Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art

By Dave Dyment

Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art
Gwen Allen
MIT Press, 2011
300 pages, 125 colour illustrations
$40

With conceptual art, you need a magazine more than a gallery. – Brian O’Doherty

The magazine as a means for disseminating ideas was employed by a wide range of 20th Century artists. Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Vito Acconci, General Idea, Bas Jan Ader, Les Levine, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Maurizio Cattelan and Andy Warhol, have all founded magazines, newspapers, newsletters or other serial publications. Others, including Dan Graham, Michael Snow, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Daniel Buren and Yoko Ono intervened in existing magazines by taking out ad space and using it to publish artist projects.

In 1967, artist and critic Brian O’Doherty served as the guest-editor of “The Minimalism Issue” of Aspen Magazine, which included contributions by John Cage, Mel Bochner, Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and many others, housed in a stark white box. Between 1965 and 1971, Aspen published ten issues, which varied wildly in terms of format and quality. Described by its publisher as "the first three-dimensional magazine”, Aspen often included flipbooks, greeting cards, flexi-disks, cardboard sculptures, printed scores and 16 mm films (a first in periodical publishing, apparently). Andy Warhol guest edited the “FAB Pop Art issue” and Dan Graham compiled the contents for an issue dedicated to Fluxus that was designed by George Maciunas. Other themed issues focused on Marshall McLuhan, Asian art and psychedelia.

Spring 1972, no. 4 issue of Avalanche magazine: Picturing Lawrence Weiner.Spring 1972, issue no. 4 of Avalanche magazine, cover picturing Lawrence Weiner.Aspen, along with six other artists’ periodicals are explored in depth in Gwen Allen’s Artists’ Magazines, the second large survey to come out in the last year (and indeed, ever). Allen’s book follows In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955, the impressive, first-out-of-the-gate overview released a year prior. Allen presents chapters on five American publications (Aspen, Avalanche, Art-Rite, Real Life and 0 to 9), one Canadian (FILE Megazine) and one German (Interfunktionen). (Remarkably, the only crossover between Allen’s book and In Numbers are the last two titles.)  

The subtitle of Allen’s book, “An Alternative Space for Art”, seems better suited for In Numbers, which commits itself to magazines as artworks, and adhered to a strict set of criteria regarding what constitutes an artists’ periodical. Anything resembling journalism was considered outside their stated purview and omitted. Artists’ Magazines, on the other hand, investigates the hybridized artists’ periodicals that include not only primary content from artists, but also varying degrees of discourse.

Avalanche, for example, eschewed criticism and exhibition reviews, but featured numerous interviews with the intention that information should come “straight from the artists.” The magazine published only 13 issues in their six-year run from 1970 to 1976, but included 61 interviews. Each cover featured a black and white portrait of an artist, often appearing defiant and brooding. The portraiture may have differed from celebrity magazines but still contributed to the cult of personality. Avalanche borrowed the glossy square format from Artforum, which Allen reads as “both an homage and challenge to [Artforum’s] authority.”

The interdependence, mutual interest and opposition to traditional art magazines figures largely in Allen’s thesis and Artforum appears as the most frequent target of the publications featured. With today’s proliferation of art magazines and journals, Artforum’s influence is considerably more diffuse than it once was; however, for many artists and writers at the time, it felt monolithic, with excessive clout and sway.

FILE Megazine took Avalanche’s flirtation with the glamourization of the artworld up a few notches, both as satire and strategy. Cover portraits included Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Tina Turner and the trio of artists themselves. The name, logo and oversized format is borrowed from Life magazine, the general-interest, light entertainment magazine that had been a staple of newsstands for almost a century. They also borrowed from Life the notion that a publication didn’t have to merely report news –  it could create it. FILE is one of the longest running artists’ periodicals, and also one of the most influential: Warhol was a subscriber, and modeled his own Interview, in part, after FILE.

FILE featured a glossy cover, masking the newsprint pages inside, but Art-Rite wore its thrift and ephemerality on its sleeve. The thin, flimsy half-tabloid newsprint format seemed suited to the stated goals of producing something accessible and unpretentious. “We wanted people to throw it away,” said Edit Deak, one of the three founders (and all students of O’Doherty).

The contents of Aspen magazine, issue 5+6, Fall 1967: Edited and designed by Brian O'Doherty.The contents of Aspen magazine, issue 5+6, Fall 1967, edited and designed by Brian O'Doherty.

Real Life, the most recent of the case studies, ran from 1979 to 1994, with the intention to “provide a forum for our generation to speculate on the general culture, a place for artists to talk about and with artists, discuss each other’s work and consider the work that had influenced us”. Whereas FILE advised artists to “sell out before it’s too late”, Real Life aimed to be “a clearing house for ideas as free as possible from the strictures of self-promotion and commodity fetishism.”

Interfunktionen, too, aspired to be “independent of commercial culture”. Founded in 1968, Interfunktionen was a vehicle for activist art, set against the backdrop of generational divide and the controversy surrounding Documenta 4, which many artists felt had adopted a market-driven agenda at odds with the art of the sixties. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who took over the role of editor, wanted the magazine to “break down market confinements and develop new forms of distribution, in line with the political dimension of Conceptual art.” In his second (and final) issue as editor, Buchloh published Anselm Kiefer’s controversial Occupations, showing the young artist giving the Nazi salute in front of monuments throughout Europe. "Who's this fascist who thinks he's an antifascist?" asked an outraged Marcel Broodthaers, once a keen supporter and contributor to the magazine who led a charge that caused the loss of ads and an almost total withdrawal of funding.

As labours of love, many artists’ periodicals petered out with fading interests and in-fighting, running out of funding, steam or both. Aspen folded after being told it wasn’t a magazine at all, but a “non-descript publication”. At the time, the U.S. Postal Service stated that to classify as a periodical the publication should be “formed of printed sheets that are issued at least four times a year at regular, specified intervals (frequency) from a known office of publication” (39 US Code 4354). By revoking its second-class license and the reduced mailing rates that come with it, the post office effectively ended Aspen’s ability to sustain itself.  

Allen argues that the short-lived nature of artists’ periodicals is precisely their appeal – that they did not fold in defeat, but were always intended to be vanguard and ephemeral. Their importance cannot be measured against their brief life spans and limited circulation, but by their continuing influence and the communities they fostered.

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. Dave is represented by MKG127 and blogs about artists' books and multiples at www.artistsbooksandmultiples.blogspot.com.