Showing posts with label Josef Albers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Josef Albers. Show all posts

Friday, April 8, 2011

Optic Nerve

Both music and perception are psychophysiological processes (psychophysiology studies the relationship between physiological processes and thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). In the same way that Op Art (short for Optical Art) exploits the illusions or optical effects of perceptual processes, the echoes and reverberations of psychedelic music suggest the illusory interior space of a medieval cathedral. Despite the fact that album covers are now celebrated as a form of art (an expression of art-as-object), with only a few exceptions Op Art, surprisingly, never especially influenced rock album art during the Psychedelic Era (unlike, say, the sculptural illusion of Trompe l'oeil, as revealed by the many rock album covers of the time featuring the work of M. C. Escher), even though Op Art was popularized in 1965 and is characterized by the perceptual ambiguity favored by the psychedelic artists of the Sixties. Several sources indicate the term Op Art was first used in an (unsigned) article in the 23 October 1964 issue of Time magazine, and was soon used to distinguish two-dimensional structures which suggested potential, but not actual, movement (in contrast to Kinetic Art, often lumped together with Op Art). The first Op Art exhibition, curated by William C. Seitz and titled "The Responsive Eye," was held 23 February - 25 April 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (See Mike Wallace's interesting documentary on the MOMA show here; Brian De Palma also made a 1966 documentary short about the exhibition, also titled The Responsive Eye.) Significant Op Artists included Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Josef Albers, but it was the latter who actually created album covers, all of them for Enoch Light's Command Records label, and all created before the popularization of Op Art in 1965. In 2009, the Minus Space Gallery in Brooklyn held an exhibition of seven album covers designed by Josef Albers for Command Records during the period 1959-61. Interestingly, the exhibition also included additional Command Records album covers designed by other artists, such as Charles E. Murphy, Barbara Brown Peters, and Gerry Olin. The album covers displayed in this exhibition reveal the application of Op Art to album cover design, as revealed, for example, by the cover for Vibrations (1962, pictured, but not by Albers), the lines and reiterated shapes suggesting the energetic pace of modern life. As noted on the Minus Space Gallery webpage posted in connection with the Albers exhibition, Enoch Light

went to extraordinary technical lengths, and often great expense, to create recordings of the absolute highest quality possible that took full advantage of new technical capabilities of home audio equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Light specifically perfected stereo effects that bounced sounds between the right and left channel speakers, which was called a “ping-pong effect.”

Hence Light took full advantage of the improved technical reproduction made possible by magnetic tape, which offered him and his engineers a broad range of sonic possibilities. To understand more clearly the significance of what Light was trying to achieve with his Commodore label, I turn to Stephen Struthers' observations in "Recording Music: Technology in the Art of Recording," (Avron Levine White, Ed., Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event, Routledge 1987):

The idea of a contemporary musical recording as a reproduction of a real musical event is not tenable as, using a multi-track magnetic tape recording, the final recording is assembled and "reconstructed" from a number of fragments, and so there is no "original" of which that published recording can be a reproduction. Indeed a significant amount of popular music has never existed in a prerecorded stage, being created as it was being recorded, or as a unique combination of previously recorded process first heard together during editing. Many recordings today are made with the circumstances of reproduction uppermost in mind, either on the radio or for domestic listening. (244-45)

Josef Albers cover, 1961
Thus, as Struthers suggests, sounds are made, not "captured." The Enoch Light records are, among other things, feats of engineering. He emphasized the high sonic quality of his records in order to sell his records not to radio stations but to the home stereo enthusiast (here I mean just that, stereo equipment as opposed to monaural). The stereo effects that characterize his records -- sound-as-movement -- have their analogue in Albers' covers, which imbue the two-dimensional plane of the album cover with the optical illusion of movement. Albers' visual configurations allow for imaginary movement just as Light's stereo recordings suggest an imaginary, three-dimensional space ("concert hall") containing music.

I suspect the reason why Op Art was never a major influence on the album art of the Psychedelic Era was because the drug that came to represent the movement, LSD, was rendered through the swirling, Day-Glo, subtractive colors suggestive of a drug trip, very unlike the achromatic colors preferred by Op Artists such as Josef Albers, whose paintings suggested movement created by lines and patterns in black and white. Perhaps the best known album art influenced by the Op Art movement was Mike McInnerney's cover for The Who's Tommy (1969), but by then the influence of the Op Art movement had waned.