By Michael Hamad
3:10 PM EDT, September 4, 2013
Even if somehow you didn't talk about the music (which seems absurd), those late-'60s Beatles albums gave youngsters plenty to digest, while incense burned and brownies were munched. When it showed up in record store bins in the summer of 1967, the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was instantly iconic, a psychedelic collage of cut-out celebrity images, rococo shrubbery and lawn ornaments, and four living, costumed Liverpudlians that birthed countless copycats and parodies (the music did that, too). Even today, fix your eyes on any colorful coordinate and you'll probably find something new to ponder for a while. (Brownies still help.)
The Beatles, known colloquially as the White Album, was released the following year, and its cover art — an embossed, individually numbered all-white slab, designed by pop artist Richard Hamilton — was quietly outrageous. As much as the music, it signaled a corner turned: Pepper's technicolor orchestral/communal trippiness losing ground to each Beatle's mannered, unfiltered, occasionally spare tangents. The music on the White Album, it seemed, required less from its packaging; it was eclectic enough. And that cover: it could be a mirror, a canvas, a square of contrast in a dark space, a background, a stage. You brought more to it than it gave out. It reflected its owner.
That's part of the allure for artist Rutherford Chang, a Wesleyan grad who now owns about 850 copies of the album. His installation, "We Buy White Albums," opened in NYC in January and later at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. It arrives at Wesleyan University's Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery on Sept. 6 as part of The Alumni Show II, and he'll be on hand to buy copies (usually for about $20) on Nov. 2 from 2-6 p.m.
"I remember buying a copy of the album at a garage sale when I was a teenager in the mid-'90s in California," Chang said. "That's probably the first time I listened to the album." Seven years ago, he started collecting multiple copies. "I think I was more interested in the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon rather than the songs on the album," he said. "The White Album: having an all-white cover, they've all aged so uniquely. After being circulated for 45 years now, they all have their own stories, told through all the writing and the wear that's accumulated. That's why I became interested in having multiple copies, because they all have such a unique history."
The New York Times wrote about Chang in February, when he owned nearly 700 copies; the 150 or so he's picked up since then are all first pressings, with serial numbers on the cover. "I've acquired quite a few this year," he said. "They just go into the collection according to the serial number."
Not all albums at the time were numbered. Hamilton's cover, and the serial numbers, Chang said, flipped the idea of the limited edition on its head. "This was a Beatles album, so there were 3 million first pressings," he said. "It is a finite collection, but it's one with 3 million copies, which makes collecting it more perfect for me."
Every copy in the collection retains some trace of its owner. "Of the new ones, there are some interesting ones," Chang said. "A lot of people, since I've been exhibiting the collection, they've approached me if they have an unusual copy." A recent addition bears a drawing of Paul McCartney on the cover, surrounded by lipstick. Another was donated by a woman named Julia (also the title of the John Lennon song that closes out Side Two, named for his mother). "On the inside of the cover where they have the song listings, next to the song 'Julia' was a note from her teenage boyfriend," Chang said.
Chang catalogs each White Album as it enters his stable. "I don't change the condition of the actual album itself," he said. "I just put it in the bin according to serial number. But I do take notes on all of them and have a record of where I bought them and the condition and so on." Visitors to "We Buy White Albums" can leaf through bins as though shopping at some old record store (remember those?) that stocks only White Albums. They can observe the weathering of the cover, any annotations or doodles, the wear on the vinyl itself, and so on.
You can also hear what 100 White Albums sound like when they're played at the same time. Chang produced an audio file of each White Album side: 100 Side Twos, for example, playing together, starting in sync and then falling out of phase, depending on the condition of each record that was used (they were all recorded using the same turntable and equipment). Cracks and pops weren't filtered out. Chang pressed it onto vinyl, naturally. It's pretty mind-blowing. (Imagine hearing "Revolution 9" x 100.)
"Each side starts out sounding like a really messed up Beatles record," Chang said, "and it gradually gets more and more out of phase over the course of the album side."
Chang doesn't know if his collection has some sort of accumulated value. "You can look at it as an artwork or as a collection, which may be different," he said. His project, it seems, could continue without end, or until he gets sick of it. "Or until I have all 3 million," Chang said.
We Buy White Albums
The Alumni Show II, Sept. 6-Dec. 8, event by Rutherford Chang Nov. 2, 2-6 p.m., Wesleyan University's Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, 283 Washington Terrace, Middletown, (860) 685-2695, wesleyan.edu
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