Albers in Command

The series of records made by Command Records over half a century ago still resonate with audiophiles today, and are much sought-after by connoisseurs of mid-century modern design for their striking covers. This was all due to the collaboration between two individuals, Josef Albers and Enoch Light. Both men — one an influential teacher and artist, the other a stereo-recording pioneer — driven by strong convictions and passion for their respective crafts.

Cover of Persuasive Percussion, 1960. Courtesy of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Enoch Light in 1967. From an article in Billboard magazine.

The Recording Maverick

Enoch Henry Light, son of Russian immigrants, trained as a classical violinist but was quickly drawn into the world of society orchestras, which played versions of popular hit songs at social functions and light dances. He formed his own band, “Enoch Light and The Light Brigade”, and acted as its bandleader. Their sound was fairly conservative and aimed towards the middle-aged dancers. During the 1930s they mostly played in theaters and on the radio, and even made a series of recordings where Light acted as the recording engineer. Those were his first step towards an ongoing search for the best methods of recording which would translate the sound as perfectly as possible in a home hi–fi environment.

By 1950 his career in music led him into management, working for several record labels, becoming president of one and eventually starting his own label, Waldorf Music Hall in 1952. The success of that label led to a formation of another one, Grand Award Records, which was notable for several successful records but not necessarily for their designs. In 1959 Light decides to concentrate his energy on the quality of recording and experimentation in the realm of stereophonic sound, which was becoming widely available for consumer use. That was the premise that led him and George Schwager to start the Command Records line under the Grand Award label in 1959.

Light was interested in having the best recordings on the market, with great packaging to match. He rightly gauged that that there was a niche for a discerning consumer, an audiophile, who would be attracted to albums which would allow them to show off their home equipment. The post-war boom and the suburban expansion created a new class of consumer much more focused on a comfortable lifestyle — a world-view which Command Records neatly fit into.

He went to great lengths to achieve his vision. His sessions used the best available recording studios, musicians, and equipment. He also experimented with the arrangement of musicians during recording to create interesting effects. To achieve the sound he was looking for, Light mastered the first three records 39 times until he got it right. The records came with extensive liner notes, detailing the minute details of the recording process and crediting all of the musicians involved. Each track was also annotated on the packaging, describing the way it would test the home stereo equipment.

Despite the seemingly narrow market for these records, the first two releases became big hits, but did so based on sales, rather than the previous traditional benchmark of airplay. Within a year they sold 250,000 copies each, with the following eight albums selling 100,000 copies each. The sales were undoubtedly helped by the label’s starkly graphic and minimal covers, which stood out from the rest. “We felt we had a new way to present popular music in America,” Light said. “This not only required a new concept in recording but a new cover concept as well. We have always felt that a certain percentage of the public is more discriminating in its musical tastes and a new album cover was needed as well.”

Art directors at records labels conceived of the idea for the cover, and typically hired artists, photographers or illustrators to create artwork for use on the covers. They then handled the assembly of the necessary typography with the artwork. Charles E. Murphy served as Command’s art director from its beginning in 1959, and into the late ’60s. A native of New York City, and a Korean War veteran, he studied art at Yale in the 1950s. During his time at Yale he, along with countless others, studied under the legendary artist and teacher, Josef Albers. It was Albers, under the direction of Charles Murphy, who created the covers of the first two releases which became such huge sales hits.

Josef Albers, Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1944. Photo by Joseph Breitenbach. © Joseph Breitenbach Trust, New York

The Bauhaus Legend

Josef Albers was one of the most important artists and teachers of the twentieth century. Born in the industrial Ruhr region, in the northwest of Germany he was initially a schoolteacher before focusing on studying art at the then newly-formed Bauhaus. This legendary teaching institution transformed art and design by focusing on the connections between artists, architects, and crafts makers. The teaching philosophy of the institution, revolutionary and radical for its time, embraced the ideas of modernism. It advocated a return to the fundamentals, to basic materials, and to the basic rules of design. After five years at Bauhaus, Albers was one of the first students to be asked to join the faculty. He was the longest-serving faculty member of Bauhaus when it was forced to close due to pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Albers was among the faculty members who decided to close the school rather than comply with the Nazi’s restrictions on production of art.

Black Mountain College logo designed by Josef Albers, 1935. Courtesy of the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center.

That same year Josef, and his wife Anni, were invited to head up the painting program at the newly formed Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The college became a hotbed of creativity in the United States, and similarly to Bauhaus was a radical departure from other institutions due to its emphasis on fine arts within the liberal arts education. Some of the most important artists of the twentieth century passed through the college as either students, participants or faculty. People like Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Alvin Lustig, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, and countless others. Albers remained there until 1949 before moving to New Haven to head up the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art, where he completely rewrote the curriculum. During his time teaching at both institutions Albers became one of the best-known and most influential art teachers in America. His interests, both as a painter and educator, was in the formal relationships of objects, in observing of subtle details and interactions. The simple, yet rigorous exercises, he created for his students made it possible for them to observe these subtle details of the surrounding world. He believed that teaching art was mostly about making students aware of what they were seeing, and that his goal as a teacher was “to open eyes.”

In his own paintings he pursued abstraction in a very rigid and systematic way. Even more minimal and simplified than Rothko’s famous series of “multiforms,” Albers’ series of paintings explored the subtlest variations in form, texture, and most importantly the interaction of colors, within strict geometric arrangements. He said of his work, “why do I paint squares since 1949, in the same design, in the same arrangement; Because I do not see that there is, in any visual articulation, one final solution.”

He left Yale in 1958 to focus on his “Homage to the Square” series of paintings, and on sculptural commissions. The artwork he did for Command represent one of only a handful of examples of Albers engaging in commercial work after Bauhaus, preferring instead to focus on teaching and painting. Charles Murphy’s role had to have been important in connecting Albers to Enoch Light. Another advocate for Albers was probably Light’s daughter Julie, who studied under him at Black Mountain College. It is also very probable that the simple visual exercises Murphy did in Albers’s class at Yale, inspired the aesthetic of the Command covers. Albers designed a total of seven covers for Command over the first three years of the label. Murphy and a host of other artists and designers he subsequently art directed created the rest of the covers. All were similarly minimal and abstract, following the visual tone Albers set for the series.

All seven of the Albers covers for Command Records. Images courtesy of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Light and Albers

The concept behind Light’s approach to Command’s series of records with their emphasis placed on precision, subtlety and nuance, allowed for a far more abstract approach to the album covers. The lack of theme, or narrative in the recordings and the focus on the pure experience of the stereophonic effect gave Albers the latitude to create something so strikingly graphic and minimal. The use of squares, and of grids of dots are consistent with his modernist pursuit of the simplest and most effective means of communicating the intended subject. It also taps into his interest in exploring and visualizing interactions between objects. The designs effectively, and cleverly, reveal the idea underlying the recordings. The cover for Persuasive Percussions is a good example of this. The dots break off the grid and bounce up in an elegant way that alludes to the music’s dynamic range, and references the stereophonic “bouncing” occurring in the recordings.

Cover of Persuasive Percussion, 1959. Courtesy of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The output by Command Records represents a nice blend of circumstances leading to a successful collaborative process. Light and Albers were kindred spirits, even if their form took on such different manifestations. The covers are a testament to the value of believing in a strong, and perhaps daring for its time, visual direction. Their design also serve as a good visual representation of the commingling of the European Modernist ideals with post-war American consumerism. The label’s music is the soundtrack of suburban America in the ’60s, and the covers are its perfect visual counterpart.


This article was written specially for the Albers in Command project, which occurred on Saturday 31st Jan 2015: 2pm — 7:30pm, at the Ace Hotel in LA.


Appendix

An interesting aside: Enoch Light’s rendition of “Autumn Leaves”, which came out on Command Records, was sampled by RJD2 for his song “A Beautiful Mine.” That particular part of the song became the theme for the AMC hit drama Mad Men. A very appropriate choice given the television show’s focus on the shifting consumer culture and its influencers of the 1960s. And to add another layer to all this is the fact that the original version of Autumn Leaves was written by Joseph Kosma, who was related to László Moholy-Nagy, another legendary Bauhaus figure. László was a colleague of Albers at Bauhaus, and also became an influential teacher in the US. Oh and the cover of that particular Command record was designed by S. Neil Fujita, a giant of the mid-century graphic design landscape — but that is another story in and of itself.