The Daily Heller: Leanne Shapton’s Novel Art Editor’s Newsletter

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The job of art editor is a bit anachronistic in the age of art directors and creative directors, content leads and other high-profile titles. But one major publication never had an art editor or art director on the masthead, although a graphic designer did, in fact, create its layout and typography, which pretty much remained the same for most of its 60 years. The New York Review of Books was known for it spartan layouts, 19th-century vintage spot illustrations and original pen-and-ink caricatures by David Levine. (Years after Levine died, his famous portraits continued to run as frequently as the Grandvilles and Dores that had inspired him.)

The design remained largely untouched until this year when Matt Willey, a Pentagram partner and magazine design expert, remade the NYRB to be of its time. In the proceedings, Leanne Shapton, who is an author, painter and narrative artist with a penchant for hand-drawing and lettering blocks of wood to simulate books and jackets, among other conceptual artworks, became NYRB’s first-ever art editor since its founding in 1963. It has been a major shift in aesthetics and philosophy for the periodical because not only has Shapton brought a cohort of expressive and impressionist illustrators to its pages, she is selecting enticing full-page artwork for covers, some of which provoke moods rather than concepts in the Levine tradition. She has also been sending out a series of Art Newsletters that she entirely writes and illustrates, related to the art and articles featured within each issue (available to subscribers only).

I’ve welcomed this premium enough to resubscribe to the NYRB. The text about the art in each print issue is breezy and interesting, but the impressionistic watercolors that punctuate the vertical scroll are simply delightful. I asked Shapton how she’s enjoying this new addition to her impressive resume, and why the newsletter began. (The images shown here are the pieces that lead off each installment.)

The NYRB has had art (in the form of David Levine, Edward Gorey and vintage cuts by 19th-century illustrators) since its inception. It has also had a designer (first Sam Antupit, who gave the brand its distinctive Clarendon logo). But it never had an art editor or, for that matter, full-bleed color art on its covers. When did you get the position, and what has been your mandate?
Emily Greenhouse, the editor, came to the job in 2019. One of the first things she set to doing was a redesign, focused mostly on type. She then created a position that would take charge of illustrations. It was initially going to be part time. I was offered that job in the fall of 2021, and we discussed my taking on the covers—I told Emily what a showcase each NYRB cover was, especially considering the tabloid shape. After a few weeks I argued that it was a full-, not part-time job. They were still in the middle of a redesign with Matt Willey and the type designer Henrik Kubel, and there was much to oversee and address in terms of its implementation. So a full-time position was created. 

My mandate, if I have one, has been to maintain the (David Levine–established) idea that illustrated portraiture and concept works well alongside opinion, ideas and analysis. Illustrations of authors and public figures are compelling and beautiful and worth getting the best illustrators and artists to execute.

As both a writer and illustrator, I value the authorship of both mediums. I like finding a human face behind words, and the interpretive, deeper study an illustration can deliver over a photograph. As the editors do with writers, I try to find a balance of genders and races and backgrounds, and an international mix of artists and illustrators. 

The full bleed on the covers was simply wanting the art to take up space, to art-spread. Our covers are so California king–sized! I like a poster, a strong graphic mix of image and type—a collision of information and inflection. And I like having as many coverlines and bylines as possible. I want writers to get their names and ideas out there. And the built-in balance the Review has always used: author and subject, with a colon as the fulcrum. In the redesign we created a place on the Contents page where the cover art is reproduced in full, without the superimposition of type.

I also love finding existing art to run with pieces and on covers—by emerging or established artists. The Review has always done this. One of my first jobs in NYC in the ’90s was finding the art to run in the Readings section at Harper’s Magazine. It was a dream job and I’m doing a lot of the same thing—finding a nonverbal complement to wonderful writing. 

Your own drawing style, often in watercolor or gouache, is abstract at times, impressionistic at others, representational in an ethereal spirit. You defy the current computer trends with a personal signature (literally and figuratively). How do you feel this approach has transformed the NYRB?
Since Levine, Gorey, Steinberg, the NYRB has always valued a hand-drawn line. So I’m not sure it’s transformed so much as naturally evolved. I’m glad my own particular style complements this. I’ve always loved illustrating portraits. We only have a small budget for a handful of commissioned illustrations each issue. So, if need be I pinch-hit myself to avoid using a publicity photo or agency image.

My mentor was James McMullan, who taught me to draw from life, the warmth and pulse in truly looking and depicting by eye and hand. I love all styles of illustration, but my tastes do skew to a hand-hewn but graphic tradition. A bit messy, warm. You can see this in some of our more regular contributors: Vivienne Flesher, Harriet Lee-Merrion, Yann Kebbi, Lorenzo Gritti, Ciara Quilty-Harper, Grant Shaffer, Johnalynn Holland, Geoff McFetridge, Ruth Gwily, Tom Bachtell. I love assigning McMullan too. I look for illustrators who are obvious readers, who love books and who often write books or graphic novels themselves. Seth, Carson Ellis, Jon Klassen, Juman Malouf, Adrian Tomine, Jillian Tamaki.

Coincidentally, the Review will be moving into Milton Glaser’s old building on 32nd Street, where I worked as McMullan’s assistant in my 20s.

You are a drawer, painter, designer and writer, often of simple everyday things yet with a nuanced irony. Is this how you see the NYRB as moving away from the 19th-century aesthetic?
Its 19th-century aesthetic was in large part dictated by Barbara Epstein’s collection of art history books and the economics of using images that were in the public domain. Editors would use Valloton woodcuts and Doré etchings to fill holes in the layout, as we never use pull quotes and don’t cut stories to fit. We now commission a series of abstract drawings in each issue to help with those layout gaps. 

Having a position dedicated to generating original and different art is a big part of the aesthetic change. We still use a lot of news, historical and wire images, and I like that the mix doesn’t feel too curated and feels up to date and urgent. I’m lucky that most of the time my taste in illustration and the taste of the editors align; they can sense my often oblique reasoning for a piece of fine art, and I can get a sense of and address their concerns. It’s very collaborative. Less designed and more about choices and discernment. The layout relies heavily on the template and the work and eyes of the editors and typesetters. In the course of mapping out and closing an issue I don’t touch the layout at all. 

We’re showing the titles for the NYRB digital newsletters, illustrated by you with a suite of patterns and impressions running in the body of the text. Whose idea was it to start this innovative complement to the magazine?
Emily Greenhouse asked me to write a newsletter about how I commissioned pieces and what I was looking at during the issue cycles. We wanted to showcase the work and talent of all the visual artists who are part of the magazine.

I’d never written a newsletter, and so to find my “newsletter voice” I suggested I always paint a series of what I’m looking at or where I am on any given issue close. This was more for my own bearings, so I could speak from a place of drawing and looking. It gave me a frame for taking a reader through the little quotidian details of the job.

When you conceive the art for the newsletter, what determines the direction of the imagery?
It is dictated by what I’m seeing or where I’ve been on a given week. Like a sketchbook. The view out my window: a work trip; my kids’ cat; city construction; a visit with my boyfriend. I’m painting a trapeze session for the next one, which is due in two days.     

You’re also using the cover art for the NYRB, making it into clothing. Where did that idea come from?
The fashion designer Rachel Comey is a subscriber and she approached us with the idea of printing some of our covers on her clothes and dresses. A number of women on staff are fans of hers, and we were flattered. We felt that her practices, standards of design, and aesthetics aligned with ours and the collaboration was an unexpected delight. We did book-drive events for prisons and libraries at Comey’s stores on both coasts.    

The job of a magazine art editor is different from that of an art or design director, however, it has deep roots in the history of publications. Is your job as art editor like anything you’ve ever done before?
A little bit. I rely most heavily on the experience I got art directing The New York Times Op-Ed page: reading closely, choosing the right illustrator to work with the subject, mix and deadline. In the early/late ’90s I was the editor of a culture page in the National Post in Canada. Both jobs were daily, which as you know develops a quick reaction time, and depends on a roster of fast and reliable contributors and good relationships with them. My time at Harper’s in the ’90s informed my sense of contemporary art and great journalism.