As Paul McCartney played “Paperback Writer” during his concerts at Wrigley Field this past July, details from Richard Prince’s nurse paintings flashed behind him on stage four stories high. I was confused.
For a concert with tens of thousands in attendance, the connection is subtle. The images in Prince’s nurse paintings come from pulpy dime-store paperback novels and the song is, of course, about a writer of paperbacks. If—after years studying contemporary art and much longer as a Beatles fan—the connection was lost on me, I’d guess it was lost on much of the audience as well. If it was lost, it didn’t seem to matter much. The Baby Boomers around me still bopped along. We can only assume that Paul, or maybe the tour’s art director, got a little kick out of the embellishment.
Either way, juxtapositions like this are nothing new in McCartney’s career. He’s been nuzzling up to contemporary art since at least the mid sixties. He has both collaborated with visual artists and produced artwork himself. Many of these associations are chronicled in Ian Peel’s 2002 book The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde. He’s made albums of concrete music and masqueraded under pseudonyms. In 1977, a conductor named Percy “Thrills” Thrillington released the album Thrillington, an orchestral version of McCartney’s 1971 solo album Ram.
Prior to its release, Thrillington took out announcements in the society pages of English newspapers that seem as much like Fluxus provocations as buzz marketing. These snippets mention the album, but also describe Thrillington’s whimsical adventures in high society, including highlights from a ski trip in Switzerland. The album’s provenance remained mysterious even though the back cover shows McCartney reflected in the studio glass. No one could say for sure that Paul was behind it. It wasn’t until 1989 that McCartney revealed it had been him all along. He’d produced the album a month after Ram’s release. With wife Linda McCartney, he wrote the ads for the society pages as a lark. Old copies of Thrillington immediately tripled in value.
McCartney’s art gestures will attract attention from people whether the work merits it or not. He is, after all, a millionaire, one of the most recongnizable human beings alive, and a knight of the British Empire. But there are also instances where McCartney has collaborated with artists directly, and the interest the work generates does not derive primarily from his celebrity. For example, he enlisted his friend, the artist Richard Hamilton, to design the sleeve for The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album, better known today as The White Album.
Think about that for a moment—because of an artist’s design, we refer to an album by the biggest band in the history of the world by the way it looks rather than what the band named it. What’s more, the design itself apes the aesthetics of conceptual and minimalist art emerging at the time. “The Beatles,” the only words on the album’s front, are not printed but are simply embossed into the object itself. Sleeves were manufactured with seemingly unique serial numbers. By some estimates, there are over three million copies. Especially now that seriality has been recognized by art historians as a primary concern of late sixties artworks, Hamilton’s serial edition of three million spread in homes, record stores, and radio stations across the world comes off as a prescient joke on a massive scale.
As an artist, Hamilton brought more than simple imagery to the album jacket. Visual artists’ work had appeared on album jackets before The White Album and continues to do so today. Hamilton’s design focuses attention on both the album’s construction process and the circulation of the album itself. It makes us acknowledge the album’s birthplace in a factory, printed plainly and efficiently and stamped finished with a serial number. The serial number also makes tacit the existence of all the other Beatlemaniacs out there. We’re both the owner of a unique artifact (“No. 0382937 is all mine!”) and an object that’s come off the assembly line. What you make of this contradiction built into the album’s design depends on your point-of-view. It could just as easily be a perverse illustration of commodity fetishism as a light-hearted prank meant to give fans a laugh. It’s easy to think of the legions of Beatles fans as simpletons who could swallow the inscrutability of The White Album because their devotion to the group was forged during the mop-top years. But to know the real truth of that assumption, you’d have to interview a lot of Beatles fans. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the group never let any presumptions about their fanbase’s intelligence or sophistication get in the way of unconventional aesthetic maneuvers. The cover is a white canvas to project on anyway, the possible interpretations as numerous as the copies in circulation: it’s an aesthetic retreat from the Pop art cover of Sgt. Pepper’s released the previous year, an absurdist quantitative measurement of the world’s Beatles fans, and a comic skewering of the concept of originality in art.
I am a fan of the austere gestures of conceptual art as well as the sophisticated humor of popular music. Historically both sides, although not without exceptions, have tended to avoid the contamination of the other. Side A thinks Side B is poisoned by the market. Side B thinks Side A is willfully pretentious. With this stand-off the status-quo, the occasions of overlap are jarring. When Richard Prince’s paintings appeared fifty feet high on screen at Wrigley Field, I was jolted. I thought I’d come to the concert as a McCartney fan, not as someone trained to recognize an artist’s work from memory. But my knowledge of Prince’s work and my reserve of Beatles trivia reside in the same brain, maybe they even share neurons. The same goes for my understanding of early conceptual art and the story behind The White Album. Both emerged at the same time in like places involving similar people. It would be silly to pretend that they didn’t share some common stock. At least in this case, the less boundaries I have between professional interest and private enthusiasm, the more I might see where the two fields overlap and, consequently, enrich my understanding of the instances where open-minded cross-pollinatation has produced curious hybrids that exist in the world without much concern for what club they belong to.