Introduction from Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for ArtJanuary 17, 2012
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, published in 2011 by MIT Press. This article is posted with permission from MIT Press. All rights reserved.
The expectation of failure is connected with the very name of a Magazine.
In 1788, the American publisher and dictionary writer Noah Webster, founder of several short-lived periodicals, lamented the precarious enterprise of publishing a magazine.1 The average life span of a magazine in the United States between 1741 and 1850 was only eighteen months, and it was not until well into the nineteenth century that the advertising industry made magazine publishing a reliably profitable business.2 Yet the ephemerality that defined the magazine at the dawn of its invention has remained fundamental to the social possibilities inherent in this particular form of printed matter. To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment. Unlike books, which are intended to last for future generations, magazines are decidedly impermanent. Their transience is embodied by their unprecious formats, flimsy covers, and inexpensive paper stock, and it is suggested by their seriality, which presumes that each issue will soon be rendered obsolete by the next.
During the 1960s and 1970s magazines became an important new site of artistic practice, functioning as an alternative exhibition space for the dematerialized practices of conceptual art. Abandoning canvases, pedestals, and all they stood for in the established institutions of modernism, this art sought out lightweight and everyday media, and relied heavily on texts, photographs, and other kinds of documents. 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—or in the case of earth art, ambitious enough to make the trek to the remote locations where this work tended to reside. As the art historian David Rosand observed of the pivotal new role of the art magazine during this period, “you read it. But you read it because it told you what was going on partly because so much of what was going on was not to be seen in the galleries.”3
While artists used the magazine to document their work, they also began to explore it as a medium in its own right, creating works expressly for the mass-produced page. These original artists’ contributions (sometimes called artists’ projects, artists’ pages, or magazine art) investigated the distinct materiality of the magazine as well as its unique properties as a form of communication.4 The everyday, throwaway form of the magazine mirrored art’s heightened sense of its own contingency in the 1960s and 1970s: its insistence on the actual time and place in which it was encountered. Inexpensive and accessible, the magazine was an ideal expressive vehicle for art that was more concerned with concept, process, and performance than with final marketable form. The ephemerality of the magazine was central to its radical possibilities as an alternative form of distribution that might replace the privileged space of the museum with a more direct and democratic experience. As Joseph Kosuth described his Second Investigation (1968), which took the form of advertisements in various newspapers and magazines, “people can wrap dishes in my work.”5
Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art explores the significance of artists’ 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. These publications, scores of which began—and more often than not ended—during this period, were driven not by profit motives but by an earnest and impassioned belief in the magazine’s capacity to radicalize the reception of art. As Benjamin Buchloh recalled of Interfunktionen (a magazine that he took over in 1974 and edited for just two issues before a controversial work within its pages led to its financial undoing): “I think you have to be very young and very naive and very lunatic to do a magazine in the first place.”6 If this observation captures something of the utopian hopes artists and critics pinned to the magazine during this time, it also suggests how these aspirations paradoxically acknowledged—and even in some sense depended upon—the very fleeting and precarious nature of the magazine itself.
Like the relationships and communities they embody, artists’ magazines are volatile and mutable. They seek out the leading and precarious edges; they live at the margins rather than in the stable and established center. They thrive on change and impermanence, favor process over product, and risk being thrown away. They court failure. This book argues that such failure should be understood not as an indication of defeat, but as an expression of the vanguard nature of these publications and their refusal of commercial interests. Moving beyond the literal failure of magazines, it will examine how this quality took on metaphorical and ideological significance as a rejection of standard measures of art world success, and as a different way of imagining art’s power and potential.
Designed for Reproducibility
Walter Benjamin was among the first to observe that when art is reproduced and distributed through the mass media, it becomes a qualitatively different form of communication, one with profound aesthetic and political repercussions. In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he argued that when a work of art is mechanically duplicated, it loses its aura, or its unique existence in time and space. However, at the same time, he insisted, it gains a new—and highly ambivalent—political function, one that is predicated upon its greatly expanded public. Speaking of the new technical capabilities of photography and film, Benjamin declared that “the work of art reproduced is now becoming the work of art designed for reproducibility”—a phrase that presciently describes many of the artistic practices that are discussed in Artists’ Magazines.7 Benjamin’s understanding of the social possibilities of art and media was rooted in his nuanced attention to the material conditions of production and distribution, and the way these structure the social relationships between the author or artist and the audience—ideas he also discussed in “The Author as Producer” (1934). (In fact, Benjamin even planned, along with Bertolt Brecht, to publish a magazine, Krise und Kritik [Crisis and Criticism], that would have allowed him to explore these ideas not only in theory but in practice—a project that unfortunately never materialized.)8
Benjamin’s observations shed light on the important role of magazines in the history of art—a role that has arguably been as vital as that of the works of art themselves. One of the first artists’ periodicals was the Propyläen (1798–1800), founded by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Heinrich Meyer. As Goethe explained, its title referred to “the step, the door, the entrance, the antechamber, the space between the inner and the outer, the sacred and the profane[;] this is the place we choose as the meeting-ground for exchanges with our friends”—a description that indicates the magazine’s important role as both a portal and gathering place for people and ideas.9 The title of The Germ, another important early artists’ magazine, started in England by the Pre-Raphaelites and published for a mere four issues in 1850, likewise suggests the formative role of magazines: it was here that artistic ideas were not only recorded and exchanged, but germinated; here that avant-garde movements originated and gained momentum. With the development of new printing technologies, the twentieth century saw a flourishing of periodicals for which artists served as publishers, editors, writers, typographers, and designers. Some of the most important of these included prewar avant-garde magazines such as Lacerba (1913–15), Blast (1914–15), 291 (1915–16), Cabaret Voltaire (1916), The Blind Man (1917), Dada (1917–21), De Stijl (1917–32), L’Esprit Nouveau (1920–25), Zenit (1921–26), Mécano (1922–23), Merz (1923–32), Lef (1923–25), La Révolution Surréaliste (1924–29), Tank (1925), Novyi Lef (1927–29), Internationale Revue i10 (1927–29), Minotaure (1933–39), View (1940–47), and VVV (1942–44), as well as the postwar abstract expressionist periodicals, including Iconograph (1946), The Tiger’s Eye (1947–49), Possibilities (1947–48), Instead (1948), and It Is (1960–65).10 Important avant-garde artists’ magazines, such as Gutai (1955–65) in Japan and Boa (1958–60) in Argentina, were also being published outside of Europe and the United States during these years.
Even as these publications implicitly questioned the division between fine art and design, insisting upon the magazine as an important site of artistic production, they remained, for the most part, a means to an end—vehicles for defining
artistic agendas and circulating ideas, rather than works of art in themselves. Clive Phillpot stressed this difference in a 1980 article, noting of these earlier periodicals that artists “simply used their skills to produce magazines, however handsome or unconventional they might be. Unlike artists in the ’60s they were not consciously using the production of a magazine to question the nature of artworks, nor were they making art specifically for dissemination through a mass-communication medium.”11 By contrast, he argued, artists’ magazines in the 1960s manifested “a wholly different attitude of artists towards the magazine and towards the nature of what constituted art.”12
While the magazines featured in this book are in many ways heir to these earlier artists’ periodicals, they also signal something different, demonstrating an unprecedented experimentation with the formal and conceptual possibilities of the magazine, and a new kind of self-reflexivity about its status as a medium. This novel understanding of the artists’ magazine can be traced back to several periodicals from the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Spirale, Zero, Gorgona, Revue Nul = 0, Revue Integration, Diagonal Cero, KWY, Revue Ou, material, dé-coll/age, V TRE, and Fluxus, as well as Wallace Berman’s Semina. These publications, many of which had exceedingly small print runs of just a few hundred copies per issue, exemplify a radical new kind of experimentation with the formal and conceptual possibilities of the magazine, as artists utilized unbound, die-cut, and embossed pages, glued objects onto pages, tore them, and even burned them. Bernard Aubertin, for example, glued three matches to a page of Revue Integration and lit them, leaving three scorch marks on the page. Such investigations of the materiality and temporality of the printed page (which very much overlapped with the practices of concrete poetry) coincided with new understandings of artistic medium itself in the postwar period. As the meaning of art was increasingly seen to reside in a performative, temporal, and conceptual experience rather than a strictly formal, visual one, artists found new ways to express these experiences in the magazine, breaking away from the traditional limits of the static, two-dimensional page.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, artists approached the magazine with the same inventiveness with which they embraced other media in the “expanded field.” They experimented with format, design, and typography, reveled in the materiality of language and print, emphasized the tactility and interactivity of the magazine, and foregrounded the acts of reading and turning the page. Robert Smithson, for example, understood the magazine as a quasi-sculptural medium, likening its dense layers of texts and images to geological strata; Sol LeWitt invited viewers to draw on the page; Vito Acconci conceived of the magazine as a performative realm within which language was an event as much as an object; Dan Graham explored what he called “the physicality of print” as well as its social and economic conditions.13 Other artists explored unbound, multimedia formats that challenged the very definition of the magazine itself. Whereas Benjamin argued that reproduction ruins the aura of the original work of art, replacing its unique existence in time and space with a mediated experience that at once diminishes its authenticity and renews its significance and potential in the present, these experiments open onto a new set of possibilities. In some cases, artists imbued the reproduced page with a new kind of auratic presence; in others, they destabilized the hierarchy between original and reproduction altogether.
For these artists, as for Benjamin, the social and political implications of art’s reproducibility were paramount: their understanding of the magazine as a new kind of artistic medium was accompanied by a profound recognition of its possibilities as a distribution form that might circumvent the expertise of the critic and the exclusivity of the gallery space, and thus radically transform the reception of art. Yet the possibilities of the media for artists during this time were also vastly different from those that Benjamin identified—not only because of their remove from the political conditions of Europe in the 1930s that gave his writing its particular urgency, but also because of important changes in media culture itself. The reproduction of art was no longer the relatively new and uncharted phenomenon it had been in Benjamin’s time, and artists’ understanding of the magazine in the 1960s and 1970s was modulated by an entirely different set of historical circumstances. The reproduction of art had become ubiquitous within an advanced spectacular media culture in which not only works of art but social relationships more generally were increasingly mediated—a situation about which Guy Debord famously observed, “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”14 At the same time, advances in printing technology made processes such as offset, mimeo, and Xerox inexpensive and widely available to nonspecialized producers, leading to a burgeoning alternative and underground press.
Artists’ investigations of the magazine took place within this context, internalizing the new possibilities of mass communication technology, whether utopian or dystopian. The very notion of the work of art and of artistic medium and how they might express meaning to an audience were understood differently against and within this new media culture. Magazines were certainly not the sole site for such investigations—similar and overlapping concerns attended artists’ explorations of film, video, and television, as well as cybernetics and systems theory (not to mention more traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture) during this time. However, the magazine played an especially pervasive and pivotal role in the dramatic transformations in artistic production, reception, and distribution in an age of information…
Artists' Magazines as Alternative Spaces
Artists’ Magazines attests to the historicity of the artists’ magazine as a particular kind of oppositional site during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The magazines that comprise its case studies: Aspen (196571), 0 to 9 (1967–69), Avalanche (1970–76), Art-Rite (1973–78), FILE (1972–89), Real Life (1979–94), and Interfunktionen (1968–75) suggest that the significance of the artists’ magazine during this time was deeply tied to the evolving notion of the alternative space.15 This term neatly captures how the two-dimensional printed page functioned as a substitute exhibition space for conceptual art—a corollary to the architectural interior of the gallery or museum. However, it also expresses the ways in which magazines paralleled and furthered the ideological and practical objectives of alternative spaces. Like other artist-run, independent, and nonprofit exhibition spaces and collectives, magazines challenged the institutions and economies of the mainstream art world by supporting new experimental forms of art outside the commercial gallery system, promoting artists’ moral and legal rights, and redressing the inequities of gender, race, and class.16 Magazines were not merely secondary or supplementary to other kinds of alternative spaces and institutions but were deeply enmeshed within the new cultural economies these institutions helped to bring about. To publish art—to literally make it public—was a political act, one that challenged the art world and the world at large.
Central to the oppositional character of artists’ magazines was the way in which they both drew on and defined themselves against mainstream media and, in particular, the commercial art magazine. While art magazines such as Artforum witnessed the reign of formalist criticism as well as the integration of this criticism within the spectacular economy of advanced media culture, artists’ magazines insisted on a different set of conditions and criteria for evaluating art. Like the underground press in the 1960s and 1970s—which undoubtedly served as an important model—they expressed their differences from mainstream publications in both form and content.
Artists’ magazines were produced and distributed not according to the motives of profit but according to the artistic, social, and political ideals they sought to convey. Edited and designed in loft spaces and distributed at independent and artist-run bookstores such as Printed Matter in New York and Art Metropole in Toronto—or sometimes given away for free—these publications were influential well beyond their limited circulations and brief life spans. Against the slickness of mainstream art magazines with their glossy finish and high-quality color reproductions, artists’ magazines expressed anti-commercial, egalitarian sentiments through their unpretentious, do-it-yourself formats, such as mimeograph and newsprint. Often penniless, they relied on grants, meager advertising, and subscription revenue and the (usually uncompensated) intellectual labor of their editors and contributors.
Their advertising sections were more likely to broadcast political statements or promote nonprofit spaces than to sponsor commercial galleries. Criticism and exhibition reviews were replaced by artists’ projects, writings, and interviews, through which artists “talked back” to critics and took charge of the public discourse around their work. Letters to the editor became sites of protest, expressions of solidarity, and occasions for inside jokes. Mastheads reveal how the divisions of labor between editors, critics, designers, and writers blurred and overlapped, giving way to new kinds of collaboration rooted in intellectual exchange and camaraderie. Magazines track the formation of such relationships, and record conflicts and differences of opinion—disagreements over which editors resigned, friendships dissolved, and sometimes publications themselves even came to an end.
Many of the qualities that made magazines such a compelling medium for artists—such as their temporality and their process-oriented nature—also make them fascinating art historical documents. Besides precisely situating the reception of art within specific places and times—not only the year but often the exact month—they also open onto the contingency of history itself, stressing its conditional, fragmented, and subjective nature. Magazines provide a different kind of information about the past than more objective or totalizing accounts: they emphasize the role of the accidental, the happenstance, the unintended in what often gets passed down as inevitable. They show us things that might otherwise get lost, that might not be considered important enough at the time to get recorded in more authoritative documents, such as books or exhibition catalogs. Artists’ Magazines attempts to make this vast archive of magazines more known and accessible, and to situate these publications within the historical conditions in which they were first produced and encountered.
Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art is available through MIT Press. To order the book and to find more information, please visit: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12465