The Art of Rock ’n’ Roll

Christina Parrella

Twenty-five years ago, Kurt Cobain destroyed his guitar during a performance in California. That was nothing new; rockers—including the late Nirvana frontman—have a long history of abusing their instruments. More novel is The Met Fifth Avenue’s recently opened exhibition Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, which presents artifacts of musicians’ mayhem in a setting better known for holding classical paintings and sculptures.

The exhibition looks at rock ’n’ roll instruments (broken or not) as pieces of art that shaped music and culture from 1939 to 2017. As such, Cobain’s black-and-white Stratocaster—with its dangling strings and detached neck—is displayed alongside pieces of Pete Townshend’s Gibson SG special (preserved in Lucite) and a fragment of a painted Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix smashed and set on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

Rock music and art is the focus of two other current NYC exhibitions: the Museum of Arts and Design’s Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976–1986, which covers punk and post-punk art movements; and, at the Museum of Sex, Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971–1985, which explores how sexuality influenced punk, art and fashion.

Read on for a look at the highlights of these shows.

Model D-18 acoustic guitar, C.F. Martin & Co. (1942) Collection of Michael and Barbara Malone. Photo: Courtesy, Jules Frazier

Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll

Elvis Presley’s Martin Acoustic Guitar
Elvis used this guitar at Sun Studios in 1954 and ’55, producing such early rock ’n’ roll tracks as “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

“Love Drops,” Flying V electric guitar, Gibson Guitar Corp. Originally painted by Jimi Hendrix, 1967.Collection of William C. Butler. Photo: Courtesy, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Jimi Hendrix’s Psychedelic Flying V Guitar
Hendrix played this Gibson V on tour in Europe from 1967 to 1969. He painted psychedelic designs on the body using a set of model-kit hobby paints—the current paint job is a restoration.

Courtesy, Met Museum

Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein Guitar
The Van Halen guitarist’s original red, black and white Fender Stratocaster—dubbed “Frankenstein” (or “Frankenstrat”) because it melds Fender and Gibson parts—is among the signature guitars on display. A reconstruction of his rig as it appeared during concerts in 1978 is also on view.

Jimmy Page. with EDS-1275 double-neck guitar. Collection of Jimmy Page. Photo: Courtesy, Kate Simon

Jimmy Page’s Gibson EDS-1275 Guitar
Page’s legendary double-neck Gibson allowed the Led Zeppelin guitarist to recreate the sound from “Stairway to Heaven” during live performances without switching guitars. A Harmony acoustic guitar, a 12-string Fender and a Telecaster were all used on the original recording.

Prince's Love Symbol guitar. Courtesy, Met Museum

Prince’s Love Symbol Guitar
In 1993, Prince adopted a new identity because of a dispute with his record label. He changed his stage name to a symbol and started using this guitar built in its shape.


Photo: Jenna Bascom; Courtesy, Museum of Arts and Design

Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976–1986

English artist Jamie Reid appropriated an image of Queen Elizabeth for the Sex Pistols’ second single, “God Save the Queen.” That image became a constant for the band, which used humor and satire in music and graphics to mock authority.

Photo: Jenna Bascom; Courtesy, Museum of Arts and Design

The 1980s saw a wave of new typography and coloring used in posters for punk artists and the music’s various subgenres. The graphics shown here helped bring the DIY aesthetic into the mainstream.

Photo: Jenna Bascom; Courtesy, Museum of Arts and Design

Pins have long been a trademark of the punk movement. They express personal style and devotion to one’s favorite bands.

Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy, the Museum of Art and Design

Before the internet, DIY punk zines helped chronicle the bands, their music and the genre’s fans.

Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy, the Museum of Art and Design

Punk has never shied away from politics, as reflected in these posters that feature Nazis, Ronald Reagan and references to George Orwell’s 1984.

Photo: Kris Graves. Courtesy, Museum of Sex

Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971–1985

Bands like Blondie, the Dictators and the Ramones defined NYC’s punk rock scene during its heyday.

Photo: Kris Graves. Courtesy, Museum of Sex

1970s and ’80s punk rock spawned a number of memorable fashions, as illustrated by these costumes from Johnny Thunder, Sable Starr and Dick Manitoba.

Photo: Kris Graves. Courtesy, Museum of Sex

The exhibition also features photographs, flyers, letters and film.


Play It Loud is on display through October 1; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die through August 18; andPunk Lust through November 30.