Monday, February 4, 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...

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