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Robert Mapplethorpe, Art Record Covers, Taschen, 2017
Photography Robert Mapplethorpe for Horses (1975) by Patti SmithCourtesy of Taschen

The era-defining album covers designed by cult artists

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Richard Kern and Marilyn Manson, Keith Haring and David Bowie – we explore ten times that art truly captured a musical era

Art and music have always been bedfellows, a relationship that has seen creativity cross-pollinate from canvas, celluloid and film with club scenes, live shows and hardcopy recordings. For decades, cover art collaborations have provided alternative ways for artists to distribute their work beyond the gallery walls, and some of the most notable collaborations have been truly era-defining. In 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat captured the essence of hip-hop when he drew an urban hieroglyph for the single “Beat Bop” and in the 00s, at Polaroid’s peak, controversial photographer and filmmaker of Tulsa (1971) and Kids (1995) fame, Larry Clark provided one of his snaps for model-turned-musician Jonathan Velasquez's Solo, as an extension of his film Wassup Rockers (2005), in which Velasquez starred. Some covers are more well known – such as Andy Warhol’s pop art banana for The Velvet Underground’s debut album in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and some are less; Ella Fitzgerald’s 23rd album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook (1961), for instance, which features a drawing by Henri Matisse.

In honour of a new book from Taschen, Art Record Covers, by art historian Francesco Spampinato, which looks at the history of album artwork from the 1950s to today, we chart ten moments where art captured the essence of a musical era.


Jenny Saville’s much larger than life oil paintings of the naked human form found their way on to the cover of Manic Street Preachers record The Holy Bible in 1994. The artist – a member of the 1990s Young British Artists with Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Marc Quinn – agreed to license her 1993-4 triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Fance/North Face) after hearing the dark lyrics of rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards, who would disappear a year later and be declared as “presumably dead” 21 years, 11 months and 15 days later, in 2008. Another of Saville’s paintings was used in 2009 for Journal for Plague Lovers, but many retailers found the raw portrait of a swollen child Stare (2004-5) to be “inappropriate” and it was sold, censored, in a plain slipcase.


Artists Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met in New York City in 1967 and were in a love affair until 1974, when Mapplethorpe realised he was homosexual. Their early years together are documented in Mapplethorpe's intimate black-and-white portraits of Smith, two of which featured on the covers of Horses (1975) and Wave (1979). In 2011, Patti Smith told Time, "I was his first model, a fact that fills me with pride. The photographs he took of me contain a depth of mutual love and trust inseparable from the image. His work magnifies his love for his subject and his obsession with light." The pair remained friends, artistic collaborators and soul mates until Mapplethorpe died of Aids in 1989. The photographer also shot album covers for artists including Paul Simon and is famed for his portraits and controversial images of the underground BDSM scene in the late 1960s and 70s.


This photograph by Cindy Sherman prefigures her delightfully twisted 1992 series “Sex Pictures”, a set of images in which she uses mannequins and prosthetic body parts to “make people confront their own feelings about sex, pornography, or erotic images and their own bodies”. From the late 1970s Sherman, from New Jersey, has explored the objectification of women, predominantly through self-portraiture. The late 1980s and 90s saw her remove herself from the photographs, putting dolls in her place. Her artwork for Babes in Toyland’s Painkillers (1992) was part of an untitled series during this time that considered horror and fetish as parallel to death and pornography. Sherman also contributed art for the all-female feminist grunge band’s 1993 single “Fontanelle”, this time of a half-lit naked doll mannequin.


New York City transplant, photographer Richard Kern is known for portraits that “ unravel and illuminate the complex and often darker sides of human nature”. Rooted in punk culture, Kern’s career took off in the early 1980s New York East Village scene where he made films and zines exploring sadomasochism and perversion. After seeing this work, Sonic Youth hired Kern in 1985 for the music video for “Death Valley ‘69”, which he co-directed. Continuing to make films, Kern reached a cult status within the music industry by the 1990s – catching the attention of Manson, and pairing which ultimately created the visceral cover for Marilyn Manson’s 1995 record Lunchbox.


in 2007, Kanye West collaborated with Takashi Murakami for the Graduation album cover and five singles – including “Flashing Lights” and “Stronger” – and the music video for “Good Morning”. A key figure in the new generation of Japanese artists that emerged in the 1990s, Murakami is known as “the Warhol of Japan”. His work brings together Japanese artistic tradition and post-war Japanese culture and society in “superflat” pieces – a term he created to describe the two-dimensional style of Japanese popular visual culture. Working across mediums, West supervised Murakami’s visualisation of Dropout Bear, his alter-ego, taking two to three years to settle on a final design. The album cover is the final part of a visual story that sees Dropout Bear struggling to reach his graduation ceremony.


Keith Haring’s brightly coloured figures have danced in murals on subways and the streets of New York City (you can see them boogie on the cover of N.Y.C Peech Boys’ 1983 album Life Is Something Special). In this painting for David Bowie’s 1983 single “Without You” the silhouettes – which began as chalk drawings – are caught in a moment of union. The painting explicitly represents homosexual love, a theme that Haring would continue to explore after being diagnosed with Aids in 1988. A committed social activist, the artist also contributed art to campaigns against apartheid, nuclear weapons and drugs until his death in 1990.


British artist Chris Cunningham established himself as a video artist in the 1990s for acts such as Aphex Twin, Autechre and Björk. Most notable is his video for “Windowlicker” (1999) by Aphex Twin – Irish-born English electronic musician and composer Richard D. James ­– in which he transforms American gangsta rap into his twisted artistic vision. Cunningham pastes the grinning face of Aphex Twin onto multiple characters in the video to create an army of clones. This uncanny motif references mythology and science fiction and caught the attention of the art world.


Kim Gordon, bassist, guitarist, vocalist and founding member of Sonic Youth until 2011, has also been a visual artist since the late 1970s. This painting featured on the sleeve of soon-to-be ex-husband Thurston Moore’s EP Flipped Out Bride (2006). The pair started Sonic Youth together, though their split would eventually lead to its disbandment. Her portraits of women have also featured on Sonic Youth’s single “Bull In The Heather” (1994) and Free Kitten’s Sentimental Education (1997). Gordon’s style is expressionist, using text or figures as form. Gordon also created a text-based painting for artist Richard Prince’s single “Loud Song” (2016), returning a favour for his own cover for Sonic Youth.


The Dutch fashion photographer duo, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, has collaborated with Björk on nearly every one of her albums – although Nobuyoshi Araki took a blue-toned portrait for her album Telegram (1996). In addition to their cover of Vulnicura (2015), pictured here, the photographers have shot covers including Biophilia (2011) and Medula (2004) and Volumen (1999) – the trio’s first project together. The singer and photographer duo also worked in collaboration with French graphic designers M/M Paris for 15 years. Fashion photographers Lamsweerde and Matadin have been partners and collaborators since meeting in the early 1980s. Their approach is always to “portray people” and they are interested in how technology, cosmetics, and fashion allow people to realise their fantasies.


African-American artist Mickalene Thomas created a collage featuring Solange Knowles to front the re-release of True (2013), an EP by Solange Knowles and Blood Orange, for Opening Ceremony. The artist is predominantly known for her portrait paintings in rhinestones and bright colours, which focus on the representation of black culture, femininity and beauty. The cover for True (2013) uses Thomas’s collage technique of overlaying the subject on cut outs from staged interiors. The pair worked together in multiple ways after the creation, Thomas provided a collage for Solange’s “Losing You” music video and, in return, Solange performed a DJ set at the opening of the artist’s 2013 exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

Image can't be shown for copyright reasons but you can see the album cover here

Art Record Covers – published by TASCHEN – is available here from February 2017