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.

The MoMA’s literature describes Lois’s covers as “graphically concise yet conceptually potent,” which perfectly encapsulates their aesthetic. The relative lack of cover lines helps—in most cases, only a line or two of small text intrudes on the image—but the graphic simplicity (albeit deceptive simplicity), coupled with sheer audacity, is what gives the covers their punch. When Esquire published a self-serving look back at McCarthyism by McCarthyite Roy Cohn, Lois had the man pose in unflattering close-up with a cheap-looking artificial halo perched over his head. When the magazine took a look at the values of “youth culture,” Lois superimposed a movie theater marquee advertising Easy Rider over the imposing edifice of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Perhaps most famously, Lois illustrated a story on Muhammad Ali—who had been convincted as a draft dodger, stripped of his boxing title, and branded a traitor—by posing the athlete, a convert to Islam, as the martyred Saint Sebastian.

I’m more sympathetic philosophically to some of these covers more than others, but regardless, the unabashed point of view is what’s so attractive about Lois’s work. In an odd way, it’s flattering because it assumes that you, the potential reader, can deal with strong opinions, that you appreciate being challenged. The imagery—more than mere illustration—seizes your attention, priming you for the words that will elaborate and argue inside.

Lois’s covers are not emptily provocative. Returning to that irksome Lisi cover, I recall Esquire’s re-creation of it last year, with Jessica Simpson as the female shaver. That 2008 imitation evokes Lois’s genius for design only by showcasing its own inferiority. Gone is the tight, direct shot of the woman’s face; Simpson is in a generic cheesecake pose designed only to highlight her toplessness. More significantly, the 2008 cover is meaningless. As much as I might object to the meaning of the 1965 cover, it has meaning, the whole “masculinization of the American woman” thing, created in the context of the burgeoning feminist movement. The 2008 cover line reads “We Shot This Image To Catch Your Eye So You Will Pick Up This Issue…” I guess you could make an argument that that’s sort of cute and meta, but forty or fifty years from now, no one is going to be displaying that nonsense at the MoMA.

And that’s fine. Magazine covers are designed to sell magazines, not to attract the attention of museum curators, and in this economy, who could fault editors and designers for concentrating on the former? Yet that being said, it’s worth remembering: George Lois is special precisely because he managed to do both.

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With this post, I’m back to blogging! Sean and I are settling into our new apartment, and the official D-107 reunion (college roommates Kristin, Maria, Andrea, and Mary Beth together again!) has come to a close. (I had a great time, girls!) Thanks for hanging in there through the drought of new entries. I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.