Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution

Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution

by Francoise Mouly, Lawrence Weschler
Whether whimsical, provocative, or laugh-out-loud funny, The New Yorker's covers are always the talk of the town.

For seventy-five years The New Yorker has been entertaining and enlightening its loyal readers (two-thirds of whom live outside the city). Its peerless covers—created by a large stable of extraordinarily talented artists and


Whether whimsical, provocative, or laugh-out-loud funny, The New Yorker's covers are always the talk of the town.

For seventy-five years The New Yorker has been entertaining and enlightening its loyal readers (two-thirds of whom live outside the city). Its peerless covers—created by a large stable of extraordinarily talented artists and cartoonists—have mirrored the magazine's feisty spirit from the beginning, becoming even more pungently topical in recent years. No noteworthy subject or scandal has escaped their scrutiny, from Broadway flappers and the eternal Eustace Tilley to dishonest pols and the gigahertz speed of contemporary life. Inexhaustibly varied in mood and style, the covers are united by their visual sophistication, their imaginative wit, and their high pleasure-giving quotient.

This stylish compendium presents not only the best of The New Yorker's covers—selected by art editor Francoise Mouly and organized into such classic themes as The Big City, Arts and Music, and The Buzz—but also a behind-the-scenes peek at the sketches that lead up to them, as well as a look at the controversy that sometimes follows in their wake. A "Conversation" between Ms. Mouly and Lawrence Weschler—a noted New Yorker writer and are critic—illuminates the history of the magazine's covers and how they have changed over the past decade. In addition, several "Sketchbooks" highlight the work of especially evocative cover artists, including Semp, Spiegelman, and Steinber, these portfolios are complemented by six detachable full-size covers, suitable for framing, bound into the back of the book.

About the Authors:
Francoise Mouly is art editor of The New Yorker.

Lawrence Weschler is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Product Details

Abbeville Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
10.30(w) x 12.28(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction by Françoise Mouly

You can't judge a book by its cover, but a magazine isn't so lucky--its personality is defined by its cover, and the rest of the magazine has to stand behind it. When I became art editor of The New Yorker, in April of 1993, I turned to the thirty-five hundred covers that had been published since the magazine began. The basic design, a full-bleed image with a narrow vertical strip of color on the left (known in-house as the "strap"), was established by the magazine's first art director, Rea Irvin. His cover for the first issue, February 21, 1925, so effectively established The New Yorker's sophisticated tone that it was published, unchanged, nearly every February until 1994. It depicts a stuffed shirt, later dubbed Eustace Tilley, raising his monocle to examine a butterfly. Irvin appears to have done what artists often do: he looked up references, including the image of an effete-looking dandy of 1834, dressed in the height of early Victorian fashion, reproduced in the costume section of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It seems likely that the target of Irvin's irony was the fossilized upper crust of New York society, a choice that clearly delighted the new, jazzy cultural elite. But Irvin's cover was also self-mocking.

Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, wanted to cover the glamorous life of New York in the Jazz Age. He modelled The New Yorker on the other thriving humor magazines of the time, such as Judge, where he had been an editor. Ross assembled some of the best wits of a cynical generation bent on partying: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and others becameknown collectively as the Algonquin Round Table. The covers Ross published during the first few years featured bold graphics rendered in a limited palette of flat colors--often silhouetted figures against a one-dimensional background. Striking examples of the Art Deco style prevalent at the time, these covers were designed to function like posters; their concision and abstraction made the images instantly clear.

Soon, the high-society types who had first appeared as flat decorative design elements were rounded out both visually and narratively. With the addition of specific details and facial expressions, they become characters in storytelling images by such artists as Peter Arno, William Cotton, Helen Hokinson, and Mary Petty. For example, the December 28, 1929, cover, by Arno, depicts a cluster of night-club revellers (a typical motif of the early covers), but here the central couple look uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed by their drunken neighbors. Although by the nineteen-thirties the party was over, New Yorker covers of the time rarely acknowledged the hardships of the Depression. Indeed, a March 11, 1939, cover by Constantin Alajalov shows a hesitant street peddler offering his goods to the disdainful passengers in the back of a chauffeured car.

By the end of the Second World War, The New Yorker's war reporting--culminating with John Hersey's August 31, 1946, report on Hiroshima--had established the magazine as more than a gathering of wits; it had become a preëminent voice in serious American journalism. But the cover of the famous "Hiroshima" issue did not portray Japanese children in flames; instead, it was a decorative tableau of New England vacationers, by Charles Martin. William Shawn, who had persuaded Ross to devote the entire issue to Hersey's report, may have had a say in the issue's cover as well. Certainly after he succeeded Ross as editor, in 1952, he brought about a major shift in the tenor of the covers. As the editor, Shawn had his own vision for the magazine. In 1983, in response to queries from an ad salesman, he summed up his philosophy regarding the covers:

We have fewer covers today that have humor than we did years ago. They tend to be more aesthetic and the subject for the most part is New York City or the country around New York City. The suburbs, the countryside. Sometimes it's just a still life of flowers or a plant. It's not supposed to be spectacular. When it appears on a newsstand, it's not supposed to stand out. It's a restful change from all the other covers, I'd say.

Shawn's covers moved away from anecdotal storytelling; rather than depicting the foibles of the upper middle class, they reflected its aesthetic aspirations. More often than not, they presented landscapes and cityscapes in domesticated versions of Post-Impressionist painting styles, owing much to Picasso, Matisse, and Paul Klee. These aestheticized images, however, were overshadowed by the work of Shawn's most important discovery, Saul Steinberg. A witty visual philosopher of line and symbol, Steinberg expanded the vocabulary of modernism while acerbically commenting on the American scene. In 1985, S. I. Newhouse, Jr., the chairman of Conde Nast, acquired The New Yorker, and two years later Robert Gottlieb became the magazine's third editor. Gottlieb preserved Shawn's approach to cover art while adding Surrealist-derived imagery to the visual mix. By the time Tina Brown became the editor, in 1992, some critics saw the magazine as the embodiment of Eustace Tilley, the puffed-up dandy Irvin had once mocked.

When Brown was appointed editor, she decided on three artists she wanted to bring to the magazine: Richard Avedon (who became the first New Yorker staff photographer), Edward Sorel, and Art Spiegelman. The change in the magazine's attitude toward its times was heralded in her first cover, published on October 5, 1992: a drawing by Sorel of a leather-clad punk in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park (page 35). That image gave notice that the self-satisfied dandy would have to contend with a new generation of cultural movers and shakers.

The cover that fully delivered on that threat was Spiegelman's 1993 Valentine's Day cover (page103), showing a black woman and a Hasidic Jew in a loving embrace. At the time, the papers were filled with the bitter struggle between the black and Hasidic communities of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. The cover was discussed and sometimes denounced in the media. Quite a few irate readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, and there were heated arguments at dinner parties all over town (as there had been within the editorial offices of The New Yorker). The magazine, once polite, genteel, and retiring, had become the center of controversy. In Spiegelman's multilayered, irreverent, and ironic cover, Brown had found an image that provided a crucial component of the tone she wanted for the magazine.

It was shortly thereafter that she asked me to join the staff as art editor. I was startled. Together with Art Spiegelman (my husband), I had published and co-edited RAW, an avant-garde magazine of comics and graphics, far from the world of The New Yorker. At first I was reluctant to give up the independence afforded by self-publishing, but Brown's idea of bringing radical change to the magazine with such a distinguished history presented an irresistible challenge. While reëngaging its subscribers, the magazine had to establish once again a strong presence on the newsstand so that new generations of readers might discover it.

It seemed to me that New Yorker covers in the postmodern nineties could reflect a broad spectrum of artistic idioms and styles. Rummaging through the magazine's history, I was attracted to the decorative qualities of the twenties covers; their posterlike immediacy provided an important object lesson in images that must catch your attention instantly on a crowded newsstand. The influences of the "high" arts evident in Shawn's covers offered a hint of how images could also stand up to scrutiny on more than half a million coffee tables. But it was the covers that told a story--like William Cotton's exhausted 1936 matron pausing to rest while trekking through an art museum (page 185), and William Steig's Valentine's Day cover also from 1936 (page 102), showing a precocious schoolboy mooning over a curvaceous young woman--which offered the richest possibilities for a revitalized New Yorker. Such covers provided an snapshot of what urban sophisticates cared about, their attitudes and prejudices, their mannerisms and jokes. I've wanted to build a series of images that, looked at from a later vantage point, might give a portrait of our society.

New Yorker artists have an opportunity--indeed, a mandate--to express their point of view. The New Yorker is the only remaining wide-circulation publication that still relies on free-standing illustrated covers (other magazine covers are dictated by the need to illustrate the "cover story," usually with a photograph, and are also cluttered with written blurbs). When an artist does a cover for us, it is a personal statement that represents his concept, his joke.

Saul Steinberg once said that there were certain pictures that would change the way a person saw the world, that the viewer wouldn't be able to erase from his memory. Such images are rare, but they're what we strive for. I find it essential to maintain a constant back-and-forth with a core group of artists. Some, like Edward Sorel, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Barry Blitt, and Art Spiegelman, are primarily cartoonists. Others, like Mark Ulricksen, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Anita Kunz, are primarily illustrators. Still others, like William Joyce and Maira Kalman, are children's-book authors. What all the artists have in common is that they know how to make a point succinctly and attractively.

Few artists are hit by inspiration until they make themselves focus on the task before them. Anita Kunz says that she sits down at her drawing table, determined to come up with a certain number of sketches, treating the assignment as if it were a school project. To help get the artists going, I systematized The New Yorker's tradition of publishing seasonal images and I regularly send the artists a calendar of suggested topics. It includes the seasons; holidays such as Valentine's Day, Easter, and Mother's Day; and the themes of the magazine's recently introduced special issues. I supplement this list with conversations and E-mails suggesting events and subjects that might yield memorable pictures. It's only because we schedule a season's worth of covers in advance that we can, occasionally, turn around a cover on a hot topic in twenty-four or forty-eight hours.

New York City is a constant source of images that can run anytime--that is, that are not tied to a particular event or time of year, such as Eric Drooker's businessmen on stilts, wobbly masters of the universe striding among the skyscrapers of the city (page 24), and Edward Sorel's depiction of barnyard animals in a double-decker tourist bus looking down at the strange exotic creatures of Gotham's streets (page 35). Leaving the city inspired Peter de Sève's memorable summer cover (page 56) of New Yorkers crowding the New England harbors, which portrays the city-dwellers as pigeons being looked down upon condescendingly by blase seagulls.

Shifts in the culture are prime source material for the cover artists. Often, the reaction from readers is linked to their feelings about the phenomenon or trend portrayed. The artist is the messenger, sometimes hailed as a hero, sometimes pilloried. A 1994 June wedding cover by Jacques de Loustal (page 129) showed two men about to cut the wedding cake on a background of shocking pink. Many readers were angry, while many others called and asked for a print of the image they could frame. In June of 1996, an image by Barry Blitt (page 65) of two sailors kissing in Times Square, in a pose reminiscent of the well-known V-J Day photograph by Eisenstaedt, drew protests from the sailor who had supposedly been in the original photo as well as other Second World War veterans, while opponents of President Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy rallied behind it. A recent (May 15, 2000) Mother's Day cover, by Carter Goodrich, of a Mother Earth type and a skinny woman sitting side by side on a bench (page 124) elicited the following range of responses: "Carter Goodrich is a genius." "I LOVE this cover of the fecund Mother Earth and the pale angular New York career girl looking on with disgust and desire." "A gross trivialization of motherhood." "Working women everywhere will feel uplifted by the message that their professional endeavors are nothing compared to the ability to reproduce." "Does the tortured expression on the face of the unhappy career girl signify aversion and digsut--or overwhelming longing for a child of her own?" "I'm surprised that so sophisticated a magazine would engage in such a stereotypical illustration." "Carter Goodrich's 'Mother Nature' is brilliant. It epitomizes the kind of social observation that The New Yorker considers its eminent domain."

It is a testament to the loyalty of longtime readers that their attachment to the magazine has survived the changes that have transformed The New Yorker over the last decade. Many readers had hoped we would provide a respite from the saturation of coverage surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder case, but they appreciated the many meanings of the comment on the affair by HA (Bob Zoell), published at the start of the trial (page 61). Zoell's simple still-life of orange juice on a white background showed a glass that is half full or half-empty, depending on one's point of view. For knowledgeable readers, the image also evoked Shawn's still-life covers. It was a visual pun on orange juice and Simpson's guilt or innocence, and it was a cover on a sensational topic that resembled the most adamantly nontopical covers.

Though New Yorker covers now often reflect current events, on rare occasions an image can actually affect the course of those events. In February of 1999, an African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was killed by New York City police in the vestibule of his apartment building. Apparently without provocation, Diallo was shot at forty-one times. The Police Department and the Mayor offered no explanation of why so many shots were fired, insisting that an investigation was under way. Then Art Spiegelman proposed an image (page 83) that expressed the outrage many New Yorkers felt: a sweet-looking old-fashioned cop at a Coney Island shooting gallery aims his semi-automatic at anonymous civilian targets. A sign on the stand reads: "41 shots--10�'."

Because of production logistics, David Remnick, who in 1998 became the magazine's fifth editor, had to be woken up at nearly midnight on a Thursday and was faxed an extremely rough sketch of the idea. He promptly gave his O.K., and the image was finished and transmitted digitally to the printer, in Kentucky, twenty-four hours later. On Monday, when the magazines reached the newsstands, the cover was denounced in press conferences by the Police Commissioner, the Mayor, and the Governor. The cover helped catalyze protests against the police. Local demonstrations broadened as movie stars and civil rights activists joined picketers at Police Headquarters. Meanwhile, off-duty police officers staged a demonstration outside The New Yorker's offices, protesting the cover. The image was cited by an appellate court as one of the reasons the trial of the police officers involved in Diallo's death had to be moved outside New York City.

Indeed, David Remnick has encouraged artists to deal with New York City not only as the figurative capital of world culture but as a specific place. His background as a journalist has led him to seek out covers that focus on political issues as well as social ones. As someone who grew up reading The New Yorker, Remnick has taken advantage of the new paths opened by Tina Brown, while hoping to synthesize and preserve the magazine's past traditions. A May 31, 1999, cover by Bruce McCall (page 19), painted in his deadpan retro style, conjures up Times Square--not the recently renovated crossroads of commerce, nor the squalid Times Square of the postwar era, but a "Lost Times Square" that never was, showing top-hatted swells on a street filled with high-culture entertainment and highbrow signs--a street Eustace Tilley would have been delighted to visit.

By going back to its beginnings, The New Yorker has been reborn and has even stimulated the renewed use of illustrations, drawings, and cartoons in other publications. This seventy-five-year-old institution's weekly visual offerings--sometimes explosive, never predictable, always noticed--are a testament to the power of drawing. The new New Yorker covers have become an important part of America's cultural dialogue. Demonstrating that printed pictures are far from obsolete, these drawings stand out in the wired world of transient and fleeting images.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >