Fotograf Magazine

Artists’ Magazines and Art Magazines

Last year, the prestigious MIT Press published a comprehensive volume by Gwen Allen, an art historian currently at San Francisco State University, dedicated to magazines published by artists (Artists’ Magazines). The selected periodicals are characteristic in the sense that they do not represent traditional sources of information on the current affairs of the gallery scene. “In the artists’ magazines you could find information on projects that did not exist anywhere else besides the magazines themselves,” Allen writes, emphasizing that such magazines have become a new artistic medium of their own, or to be more precise, a new type of exhibition venue which stands in opposition to galleries, which are subject to the pressures of commercialization.

Allen divides the book into eight thematic chapters (e. g. magazine as a medium), each dealing with the activities of a specific distinguished periodical (such as Aspen) at the time of its activity (in this case 1965–1971). The time span of the book runs from the 1960s to the 1980s, and a common feature of the magazines is their concern with conceptual art. The first to be presented here is Artforum, a magazine which over the course of several years became incorporated into the mainstream art world, financed by advertisements for commercial galleries and controlled by the circle of formalists around Clement Greenberg. In the rest of her book, Allen focuses on magazines outside of the mainstream, namely Aspen, 0 to 9, Avalanche, Art-Rite, File, Real Life and Interfunktionen, which nevertheless cannot be described as being in opposition to Artoforum. The list of periodicals indicates the breadth of interests that the book covers. Allen elegantly combines contemplation on artistic cross-over to the realms of poetry, music, and political engagement with a formal analysis of the magazines themselves, some of which remained loyal to the standard magazine print format (Avalanche), while others opted for the form of boxes, in which the “reader” would discover films, stamps or even a soundtrack (Aspen).

A major source of information which Allen taps into are interviews and reminiscences of the editors and others connected with the magazines. In this way, the book brings to life what its author defines as the “social life of publications.” As a matter of fact, another territory which the book encroaches into is sociology, focusing as it does on the role of magazines in the changing relationship between artists, critics, curators, art dealers, and above all between the work of art and its audience.
An important part of the text is based around placing the magazines presented within the context of the broader history of art periodicals. We thus find here an account of the first magazine ever published by artists (Propyläe: Goethe and Meyer); a brief footnote is dedicated to those of the historical avant-garde. An interesting mention reminds the reader of the essence of art papers as defined by Jürgen Habermas.

What may strike one as confusing is the overlapping of information on magazines published by artists themselves and the presentation of magazines concerned with art criticism. On the one hand, attention is drawn to the phenomenon of “alternative spaces” for the presentation of artistic work, while on the other hand we are provided with a broader context of periodicals whose substance and meaning were necessarily different. Allen’s disapproval of the loss of aura is most compelling in the case of magazines for which artists created specific projects directly designated for reproduction, or where they had direct control over the manner in which their works were reproduced. In other situations, such as in the case of reproducing works of art for the supplements of traditional newspaper articles, the overall positive effect, however, is unclear.

Last but not least, deserving of mention is the extensive appendix of the book which furnishes concise information on periodicals published by artists in both Europe and the United States between the years 1945-1989 (the Czech ones listed are Aktual and BLOK). This constitutes an important source of information, with Allen’s sophisticated explanation of the subject within its historical perspective; what is again the only failing is the insufficient distinction between the magazines which presented an alternative to exhibition venues at a time of the commercialization of traditional art galleries, and standard magazines dedicated to art.

Artists’ Magazines offers a huge amount of what is hitherto largely undiscovered material from the province of modern art, as well as being a most readable text accompanied by extensive illustrations. It features a well-organized index and an appendix with a comprehensive bibliography. It represents a important introduction into a little researched subject while at the same time presenting a new perspective on the post-war art scene in the US, with some additional insights on Europe. It will surely provide an impulse for research of similar subject matter in other site-specific settings and perhaps also for further contemplation on the role and message of the magazines still published by artists today.

Gwen Allen: Artists’ Magazines / An Alternative Space for Art, MIT Press 2011

Johana Lomová