In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955

By Dave Dyment

In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955
Edited by Philip E. Aaron and Andrew Roth, with contributions by Gil Blank, Victor Brand, Clive Philpot, Nancy Princethal, Neville Wakefield, William S. Wilson.
Hardcover, 440 pages
Published by jrp-ringier and PPP Editions, New York (2009)
$90 US

Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal readymade, Fountain, is generally considered one of the 20th Century’s landmark works. The artist submitted it to an open exhibition in 1917 held by the Society of Independent Artists, which roundly rejected it. Fountain might never have gained further attention were it not for a stirring defence in an anonymous editorial in the second issue of The Blind Man, where it was argued that whether or not the artist made the work “with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it.” Duchamp was co-founder and editor of this short-lived magazine.

For the better part of a century artists have been using the format of the periodical to create and disseminate their work. Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void, another iconic work, was published in the artist’s broadsheet publication Dimanche, which was sold at Parisian newsstands in 1960. Artists' magazines were integral to numerous important movements, such as Conceptual Art, Mail Art, Performance Art, Intermedia, Concrete Poetry, Neo-Dadaism and Fluxus. The name Fluxus was originally coined by George Maciunas for the title of a magazine of experimental notation that he had hoped to produce.

For the uninitiated, a simple distinction suffices: the “artist periodical” is a primary source and an “art magazine” is a secondary one. That is to say, whereas an art magazine features reproductions and documentation of artwork as illustrations, the artist periodical is an alternative site for the realization of art works rather than their review.

Defining the medium in terms of what it is not is useful, and in keeping with the origins of the movement, where the spirit of opposition was key. Many of the publications arose from the desire to counter prevailing models: the controlling of the critical discourse by commercial magazines such as Artforum led Liza Béar and Willoughby Sharp to found Avalanche; the German outlet for activist art, Interfunktionen, began as a response to dissatisfaction with Documenta 4; even opposition to other artists’ periodicals led to the creation of new publications – for example, Ana Banana’s Vile magazine was created as a response to General Idea’s FILE megazine.

While some adhered to the standard magazine format as a strict mandate, many artist periodicals took other forms, including oversized posters, folders, newspaper tabloids, hand-bound works, chapbooks, boxed pieces, scrolls, etcetera. The periodicals would often include multiples such as records, banners, stickers, postage stamps and postcards. Some full issues were released as other media: Vision #4 was released as a 12” vinyl record, as was Just Another Asshole #5; Ohio #7 which was released as a VHS tape.

Left: General Idea: FILE megazine, vol 4, issue 1, summer 1978 (the “1984: A Year in Pictures” issue): Edition of 3,000 copies. Right: Maurizio Cattelan: Permanent Food,  vol. 7, 1998. Edition of approximately 3,000 copies.Left: General Idea: FILE megazine, vol 4, issue 1, summer 1978 (the “1984: A Year in Pictures” issue), edition of 3,000 copies. Right: Maurizio Cattelan: Permanent Food, vol. 7, 1998, edition of approximately 3,000 copies.

Like their cousins, artists’ books and multiples, artists’ periodicals were intended to be easily distributable, affordable and accessible. And now – much like artists’ books and multiples – they can be difficult to track down and often costly. Complete sets of FILE megazine can sell for upwards of $5,000. Depending on the issue, a single copy of Aspen magazine might sell for the same price. Putting together complete collections piecemeal is the artworld equivalent of collecting a complete set of baseball cards. Critical discourse, too, has been hard to come by; apart from a few key articles, very little has been published on the subject of artists’ magazines.

However, in the last few years a large number of important artists’ periodicals have been reprinted and made available again at reasonable prices. Avalanche, Salon, FILE megazine, the Great Bear pamphlets, Vito Acconci’s 0 to 9 and several others have been reissued - bound, boxed or both. Even more recent titles like Harmony Korine’s fanzines have been anthologized and reprinted.

And, with the recent publication of In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955, there is finally a book befitting the importance of the medium. The first and largest comprehensive survey of artists’ magazines, In Numbers features over 50 titles. Highlights include Maurizio Cattelan’s Permanent Food (15 perfect-bound volumes of images cannibalized from other magazines), Hans Peter Feldmann’s found-photography Ohio, Wolf Vostell’s influential Dé-coll/age, Tom Sach’s hand-drawn Nutsy’s, and the elaborate Fluxus Yearboxes.

Anthologies that purport to be representative but, in fact, present the holdings of a single collection are generally suspect, but here, collector Phil Aarons has gone to great lengths to lay out careful criteria and adhere to them fairly strictly. Sure, the exceptions to the rule reveal the inevitable bias of the editors, but that has to be expected when compiling a medium whose definition is still nebulous. That said, it’s odd to encounter several minor publications with minimal distribution or impact that are included at the expense of 8 x 10, Art-Rite, Centerfold, Cisoria Arte, Commonpress, Extensions, Real Bullshit, The Source and other classics. This is a small qualm, though, magnified only by the lack of other titles available on the subject. (The MIT Press lists a forthcoming title by Gwen Allen called Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space, adding to the dialogue of this long overdue exploration of the genre.)

In addition to being meticulously researched, In Numbers is profusely illustrated and nicely designed, apart from an unnecessary (and tight) cardboard slipcase and glassine cover, which I promptly discarded. My impulse generally tends towards careful preservation but, unlike the work this book documents, I don’t need this book to be a work of art itself. I’m happy to have it as an invaluable resource that I can turn to regularly.

Dave DymentDave Dyment is a Toronto-based artist whose practice includes audio, video, multiples, performance, writing and curating. His work has been exhibited in Calgary, Dublin, Edmonton, Halifax, New York City, Philadelphia, Surrey, Toronto and Varna, Bulgaria. Recent projects include a series of artist’s books, one-hundred year old whiskey and homemade LSD. His most recent book, Pop Quiz, is available from Paul + Wendy Projects. Dyment is represented by MKG127 in Toronto.