Spring 2011

Mini-museums, little magazines

Artists’ Magazines

An Alternative Space for Art, By Gwen Allen, MIT Press, £25.95

There has been considerable recent interest in ‘little magazines’ from the 1960s to the 80s. Clip / Stamp / Fold (see p.108) looks at 70 that focus on architecture; Little Magazines & Modernism (forum.davidson.edu/littlemagazines) is a website developed by Davidson College in North Carolina; Pankaj Mishra wrote a brief history and confession of his ‘addiction’ to them in The Guardian (27 March 2010; guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/27/pankaj-mishra-american-magazines); and Teal Triggs chronicles fanzines in her book Fanzines (see p.109). These are but a few of the scholarly attempts to organise, categorise, anthologise and otherwise rationalise the vast number of independent niche, cult and art magazines.

Gwen Allen’s Artists’ Magazines is among the most thorough discursions into the influence of little magazines upon late-twentieth-century visual culture. Regrettably, this book is not as visually rich as one might like, but Allen’s narrative is nonetheless an essential new contribution to the study of magazines such as Art Forum, Aspen, Avalanche, Art Right, Real Life, Interfunktionen and – my personal favourite – File, which, in its early incarnation (before Time Life cracked down on its parody LIFE magazine logo), was a true bridge between conceptual art and conceptual design.

Allen subtitles her book ‘An Alternative Space for Art’, writing: ‘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.’ I have long called magazines ‘museums of the street’ but Allen goes further when she notes: ‘It also expresses the ways in which magazines paralleled and furthered the ideological and practical objectives of alternative spaces.’

With increased accessibility of cheap printing, the early twentieth century offered many artists, designers, theorists and subcultural denizens the opportunity to create considerable amounts of printed matter. Starting in the late nineteenth century, little (proto-diy) magazines emerged from rebellious groups. Most lasted a short time, yet some prospered. Some artists used the magazine as an expedient means to thwart academic strictures. Others used it as a new art form, testing the limits and rigours of graphic design and printing.

Allen’s study addresses the Dada, Surrealist and Expressionist periodicals of the 1920s and 30s, and the art-driven variations of the 1960s through to the 80s. I was glad to see the inclusion of Aspen, the 1960s magazine in a box which was claimed by both artists and graphic designers as representing a departure in their discipline. Aspen was also recently covered by Maarten van Gageldonk in his book, Multimedia, Miscellanies and Mini-Museums: Aspen Magazine, 1965–1971 (Nijmegen, 2009). Although this thesis book suffers from academic verbiage, it is the first intensive look at a magazine that tried to bust convention and still succeed commercially. Allen also uses the term ‘mini-museum’ to describe Aspen, and adds a little more panache to the narrative.

When Phyllis Glick (neé Johnson) founded Aspen in 1964, she unlocked the strict confines of magazines. Fittingly, it was born in Aspen, Colorado, where the International Design Conference introduced ‘some of the most innovative trends in contemporary graphic design’. Wunderkind George Lois designed Aspen 1, and No. 3 has Andy Warhol’s Fab detergent cover and includes a flexi-disk of Velvet Underground music. Aspen moved sure-footedly from design issues to art, serving as a model for postwar art magazine content. The double issue Aspen 5+6, for instance, helped introduce minimalism by featuring Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Tony Smith and Robert Morris. ‘With its square white box cover and its reductive sans serif font, the magazine stylistically embodied the industrial, geometric forms of this work,’ Allen explains.

Not all the magazine formats that Allen describes are as wedded to the art they promote. But all were, she says, ‘a space for artists to talk and write’. The Canadian File (by artists General Idea, see Eye 30)was just such a space, especially its close relationship to the vibrant mail-art scene. As Allen notes, File’s editorial policy was artist-centric: ‘All contributions will be considered, but emphasis is placed on evidence of research or other activity in progress, rather than on criticism, aesthetics or historical considerations.’

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed File so much. It was devoid of academic-speak. And, in its LIFE magazine-format days, it was great to look at, too. While Allen’s book is not a whole lot of fun to look at, it is great to read for its well researched history and analysis of a period when little magazines were testing the waters of art and publishing.

First published in Eye no. 79 vol. 20 2011

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.