected together, the images fill in a portrait of the Velvet Underground beyond the Warhol years. Interestingly enough, it all hangs together, as if the band’s single-mindedness were enough to link the aesthetics of both periods.

Courtesy David Swartz