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Alternative Space: Artists’ Periodicals

The energetic emergence of the artists’ periodical as an important noncommercial alternative space has compelled me to construct a chronology of artists’ periodicals since 1900. During the past decade we have witnessed the acceleration of artists’ publishing in the appearance of a new phenomenon, the small-format artists’ bookwork, which is clearly different from the traditional livre de luxe with its elegant format and precisely delineated collaboration between artist and author. The artists’ periodical, however, is not unlike the crossbred mule. It is a hybrid of the commercial periodical and the artists’ bookwork and sometimes even the livre de luxe. And, like the mule, it is often incapable of reproducing itself beyond one issue, although it assumes, at least at the outset, continuous and multiple progeny. Marshall McLuhan in Gutenberg Galaxy implies its inevitable emergence: “The method of the twentieth century is to use not the single but the multiple model for experimental exploration . . . the technique of suspected judgement.”

My major emphasis in this chronology is on periodicals in which the artist served as editor and writer and contributed visual documentation through images or dynamic typographical arrangements and cover designs. Although some artists’ periodicals borrow commercial printing techniques and formats from trade publications not strictly art-related (File imitates Life), formats and typography are less likely to remain consistent from issue to issue. They may vary from newsprint or rag tabloids to half-tabloids, stapled to perfect-bound, mimeographed to offset. Artists’ periodicals may have folded-and-cut pages or use conventional printmaking techniques on less permanent paper stocks, such as newsprint. Although none approach the elegance of the turn-of-the-century Ver Sacrum, in which each original print was interlaced with Japan, or the Futurist type of Lacerba, such recent periodicals as Aspen and Extra take on a periodical-cum-portable-exhibition format. Design, whether the textual art of Art-Language or a Videozine cassette, is irrepressibly varied.

The chronology format, which weaves together a selection of events and invites comparisons, places recent publishing by artists in perspective. The year 1900 was chosen as the date from which to begin because of the accelerated development in technology and the sciences, behavioral and physical; the speeding up of communication of global events; and experimentation within the art world, particularly cubism, leading to the fracturing of the known and the reconstruction of new conceptual realities. In the chronology, one is able to see clearly the vulnerability of artists in the face of world events: publishing ventures and periodicals have been swept away or relocated by events as catastrophic as the two world wars. But I have also made mention of seeming insignificant events to which these periodicals were vulnerable, such as arguments between friends over place of publication or more fundamental questions of political policy. Artists’ periodicals are often collectives and prone to dissention.

I have included periodicals that published as few as one issue and those that appeared as infrequently as once a year. I have excluded, for lack of space, the publishing activities of photographers, filmmakers, and architects, although photographers especially have made extensive use, through photojournalism, of the periodical as alternative space. In a curious inversion, they have moved from this medium into galleries and museums, while painters and sculptors, with easier access to that kind of space, have turned more and more to periodicals. Conceptual artists seem to have had the best of both worlds. I have also excluded most traditional trade periodicals where the writers are critics, where texts and pages are composed primarily by non-artists, and advertisements account for half the volume. The artist’s voice is heard in many such publications via the tape-recorded interview, but that voice is not dominant. With art trade publications, unlike artists’ periodicals, survival depends on revenue from subscriptions and advertisements and on the effective promotion of a product: art passed through a filtering system of glossy format and texts about artists screened through the “reliable” eyes of the critics.

Artists’ periodicals tend to appear less regularly than trade periodicals, where the demands of effective advertising and paid subscribers require promptness. They are also less punctual because of the precarious funding. A fair number have been and are entirely funded by their editors. Marinetti was a wealthy man, William Copley bore the cost of S.M.S., and even Steve Hitchcock, the young editor of the current Cabaret Voltaire, writes, “I am a private undertaking with an ever-dwindling savings account.” But more publications are dependent on a fragile combination of grants, minimal advertising, sales and subscriptions, and the free labor of artists who get no fees. The artists’ periodical may be sold through the usual outlets or may be given away free like Art-Rite and the early New York-Dada TNT. Some political artists’ periodicals “hope to be funded by the people in the near future,” but it is one of the ironies of life and art that only Andy Warhol’s Interview has had meaningful income from subscriptions and sales, no doubt because its emphasis on pop culture attracts a far wider audience than the art world.

In recent years, an increasing number of artists’ periodicals have received grants from the government. It is interesting to note that many artists’ periodicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s were funded by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, under the heading of literary and poetry manifestations. Artists’ periodicals are often neither fish nor fowl, and lines of distinction between the literary and visual are often blurred, as occurred earlier in the surrealist movement or today as in publicans as Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling. But in the past, there was some bias against state and federal funding of purely visual artists’ periodicals as opposed to the visual/literary. The National Endowment for the Artist, under its new guidelines, is able to fund artists’ publishing activities more directly as a result of understanding gained through its funding of alternative spaces. As profits are so gossamer, a number of artists’ periodicals report plans to reorganize as non-profit corporations to quality.

Why do so many continue the struggle? Throughout the development of the artists’ periodical, and in spite of the pressure of historical events, a combination of factors has impelled artists to adopt the periodical format. Some saw it as a proving ground, a place to document otherwise inaccessible projects; others used it as a platform from which to air grievances, as an open forum for artists. Duchamp used The Blind Man to protect the celebrated rejection by the Society of Independent Artists of his readymade Fountain, a urinal by “R. Mutt.” Duchamp not only states the case for R. Mutt in The Blind Man, but shows the work in a photograph by Stieglitz. As a result, Fountain probably was and is seen by more people than if it had been on exhibition. Throughout its history, the artists’ periodical is often in opposition—whether its adversary be academy, gallery, glossies, or recent friends.

Artists’ periodicals are also a means of personal self-promotion, as Dali News was for Salvador Dali or Bear News for Les Levine. Other hermetic periodicals were produced privately by such individual artists as Picabia, who used 391 and Cannibale to disseminate his ideas and those of the artists he admired, such as Duchamp. Dada periodicals often included a page promoting other Dada periodicals; neo-Dada and feminist periodicals do the same, so that artists’ periodicals often continue to be a means of social interaction, again, in many cases, testing alliances. Periodicals also grew out of alliances of artists less involved with the politics of the various “-isms”—futurisms, surrealism, etc., although obviously not every group has abandoned the art object for the printed page. The Fauves did not turn to publishing magazines nor did the abstract expressionists. Egon Schiele did not use such alternative space, nor does Ellsworth Kelly. Cezanne did not mock Picabia on a cover, as Picabia mocked Cezanne.

Well-known artists can be attracted to the periodical to attract a larger following, as often for politics as for art. Many of the artists’ periodicals have been politically committed, whether their cause be technology, revolution, the Art Front in the 1930s, or the Marxist politics current today. In the past, artists sympathetic to a group’s theories would be invited to submit articles or illustrations of their work, a practice still continued. In the 1970s, however, the openness of established groups to fresh ideas seems considerably less than it was earlier. I have found many East Coast periodicals to be suspicious of newcomers, tending toward clubbiness and insularity. This may be a result of the competitiveness “inspired” by their proximity to the “art market.” I found this less true of feminist groups and their periodicals, possibly because they are still outside the mainstream. The Bay Area neo-Dadaists, on the other hand, are more open to newcomers than their East Coast counterparts, perhaps because of their involvement with the mail-art correspondence circuit. This is a curious inversion of earlier Dada insularity.

The Dadaists responded most assertively to events about them, and that response was evident in their frequent use of that periodical format. It is not too surprising that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, another period of rapid change, hybrid periodicals strongly influenced by the early Dada publications have appeared. One sees this neo-Dada trend in the Fluxus group in Europe and America and in such groups as Dadaland in the Bay Area, General Idea in Toronto, and Western Front Lodge in Vancouver. With the plethora of neo-Dada groups has also come a reemergence of interest in the irrational: the sue of puns, paradox, and provocation; criticism of accepted norms; and artists’ use of pop-Hollywood-comix pseudonyms—the subtlety of Rrose Sélavy replaced by the banalities of Disneyland. But, though the Dadaists show the clearest connections to the past, precedents can be found throughout the chronology. The Bay Area organization La Mamelle has created a modern counterpart of Der Sturm, generating artists’ periodicals and alternative gallery space, workshops, and projects. Les Levine recalls Picabia. Links to the past can always be found.

Alfred Stieglitz’ intense interest in the avant-garde led him to the periodical format in Camera Notes, Camera Work, and 291 as a means of proliferating painting and sculpture, as well as his main interest, photography. Very few shared his views at the time. When he closed his gallery 291 in 1917, he sold his remaining copies of 291 (according to Dorothy Norman in Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer) to a rag picker for $5.80, including a portion of The Steerage edition on Japan. The $5.80 went toward the purchase of a pair of gloves. Other artists’ periodicals have come to be valued for the perfect design of one page or an issue, because one contributor became famous or a group’s ideas found their time. Others still forgotten perhaps forever remain ephemeral testaments to the moment or to the proximity of a printing press. But modern artists’ periodicals continue to provide a means for the artist to put him or herself directly into art history without the aid of the critic or dealer or curator as mediator—an alternative space.

Excerpted from The Print Collector’s Newsletter 8, no. 4 (September–October 1977): 96–109, 120–21.