kerry james marshall

Magazines Are Trading Celebrity Covers for Artworks as They Strive to Stay in Touch With the Serious Issues of Our Time

Last summer, after weeks of protests precipitated by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the country’s most recognizable magazines used their covers to make a statement. And they each turned to artists—not photographers—to do it. 

For their respective September issues, which came out within days of each other, Vanity Fair commissioned painter Amy Sherald to make a defiant portrait of Taylor, while Vogue tapped artists Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel to make their own exultant paintings of Black women.

These images were a far cry from the tired Annie Leibovitz photographs usually found on the front of these magazines. And at a time when magazine covers routinely foment here-today-gone-tomorrow Twitter wars, these issues seemed to get people talking for all the right reasons.

That these covers were done by artists was a big reason why, says Mark Guiducci, Vogue’s creative editorial director who oversaw the September issue. He and his team had actually planned to commission a painted portrait for the issue prior to the protests—a practical decision more than anything else, given the difficulty of staging big-budget fashion shoots during the pandemic. But as a nationwide racial reckoning played out, the notion of showcasing a model or celebrity on the cover suddenly felt out of touch.

Kerry James Marshall's cover for Vogue. Courtesy of Vogue.

Kerry James Marshall’s cover for Vogue. Courtesy of Vogue.

“How could one personality encapsulate that moment of pain, of pandemic, of reckoning?” Guiducci said. So they turned to Marshall and Casteel, and gave both artists carte blanche—a privilege rarely bestowed by the magazine.

“That’s why you go to an artist,” he said. “They give you the vocabulary to see the world in a new way. That’s powerful.”

Vanity Fair, meanwhile, knew it wanted to celebrate the life of Taylor in its September issue. But republishing one of the few pictures of Taylor circulating online at the time didn’t seem to do her justice, said Kira Pollack, Vanity Fair’s creative director.

“In order to make something truly transcendent, we felt it was important to create a new image of Breonna,” Pollack said. “We knew that Amy’s voice, and the intention and care she brings to her work, would be exactly right for such a powerful portrait at such a sensitive moment.”

Rihanna by Lorna Simpson for Essence Magazine 2020.

Rihanna by Lorna Simpson for Essence Magazine, 2020. Courtesy of Essence.

Vogue and Vanity Fair aren’t the only major magazines to turn to artists for their covers in recent months. Essence put works by Lorna Simpson and Bisa Butler on its covers this year; issues of the New Yorker featured paintings by Wayne Thiebaud and Nina Chanel Abney; and a 2020 edition of O Magazine was illustrated with a painting by artist Alexis Franklin, marking the first time in its history that a picture of Oprah wasn’t on the publication’s cover. 

Of course, magazines have run artworks on their covers for as long as they’ve existed, and many famous artists—from Salvador Dalí to Robert Rauschenberg to John Currin—have had their turn on the newsstand. What is novel today is the prevalence of this strategy to mark the occasion of important issues. What may have started as a response to the limitations of lockdowns has become the way mainstream publications signal that they really want people to pay attention.

“In a culture that is overwhelmed by visual media,” Guiducci said, “the idea of painting, in particular, is quite resonant. It doesn’t feel like something that is made quickly or easily or digitally, and that is impactful.”

Alexis Franklin drew this portrait of Breonna Taylor for Oprah magazine. Courtesy of Oprah magazine.

Alexis Franklin drew this portrait of Breonna Taylor for Oprah magazine. Courtesy of Oprah magazine.

D.W. Pine, the creative director of Time, noted that the role of the magazine cover has evolved in recent years. Its function, he said, is not to “tell the news anymore”—that job has been supplanted by social media. The cover’s purpose today is more about the conveyance of emotion than information.

A cover today says, “I can’t really tell you what happened, but I can kind of get you to the why, and I can definitely get you to think about it,” Pine said. “Artists help us do that.”

Time has probably been the biggest player in this trend, having commissioned artists such as Red Hong Yi and Charly Palmer, among many others, for recent high-profile editions. Time‘s “Vote” issue, pegged to the 2020 election, featured an illustration by Shepard Fairey, for instance, while a special pandemic report was accompanied by a photo of a JR installation. (Both artists have created multiple covers for the magazine.)

In Time’s case, the draw for artists isn’t necessarily the paycheck. Every cover artist, regardless of his or her stature, has been paid the same fee for years. (Pine did note, however, that some recently resurfaced Andy Warhol invoices from the ‘70s took him by surprise: “It was a lot more than what we pay now!”) What Time can offer artists instead is exposure: Its weekly readership tops 60 million.

Conversely, what artists grant the magazine is “soul,” as Pine put it. “This past year we needed to provide more meaning and a feeling and a soul to the stories that were presented to all of us,” he said. “All of us were reacting to these stories each week. That’s where it’s important to turn it over to the perspective of an artist.”

The cover of Time magazine's June 15, 2020, issue, featuring Titus Kaphar's painting, Analogous Colors. Courtesy of Time.

The cover of Time magazine’s June 15, 2020, issue, featuring Titus Kaphar’s painting Analogous Colors. Courtesy of Time.

One recent issue illustrates this “soul” quotient in particular: Time‘s June 2020 “Protest edition, which featured a cover by Titus Kaphar.

Kaphar’s painting depicted a grieving Black mother holding a silhouette of her child—an effect the artist achieved by cutting into the canvas. It was a literal, legible expression of the losses so many have felt at the time.

“In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies,” Kaphar wrote in a poem to accompany the cover. “As I listlessly wade through another cycle of violence against Black people, / I paint a Black mother… / eyes closed, / furrowed brow, / holding the contour of her loss.”

“He cuts the canvas out and shows what a mother’s loss is during this time,” said Pine. “That’s the meaning and the soul that we wanted to get at with everything that was going on.” 

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What I Buy and Why: Real Estate Developer Bob Rennie on Collecting Performance and Installing Extremely Clever Bathroom Art

Vancouver-based art collector and real estate mogul Bob Rennie, who showcases his extensive contemporary art collection at the eponymous Rennie Museum, has a collection most art lovers would kill for (okay, maybe not kill, but… maim?).

Rennie, whose real-estate business earned him the nickname “Condo king,” serves on the boards of the Tate Americas Foundation and the Art Institute of Chicago. Below, he dishes on his most prized possessions, what it was like to negotiate with artist Charline von Heyl, and the most impractical works in his collection.


What was your first acquisition (and how much did you pay for it)? 

A Norman Rockwell limited edition print, On Top of the World (1972), for $375 in 1974. I was 18 years old.

Nina Chanel Abney, <i>Being Mixie with my Fixie</i> (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Nina Chanel Abney, Being Mixie with my Fixie (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

What was your most recent acquisition? 

Nina Chanel Abney’s Being Mixie With my Fixie.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year? 

I’d like to continue our journey with Dawoud Bey’s trilogy by adding “Louisiana,” [a series of] 24 large-format photographs. We are proud to have in the collection the 16 diptychs and video of Dawoud’s “Birmingham” [series] and the 25 photos of “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” I would also like to add a set of 14 heads by Thomas J. Price.

Kerry James Marshall, <i> Garden Party</i> (2003). © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Kerry James Marshall, Garden Party (2003). © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own? 

That is a tough question. I would narrow it down to two masterpieces: Kerry James Marshall’s Garden Party (2003) and his trio Untitled (2011–12), in which the colors red, black, and green echo the Afro-American flag. We stacked the three Untitled canvases vertically [to evoke] a portrait of Kerry, but they are not typically displayed in this format. You miss the rich details in these subtly complex canvases when they’re upwards of 26 feet high on the wall!

Where do you buy art most frequently? 

Through trusted relationships with art dealers who are aware of the diversity, inclusion, and social injustice threads that weave the fabric of the collection together.

Is there a work you regret purchasing? If so, why?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately and, in the end, there are no real mistakes. The works that do not fit anymore, those that do not speak to the collection anymore, end up being lessons learned that help us understand better our true goals.

Charles White, O Freedom (1956). Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa?

In the family room hangs Charles White’s O Freedom (1956) and Adrian Piper’s Race Traitor (2018). A Charline Von Heyl carpet is on the floor, part of an edition of 20 produced by BravinLee. I asked Charline if she would consider leaving the bottom edge unfinished, with spools of thread still attached, and she agreed. Ours is the only one like this. I have young grandkids and a dog, so the bottom edge is usually tucked safely under the sofa. 

Charline Von Heyl, <i>After Zenge (unfinished)</i> (2017-2019). Courtesy of Bob Rennie.

Charline Von Heyl, After Zenge (unfinished) (2017–19). Courtesy of Bob Rennie.

What artwork, if any, do you have in your bathroom?

On the guest bathroom wall are three Robert Mapplethorpe photos from 1984. Jenny Holzer’s Survival Series: What Country Should You Adopt If You Hate Poor People? (1986) is embedded in the floor in a location that encourages contemplation while “seated.” Just outside a bathroom, appropriately, is Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Painting No. 11 (1978).

What is the most impractical work of art you own? What makes it so challenging?

Our (half) joke to dealers is, “If you can’t sell it because it’s too tough, we’re probably interested.” What would you consider impractical? There’s Allora & Calzadilla’s Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy, No. 2, 2008 (a grand piano with a hole cut into it from which a pianist stands playing Ode to Joy backwards over the keyboard while slowly moving the piano around the room); Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 (2008), which involves athletes running at top speed throughout the space at precise intervals; and Gary Hill’s Frustrum (2006), which requires procuring a 425 oz., 24-karat gold bullion bar and enough black oil to fill a 10-inch deep pool.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

Kerry James Marshall’s Black Painting (2003–6).

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–13) from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.

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