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Don't Throw This Away! 'Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art'

As these magazines become highly prized items, with great personal value to those involved and historical value to those just interested, their “commodity fetishism” increases.

Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space For Art

Publisher: The MIT Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: Gwen Allen
Price: $34.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-03

There's something about the actuality and perhaps ultimate disposability of a paper magazine as a pure luxury item that offers an unparalleled, and more and more rarefied experience. I say 'experience', because a magazine, though infinitely varied, is as individual and capacious a medium as painting or sculpture, inviting a very specific form of pleasure, a physically serial satisfaction over a wide spectrum of subjects and materials.

I don’t consider the paper-magazine-experience as being better than, or usurped or replaced by that of Internet magazines so much as mirrored, modified and appended by it. Yes, there are obvious formal differences: The Internet weds vast archival potentialities with instantaneous informational retrieval in an essentially formless mass of digital energy, while paper magazines can (usually) be held in one’s hands, a complete and discrete object, whatever far-reaching agendas or information there may be on the inside. Yet “magazines” as a medium are fundamentally similar: experiential forums that are as much about social interaction as information dissemination.

Given the inarguable parentage of paper magazines to those on the Internet, it is impressive that in her book Artists’ Magazines author Gwen Allen, assistant professor of Art History at San Francisco State University, never mentions it. I believe she maybe uses the word 'digital' once or twice, usually with a 'pre-' affixed to it, but Artists’ Magazines covers just that -- the creation and distribution of these seminal periodicals that were for the most part produced by and for artists.

To give a sense of the book’s flavor as well as approach, it’s worth quoting Allen’s thesis at length:

“This book explains the significance of artist’s magazines in art of the 1960s through the 1980s by examining magazines that were published by artists and their supporters as alternatives to the mainstream art press and commercial gallery system […] It also reconsiders the political significance of conceptual art’s use of language, documentation, and publicity by examining the specific ways in which the magazine as a medium and distribution form engendered a critique of art’s institutions and audiences. By approaching these strategies through the lens of the magazine’s distinct material conditions and social relationships, this book strives to more fully grasp the successes as well as failures of these practices, while complicating the way in which these very terms are mobilized to assess art’s significance and value.”

Whew. Clearly, this book is highly academic -- when someone uses the word “mobilized”, you know what you’re in for -- but although academics often have a language all their own, Allen’s prose is direct, generally jargon free, and loaded with insight and information, and her subject is enormously interesting.

In establishing the background, Allen is quick to point out the difference between artists’ magazines and art magazines of the '60s, the latter focusing largely on the criticism and promotion of a specific type of art, mostly painterly and formalist. As Allen states, formalist criticism had an overriding “faith in the objectivity of optical truth”, so that an artwork’s meaning, significance or “total form” could be grasped, in effect, with one look.

All the publications Allen discusses generated out of response to this dominant critical position, held by such mainstream art magazines as Art in America, ArtNews and especially Artforum, whose Reign of Terror, formalist to the extreme, was antipathetic to the growing conceptual concerns of much international art of the '60s and '70s.

The new “dematerialized” art -- a term coined by Lucy Lippard with John Chandler in their highly influential 1968 essay “The Dematerialization of Art” -- was fundamentally non-institutional, yet required some place to be enacted or indeed promoted. As Allen states: “Conceptual art depended upon the magazine as a new site of display, which allowed it to be experienced by a broader public than the handful of people actually present to witness a temporary object, idea, or act.”

So art objects, in a sense, have never really been gotten rid of as even concept artists found the need to actualize their ideas, whether through documentation, performance field notes, etc., a process Lippard sensed as “indicative of a sneaking nostalgia for a certain executionary éclat denied them [the artists] in the work itself.” In other words, there was just too much fetishistic pleasure to be had. So the dematerialization of art led to its re-materialization in/as artists’ magazines.

Though eventually the mainstream art magazines began publishing artists’ writings -- perhaps most notably Robert Smithson’s “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (published in Artforum, November 1969), and Dan Graham’s “Homes for America” (Arts Magazine, December 1966-January 1967) -- a growing dissatisfaction with the commercial art press’s essentially promotional and evaluative function led many artists, critics, poets and all-around radicals to publish their own magazines.

These magazines, an idiosyncratic mix of instinctive theory and self-criticism, were primarily sites for enactment, for trace evidence of aesthetic concepts as well as the aesthetic constructs themselves. Indeed, both the Graham and Smithson pieces were intended as site-specific works, with the magazines serving as the “exhibition space”.

The “magazine as a new site of display” is the primary shared element of the seven chronologically overlapped case studies Allen presents as illustrative of her subject: Aspen (1965-1971), 0 to 9 (1967-69), Avalanche (1970-76), Art-Rite (1973-78), FILE (1972-89), Real Life (1979-94) and Interfunktionen (1968-75).

When I was younger, one of my brothers subscribed to something called the World Explorer series, where each month he would receive an Explorer kit, various items in a cardboard box almost like the disassembled elements of a construction by the artist Joseph Cornell: reproduced maps and postcards, small toys and totems. It was fascinating to unpack and inspect all these items, even though, or maybe because, at that age I had very little idea of their geographical context, and so the objects remained just that to me -- disconnected, enigmatic things, with a mysterious potency all their own.

Aspen, “a multimedia magazine housed in a cardboard box”, must’ve offered a similar thrill. In some ways reminiscent of a communal version of Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-valise (a “miniature museum” that was essentially a suitcase lined with small reproductions of the artist’s work), Aspen was, as Allen describes, a “three-dimensional publication…with all kinds of unbound contents, including flex-disc records, films, souvenirs, and other objects.” The magazine’s ambitious objectives were explained in the first issue: “In calling it a ‘magazine’, we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”

This idea of a kind of piratical publication loaded with artistic booty was perfectly congenial to the “unpacked” or form-free (as opposed to formless) ideas of avant-garde art in the air at the time, and Aspen had numerous guest editors take advantage of its unique format. Andy Warhol, for example, found that the magazine “emulated the multisensory experience of [his] intermedia performance group, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, including in his issue such things as “a reversible movie flipbook with excerpts from [his] film Kiss…a set of postcard reproductions…and a flexi-disc of the first Velvet Underground release, Loop, a never-ending, feedback-infused, instrumental drone.”

As Allen notes, Aspen’s interactive firework-display quality was also a literalization of the ideas of such theorists as Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes. McLuhan, Allen writes, “argued that new ‘cool’ media…offered participatory, non-linear, and multisensory experiences that would supersede the linear, static format of the phonetic alphabet.” For Aspen “readers”, such interactivity required not only participation, but even in a very real sense, a completion of the magazine by viewing its films, listening to its flexi-discs, etc., a conception which the editor acknowledged: “you don’t just read it: you hear it, hang it, feel it, fly it, sniff it, taste it, fold it, wear it, shake it, even project it on your living room wall.”

Such notions have their clear resonances and origins in Roland Barthes’s famous essay “The Death of the Author”, a piece, I was surprised to learn, that was actually commissioned for Aspen. Allen insists rightly that the essay “must be understood as a deeply site-specific piece of writing” which, in context, enacts Barthes’s “insistence on the primacy of reception--‘the birth of the reader’”.

This greater emphasis on the reader anticipated contemporary visual media practices in obvious ways, as Allen makes implicitly clear: “[T]he sequence of the magazine [is left] up to the individual reader, who manipulates its various components, determining their arrangement and relationship to one another”.

Sound familiar? In this way, an active reader becomes a kind of co-performer, not just completing an artwork second-hand, but side-by-side, so to speak, with the artist.

This performative aspect was emphasized further in Allen’s next case studies. 0 to 9, Avalanche and Art-Rite were all New York-based publications that vowed to take art “off the page” and into the streets, though each publication had singular qualities and manners of attack. 0 to 9’s often-purposely sloppy mimeography housed an edgy, druggy “street”-seriality, and a poetic attitude toward language as “a messy, unruly substance that disregards conventional spacings and margins, to say nothing of proper grammar and syntax”. A poem’s words might be dispersed throughout multiple copies of the magazine, or performance “articles” converge on the streets like so much human litter.

Avalanche, a more intermittent document-and-interview publication, emphasized its stance as a kind of “non-site” (after Smithson), where artists “outside the dominant art world centers” could “show” their work in or through or, more often, as the magazine. Allen asks: “Was it an art magazine? Was it an exhibition space? Was it some combination of the two? […]Avalanche raises these questions about its own status without fully resolving them…”.

Art-Rite took to heart the alternative spaces implied by Avalanche. Allen sees its “homespun, zine-like format” and “quaint, artless quality with half-tabloid newsprint pages, hand-stenciled logo, and do-it-yourself layout” as not just playing “an ancillary role to alternative gallery spaces, but [as] an original prototype for such spaces.” The magazine’s anti-critic criticism, often bylined collectively or pseudonymously, catered to a series of counters: counter-publics, counter-cultures, counter-spaces.

Although these “living” magazines were shot-through with Duchampian irony, they were also informed by the political earnestness of the '60s and '70s, when formerly disenfranchised groups struggled to take center stage, creating a charged atmosphere of bonds-breaking and boundary-crossing, while opening up a limitless field of operation.

Such irreverent transgression was especially prevalent in FILE magazine, “founded by the Canadian collective General Idea as a vehicle for mail art and the Canadian art scene [and] a means to document and publicize the group’s own projects”. This magazine (or “megazine”) blended a kind of queer punk ethos with Dada-esque provocation and self-mockery. Their name and logo an obvious anagram of Life magazine, FILE had a “glossy, full-color cover, which disguised a cheap tabloid interior, suggesting a ‘queering’ of the media that at once exaggerated and undermined its spectacular visual regime.”

This “transvestite” publication was aware of itself both as commodity and community, using mass media to create mass media to critique mass media, all in an Orwellian/Warholian spirit.

Unlike the overtly subversive, even derisive forms of appropriation that were going on in FILE, the far more appropriative Real Life, a “noncommercial critical discursive space [that] chronicled the new postmodernist media and appropriation practices of artists in the 1980s”, was a more critically-driven enterprise, though no less communal. Although the magazine served as “clearing house” for “artists’ writings and projects, criticism, working notes, reproductions, and interviews”, it also advertised itself as more than just an archive for a community, or a communal repository, but a community itself, free of “commodity fetishism”.

However outwardly shabby or inwardly irreverent, all these “galleries without walls” were very sophisticated conceptually and critically, each seeking “to deprivilege and democratize the experience of art” and the art world by “counter[ing] the market-driven concerns and egotistical posturing […] perceived in the commercial art press” and instead provide “witness and encourag[ment to] the vital cross-fertilization” of artistic practices from the linguistic to the performative.

And yet all of these publications struggled with a tension between the democratizing of art and the threat of elitism and isolationism inherent in avant-garde practice in general. Because they were aimed at and invested with such a strong sense of specific, even specialized, community, such “artistic democratization” often tipped into “artistic insularity”, as something only the artists or art people in-the-know would get.

As if to counter this threat of insulation or isolation, Allen closes her case studies with the Germany-based, internationally-concerned Interfunktionen, “founded to protest the conservative curatorial strategies of Documenta [and] a crucial vehicle for international and especially transatlantic exchange”. The magazine functioned also as a way for Germany to regain its artistic identity and reposition itself on the international art scene. “This tension,” states Allen, “between the internationalization of German art and the development of a local or regional artistic identity played out in the pages of Interfunktionen in a subtle yet telling way. While on the one hand the magazine participated in the Americanization of the German art world, it also provided a lens through which German artists could reframe this international activity in relationship to their own history and experience.”

The magazine met its end when it tested the limits of Germany’s re-identification by publishing Anselm Kiefer’s Occupations (1969), a photographic series featuring the artist “dressed in riding boots and jodhpurs and his arm raised in a Hitler salute, posed in front of various historical monuments in France, Italy and Switzerland”. Even the avant-garde has boundaries.

Along with her richly-detailed and perceptive case studies, Allen provides “A Compendium Of Artists’ Magazines From 1945 To 1989”, a truly imposing appendix nearly 100 pages long of worldwide periodicals from 0 to Z -- or really from +-0 to Zweitschrift. For each entry, Allen includes publishing information as well as a short description, and it’s remarkable and kind of sad to see how many zines have come and gone throughout the years. The book also has copious reproductions, in black & white and color, so paging through it as satisfyingly visual and tactile as the original magazines themselves must have been.

Ironically, as these magazines become highly prized items, with great personal value to those involved and historical value to those just interested, their “commodity fetishism” increases. No doubt many of them are long gone, back to pulp and dust, but as I read, I daydreamed about uncovering some of them in a cardboard box at a rummage sale or used bookstore, if I could find one. Most of these do-it-yourself publications now fetch a pretty penny. Talk about hot commodities.


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