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The Eulogizer: Illustrator Alex Steinweiss, and more on Lucian Freud

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Alex Steinweiss, 94, invented album cover art

Alex Steinweiss, who created the modern cardboard packaging for record albums, brought original artwork to album covers in 1939 and designed distinctive jackets for hundreds of records, died July 17 at 94.

Steinweiss was described as having been “one of those people who are not hugely famous but who have changed the look of everyday things.”

Record covers either were blank or used unoriginal artwork when Steinweiss went to work for Columbia Records in 1939.

“The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Steinweiss said in 1990. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.”

One of his earliest covers, for a Bruno Walter recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, increased sales ninefold when the album cover was illustrated, confirming his instinct and spawning a new genre of graphic and marketing illustration.

“When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’ big idea,” said record illustrator Paula Scher.

Steven Heller of the School of Visual Arts said Steinweiss’ earlier period was influenced by Art Moderne and Art Deco.

”He tended to make everything surreal," Heller said. "He tended to reduce what we would think of as common everyday icons into symbols.”

Steinweiss, a Brooklyn native whose father was a women’s shoe designer from Warsaw and his mother a seamstress from Latvia, attended the Parsons School of Design on a scholarship before going to work for the renowned poster designer Joseph Binder.

During World War II, Steinweiss produced teaching materials and cautionary posters for the U.S. Navy and later became a freelance artist. Steinweiss developed the LP record jacket for Columbia and owned the original patent for the manufacturing process, but waived all his rights because of his contract with the record company.

Steinweiss left the music business in the early 1970s, but his work has continued to be revered and influential. He received a gold medal in 2004 from AIGA, the professional association for design, which said his “genre-defining work in the visual expression of music transformed both the design and the music industries.” 

A 2008 exhibition at a California art gallery and a 2009 book by art publisher Taschen received strong reviews.

Steinweiss’s wife of 71 years, Blanche, died in 2010.

How ‘Jewish’ was artist Lucian Freud?

Two columns in the Forward about artist Lucian Freud, whose July 20 death at 88 was covered by The Eulogizer, tackle the question many ask about Jewish artists and performers who have received mainstream acclaim: Is there anything “Jewish” about their work?

Carole Zemel said Freud’s work exemplified the success of Jews in the Diaspora:

“Notwithstanding his Jewish colleagues and his youth spent as a Jewish refugee, it is hard to see Lucian Freud the artist as particularly Jewish. To claim this for his art would be a reductive search for a Jewish essence or, more likely, a Jewish stereotype. Unlike (artist R.B.) Kitaj, Freud did not explore Jewish issues or history; his figures show little ethnic identity, and his paintings scarcely depict any social or personal space beyond the studio. … Mainly, the Jewishness of Freud’s career exemplifies modern diasporic success: acculturation, secularism, national recognition and international acclaim.”

Allese Thomson Baker in the Forward’s “Arty Semite” blog said that Freud’s “faith in realism during a decade when artists were retreating from the genre, fleeing into abstract expressionism, minimalism, and then genres like Pop Art and Conceptualism, made him somewhat of an artistic outcast,” but that through his allegiance to realism Freud found a way “to keep human connection wildly alive, perhaps something that was palpably missing from the artistic genres that dominated the post-World War II era.”
 

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