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Judge an album by its cover at Drake


Through Oct. 18, the Anderson Gallery is exhibiting graphic design related to popular music.

Through Oct. 18, the Anderson Gallery is exhibiting graphic design related to popular music.

Walking into the Anderson Gallery at Drake University is not like walking into an art gallery at all. It’s more like walking into a record store from 40 years ago. Posters of The Beatles and Pink Floyd record albums are on the wall, and music is playing just loud enough that it cannot be ignored. All that is missing to complete the vintage record store mood is the aroma of incense and a flower child behind a cash register. Instead there is a desk with a young cicerone, often a friendly gallery intern, who will answer questions and provide copies of the striking catalog named for the current exhibition titled “Material Aspect 50 Years of Music Packaging.”

The catalog, which is superbly illustrated, is worth a quick read before looking around because of the context it gives you: Graphic design enriches our experience and adds to our understanding of the music we buy. That graphic design most often shows up in the form of packaging for album and CD covers. If there is a subtext to this topic, it is how the advent of digital downloads reduces our experience of the music we purchase, because there is no material form, no packaging, that comes with a digital download. And, for that argument, this exhibition is persuasive.

A number of concurrences exist, one thing leading to another, revealed by the timeline of this exhibition. It was 1967 when The Beatles iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released. Have you ever wondered why, about a year later, they abandoned the wildly colorful layout of that design in favor of the starkly plain cover known as “The White Album”? When you see how Frank Zappa mocked the Sgt. Pepper’s cover with his own album titled “We’re Only in it for The Money,” you have one possible explanation. Sometimes the untold story behind an album cover is simply that of the graphic designer who created it. Consider the covers for “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin and “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones. These covers are entirely different, yet both have die cut openings on the outside that interlock with illustrations on the inner sleeve. That easily overlooked similarity is suddenly revealed as a common artistic thread once you learn a designer named Peter Corriston created both.

This show also makes the case that the evolution in graphics not only coincided but, to some extent, actually served to collaborate with the evolution of popular music. For example, the cover designed by Jerry Reid for the debut record of The Sex Pistols in the 1970s helped establish a visual syntax for punk rock with its ransom-note-style typography. That, in turn, inspired a new approach to visuals to coincide with new musical genres that evolved in the wake of punk, changing as music changed. This evolution leads us to the here and now. These days packaging and graphics have become very sophisticated, often sold in elaborate special editions right at home in an art exhibition.

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The Anderson Gallery is like a hidden jewel on the Drake Campus. It was created in the 1990s by walling off a large open portico under the Harmon Fine Arts Building. The ceiling, originally part of the exterior wall, has been left exposed. Above the ceiling are practice studios for music students, and sometimes you notice the sound of pianos or trombones. Now also consider, for this particular show, a Mac desktop is set up with speakers. It is there so you can select and hear audio samples of the music represented while looking around. During the silence between these audio tracks, sometimes you can hear the muzzled sound of a trombonist practicing above your head. From the sound of a practice studios in the distance, to the music playing in the galley, to images of album covers on the wall in front of you, it is like witnessing a trajectory of musical creation as you take in this compelling exhibition. CV

John David Larson is a local artist who has written art reviews numerous times for Cityview. He can be contacted at

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