New York

“Magazine Covers”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

If you’ve ever bought a magazine because of its cover, then “Magazine Covers,” a fascinating survey of the development of this form of graphic expression, is for you. The show includes more than 140 examples of American and Western European publications from the last hundred years, and it reveals how magazine covers have responded directly and immediately to changing styles in art, to fads, and to shifts in reading habits. Magazines are very much creatures of capitalism, filling an industrialized culture’s need to know and reinforcing its understanding of information as power. Magazines also accommodate to the pick-and-choose situation of the capitalist marketplace, in which their covers function as buy-me signs; since the late 1880’s publishers, editors, and designers have worked long and hard at making eye-catching covers that also identify and differentiate one magazine from another. The aim: to sell.

The magazines in this show form a “who’s who” roster of mass-media publications past and present, including such examples as Life, Time, Fortune, The New Yorker, Vogue, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. Avant-garde art and literary journals are here—Ver Sacrum, the turn-of-the-century Viennese publication, and Wendigen, the mouthpiece of the De Stijl and other progressive Dutch movements in the ’20s, join the American Broom, a well-known example of the so-called “little magazines” of the ’20s. Women’s magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal, Red Book, and Die Hausfrau (a German-language magazine published in the ’30s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) are also represented. American political magazines of the ’30s, such as New Masses, are juxtaposed with The American Legion and The Red Cross Magazine.

Work by famous artists includes Picasso’s 1933 cover for the French art magazine Minotaure, Salvador Dali’s 1939 cover for French Vogue, and Fortune covers by Diego Rivera and Fernand Leger. The Wendigen cover by El Lissitzky is a particularly fine example of his bold geometric style. Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams, Milton Glaser, Ed Koren, and Jean-Michel Folon are among those here who are famous for their magazine work. And important American illustrators best known for their “girls”—Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Christy, and Mary Petty—are on hand. Petty’s representation of Rita Hayworth for a 1941 Time shows the preference for hand-worked color images over purely photographic ones that persisted in magazine covers until the end of World War II.

The show’s chronological arrangement makes it possible to follow not only important perceptual shifts, like that from illustration to photography, but also to see formal evolutions and themes—the box-like, “window-on-the-world” construction with verbal “teaser” lines describing contents (so familiar in magazines across the subject board today) and the use of women on covers are but two issues. Pretty and sexy women have been a feature of magazine covers for a long time; magazine covers put together the dynamic duo of women and cars long before television did, judging by the covers of the early-20th-century American car magazine Motor.

The one criticism I have about the show is that there’s no information posted about the magazines on display other than the name, date, and cover artist. Facts about viewpoint and readership would help in appreciating their impact. But even without such information, this show vividly illuminates the way that magazine covers influence how we think about and see the world and ourselves.

Ronny H. Cohen