Looking Good

Will Kanye’s Album Designer Make It Big?

Whatever the controversy over Kanye West’s songs, Peter De Potter’s design of the new album, ‘The Life of Pablo,’ already has the feel of a classic.

The intense hoopla around Kanye West’s newly birthed album, The Life of Pablo, has also been focusing attention on Peter De Potter, the Belgian artist who created the album's distinctive orange cover, with its distinctive black typography and family photo.

How much fame will it bring De Potter?

Art created to package pop, rock, and hip-hop is usually the work of professional designers, which De Potter assuredly is, mostly with the Belgian, Raf Simons, former Creative Director of Womenswear for Christian Dior.

But De Potter has also been making fine art--collage, appropriation, the whole deck of cards--for fifteen years, and fairly intensively for three. Will The Life of Pablo be his breakthrough into a very different, high-profile arena?

Rearview mirror time. The visuals on early Pop record covers simply lunged unashamedly at the heartstrings and/or private parts of the fan-base.

Then came The Beatles. They had commissioned the cover for Sergeant Pepper from Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, aka The Fool, the Amsterdam design duo who had also been responsible for designing the Beatles' ill-fated Apple Boutique in London.

But a posh art dealer, the late Robert Fraser, persuaded Paul McCartney that the ambitious album deserved a fine art cover and it was duly assigned to the leading UK Pop artist, Peter Blake.

It was huge, cover and all. So Fraser later suggested Richard Hamilton, for whom Pop art was arguably named, for the Beatles’ next album.

Hamilton decided it should be a monochrome, then still a radical gesture, even in the art world, and, as he told me years later, he asked McCartney how many albums he expected to sell? Five million.

So when the The White Album came out in 1967, each was stamped with its own serial number, making up a limited edition of about five million. Yes, it was a funny inside-art-world joke but Pop artists didn’t cut much ice with the “real” Pop world in the UK then and Hamilton, like Blake, was paid about 250 pounds--about $500 then--for their work.

Things were different in the US, of course.

In 1969 Mick Jagger wrote to Andy Warhol--who had done the Banana cover for the Velvet Underground and Nico's debut album, which had tanked--asking him to do the art for Sticky Fingers.

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That zipper cover remains one of the most famous ever, but Andy Warhol didn’t really need a career-making boost, even from Mick Jagger.

Other fine artists have produced work for pop--Martin Sharp’s album cover for Cream’s Wheels of Fire is surely his best-known image--but almost all of the strongest album work was made by designers, such as Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, who created Houses of the Holy for the Led Zeppelin, The Dark Side of the Moon for the Pink Floyd, and Bury The Hatchet for the Cranberries.

Jean-Paul Goude certainly boosted both his career and that of Grace Jones with the covers in which he lengthened and diced her neck and used computer magic to arrange her into an anatomically impossible pose on the cover of Island Life.

Another, more contemporary example Peter de Potter might find encouraging is the Dutchman Anton Corbijn.

Corbijn began as a diligent music biz photographer, working for the UK's influential trade paper, the New Musical Express, but it suggested broader ambitions that between 1998 and 2000 he collaborated with Marlene Dumas, a painter, whose fine art career was soon to flower, on a project called Stripping Girls, shot around the red light district in Amsterdam.

Corbijn’s longest associations were with the bands Depeche Mode and, especially, U2. He photographed U2’s first US tour, shot various of their album covers, including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.

He also shot album covers for, amongst others, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica and R.E.M., before moving on to directing music videos.

Well, you can see where this is going, right? In 1994 he made a short film for the BBC about the singer and songwriter Captain Beefheart, who was himself went to a successful career as an Expressionist painter under his actual name, Don Van Vliet.

Corbijn is now a photographer who shows in galleries, and a director of feature movies. So there can--sometimes--be a flourishing art life after a hit in album art. Whether Peter De Potter rises to such dizzy heights remains to be seen.