The MR Review of Books: What’s With All The Paintings on Book Covers?
10.23.19

Over the past few months, I haven’t been able to look at a painting without considering how it would look on a book cover. Call it what you want (a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for art history buffs?), but the recent uptick in covers that draw from paintings is unmissable. (Ottessa Moshfegh’s tragicomic My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Nell Zink’s Doxology, Andrew Martin’s Early Work, Cynthia Zarin’s An Enlarged Heart, Anna Backman Rogers’ Sofia Coppola, Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, and Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things are just a handful of notable examples.) These book jackets feature works that would fetch upwards of seven figures at auction; for a crisp Andrew Jackson, they could be an outward-facing fixture in your personal library. While mini masterpieces haven’t yet outnumbered the bouquet books, the paintings in the hands of subway-goers stoked my curiosity, so I decided to let it dictate my literary pursuits for the month.

The first thing I discovered is that debut novels seem to be painting magnets. In Andrew Martin’s Early Work, the narrator Peter makes mention of the controversial painter Balthus in the first ten pages, and this accounts for the placement of Balthus’s Living Room (1941-1943) on the book jacket. It features two girls, one lazing on a settee while another reads on the floor, alluding to the story’s characters who tend to pair off when the opportunities arise. (If you like the idea of Conversations with Friends peppered with a dash of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, you’ll love this book.) Published in June, Kristen Arnett’s debut Mostly Dead Things centers around a family-run taxidermy business. Its cover makes good use of a cut-out, placing American Flamingo by John James Audubon, the nineteenth century printmaker known to hunt and taxidermy the birds he documented for posterity, on a new chartreuse backdrop.

Designers Unpack the Appeal

A painting on a book jacket isn’t just the cherry on top of a highbrow sundae, but a clever and conceptually sound artistic choice, made by authors and designers alike. I’ve long admired the work of Kelly Winton, the designer behind the now iconic tight-lipped type on the reissues of Eve Babitz’s Black Swans and Sex and Rage, and asked for her thoughts on publishing’s painting frenzy. Winton’s not sure the incorporation of paintings is a fully realized trend, but she considers it a way to distinguish a cover from the large uppercase type trend that has saturated the market. Linda Huang, associate art director at Vintage & Anchor Books, contends that it’s been a consistent idea, citing past examples like her art director’s steady practice of licensing Duncan Hannah’s paintings for book covers.

Next, I got in touch with Allison Saltzman, senior art director at Ecco/HarperCollins who designed Nell Zink’s novel Doxology, to hear about how the sausage gets made. This wasn’t her first artist-author rodeo: She’s paired novelist E.L. Doctorow with painter Andrew Wyeth, short story writer Deborah Eisenberg with painter Paul Klee, and author Kathleen Collins with multimedia artist Lorna Simpson. Her idea for Doxology originated with the lettering: “I pictured it while still reading the manuscript—individual letters on crumpled and torn paper that would evoke punk band flyers, to place the book in the context of the New York music scene of the 80s and 90s.” Saltzman had a sense that the cut-out lettering should sit on top of other imagery: “I was surprised as anyone that Nell Zink had written so tenderly about motherhood, and I thought it deserved depiction on the cover. It still needed to be weird though.”

Rifling through kitschy depictions of motherhood, she experimented with vintage advertising, Madonna and child iconography, and 1970s family portraits, all rejected for skewing too retro, religious, or sincere. The team ultimately approved a 19th-century “nostalgia card” rendering of an 18th-century neoclassical painting, figuring its incongruity—with the punk lettering and with Zink’s reputation—was off-kilter enough. Saltzman reports that the book’s editor did like that it resembled My Year of Rest and Relaxation: that book’s success had primed the reading public to understand ironic use of classical art.

The Google Sheet I Send to Everyone Who Asks How I Read so Much

Both My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Doxology reference the same slice of art history: The paintings on their jackets hail from contemporaries in French neoclassicism. In a counterintuitive twist, these older paintings feel novel, like fertile territory for our own projections, because they look so foreign compared to the familiar image glut of Instagram and Pinterest, or the visual language of modern advertising campaigns. Our historical distance from the ideals of these paintings tinge our perception of them with irony or absurdity, rendering them almost tongue-in-cheek in their new context.

At a certain point, I began to wonder: How do artists feel about these books imposing meaning or associations onto their paintings? “There’s always an aspect of using a painting or artwork that requires negotiation and compromise,” Winton tells me. “It often makes for interesting discussions about design, appropriation, and artistic license.” Alex Katz is a favorite among book designers, and the artist seems comfortable enough straddling the worlds of art and commerce (take, for example, this recent series he painted of Calvin Klein underwear). His paintings are ideal for the book jacket format, with great swaths of negative space, punchy color, and characters who take on a chameleonic expressiveness, their identities just specific enough without being prescriptive.

Some designers have paintings they dream of using for a cover. Huang referenced Gordon Cheung’s Breaking Tulips “despite it being another bouquet book!” and also mentioned a “deep, dark love of Jenny Saville’s brutal paintings—though, unless tightly cropped, would have a hard time getting approved.” Winton would jump at the opportunity to feature a Helen Frankenthaler if there was a good fit, drawn by “her soothing colors and the depth of power in her paintings.” And if the story calls for a portrait, Winton would make a bee-line for Alice Neel, Fairfield Porter, or Lynette Yiadom Boakye. Not every painting needs to be licensed from an artist, though: The portrait Winton herself recently painted for Scarlett Thomas’s forthcoming Oligarchy entices me to buy the book.

Investigating My Own Desire to Pick a Book for Its Cover

I selected An Enlarged Heart by Cynthia Zarin for superficial reasons and, like a fable gone wrong, my vanity was rewarded. The paperback, designed by Huang in 2012, features my favorite Alex Katz, a screenprint from the 1990 Brisk Day triptych that shows a woman (likely Katz’s wife, Ada) shielding herself against a chilled wind with her red coat. When I asked Huang about the cover’s backstory, she tells me it was the author’s idea. “[Zarin] sent the editor a bunch of Alex Katz paintings for me to work with, and the final one was clearly the best—compositionally, graphically, emotionally.”

Zarin plants her essays in New York, though they wander off on occasion to a few choice New England towns. My experience reading this book from San Francisco resurfaced a question I often grapple with, especially when packing for a trip: Is it better to read a book thematic to your location or from a wistful distance? Zarin couldn’t have pushed my nostalgia buttons more if she tried: One of her essays even mentions the store where I used to get measured for a new pair of shoes, compliant with my grammar school uniform, at the start of fall.

Poised as a “personal history,” these essays bounce around from the fickle nature of New York real estate to a frightful family health emergency, but it’s ultimately a book about the last vestiges of the old New York before everyone walked around superglued to their phones. For something that’ll make you ache, read “September.” For a personal map of the shifting city landscape, read “Restaurants.” And for an inside baseball recounting of the way William Shawn’s New Yorker operated, read “Mary McCarthy’s Chest.” In “Coats,” Zarin recalls a period when she pined for one black leather double-breasted, knee-skimming coat, dwelling on it so much she’d draw it on napkins: “I was in the midst of the years in which I didn’t know that desire is infinitely replaceable.”

(I haven’t had the nerve to shop online since.)

What Are the Designers of Painterly Covers Reading?

Saltzman tells me she’s in the middle of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, but has set it aside for a moment to gobble up Ann Patchett’s latest, The Dutch House. Huang’s reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror right now, and recommends Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. Kelly Winton has also been reading Tolentino’s Trick Mirror “like everyone else!” and recently cracked open Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House.

Winton credits James Salter’s novel Light Years as especially impactful on her, and makes reference to an 1980s edition of the book she’s been trying to track down. In an interview with The Paris Review, Salter says he sometimes writes thinking of a certain painter, and he had written the book with Pierre Bonnard in mind. “He is a painter of intimacy and solitude, he was not part of any school, and his life was spent, generally speaking, away from the brilliance of the lights and out of the mainstream. Not only his pictures but his persona appealed to me.” A Bonnard painting, The Breakfast Room, sits squarely on the book’s cover.


A few tangential parting notes:

  • I’ve heard only stellar things about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, the newly minted MacArthur fellow.
  • Has anyone read How to Be a Family?
  • I’m currently reading How to Do Nothing (a title which, if you’re sensitive to looking like a sitting oxymoron, is borderline embarrassing to read in public) by Jenny Odell. More on that in November.
  • If you live in Houston or Phoenix, have you tried putting your feet up at the local mall?
  • Enjoy this very Vulture story on the podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.
  • Quartzy has made a case for destination-based reading.
  • Awaiting the new Jenny Offill (Weather) with bated breath. Very excited to pick up A Year Without A Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham. You probably have already heard the trumpet sound for new Zadie Smith.
  • Consider me the harbinger of your Luke Edward Hall Google alert: His book Greco Disco has hit the dance floor a.k.a. the bookstore!

Photos and graphic via the author.

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