Long before Andy Warhol was a factory of Pop art innovation, pumping out Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn portraits for blue-chip collectors, he became an album junkie at the birth of the vinyl record.
A year after Columbia Records stamped out its first groovy discs, Warhol, a graphic design upstart freshly arrived in New York, was already illustrating the cover for 1949's "A Program of Mexican Music," an album released to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art's Mexican art show.
The freelance job triggered Warhol's lifelong fascination with vinyl, spawning controversial covers (the Velvet Underground and Nico's yellow banana and the Rolling Stone's "Sticky Fingers" zipper) and iconic collectibles (John Lennon's posthumous "Menlove Ave" and the Smiths' "Sheila Take a Bow").
Warhol's bananas and zippers are commanding full attention at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, whose new exhibit "Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949–1987+" collects more than 100 LPs, 12- and 7-inch records (including colorful reissues) illustrated pre-fame and just before his death in 1987.
Cranbrook Art Museum curator Laura Mott, whose museum is loaning out the rare slipcovers, says Warhol's career lies in perfect symmetry with the rise, revolution and wane of vinyl in the late 1980s.
"You can tell Warhol's entire story by looking at his album covers," says Mott, who will lecture on Warhol's albums at 3 p.m. Feb. 21 at the museum. "He goes from young illustrator to conceptual artist who appropriates album covers as art to being a cultural phenomenon where every musician desires the Warhol brand."
Along rows of glass panels at the Boca Museum, Warhol's vinyls chart his progression. There's Warhol the graphic-design hustler, loaning his signature blotted-line technique to dozens of arcane blues, experimental jazz and classical albums, including "Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish," a Spanish-learning record from 1953; and a 1952 pressing of CBS Radio's broadcast "The Nation's Nightmare," about the new scourge of heroin in America. His 1955 illustration of Count Basie's face – thin mustache, an unlit cigarette lopsided in the pianist's mouth – became Warhol's first vinyl celebrity portrait, Mott says.
There's Warhol the record-as-art pioneer. Mott says 1963 marked a turning point with his collection of "Giant Size $1.57 Each" slipcovers, containing interviews with modern artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, which debuted in "The Popular Image" exhibition at the Washington Gallery of ModernArt.
And there's Warhol the sought-after Pop art prince: A band manager for the Velvet Underground, Warhol designed their 1967 debut album, a yellow banana sticker against a white background that, when peeled, revealed a pink, phallic banana underneath. After meeting Mick Jagger at a party, Warhol pitched what would become the Rolling Stones' 1971 classic "Sticky Fingers," a photograph of jeans and a zipper that, when pulled, revealed the male model's underwear.
"We talk about 'Sticky Fingers' today partly because that image is owned by millions," Mott says. "A fortunate few can own Warhol paintings, but everyone could own this album, and it was his desire to be collected by the masses. A painting isn't meant to be touched, but an album cover was, so he thought, 'Why not make it interactive?' "
The vinyls, which include Lisa Minelli's "Live at Carnegie Hall" ("She showed up late to the photo shoot," Mott says), also feature portraits of Blondie, Billy Squier, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. A nearby alcove inside the gallery resembles a 1960s mod-style lounge with sofas and five televisions, each playing clips of Manhattan public-access program "The Wild Record Collection."
Boca Raton museum curator Kathy Goncharov says she wanted to show the public-access program because its host, a stuffed polar bear toy named Snuffles, loves to wax about his extensive record collection.
"Vinyl is so popular right now, and we wanted to capitalize on that," Goncharov says. ""People know Warhol for his soup cans, and for Marilyn, but this is a facet of his career that's less known."
"Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949–1987+" is on view now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. The exhibit will close May 1. Admission costs $10-12, free on Sundays. Call 561-392-2500, or go to BocaMuseum.org.