Published: April 15, 2008
From 1962 to 1972, George Lois changed the face of magazine design with his covers for Esquire magazine. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presents prints of 32 of the 92 covers Lois created for the magazine in “George Lois: The Esquire Covers” from April 25 to March 31, 2009, in the museum’s Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries on the third floor. A wall in the gallery also pairs the original artwork by Lois for seven of his most iconic covers, including Muhammad Ali as St Sebastian, 1968, and Andy Warhol drowning in tomato soup, 1969.
Before Lois (American, b 1931), an advertising executive, art director and designer, even the most celebrated magazine covers like James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam for Collier’s or Norman Rockwell’s poignant illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post depended on drawing or painting to illustrate the content or symbolize the spirit of the publication. Many covers suffered from a banal, formulaic style, and often text competed with the image.
Lois stripped the cover down to a graphically concise yet conceptually potent image that ventured beyond mere illustration of the feature article. He exploited the communicative power of the mass-circulated front page to stimulate and provoke the public into debate, pressing Americans to confront controversial issues such as racism, feminism and the Vietnam War. These images hit the public with their messages artfully communicated with force and immediacy. Viewed as a collection, the covers serve as a visual timeline and a window onto the turbulent events of the 1960s.
Initially received as jarring and prescient statements of their time, the Esquire covers have since become essential to the iconography of American culture.
Lois arranged photo shoots with Carl Fischer and other photographers and created montages of clip art, stock photography and drawn elements, a process that served as a mechanical precursor of the digital assemblage and retouching widely used today. For instance, to illustrate an article on the decline of the American avant-garde in the May 1969 issue, Lois took separate photographs of Andy Warhol and a Campbell’s soup and combined them to create a witty spoof on Pop Art by drowning Andy Warhol in the can of soup.
On the scandalous December 1963 cover, boxer Sonny Liston appeared as America’s first black Santa Claus, a painfully ironic image that exposed the nation’s growing racial divide. While this cover lost Esquire an estimated $750,000 in ad revenue, the magazine’s growing popular acclaim offset the financial setback. Over the next four years, Esquire made more than $3 million in profit as annual circulation rose from 500,000 to 2.5 million.
The April 1968 cover featured Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam. For religious reasons, Ali refused military service in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. He was sentenced to five years of jail for draft evasion, and boxing commissions suspended him and stripped him of his title.
In 1968, while Ali was awaiting his appeal to the Supreme Court, Lois posed him as the Christian martyr St Sebastian, who miraculously survived being shot with multiple arrows. During the photo shoot, Ali named each of the arrows after his tormentors: General Westmoreland, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson, among others. The image was so popular that it was later reproduced as a protest poster.
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