60 years of New Yorker covers: art with a twist

I suspect that someday in the not-so-distant future, the artwork spawned by The New Yorker will be scrutinized with great care by anyone interested in the attitudes, foibles, and fantasies of post-1925 Americans. Despite recent allegations of one New Yorker writer's ''creative'' reporting, no other magazine , after all, has so lovingly chronicled the slightly offbeat side of the American character, or the way we persist in our dignity even when everything seems to have gone wrong.

A delightful and excellent demonstration of what I mean can be seen at the National Academy of Design here. ''Seasons at The New Yorker: Six Decades of Cover Art'' consists of 80 original works of art designed and used originally as New Yorker covers over the past 60 years. The selection was made by Dita Amory, the academy's cataloger of prints and drawings, from the roughly 3,000 covers printed by that magazine. Included are examples by almost all the old favorites, from Rea Irvin (who created ''Eustace Tilley,'' the gentleman with top hat and monocle who was on the magazine's first cover) to Helen Hokinson, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Charles Saxon, Jean Edward Koren, and Saul Steinberg.

John Dobkin, director of the National Academy, notes that the illustrations were chosen with several goals in mind: ''To gather for the first time a selection of the magazine's most striking images, to capture the illustrations' evolution in style and concept, and to honor so many gifted illustrators whose talent in the graphic-art genre has perhaps received inadequate recognition.''

Well and good, but precisely what is a New Yorker cover? After considerable thought, James Geraghty, longtime art editor of that magazine, came to the conclusion that ''a New Yorker cover is something I like.'' Theater critic Brendan Gill is a bit more specific, but even he is limited to listing the three or four basic types of covers. These he describes as ''those that are purely decorative, those that are topical or seasonal, and those that contain a mild satiric swipe or possibly a small, covert joke.''

Gill continues: ''Week in and week out, whether on newsstands or in the mail, they provide us with that welcome shock of recognition which we feel on encountering any old friend; the times may be aberrant, but here, we feel, is stability and reassurance.''

True enough, and particularly so when these ''old friends'' are encountered in the original on museum walls, in the company of their peers.

I was pleased to see William Cotton's 1940 cover depicting an elderly gentleman scolding a rabbit for leaving colored Easter eggs on the seat of his overstuffed chair, and Charles Addams's 1959 watercolor of a startled mountain climber encountering three huge, brightly decorated Easter eggs in a nest halfway up a mountain.

I was amused all over again by Helen Hokinson's wealthy matron surprised by an afternoon thundershower while reading love poems; William Steig's wonderfully wacky image of a huge woman chasing a huge butterfly; Laura Jean Allen's delicate study of shore birds; Peter Arno's 1931 cover of a casually dressed jogger in the midst of several very disapproving, formally attired ladies and gentlemen; and Edward Koren's zany and colorful study of wild and woolly sea creatures swimming beneath a fisherman in his boat.

But these are only a few of the old favorites - to say nothing of much more recent work - on view on the walls of the National Academy. It all adds up to a perfect summer show, especially since it represents a great deal more quality and talent than one would normally expect in such an exhibition.

At the National Academy, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through July 31. A chat with a Brazilian art critic

I recently spent several pleasant and informative hours with Jacob Klintowitz , arts commentator for TV Globo in Sao Paulo, Brazil, art critic for that city's Jornal da Tarde and O Estado de Sao Paulo, and author of several books on art. He was just completing a month-long, cross-country visit to the United States at the invitation of our government, and was curious about how an American critic covers the art scene in such a large, art-oriented city as New York.

Our conversation went smoothly, thanks to State Department interpreter Florence Fisher. It ranged far and wide, but gradually settled on Mr. Klintowitz's reactions to American art.

He was most impressed by the architecture he had seen, mainly because it was so simple, open, and direct, and because it appeared to represent the American spirit as he perceived it. He was also very taken by the extraordinary vitality Americans possessed, and intrigued by the way that vitality translated itself into the work of such artists as Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock. Calder, he felt, was America's most representative artist, a realization Klintowitz said came to him the moment he saw the artist's huge mobile in Washington's National Gallery of Art. When asked to list the other Americans whose work he particularly liked, he named Pollock, Edward Hopper, Louise Nevelson, and Isamu Noguchi. He admired Grant Wood because he was ''courageous,'' and felt drawn to the work of Andrew Wyeth because it represented a side of the American character not normally seen abroad. On the other hand, he was unimpressed by Frank Stella and Richard Diebenkorn, and was even less taken by much of what he had seen of our younger crop of artists.

A main thread of our conversation dealt with art-world values and ideals, and the degree to which they have been tarnished or modified by high-powered publicity and salesmanship, the increasing number of international exhibitions, and the wide distribution of art journals from around the world. When I mentioned how the four major American art magazines - Artforum, Art News, Art in America, and Arts - are often treated throughout the US like sacred texts to be studied and obeyed if one wished to achieve success, he indicated that those magazines were also familiar to Brazilian artists and art professionals. He stressed the minimizing effect such foreign literature can have on national distinctions.

He was particularly emphatic about the dangers art faces when it no longer represents a people's or an individual's deepest and most fertile dimensions - when it becomes primarily a market-controlled and fashion-inspired commodity. This problem, he said, was now universal, and as real a danger in Brazil as anywhere else. The immediate responsibility of the art critic, he concluded, was to make everyone - artist, curator, collector, and interested viewer - as fully aware of this situation as possible.

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