vanity fair

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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Art Dealers Are Shocked to Realize That 2020 Was Actually a Historically Good Year for Business + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Wednesday, February 24.


Nicole Eisenman Gets the New Yorker Profile Treatment – The star painter goes to visit her mom in Scarsdale, New York, in her recent New Yorker profile. Kay Eisenman explains that Nicole had trouble in school (one psychologist said she had a “grave mental disability”), but Kay says she was “an amazing child from the minute she opened her eyes—she took everything in.” Eisenman recalls life in gritty 1980s New York, when she began combining a cartoon sensibility with political art. She recalls her burgeoning style as “subjecting Richie Rich to whatever torturous fantasies I had.” (New Yorker)

David Adjaye Helped Recreate a Famed Mural – The 1199 Service Employees International Union managed to entice leading architect David Adjaye to take on the redesign of their new building. Even though it was a small project for his firm, Adjaye says he took the job because he admired the organization’s social commitment. The project came with one wrinkle: Adjaye had to reproduce the group’s famous social-realist mosaic mural by Anton Refregier, which is now facing demolition and unable to be moved. The architect remade the mural as separate pieces throughout the new building and added extra glass tiles documenting the recent history of the union. (New York Times)

American Museums Ask Congress for Relief Funds – The American Alliance of Museums has asked federal lawmakers to approve a funding boost for museums that are still suffering from shutdowns. The organization declared Monday and Tuesday as Museum Advocacy days, during which its supporters will petition Congress to increase funding for shuttered venues and expand charitable tax deductions to encourage more Americans to donate to museums. (The Art Newspaper)

Bank of England Will Remove Images of Slave Owners – As a culture war brews in the UK over controversial historic monuments, the Bank of England has vowed to move ahead with a review of its art collection to identify imagery of former governors with links to slavery. The goal is “to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the bank,” according to a statement. The news clashes with a recent announcement from the UK government encouraging institutions to “retain and explain” problematic monuments. (TAN)


Galleries Are Thriving During Lockdown – The art market “is raging,” according Los Angeles dealer François Ghebaly. His best year to date was 2020, despite the global pandemic and curbs on art fairs and travel. And he’s not alone. The main reason for the surprising success is that, while sales were down in some cases, there were no major expenses, which helped to balance the books. (Bloomberg)

Collector Who Bought Kanye’s Teenage Art Trove Speaks Out – Vinoda Basnayake was only a law student when he helped promote a Kanye West performance at a Washington, DC, club. Years later, after seeing one of West’s relatives present the music star’s childhood art on Antiques Roadshow, he tracked them down to buy it for himself. “I’ve always been really interested in the origin of artists, and where the art comes from,” Basnayake said. (Complex)


Cameron Shaw Named Director of California’s African American Museum – The museum’s deputy director and chief curator since 2019, Shaw plans to focus on four themes for the museum in upcoming programming: Black abstraction, Black spirituality, liberating the Black archives, and environmental justice. (LA Times)

Artist James Bishop Dies at 93 The Missouri-born minimalist abstract painter died in the French town of Dreux, not far from his residence in Blévy. The artist, who described himself as “an Abstract Expressionist of the quieter branch,” was known for compositions of just a few colors. (ARTnews)


Spain Removes Last Statue of Franco – In a Spanish town on the border of Morocco, the last statue of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco has come down. The monument was erected in 1978 to commemorate the fascist leader’s role in the Rif War between the Berber tribes and Spaniards in the 1920s. (Guardian)

Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari Shoot Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue – The artists, who founded the cult favorite magazine Toiletpaper, managed to pull off a remote fashion shoot for the most recent cover of Vanity Fair, which features leading lights of Tinseltown including Spike Lee, Michael B. Jordan, and Zendaya. (Vanity Fair)

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