Muhammad Ali, shirtless in white satin boxing shorts and pierced with six arrows, poses as St. Sebastian, a martyr to his faith. The April 1968 Esquire magazine cover was one of the most iconic images of the decade, tying together the incendiary issues of the Vietnam War, race and religion.
The photo is so powerful that some people of a certain age remember where they were when they saw it for the first time — thanks to George Lois.
Now his work is showcased in an exhibit, “George Lois: The Esquire Covers,” that opens at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday. Organized by curatorial assistant Christian Larsen, the show features 32 of the most remembered and memorable of the 92 covers Lois created for Esquire from 1962 to 1972.
The covers include the famous image of Andy Warhol drowning in his own Campbell’s Soup can on the May 1969 issue and the November 1967 issue that depicts a sweetly smiling Svetlana Stalin with a drawn-on mustache, looking very much like her dictator father. Then there’s heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in a Santa hat in December 1963, the height of the civil rights movement.
As Lois has declared again and again, “They weren’t just covers.” Rather, they were powerful political statements that transcended their medium.
In the early 1960s, the times were definitely changing and Esquire, with its long history as a highly literary though somewhat racy men’s magazine, wasn’t keeping up. The writing was as good as ever, but sales were dropping; its covers were failing to do their job.
“The statements inside (of a magazine) are useless unless there is a statement on the outside,” Lois says. So, with an acute prescience, a hardheaded willingness to enter the political arena and a willing editor, every month Lois created statements that were difficult to ignore.
These were not just covers. They were blaring statements of political, cultural and social issues, and were head-on challenges to those who saw them at newsstands.
Lois began his career in 1953 in CBS’s advertising and promotions department, and after 55 years in the business and massive ad campaigns for such organizations as MTV, USA Today and Tommy Hillfiger, he has become as much an icon as his work. He’s old school: gregarious, forceful, always after something and always able to sell it to you when he finds it. But during his decade at Esquire, he was also a man who was deeply in touch with the times and deeply committed to getting the readers’ attention honestly.
There were no tricks in the covers. Harold Hayes, who was Lois’ good friend and Esquire’s editor, would give Lois a quick run-down of the issue and Lois would come back with an image. It was that simple. No committees, no editing, no discussion. Just the trust of an experienced editor and the gut instinct of an artist.
During the ’60s and 1970s, when he headed his own agency, Paper Koenig Lois, he tried to help “trigger a creative revolution” in advertising by weeding out the unnecessary and perfecting the art of simple, trenchant representation. But the revolution failed, he says, citing today’s covers: meaningless images of celebrities crammed into every inch of space.
Is there anything that catches his eye when he walks by a newsstand? “No,” he answers immediately, shaking his head, “not a thing.”
It’s easy to forget that the Esquire covers in the MoMA show are at heart advertisements — advertising may yet have a future in fine art museums. Curator Larsen explains that while MoMA has a history of “embracing all graphic forms” it is helping to chart new ground with this exhibit.
The issues of advertising as high art or the ways in which popular culture transitions to artistic culture are extremely relevant and loaded questions, which are effectively skirted by MoMA’s show. Lois’ covers are meaningful cultural aesthetic statements first and methods of selling a magazine second.
That’s what makes these images “iconic” Larsen says: The images communicate directly with the audience. Lois’ covers were political, daring, controversial, funny, irreverent and relevant to not only what was inside the magazine, but to the culture at large.
His job was to sell you the magazine; a job he took quite seriously. His mission was to conceive of, and execute, an artistic legacy that is just as meaningful today as 40 years ago.
“George Lois: The Esquire Covers” is on view through March 31, 2009.