For Glossy Magazines, Black Art Now Matters

For the past decadeVogue covers have followed an overall formula: dress up a celebrity or model in flowing designer fashion, arrange them into an angular pose, and then center their face on the magazine for maximum newsstand visibility. The results look like so many repetitive royal portraits in a museum wing. But for this year’s September issue, always the year’s biggest, the magazine worked with two painters to create a pair of covers. Kerry James Marshall’s imagined model wears an asymmetrical Off-White evening dress while Jordan Casteel’s portrait of Aurora James presents the designer on a Brooklyn rooftop in an avalanche of blue silk. Both paintings are remarkable in and of themselves, but they stand out even more against that staid photographic cover formula. They’re textured, evocative, and exciting, turning the magazine into a collectible art object.

On top of everything else, it has caused an identity crisis for glossy magazines. Quarantine made the usual high-production photo shoots all but impossible. Some publications adapted by safely using drones or telephoto lenses. For a profile of Larry David, photographer Jake Michaels shot the comedian through a window. In April, Sports Illustrated, usually covered by a portrait, ran an image of empty stadium seats instead. The best solution that has emerged might predate photography, however: use another kind of artist. Besides Vogue, Rolling Stone commissioned a portrait of Greta Thunberg from Shephard Fairey for its April issue and Vanity Fair asked Amy Sherald to depict Breonna Taylor. The New Yorker, which has always used illustrations rather than photographs as covers, recently ran its first cover by the painter Grace Lynne Haynes, a portrait of the Black activist Sojourner Truth.

In an prophetic move, Italian Vogue replaced all of the photography for its issue with illustrations, including work by artists like David Salle and Vanessa Beecroft. It was meant as a provocation about sustainability—no one had to travel, and thus the environment, to produce the imagery. But soon enough, no one could travel even if they wanted to. In this case, difficulty has bred editorial innovation. Casteel’s Vogue portrait of Aurora James, crisply realist, is an eloquent testament to both fashion and art as well as their creators: one Black woman depicting another.

It covers have had an uncertain fate since the rise, celebrities can debut photos of themselves directly to audiences of millions. Given their ubiquity online, such high-production-value images became disconnected from any kind of print product. Fashion magazines even began releasing “digital covers” to create buzz around particular stories, retrofitting an analog idea for the digital stream.

Covers were once predicated on scarcity. If their role was previously to present a single iconic image to serve as a representation of the moment, grabbing eyes and netting newsstand sales, then the Internet provides a hundred such iconic images a day. What’s more, the most popular are usually unplanned or user-generated in the form of viral memes footage. The most indelible image of Breonna Taylor still isn’t the painting on the Vanity Fair cover, but a selfie she took in bright sunlight, her hair swept into a whirl and a gentle smile on her face. No artist or photographer was involved; it’s a self-portrait.