One Fine Show: ‘Art of Noise’ at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In an age where most people discover pop music via TikTok, this show takes us back to a time when bands were surrounded by their own aesthetic universes. 

A man stands in an exhibition hall painted blue near a table bearing speakers
“Art of Noise” at SFMOMA showcases music’s original aesthetic context anew after its lengthy overexposure. Photo: Matthew Millman, courtesy SFMOMA

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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Several years ago, the artist and composer Mark Mothersbaugh gave a talk at NYU that touched on many aspects of his varied career, from his time with the band DEVO to the album covers he designed for record labels on the side. It was difficult working with A&R executives on these, he said, but he was grateful for the experience because it taught him what he called “the big purple dick principle.” He explained that even if he turned in a perfect album cover, the suits still felt like they needed to do something to tweak it. They’d make a dumb suggestion, which would make his covers worse, until he started adding a big purple dick to all the designs he submitted. Then the executives would say, “Well, this looks good to go, but we have to lose the big purple dick,” and everyone would walk away happy.

The design that surrounded popular music in the 20th Century was especially impressive when you consider everything working against it, and this is celebrated in “Art of Noise,” a new show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that features 550 posters, 150 album covers, 100 design objects and four “large-scale installations that merge inventive design and audio,” by which they mean badass speaker setups. In an age when most people discover pop music via TikTok, which sells music via hooks before albums or even songs are complete, it’s a nice retrospective on an era in which bands seemed to be surrounded by their own aesthetic universes.

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Museum shows based on pop culture often allow us to appreciate works anew by offering fresh context, but much of the work in this exhibition should provoke the opposite effect: receiving its original context anew after having been overexposed. Yes, we all hate t-shirts featuring the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, but that’s because it was never supposed to be a t-shirt. Designer Peter Saville’s pulsar radio waves were supposed to visualize the voids so crucial to the band’s music.

The same could be said of the psychedelic posters, so long removed from their innocent goal of giving people on drugs something to look at. Milton Glaser’s poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits also captures everything you need to know about the artist: the tangled thoughts, the pothead profundity, the self-styled weight of whoever he was pretending to be that day—all captured in a hard-lined but mysterious silhouette. Forget Paul Atreides; this image is about someone who could see even further into the future and had a still bigger ego.

You could also look at the hi-fi speakers themselves, which in the best cases, resemble little household gods. The ones designed by Dieter Rams and Achille Castiglioni are inviting and mysterious. They look like friendly creatures bringing tidings from far away. Music wasn’t necessarily better back in the day, but it felt more important. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to stop charging for it.

Art of Noise” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through August 18.

One Fine Show: ‘Art of Noise’ at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art