During the sleazy paperback era of the 1950s, femme fatales dominated book covers. Creator of more than 600 covers, Robert A. Maguire mastered the form and crafted images throughout the decade and into the 1980s. Pop-culture historian Jim Silke surveys this prolific painter’s career in the retrospective Dames, Dolls & Gun Molls: The Art of Robert A. Maguire.
The thin 112-page volume, dominated by lush, full-color reproductions, opens with a fond remembrance of her father by Lynn Maguire and a brief introduction to the artist’s early life. Maguire spent large portions of his New Jersey childhood doodling with his architect father. Since his family believed that artists starved, Maguire entered Duke University as a chemistry major. In 1941, he left Duke and joined the Army. After World War II, Maguire decided to follow his passion and enrolled at the famed Art Students League in Manhattan. He began his professional art career in 1946, designing covers and interior illustrations for Trojan Publications — producers of such trashy fare as Hollywood Detective Magazine and Pocket Detective Magazine — soon moved on to book covers, and became a defining artist of the noir aesthetic.
Sadly, this promising opening proves to be a red herring; Silke steers clear of Maguire’s personal life in the remaining pages. Even though he includes a photograph of Maguire’s first wife, he never mentions her in the text — who she was, why their marriage ended, or even whether Maguire remarried. Biographical material illuminates the artist’s mind, places his work in context, and ultimately would have produced a far more intriguing study. Due in part to this omission, the book lacks the power and impact that Maguire’s work deserves.
Silke’s discussions of Maguire’s publishing history suffers from the same kind of shortcomings. His facts only tease the reader, providing an incomplete view of a potentially fascinating and enlightening facet of Maguire’s professional life. At times, Silke engages in sloppy research. He writes “Gold Medal came out with the first original paperback, Hill Girl by Charles Williams, published in 1951.” While there is no consensus about exactly when the first paperback original came out, numerous books first appeared in paperback during the 1940s, including several crime novels. Further compounding the book’s weaknesses, Silke cites just one source in the entire narrative, yet he reprints quotes from several artists, including Maguire, who died in 2005. Whether he performed the interviews himself or conducted the research to find them, Silke needs to acknowledge his sources. Additionally, Dames, Dolls & Gun Molls lacks a bibliography and an index.
Silke touches on the various aspects of Maguire’s long career: the pulp-magazine covers, his crime era, the historical novels, romances, and even his brief foray into greeting-card design. Much like in the rest of the book, this coverage offers little more than a typical magazine article. The brief digressions on Maguire’s editor and author interactions lack any real depth.
Scattered interesting tidbits manage to emerge from the shallows, especially when Silke focuses on Maguire’s actual craft. Among the covers and paintings, Maguire’s black-and-white model photographs, designs, and pencil roughs establish the artist’s immense skill. In the final chapter, “The Maguire Method,” Silke deconstructs Maguire’s technique.
“The images you see at the top of this page demonstrate his typical approach to the female figure. Maguire has made the head in the the finished painting slightly smaller than the model’s head, and lengthened her body from the waist down, making the figure about eight heads tall while the model is seven heads tall.”
But even here, Silke, an accomplished artist himself, fails to discuss the details at any length
The book is a visual delight, but beyond the artwork, it’s a pricey failure. The lack of bibliographic notations for the images (publication dates and publisher), biographical data, and citations make the Dames, Dolls & Gun Molls: The Art of Robert A. Maguire of little interest to the casual fan or scholar. But it sure is pretty.
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