Magazines swap celebrity covers for artwork as they strive to stay in touch with the serious issues of our time
Last summer, after weeks of protests precipitated by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the country’s most recognizable magazines used their covers to make a statement. And they’ve each turned to artists – not photographers – to do it.
For their respective September issues, released a few days apart, Vanity Show commissioned painter Amy Sherald make a provocative portrayal of Taylor, while Vogue tapped artists Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel make their own exultant paintings of black women.
These images were a far cry from the tired photographs of Annie Leibovitz that are usually found on the covers of these magazines. And In an age when magazine covers regularly stoke wars on Twitter, these issues seemed to get people talking for all the right reasons.
The fact that these covers were made by artists was one of the main reasons why, explains Mark Guiducci, Voguecreative editorial director of who oversaw the September issue. He and his team had actually planned to order a painted portrait for the issue ahead of the protests – a more practical decision than anything else, given the difficulty of hosting big-budget fashion shoots during the pandemic. But as a nationwide racial calculation unfolded, the idea of featuring a model or celebrity on the cover suddenly felt out of place.
“How could a personality sum up this moment of pain, of pandemic, of calculation? Says Guiducci. So they turned to Marshall and Casteel, and gave the two artists carte blanche, a privilege rarely granted by the magazine.
“That’s why you go to see an artist,” he said. “They give you the vocabulary to see the world in a new way. It is powerful.
Vanity Show, meanwhile, knew he wanted to celebrate Taylor’s life in his September issue. But reposting one of the few photos of Taylor circulating online at the time didn’t seem to do it justice, said Kira Pollack, Vanity Showcreative director of.
“In order to create something truly transcendent, we thought it was important to create a new image of Breonna,” Pollack said. “We knew that Amy’s voice, along with the intent and care she brings to her work, would be a perfect fit for such a powerful portrayal at such a sensitive time.”
Vogue and Vanity Show aren’t the only major magazines to turn to artists for their covers in recent months. Gasoline put works by Lorna simpson and Bisa butler on his covers this year; problems of the New Yorker featured paintings Wayne Thiebaud and Nina Chanel Abney; and a 2020 edition of Magazine has been illustrated with a painting by the artist Alexis Franklin, marking the first time in its history that a photo of Oprah did not appear on the cover of the post.
Of course, magazines have displayed artwork on their covers for as long as they’ve been around, and many famous artists – from Salvador Dalí to Robert Rauschenberg to John Currin – have had their turn on newsstands. What is new today is the predominance of this strategy to mark the occasion of important stakes. What may have started as an answer to the limits of blockades has become the way mainstream publications signal that they really want people to pay attention.
“In a culture overwhelmed by visual media,” Guiducci said, “the idea of painting, in particular, is quite resonant. It doesn’t look like something that is done quickly, easily, or digitally, and has an impact.
DW Pin, the creative director of Time, noted that the role of the magazine cover has evolved in recent years. Its function, he said, is no longer to “tell the news” – that job has been supplanted by social media. The purpose of coverage today is more about conveying emotions than information.
A blanket said today, “I can’t really tell you what happened, but I can kind of explain why, and I can certainly make you think,” Pine said. “Artists help us do it.
Time was probably the biggest player in this trend, having commissioned artists such as Hong Yi red and Charly palmer, among many others, for recent large-scale editions. Time‘s The program “Vote”, linked to the 2020 election, featured a illustration by Shepard Fairey, for example, while a special report on the pandemic was accompanied by a photo of a JR facility. (The two artists created several covers for the magazine.)
In TimeIn this case, the artists’ draw is not necessarily the salary. Every cover artist, regardless of stature, has received the same cachet for years. (Pine did note, however, that some recently resurfaced Andy Warhol bills from the ’70s took him by surprise: “It was a lot more than what we’re paying now!”) Time can offer artists an exhibition instead: its weekly readership exceeds 60 million.
Conversely, what artists give to the magazine is “the soul,” as Pine put it. “Last year we had to give more meaning, feeling and soul to the stories that were presented to all of us,” he said. “We all reacted to these stories every week. This is where it is important to rely on an artist’s point of view.
A recent issue particularly illustrates this quotient of “soul”: Time‘s June 2020 “Demonstration“ editing, which featured a cover by Titus Kaphar.
Kaphar’s painting depicts a grieving black mother holding a silhouette of her child-an effect that the artist obtained by cutting in the canvas. It was a literal and readable expression of the losses that so many people felt at the time.
“In her expression, I see black mothers who are invisible and helpless in this fury against their babies,” Kaphar wrote in a poem to accompany the cover. “As I relentlessly wade through yet another cycle of violence against blacks, / I paint a black mother… / eyes closed, / brows furrowed, / holding the outline of her loss.”
“He cuts out the canvas and shows what it is like to lose a mother during that time,” Pine said. “This is the meaning and the soul that we wanted to achieve with everything that was going on.”
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