The Tough Beauty Of Robert McGinnis

A new book honors the work of one of the great unsung artists of the 20th Century.

Throughout pop culture history there exists a special brand of individual - the unknown men and women whose creative work in marketing and advertising silently and indelibly shaped not just our tastes, but even our desires, if you want to be lofty about it. Not to get all Don Draper on you, but it’s such a romantic, tragic archetype - the artist who toils in obscurity, quietly defining the aesthetics of the century, not giving us what we want, but telling us what we want.

Robert McGinnis is one of these people. His name might not ring a bell, but if you’ve ever browsed a vintage pulp novel in a used bookstore, or paged through a collection of '60s and '70s movie posters or, hell, if you didn’t do any of those things and only watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you’ve seen the work of Robert McGinnis. For nearly 70 years, Mr. McGinnis has been creating commercial art that has compelled men and women to buy millions of paperbacks and movie tickets, his imagery speaking to something primal inside that part of our brain that makes us want something. Now some of his finest work has been collected in The Art Of Robert McGinnis, and as you can imagine, 176 pages of McGinnis’ alluring artwork makes for one hefty slab of want.

After turning in eye-catching, light commercial art in the 1940s, Robert McGinnis carved out a niche for himself in the post-war market, painting covers for paperback pulp novels. It was on those covers where he created what came to be known as the McGinnis Woman. She was posed alone, usually on a barstool or in a bedroom, and in McGinnis’ most far-reaching innovation, she was almost always making eye contact with the viewer, inviting him into a world of trouble. One could be tempted to call McGinnis’ art the dark side of Norman Rockwell, or “film noir Frazetta.” (But as McGinnis’ work runs parallel to Mr. Frazetta’s and to this author he’s every bit Mr. Frazetta’s equal, we’d better not.) The McGinnis Woman graced countless pulp covers in the '50s, '60s and '70s, her fashion shifting with the times, but that sexy, sultry, signature look in her eye unwavering. With the McGinnis Woman, the illustrator quite literally changed the face of pop culture marketing. “But is it art?” Hell yes it is. McGinnis’ women, their bodies somehow looking simultaneously soft to the touch and chiseled from marble, would look amazing on anyone’s wall. Maybe even mine.

In the 1960s Hollywood took notice of McGinnis’ distinctive style and commissioned him to paint quite a few iconic film posters - Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Odd Couple and a run on the James Bond franchise that included Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die. He transitioned into romance novels in the '80s, and in later years focused on landscapes and scenes of the American West. Recently he’s returned to his pulp roots, supplying art for the Hard Case Crime line of paperbacks (including Stephen King’s Joyland), and lending an air of authenticity to the Johnny Gossamer novels featured in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. He’s still painting today, thank goodness.

Badass Digest is proud to feature a variety of Mr. McGinnis’ art in this gallery.