Moods for postmoderns: Barney Bubbles at the V&A

Top: Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979); Music For Pleasure by The Damned (Stiff 1977)

Front covers, 12in card. Top: Armed Forces, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Radar, 1979. Above: Music For Pleasure, The Damned, Stiff Records, 1977.

Coming soon to the V&A is the first full-scale exhibition to tackle Postmodernism, and it not only positions Barney Bubbles as “the key innovator” in music graphics in the 1970s but also aligns his practices with those of Robert Rauschenberg in fine art and Frank Gehry in architecture.

According to curator Glenn Adamson, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 will also show how Bubbles’ work anticipated that of the digital design pioneers of the late 80s and early 90s such as David Carson.

“Bubbles was creating by hand work which looks to our eyes as though it were assembled on a computer,” says Adamson. “He foreshadows the visual eclecticism we find so natural in the internet age”

Opening on September 24, the show will present 250 exhibits from a full-scale reconstruction of Hans Hollein’s facade for the 1980 Venice Biennale through to examples of the work of Memphis, Jean-Paul Goude, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Robert Longo and many others.

For a preview selection of images from the exhibition see here.

Bubbles is represented by his designs for the album releases Music For Pleasure by The Damned and Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (which contained contributions from artist Tom Pogson – who painted the David Shepherd pastiche cover – and graphics and illustrations from the French collective Bazooka).


Armed Forces with interlocking leaves unfolded to display the album title + credit.

Back cover fold variations, Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

7 x back cover fold variations, Armed Forces (with illustrations by Bazooka).

“Barney Bubbles was the first important post-modern designer to work in the music industry,” says Adamson, who has curated the exhibition with Jane Pavitt.

“He is of cardinal influence as one of the primary innovators of this new style, and remains fascinating because he crossed the line from the psychedelic genre of design we associate with Pop in the late 60s to the postmodernism of the 70s.”

In terms of graphic design history, says Adamson, Bubbles can be placed alongside US designer Paula Scher. “Though she was only getting going by the time Bubbles had made the transition,” Adamson points out. “Bubbles was already established, had a great network and, as the two exhibits of his show, was at the top of his game.”

Inners, Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

Both sides of the Armed Forces inner sleeve.

Record labels, Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

Both sides of the Armed Forces record label.

EP cover for single with Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

From left: Back and front of 7" sleeve for Armed Forces free EP Live At Hollywood High.

So where does Bubbles work lie in the wider context of postmodern design? “By our definition, which is based on quotation and bricolage (assemblage of a work by diverse elements), Barney Bubbles is absolutely right on,” says Adamson.

“He quoted the range of art-historical sources and ripped up and pasted together, using strategies we associate with Robert Rauschenberg in fine art or Frank Gehry in architecture. When considering his work, we situate him not just in graphics but with other disciplines.”

Frank O. Gehry, The Gehry House, 1977–8. Santa Monica, California. Photograph by Craig Scott

Frank O. Gehry, The Gehry House, Santa Monica, CA, 1977-78. Photo: Craig Scott.

6. Wet magazine © April Greiman and Jayme Odgers

Cover, Wet magazine, April Greiman + Jayme Odgers, 1979.

Adamson says that Bubbles achieved the anticipation of digital design by “a very involved, seamless, crafted commitment to the form. Like April Greiman and Vaughan Oliver, for instance, he was able to anticipate the visual collisions of hyperspace”.

The show’s representation of work by these and other designers who followed in Bubbles’ wake –  Peter Saville, Neville Brody and others – underlines Bubbles’ importance. “In certain respects their work in the 80s and 90s reminded everybody that Bubbles was the key innovator,” declares Adamson.

So why Music For Pleasure and Armed Forces?

“These are both fine illustrations of quotation and bricolage,” says Adamson. “The lifting of Kandinsky for The Damned cover was combined with an interesting play of typography; Bubbles took something non-typographic and turned it into letter-form in a neo-Dadist leap of imagination.

“And the understanding that Kandinsky was a modernist meant that Bubbles was literally being ‘post-Modern’ by re-purposing his repertoire.”

Adamson believes Armed Forces to be the best-ever example of bricolage in record sleeve design.

Cards featuring band members, Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

Musician portraits on four offcut cards supplied with Armed Forces.

"Don't Join" cards with chevrons Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Radar 1979)

Backs of the offcut cards with repeat chevron motif and exhortation"Don't Join".

“Nothing comes close; it’s so explosive, folding out into space in an architectural way,” enthuses Adamson. “The design seems endlessly creative, like he’s got more ammunition to bring to it than can ever be absorbed by the object. We always say ‘Postmodernism is always a little too much’, and Armed Forces meets that definition.”

And the ingenuity of the design accords with postmodern principles.

“The ultimate 80s cliche was ‘Thinking outside the box’,” says Adamson. “That was literally what Bubbles did with Armed Forces. We know there’s a lot of crap postmodernism, but at it’s best – as in the work of Barney Bubbles – it is ingenious, rethinking format and crossing disciplinary lines.”

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is at the V&A from September 24 2011 to January 15 2012. Details here.

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2 Responses to “Moods for postmoderns: Barney Bubbles at the V&A”

  1. Alistair Livingston Says:

    This is fascinating… but if Barney’s later work was postmodern, what about his earlier work with e.g. Hawkwind? I love the idea that it can now be argued that Hawkwind were the first postmodern rock group!

  2. Paul Gorman Says:

    John Coulthart has called his work of that period Cosmic Art Nouveau which will do for me; or, Space Pop Psychedelia anybody?

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