The Story Behind the Iconic Andy Warhol 'Esquire' Cover

Before the breast-feeding three-year-old and gay Obama, there was Warhol, drowning in a can of soup. Below, legendary designer George Lois talks about how he created the image.

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During his legendary advertising career on Madison Avenue, George Lois's creations included campaign ads for Robert Kennedy, the "I Want My MTV" commercial, and appeals for the retrial of the imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. But he's arguably more famous for a side project. From 1962 to 1972 he moonlighted as the art director for Harold Hayes's Esquire magazine, designing 44 covers revered for their simple images, complex messages, and outrageous gall. Those covers, installed in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection in 2008, include a portrait of the Seneca chief who had posed, 52 years previously, for the buffalo nickel, and a depiction of Muhammad Ali, recently stripped of his world heavyweight title for dodging the Vietnam draft, as the arrow-riddled martyr St. Sebastian. In light of the past few months' string of controversies over magazine covers, we asked Lois to share a sketch and several photographs from one of his most famous covers, in which Andy Warhol drowns in a can of Campbell's soup. The sketch and final product are above; the photos and Lois's story of creating the cover is below.

Harold Hayes and I would have lunch once a month at the Four Seasons. He would run down what was in the issue. In this case, he started off with a title: "The final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde." Almost immediately I said I got it: I'll have Andy Warhol drowning in a can of tomato soup. He said, "You think he'll do it? And I said, "Yeah, sure he'll do it." Andy was a big fan of the covers. I knew him pretty well. I met him when I was 19 years old—that was in 1950. At that time his name was Andy Warhola. He was a quiet kid. Did great drawings. Saturdays, after I played basketball, I used to go up to Madison Avenue to look at the art galleries. Andy used to be a scavenger walking up and down Madison Avenue looking for art. He had terrible taste. He used to buy things made yesterday morning being passed off as African art.

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I called Andy and said, "I'm going to put you on the cover of Esquire magazine." And he said, "Wait a minute, George, I know you. What's the idea?" I said, "Andy, I'm going to have you drowning in a giant can of Campbell's soup." And he laughed and went, "Oh, I love it." Then he said, "George, won't you have to build a gigantic can?" And I said, "Andy, what are you, a schmuck?" This was before computers. I said, "Andy, we take a photo of a can, and photos of you looking like you're drowning, and I take black and white stats and paste them together, and have it printed on one surface—the C-print, it was called in those days—as neatly as possible, and I re-touch it, and it looks like you're drowning." He was amazed you could do that.

He got to the studio, and did those funny poses. They're a scream, aren't they? I sent you three rejects, and the one I used is not one of them. There are probably 12 or 13 all together, all crazy. He worked his ass off. I said, "Andy, you're drowning." "Andy, yell this time." He loved it. He had a lot of fun. He was a good guy. I sound critical of him, but I liked him a lot. He was a sweet kid. I used five or six photographers over the years. The guy who did this was Carl Fischer. When he took the photographs of him, I had to get this crazy, frightened, psychotic look. I didn't have him going down easily.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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