Warhol on Vinyl (It’s Record Store Day Tomorrow!)

We’re big vinyl connoisseurs here at the Art Museum. One of us collects albums with covers featuring mid-century furniture (like this one!). Another spent a weekend scouring every record store in Stockholm for a Swedish pressing of Lee Hazlewood’s Cowboy in Sweden, to no avail. So it’s no surprise that we are pretty pumped for Record Store Day tomorrow, an annual nationwide event–held on the third Saturday of April–for which record stores feature limited edition pressings and exclusive releases from hundreds of musicians, new and old.

Record collecting has experienced a surge in recent years, particularly for my generation. If we want to get diagnostic, it all could be chalked up to a cultural response to the immateriality of music (and more broadly, our lives in general); a longing for the days past when music–in its vinyl manifestation–was tangible, permanent, and thus held more personal value. But there’s also that big, beautiful album cover to consider. It’s just not the same in its 72-pixel form on the screen of a smartphone. How is one to appreciate the true graphic genius of an Alex Steinweiss at that scale?!

Warhol Album Art

This summer, Cranbrook Art Museum will celebrate one artist’s mastery of the album cover with Warhol On Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949-1987+, opening June 21st. Andy Warhol designed over fifty album covers in the duration of his career, and in the first exhibition of its kind, the world’s preeminent collection of these works–generously donated to the museum by Frank M. Edwards and Ann Williams–will be on display in its entirety. Viewers are invited to examine the interplay between Warhol’s mass-produced graphic designs and the fine artworks that brought him his greatest notoriety–and with the additional display of record covers appropriating the artist’s imagery after his death, we can also examine the impact of the art world’s greatest “borrower” on future generations of creatives. More details about the exhibition are on our museum website.

But this isn’t Cranbrook Art Museum’s first foray into the motley realm of album art. In January of 1979, the museum mounted Record Album Art and the Recording/Artist, a touring exhibition from Syracuse University’s Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery, curated by Nancy Alder. The show featured a melange of album covers spanning the twentieth century, and considered the historical progression of the design process, visual trends, and the interplay of fine and commercial art.

Zephyr, Sunset Ride, 1972

The cover illustration for Zephyr’s Sunset Ride (1972) by David Willardson was highlighted for its allusions to the Art Deco travel poster–like this one or this Villemot.

Erich Leinsdorf and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Wagner: Prelude and Love Death and Strauss: Death and Transfiguration, 1962. Cover art by Ben Shahn. Image via shugarecords.com.

The Social Realist painter Ben Shahn is celebrated for his contributions to graphic design–perhaps the most recognizable being his incredible posters created for the Office of War Administration during World War II, all but two of which went unpublished. He designed many original album covers (one amazing Pinterest user has assembled most of them here), but was also known to simply reuse works from his painting repertory. The above Leinsdorf-conducted recording of Wagner and Strauss, which was also displayed in the exhibition, features Shahn’s The Phoenix on its cover, a gouache and ink work he executed a decade earlier.

Fortuitously, a review of Record Album Art and the Recording/Artist in Art Journal noted, “[A]lthough the show’s emphasis seems to have settled on the historical evolution of record packaging as an art form…the direct hand of “fine” pop artists has also been visible. Some seven years ago I was belatedly introduced to the Rolling Stones via Andy Warhol’s witty album for Sticky Fingers: a screen print of jeans incorporating a real zipper opening to an inner print of hirsute nudity. The time didn’t seem ripe to donate  it to our favorite stuffy museum’s graphics department, but it should surface again in a Warhol retrospective–and the Syracuse show paves the way.”

We look forward to seeing fellow vinylphiles at the Warhol exhibition this summer, and feel free to share your favorite album artwork in the comments. I’m pretty partial to Nick Price’s illustration for Never For Ever myself.

Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

References:

“College Museum News: Exhibitions,” Art Journal 37, no. 3 (1978): 256.

Catherine Murphy’s Nighttime Self-Portrait

CRANBROOK SIGHTINGS: INSIDE THE VAULT
Catherine Murphy
Nighttime Self-Portrait
1985
Oil on canvas
16 ¾ x 16 1/8 inches
Gift of Rose M. Shuey, from the Collection of Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey
Image © Catherine Murphy

From this gusty tundra of unrelenting frigidity (-20 degrees with windchill today!), we here at Cranbrook Art Museum would like to extend our warmest and most heartfelt congratulations to Catherine Murphy, the 2013 winner of the Robert De Niro, Sr., Prize, awarded to one outstanding mid-career artist each year. Since the 1960s, Murphy’s representational paintings have been widely exhibited and prolifically produced, but the artist’s talent for nuanced channels of perception remains at times underappreciated.

Catherine Murphy, Nighttime Self-Portrait, 1985

Cranbrook Art Musum holds Murphy’s Nighttime Self-Portrait (1985) in its permanent collection, acquired as part of a generous gift of contemporary paintings and sculpture from the Collection of Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey in 2001. The Shueys were principally drawn to abstraction during their many decades of collecting, but the somber power of Murphy’s Nighttime so deeply enthralls, it is no wonder they made an exception for this piece. (And, when pressed, Rose Shuey told museum director Gregory Wittkopp that this painting was one of her personal favorites). Confronting the roles of observation and audience, Murphy’s own darkened countenance is captured within a window reflection, conflating the positions of both artist and viewer. Hidden behind a window mullion, a fracture in elevation between the porch and the front of the house subtly reveals the passing of time. Here Murphy challenges the immediacy of the captured image and highlights the minute variables in every mode of awareness.

Personally, I delight in Murphy’s work from the 1980s for its inquisitiveness of perspective and examination of the ordinary. With a quality reminiscent of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s haunting domestic vignettes, her glances up stairwells and through windows and doors are muted in tone and both meticulous and hazy, evoking the dreamy disquiet of a vivid memory. As Linda Nochlin has noted, Murphy’s paintings are “charged with a very contemporary awareness of the ambiguities of the domestic, of the ways, both dramatic and subtle, that the known shades into the mysterious, the personal into the objective, the cozy in to the uncanny.”

Bravo, Ms. Murphy! We are so thrilled for you, and look forward to many more years of enchanting artistic output.

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013–2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

References:
Diane Kirkpatrick, “Catherine Murphy,” in Three Decades of Contemporary Art: The Dr. John & Rose M. Shuey Collection, ed. Dora Apel (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2001), 66.

A Tale of Two Paintings – Cranbrook and the University of Michigan

At the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves.  That sounds self-centered, but it’s the nature of the job – we uncover connections between different areas of Cranbrook, building historical and cultural relationships that help us to better preserve Cranbrook history and shape its future.  Cranbrook doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though, which is why it’s important for us to take a step back and look at the larger Cranbrook connections out there in the world.   And really, what better place to start than 18th-century Canada?

I know that sounds crazy, but run with me on this.  In 1759 the British war hero General Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec City on the Plains of Abraham, a battle which the British won.  Posthumously celebrated as one of the great British military leaders, General Wolfe and his heroic death were immortalized in both art and literature.  In 1770, the American expat artist Benjamin West tried his hand at the subject, painting The Death of General Wolfe.  Ultimately, that painting, and the five later versions also made by West, went on to become the iconic image of General Wolfe and a symbol of the British empire.

The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1776
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

But what does this have to do with Cranbrook?  Well, in 1928 William L. Clements bought one of the six identified General Wolfes and donated it, along with his extensive library of early Americana, to the University of Michigan in order to build the William L. Clements Library.  In the same year, George Booth bought a version of The Death of General Wolfe on the understanding that it was also a Benjamin West.  Booth’s General Wolfe is very different from the other versions, however, and there has long been debate over whether the painting is actually a West.  Regardless of its origins, however, The Death of General Wolfe has hung in Cranbrook School for over 80 years.

The Death of General Wolfe, attributed to Benjamin West, 1791
Cranbrook School

Fast forward to 2012 when the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) borrowed the Clements Library’s The Death of General Wolfe to showcase it in an incredible exhibition called Benjamin West: General Wolfe and the Art of Empire.  When the information about this exhibition came across a desk at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, it was like a light-bulb went off.  Two versions of The Death of General Wolfe just 45 miles apart, each purchased in 1928 by avid collectors?  Could there be a more perfect Cranbrook connection?  And with that the Day Away program was born.

The Day Away program is about exploring Cranbrook connections with the wider world, and so on December 1st a group of Cranbrook enthusiasts spent the day immersing themselves in all things Wolfe and West.  We started the day at Cranbrook School’s Page Hall, where CS instructor Jeffrey Welch described the historical context for Booth’s acquisition of General Wolfe and I gave a brief overview of Benjamin West, providing a visual analysis of the features of both paintings.

Day Away participants bravely gathering early in the morning for a brief lecture on West and Cranbrook at Page Hall.

From there we boarded a bus and drove to Ann Arbor.  At UMMA we were met by exhibition curator Carol McNamara, who took us through Benjamin West: General Wolfe and the Art of Empire.  Her masterful analysis integrated the painting into a constellation of objects that ranged from a lock of Wolfe’s hair to mundane household goods.  By examining the material culture related to General Wolfe, Carol was able to show how West’s painting became the defining image of the general, transforming him into a symbol for the newly formed British imperial identity and enshrining Wolfe within the pantheon of great British leaders.

UMMA exhibition curator Carol McNamara explores connections between the material culture of the late 18th century and the mythology surrounding General Wolfe.

Following lunch at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology (where a few of us slipped away to catch a glimpse of the incredible Tiffany window installed in the Kelsey’s reading room) we finished our day at Clements Library.    Housed in an Albert Kahn-designed building that the architect described as his greatest achievement, the Clements is one of the worlds’ greatest repositories of early American written and printed material.  Director Kevin Graffagnino spoke with us about the history of the Clements and its future plans.  He set us loose on the library and even let us page through some of their treasures.   Not only did the visit further contextualize The Death of General Wolfe into the world of 18th century colonial politics, but it highlighted even greater the Cranbrook connections.  Here was a temple to history and learning, dreamt up by a passionate collector and designed by a great architect of the twentieth century.  Replace “early Americana” with “art and education” and you have Cranbrook in a nutshell.

Alfred Kahn’s masterpiece, the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

With our time at the Clements coming to a close, we boarded the bus and headed back to Bloomfield Hills.  On the bus ride back we took an informal vote whether or not we thought Cranbrook’s General Wolfe was really a West.  As a group we decided that no, it probably wasn’t.  Still, we won’t know for sure until a West expert checks it out.  Even if the bus group is right, though, and Cranbrook’s Death of General Wolfe is not by West, we can still look at the painting hanging in Cranbrook’s Page Hall and see not only a history of 18th century British military heroism but also a record of Cranbrook connections that extend beyond the 319 acres of this campus far out into the world.

Zoltan Sepeshy’s Mural on Beaver Island

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #1
Sighter: Gregory Wittkopp
Sighted: Zoltan Sepeshy, Hauling in the Nets, 1940
Location: Beaver Island, MI
Date: August 18, 2012

“Dad, have we ever gone on a vacation without visiting a museum?” My daughter, who now is a college Junior, asked me that question some ten or twelve years ago. While I don’t remember where we were when she asked the question, I do remember the answer:  “Probably not.”

So here I am on vacation on Beaver Island, a relatively remote island in the middle of northern Lake Michigan, writing my first blog entry for Cranbrook Art Museum. And yes, my daughter and I are in a museum, the island’s Maritime Museum, sitting in front of a large mural by none other than Cranbrook Academy of Art’s second president, Zoltan Sepeshy.

To get an idea of how incongruous this Cranbrook “sighting” really is, you need to get a sense of the context. While quite large (picture an island the size of Manhattan), Beaver Island has a year-round population of less than 500 people, many of whom are descendents of its nineteenth-century Irish fishermen. Now and again you meet someone that has a connection to the island’s most infamous resident, King James Strang. Strang was Brigham Young’s rival who, instead of leading his flock of Mormons to Utah, brought them in 1846 to this Michigan island where his self-proclaimed kingdom could exist—literally on the edge of state law. While this kingdom lasted but a few years (he was shot and killed in 1856, ostensibly by disgruntled followers), his legacy continues to this day in many of the island’s place names, including Lake Geneserath, King’s Highway, and Mt. Pisgah, to list just a few.

Although Sepeshy and his family vacationed on Crystal Lake near Frankfurt, southwest of here on the Michigan mainland, it is doubtful that the Cranbrook painter ever took the ferry from Charlevoix to the island’s only town, St. James. But the mural he painted in 1940 for the Lincoln Park Post Office near Detroit somehow made its way to the island in the summer of 1967 where it remains in the care of the Beaver Island Historical Society. The thirteen-foot long, egg tempura mural, Hauling in the Nets, depicts three brawny fishermen as they struggle to lift a net-load of whitefish into their small open boat. No, it is not a depiction of local fishermen. The imagery, nevertheless, connects with an important chapter of local history, which is why it continues to resonate with the island’s residents generations after commercial fishing ended in Lake Michigan. And to the rest of the museum’s visitors—including my daughter and me—the mural is a compelling work by an American Scene painter who deserves far more attention than he has received. But enough about art and museums, it’s time to walk over to the shed across the street and buy some fresh whitefish to grill tonight.

Posted by Gregory Wittkopp
Director, Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research