Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Robert Rauschenberg | The Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues
After their debut in 1977, the Talking Heads released a studio album a year for the next three years (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light), all produced by Brian Eno. Their fifth studio album, Speaking in Tongues, took three years to produce (the band released a live album in 1982 as a stop-gap). All members of the group put out solo projects in this time, but part of the delay might also have been the ambitious plans for the album packaging.
“I approached Bob Rauschenberg in the mid-’80s to design a cover…I had recently seen some of his black-and-white photo collages at Leo Castelli’s gallery on West Broadway and thought they were amazing, and I wondered what he would do with an LP cover,” Byrne wrote in an op-ed obituary for the artist, published as Bob The Builder in the New York Times in May, 2008.
Rauschenberg agreed, but didn’t simply want to provide an illustration for the standard 12” cardboard sleeve. “His package consisted of a conceptual collage piece in which the color separation layers — the cyan, magenta and yellow images that combined to make one full-color image — were, well, deconstructed. Only by rotating the LP and the separate plastic disc could one see — and then only intermittently — the three-color images included in the collage. It was a transparent explication of how the three-color process works, yet in this case, one could never see all the full-color images at the same time, as Bob had perversely scrambled the separations.”
The design harkens back to Rauschenberg’s contribution to the boxed work entitled Artists & Photographs, which was published in 1970 by Marian Goodman’s imprint Multiples, Inc. The portfolio of nineteen artists’ publications included many works that are now considered classic editions: Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings, Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson’s Torn Photograph…, Ed Ruscha’s Babycakes and many more, with works by Christo, Jan Dibbets, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Richard Long, Allan Kaprow, Dan Graham, etc. Rauschenberg’s contribution, Revolver, was a portable version of a larger, motorized work, of the same name, from 1967. It comprised of five rotating plexiglass disks (9 inches in diameter), each screenprinted. The box was published in an edition of 1200 copies.
Due to production problems and escalating costs, it was decided that the Rauschenberg designed Speaking in Tongues would only be released in a limited edition, of 50,000 copies. The record would also be released in a standard package with a cover by Byrne, which he designed by painting onto the white sleeves of test pressings. Guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison lists “Helped coordinate the manufacture of the Robert Rauschenberg cover for Speaking in Tongues” as one of four achievements in 1982, on his autobiographical timeline. Apparently it took a year and a half to find a company that could vacu-form a clear vinyl record. Eventually Harrison turned to the Oscar Meyer hot dog packaging company.
Speaking in Tongues, was a commercial breakthrough for the band, producing their only American Top 10 hit, Burning Down the House. The tour to promote the album, documented by Jonathan Demme’s feature film Stop Making Sense, would be their last.
In 1983 Robert Rauschenberg won a Grammy Award for the album cover art, the first and only for the band while they were active. In 2005, fourteen years after their break-up, the group was awarded a Grammy for the packaging of the retrospective Once in a Lifetime box set, which featured paintings by Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov. The band have never been awarded a Grammy for their music.
Most copies have yellowed over time from exposure to light, though periodically copies found stored in boxes remain transparent. These are often offered for exorbitant prices, but tend to sell for between $40 and $120.00, with the higher end being sealed copies, or less yellowed.
At least one promotional event was held at the time of the album’s release where Byrne and Rauschenberg signed copies of the record together. These are increasingly rare now.
In 2000 a copy signed by both was auctioned for $646 and recently the Gagosian Shop offered one for $2000. This week on Ebay a copy housed in a specially designed plexi-stand failed to reach the minimum bid of $1500.00.