George Lois: The Esquire Covers

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through March 30.

The thing that interests me most about the MoMA’s small but absorbing exhibit of designer George Lois’s work for Esquire—spanning a decade, from 1962 to 1972—is how much some of it annoys me. Take the iconic March 1965 cover, which features a close-up of actress Virna Lisi shaving her face, with the cover line “The masculinization of the American woman.” I hate the sniggery image, hate the alarmism, hate the implicit binary and the gender essentialism, but it’s striking and memorable—I’ll give Lois that—and it draws me in. I want to read the featured story to find out whether it’s as smug and insecure (a seemingly paradoxical pairing) as Lois’s visuals would suggest.

And that, of course, is the whole point of a cover: to make us want to pick up the damn magazine. Lois’s work does that in a charmingly provocative manner that few do today. Viewing the MoMA’s retrospective, it would be easy to make an old-is-better argument—sneering at today’s heavily focus-grouped, celebrity-driven, Photoshopped covers—but in truth, Lois’s singular covers, demonstrating a strong individual perspective and produced with very little editorial input, were a novelty even in his own time and a risk in any.