Sunday, January 26, 2014

Off White

"In 1968, Beatle Paul McCartney approached Richard Hamilton, inventor of Pop Art, to design the cover for the follow-up LP to the game-changing Sgt. Pepper album of the previous year. Hamilton came up with a typically droll and elegant solution by taking the opposite extreme to Pepper’s psychedelic horror vacui—a completely white album cover with “The Beatles” embossed at an angle on the front and individually numbered in the lower right corner (making it a limited edition of 3 million or so), improbably linking the Fab Four to then cutting-edge visual art strategies of Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Fast forward 45 years: California-raised artist Rutherford Chang fills a SoHo gallery with the 600+ copies of the original vinyl pressing of The White Album he has accumulated over the last few years, mostly from trolling the Internet. That show—“We Buy White Albums” —presented the collection in a stripped-down version of a retail record store, with bins full of the same LP organized by serial number, a wall of display copies and two listening stations where audience members were invited to audit 4 ½ decades-worth of wear and tear on one of our culture’s most familiar and beloved sound artifacts.

 The real aesthetic payoff was the album jackets, with Hamilton’s minimalist void altered idiosyncratically with tags of ownership, repositioned track listings and more than occasional attempts to provide the psychedelic cover art that never was. On top of this layer of horror vacui graffiti is the abrasion and grime from years of handling, and the frequent random disintegration of the white cover slicks to reveal the brown cardboard beneath.

 The result is a strangely moving inversion of Walter Benjamin’s description of the elimination of an artwork’s unique aura through mass media reproduction—what began, at least in part, as a knowing wink at the vacuous genericism of the globally marketed commodity The Beatles had become, became the tabula rasa for thousands of uniquely individuated artifacts. Presented in a pre-loaded “white cube” gallery space and not available for purchase, Chang’s collection of White Albums were allowed to reveal their truly iconic function.

The second phase of Chang’s project was to compile the accumulated differences into a singularity—a limited edition mixdown of multiple versions of the time-worn vinyl into a dense, off-register thicket of sound. This artifact has just been released via Chang’s tumblr page..."

Read the rest of UNDER THE RADAR: The Other White Album at or in the print edition.

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UPDATE: Rutherford Chang wrote to say, "the album is in fact a composite of 100 different albums with no mixing at all. Sound engineers thought I was crazy, but that's how I proceeded nonetheless."

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