Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday: Robert Weaver's Kennedy Suite

In April 1959 Esquire Magazine published an article analyzing the presidential prospects of Jack Kennedy, then one of many candidates jockeying for position in the upcoming primary season for the election of 1960. Titled “Kennedy’s Last Chance to be President,” the article featured a suite of illustrations by Robert Weaver, an emerging figure in the expressionist school of editorial illustration.

Weaver’s illustrations for the project were epochal, introducing a strikingly abstract language and set of interpretive artifices for a piece of nonfiction. Historical personages like LBJ and Nixon and Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller were pressed into service to enact visual interpretations, but not as satirical cartoons. Curiously, these figures and their descendants operate in a paradoxical world of allegorical reportage.

There is much to say about Weaver’s work, but most immediately how can one miss the composite images, screens, exposed superstructures and reflective barriers that run through his illustration.

The device of the obliquely viewed printed poster appears frequently in other projects.

How new was this approach? The image below is an Al Parker illustration published in the Ladies Home Journal in March of that year, a month before Weaver’s visual essay ran in Esquire.

Parker’s image represents an early postwar aesthetic of polished fantasy for an audience aspiring to health, wealth and a stimulated sort of domestic tranquility. The work of these Westport illustrators reached its height around 1950 and then plummeted from relevance as color television achieved sufficient market penetration over the next ten to fifteen years to siphon off major advertising dollars.

Illustrated periodicals had produced a great deal of money in the preceding decades, for illustrators and publishers. As the money ran out of the market, the pressure dropped considerably. A new generation of illustrators and art directors came onto the scene and sketched a new set of creative concerns around 1960 and after. The new Manhattanite illustrators, led by Weaver, scorned the Connecticut old guard. Fiction illustration of the sort practiced by Parker appeared less often, and general interest magazine illustrated covers--which had largely given way to photographic ones in the mid-50s, disappeared altogether.

Weaver and his compatriots, including Jim McMullan, Tom Allen, and Robert Andrew Parker (no relation to Alfred Charles Parker) got less money to produce more content-driven work. (Alas, it usually works that way.) Much of that work was produced for Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and later New York magazine. In the case of the Kennedy piece, the aggressiveness of Weaver’s concept required a bit of editorial instruction in the margin:

In 1959, Robert Weaver’s identification with Jack Kennedy would have been strong indeed. Kennedy represented the idea of bracing change, and provoked a twitching sort of idealism in the face of old school habits—just as Weaver et. al., were overcoming an exhausted discipline in a radically new cultural moment. In his chosen field, Robert Weaver was Jack Kennedy, and the old guys were a bunch of genial but corrupt Eisenhowers.

Sound familiar?

The resurgence of the Kennedy myth, the memory of the editorial insurgency led by M. Weaver, and the dramatic but uncertain rise of Barack Obama all come together in an auspicious observance of Super Tuesday 2008.

To the polls, and then to the sofa, to monitor the returns...


Bill Koeb said...

Thank you so much for posting all of these great pieces!

I have seen some before in black and white, but man is it great to see them all in color and all together.


Daniel Zalkus said...

Do you have any of the sketches that Weaver did of Kennedy?

DB Dowd said...

These are the tearsheets. To my knowledge we do not have any sketches from the project. The locations of the original paintings are unknown to us.

John Hendrix said...

What was Weaver's reception in the illustration community when he started working? I tend to think of him as a illustration milestone that was instantly canonized.

Spent yesterday afternoon looking through his Yankee spring training sketchbook. Found a surprise: unseen drawings on the backs of the pages!

David Apatoff said...

I like Weaver's work a lot, especially his sketchbook drawings, and I am impressed by some of his strong and inventive designs.

However, I can't help but think that his mythic stature in the illustration field is more a result of his persona than his actual artwork. Weaver used to get drunk at the bar at the society of illustrators and caterwaul about how much he hated being an illustrator and selling out. This made quite an impression on all the young artists whose highest goal in life was to make it as an illustrator. Weaver was angry and articulate and dedicated to the notion that an artist should be an activist. This may make him an estimable fellow, but that does not always translate into quality artwork.

For me, Weaver's style in the Kennedy series for Esquire largely emulated the then-fashionable work of "fine artist" Larry Rivers. By 1959, Weaver was clearly more topical than Al Parker (Parker was almost 20 years senior to Weaver), but if you compare how far Parker moved illustration from where he found it, with how far Weaver moved illustration, I would have to say that Parker was the greater innovator. I would also say that Parker explored a wider range of styles and approaches than Weaver did.

In 1959, there were other illustrators-- most notably Harvey Schmidt, Bob Gill and Jacob Landau-- who were (IMO) visually every bit as adventuresome as Weaver. More importantly, at that time Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs were just a year or two away from knocking the cover off the ball.

This is not to denigrate Weaver's work. But if the world perceives him as the embodiment of Kennedy's new frontier (as opposed to the Eisenhower era Westport crowd) it is more because of his philosophy and attitude than the images he paints within the four corners of an illustration board.

As a bit of trivia, I would also note that the Kennedys, who were intellectual elites (bringing Robert Frost and Pablo Cassals to the White House) really loved the work of that Westport dinosaur Bernie Fuchs. Jackie had particular praise for Fuchs' portrait of JFK, because she thought he best captured the youth and vitality and energy of the president. For the same reason, one of Fuchs' illustrations of JFK for Look magazine hangs prominently in the Kennedy Library, and Kennedy's chief speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, has another illustration from the same series on the wall of his office.

Dan Z said...

John Hendrix-

You mean there's more spring training drawings? Your teasing us! Please share!!

Bill Koeb said...

I think you are missing the power and innovation of Weaver's work. It is interesting that you mention a Fuchs' portrait of Kennedy being a favorite of Jacquies. If it is the one I am thinking of, it is a very flattering piece. Go figure. Re: The jabs at Weaver by mentioning Larry Rivers, as if the influence lessens the work. I think you are confusing style with technique. I see similarities between the two, but also between Weaver and Schiele, Cezanne, and many others.

The thing that gets me about Robert Weaver v. any of the other artists working in those days, besides his ability to see and draw truths, is that Weaver was able to show multiple sides of a debate/situation simultaneously, and not just in his split images. There is one image of his that I cannot find, of soldiers sitting in the snow, seen through the branches of a tree. It looks as though they are trapped and cradled by the tree at the same time, sitting in the snow but also sitting in the tree. The work invites questions, 40 years later. With Peak, there are no questions, lots of style, design, and flair, but no depth in his illustrations, spare a few pieces.

Weaver let what he saw influence his design, whereas Peak, and Fuchs to some extent used photos of life to fit their designs. Weaver drew a lot of what he saw outside his studio, where Peak traced photos and jazzed them with an airbrush and pastels. Don't get me wrong, Peak was a great thinker. His Superman poster still sits in my mind as one of the all time great solutions to a problem, but for me, his work lacks any depth, exploration, or lasting feeling.


David Apatoff said...

Bill, I didn't consider my reference to Larry Rivers to be a "jab" at Weaver. I like Rivers, and consider some of his work to be superior to Weaver's. I think it is obvious that Weaver liked him too. As for Peak, I agree with you about his long senescence. He had a streak of about 5 years where he was white hot (and, IMO, more visually innovative than Weaver)but he went limping off into the sunset with those awful movie posters you describe so well.

As for the "innovation" that I am apparently missing in Weaver's work, I still need help seeing why he was so much more innovative than Parker (a revolutionary whose revolution had a far greater ripple effect) or Harvey Schmidt (an illustrator who also threw out the rulebook but never had the kind of popular audience that Peak or Fuchs enjoyed).

I like Weaver's "questions," and I like how what he saw influenced his design, but I still think much of his reputation is based upon his very noisy personal politics. James Dean was an excellent actor, but without his accompanying legend, he would not be so highly regarded.

Bill Koeb said...

I never met Weaver, never knew his politics.
What I and so many of my contemporaries respond to is the work. I don't think there was any point where Peak was more innovative, and yes, the other artist's you mention were influential, but his was a revolution of the use of the visual language. He put things together in a unique way, that went beyond technical facility, and had more to do with exploring picture making. If you have not seen them, try to find his stereoscopic images. I know they are in an issue of "Audience" magazine along with a lot of other work. He said so much with the least amount of information. I guess it is personal taste. I really don't think his opinions have much to do with why others respond to his work, I know it is not the case for me.

Anyway, back to the drawing board.


DB Dowd said...

Hey Gang:

Just posted a reflection on this discussion, especially Weaver v. Rivers.


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