BLACK ALBUM, WHITE CUBE – A Journey Into Art and Music at Kunsthal, Rotterdam

Since the mid 1960s there have always been very been strong connections between art and the music industry. Some record sleeves were famous in their own right, like Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper collage and Mike McInnerney’s illustrations for The Who’s ground breaking Tommy album. The psychedelic posters of the late sixties and the work of illustrators like Roger Dean and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat were an integral, often inseparable, part of the music. Top photographers like Richard Avedon and David Bailey frequently crossed the line from fashion to music and artists like Blake, Alan Jones and Richard Hamilton, to name but a few, were inextricably linked to the music of the Swinging Sixties. But as the music became more serious, or more to the point, took itself more seriously, and  fine art more accessible, a more intense dialogue ensued. The burgeoning underground movement(s) became more prevalent and subsequently a focus for artists of all disciplines.

Artists frequently crave the adulation of rock musicians and the rock stars are often jealous of the “respectability” and reverence attributed to celebrated artists. Some artists achieve popular recognition like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but this is mostly due to notoriety rather than their work. Many musicians tend to put their integrity before the demands of record companies and eschew the financial motives and rewards – witness the K Foundation burning £1,000,000 of their hard earned cash and making a film of the event.

Black Album, White Cube, the first post lock-down exhibition at the Kunsthal, presents an array of work by artists who have been inspired by, commissioned by or who are in some other way linked to the more serious, aspirational and progressive exponents of popular music. This exhibition demonstrates how the invisible is made visible, how invisible sound waves, music, influence or materialize in art. The art takes priority and is very much art with a capital A – that is, gallery or museum art. In previous decades the art of record sleeve design, posters etc was very much the prerogative of illustrators.

One of the few record sleeves on view is the eponymous 1994 Black Album by Prince of which only a handful of copies exist as it was withdrawn by the musician before release. It is displayed on a plinth under a glass case, like the crown jewels, in a . . . err . .  three meter white cube.

White is also a significant factor elsewhere in the exhibition with the installation We Buy White Albums by Rutherford Chang. The piece represents an all-white record store with its wares laid out on racks and on shelves like a real shop. There are a couple of turntables with headphones so you can listen to your selection. Not much choice though as the only record in stock is The Beatles 1968 White Album – over 2700 of them (out of a total release of 3,200,000). Each one was issued with a unique number and each copy in the installation shows the ravages of time, from coffee mug rings to shopping lists, to creases and tears and every other form of use and abuse a 12” square of white cardboard can endure. No two of the identical albums are the same.

My citing of Hirst and Emin is a little incongruous and maybe misleading. This exhibition is not a world view of the relationship between art and popular music, nor in any way could it be considered comprehensive. It is very much a subjective view by its curator Max Dax and only covers the past thirty years. Throughout the 1980s and 90s German art ruled supreme with the likes of Georg Baselitz, Jorge Immendorf,  Marcus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer and, of course, their mentor Joseph Beuys. Fine art, especially German, became very sexy and Berlin, which usurped Düsseldorf/Cologne after the fall of the wall, became the European focus for the avant-garde where music and art in all its forms overlapped and merged.

Herr Dax, former editor-in-chief of the renowned and influential German rock and pop culture magazines Spex and Electronic Beats, has been a music journalist and art critic for the past thirty-odd years; he knows what he’s talking about and is eminently qualified to curate this show. The exhibition, therefore not surprisingly, focuses largely on the German aspect of the subject. And although the aforementioned artists do not figure, their influences can still be felt – Philip Topolovac’s I’ve Never Been to Berghain is almost like a three dimensional representation of a early Kiefer painting.

The bias and specificity, of course, does not in any way invalidate or diminish the exhibition. It is what it is and as such presents a very accessible, entertaining and edifying perspective on a fascinating and very important aspect of all our lives.     Michael Hasted    20th June 2020

Black Album, White Cube continues until 10th January 2021

Listen to ArtsTalk Radio’s exclusive interview with curator Max Dax