Artists' Magazines by Gwen Allen
The MIT Press, £25.95, ISBN 978-0-262-01519-6
There is an inherent contradiction in an argument that uses the book format to make a claim for the strength and veracity of the magazine format as a site for artistic output. Perhaps this is a question of audience. Magazines and books both deal heavily in a currency of words and pictures, but present and disseminate their ideas on fundamentally different constructs. As author Gwen Allen states in her comprehensive introduction to Artists' Magazines, in the 1960s and 1970s artists began to use the magazine as a space in which to 'explore it as a medium in its own right'. Comparing this self-conscious production and proliferation of the magazine to the emergence of conceptual art, as well as commenting on the mainstream appeal of publications such as Artforum and the critically rigorous October, Allen discusses the printed page as a path of investigation, similar to the self-reflection of galleries and museums.
While the artists’ magazine has historically been a site for ‘exhibition’, its definition as such is often imbued with an academia alien to the organic nature of such titles and their semi-casual, just-in-time production. A fitting comparison may liken the magazine to an exhibition, but rarely does ne venture such a comparison to a museum of collection. This is due, in part, to the magazine’s particular qualities: temporality, circulation, distribution and the esteem such a vehicle is held in with its audience. Allen’s book, which carries the subtitle ‘An Alternative Space for Art’, profiles titles such as Aspen, Avalanche, FILE and Real Life, in a roughly chronological fashion. She turns over their histories in order to examine (almost systematically) how, in each instance, these publications explored and expanded the possibilities of a magazine as a site of discovery and experimentation.
Artists’ Magazines seems to be partially anachronistic in relation to any discussion of dissemination and publishing now. The magazines presented and pored over appear more as artefacts of a pre-digital age; they aren’t viable models of contemporary publishing. The current acceleration and proliferation of publishing bears no resemblance to the periods discussed in Allen’s book. The buzz of collecting, much like the compulsion of card collecting, operated on a markedly different register, at a point where magazines were considered objects as much as they were vehicles for information. Through the digital ‘progress’ of today, the business of publishing is all but dematerialised; a combination of text and images is malleable to the needs of a browser window or smartphone screen, and users (rather than readers) tend to customise their interface to fit their own desire, rather than default such a responsibility to an editor/artist who engenders desire within the typesetting of a page. With this in mind, Allen invests a degree of nostalgia in her investigation. She’s certainly not alone in this academic sentimentality; the recent demand for last year’s reprinting of Avalanche’s 13 issues is an example of the interest in a simple, more hands on, type of publishing.
Yet Allen’s investigation is no passing fad. Her knowledge on the featured publication titles is vast and the detail sandwiched between the images of the vintage publications is precise and wide-ranging. Alongside these profiles, Allen includes an alphabetised compendium of international titles published between 1945 and 1989, which is illustrated with the occasional cover shots. Information on a number of rare, short-lived titles punctuate this dense inventory of magazines and, as a whole, the list gives a clear perspective on the prolific nature of artists’ publishing outputs in the 1970s and 1980s.
Interestingly this exhaustive itinerary reveals not just the acticvity of publishing during this period, but also the limitations of such publishing activities. Thus, it is in the absences and oversights of publishing, as much as the content of what has gone before, that Artists’ Magazines will reignite the interests of those seeking to pursue their own outputs.
For those who dare dabble in the precarious industry of ephemera, this book appears to engender the confidence and aspiration of previous publishing projects. This encouragement is much needed, given the widespread issues of finding sustainable economic models for the magazine format today. Artists Magazines, in its nostalgia, seeks to advance a new future for the format.
Via Stensél is a writer based in Bonn