Artist Magazines: Beyond Gallery Walls
Artist magazines – not to be confused with art magazines – are periodicals that are produced by artists or contain significant content provided by artists. Often erratic and ephemeral in nature, they have played an influential role in the history of visual culture, particularly within the Conceptual art movement that took root in the late 1960s. With few or no advertisements, these publications stand out from the mainstream art press and gallery system. They appeal to a broader art audience and encourage experimentation with new media. The collection of the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives – and the Art Metropole collection in particular – has a sampling of significant artists' magazines from the 1960s to the 1980s, as well as some of their historical antecedents.
Printing technologies of the 20th century introduced a multitude of Modernist magazines for which artists served as publishers, editors, writers, typographers and designers. Dada, Expressionist and Surrealist publications were published widely throughout North America and Europe early in the century. In 1915, photographer Alfred Stieglitz – together with artist Marius de Zayas, art collector and poet Agnes E. Meyer and photographer and critic Paul Haviland – launched 291 to promote Stieglitz’s gallery of the same name. Intended to unite avant-garde photography, literature and art, the monthly magazine introduced visual poetry to the United States. Although it folded after only twelve issues, it drew attention to the work of Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso and Katharine Rhoades during its short run.
A decade later, a roster of French writers and artists, including André Breton and Antonin Artaud, edited the official Surrealist publication La Révolution surréaliste, publishing twelve issues between 1924 and 1929. Adopting a science journal format, it included film scenarios, Automatiste experiments and reproductions of work from the likes of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Man Ray. From 1942 to 1944, Breton also collaborated with artists David Hare, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst on the New York-based Surrealist magazine VVV. Experimental in design, this American publication included examples of die-cutting, embossing and cut and folded pages. As Clive Philpott states in his 1980s article in Artforum, these magazines succeeded in circulating ideas and promoting agendas; however, unlike their successors in the 1960s, they did not question the nature of artworks, nor were their publishers aware of the medium’s capacity for wide dissemination.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a radical new kind of experimentation with the formats and abstract possibilities of this type of artist magazine. Founded in 1958 by artists René Bertholo and Lourdes Castro as a vehicle for the Portuguese avant-garde in exile, the serial KWY was unbound and became known for its silkscreens. Issue 11 was dedicated to French artist Yves Klein and included contributions by many of the Nouveaux Réalistes and a vinyl record of sound poetry by Bernard Heidsieck – a harbinger of the multimedia magazines that would later emerge. In 1962, German painter and sculptor Wolf Vostell, an early adopter of video and installation art, promoted Fluxus and Happenings in dé-coll/age magazine. It featured musical scores and artists’ writings, including those of Nam June Paik, Claes Oldenburg and George Maciunas, and its issues were often meant to accompany performances. Tactile objects and instructions for interacting with unbound sheets encouraged reader participation.
By the mid-1960s, vigorous experimentation was in full swing. Artists looked beyond the two-dimensional limitations of the printed page and recognized the magazine as a new medium that could function as an alternative exhibition space for Conceptual art. In 1965, former advertising executive Phyllis Johnson launched Aspen, a “magazine in a box.” Published irregularly until 1971, its issues were housed in cardboard boxes containing such disparate content as records, films, blueprints, tea samples, posters and jigsaw puzzles. Johnson commissioned various artists and cultural figures to design and edit each unique issue of the multimedia magazine, addressing different themes. The third issue, on a Pop Art theme, was designed by Andy Warhol and his studio assistant David Dalton to mimic a Fab laundry detergent box. It included a movie flipbook with excerpts from Warhol’s film Kiss, the first and only edition of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable newspaper, and a flexi-disc of The Velvet Underground's first release, Loop.
Artist magazines also differentiated from the mainstream art press in their attitude towards art criticism. Avalanche (1970–76), for example, eliminated art criticism and exhibition reviews altogether, favouring artists’ voices above all. Art-Rite (1973–78) left articles unsigned in an attempt to focus attention on artworks and had covers designed by both established and relatively unknown artists.
REALLIFE Magazine, published by painter Thomas Lawson and writer Susan Morgan between 1979 and 1994, also focused on young artists outside the mainstream. Like Art-Rite, its editors sought to establish an artist network and to promote the interests of the Pictures Generation – a group that included Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince. These artists would come to be known for their appropriation of conventional imagery, and the magazine’s format allowed them to critique the wider visual culture around them. Issue 1 included the first substantial review of work by American Conceptual artist Sherrie Levine and featured her Untitled on the front cover.
In Canada in 1972, FILE Megazine was started by Toronto-based General Idea (AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz). Appropriating LIFE Magazine’s red-and-white logo (Time Inc. later threatened to sue), it featured a glossy colour cover over a newsprint interior. The first issue was sent free of charge to a large network of artists, including Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. Over the 26 issues in its 17-year run, FILE reinvented itself several times. In its early phase, FILE documented General Idea’s connection to the Canadian mail-art scene, including the Vancouver art collective Image Bank (whose member Vincent Trasov, aka Myra Peanut, is pictured on the cover of the first issue). In the mid-1970s, General Idea began focusing more on their own work, especially events surrounding the Miss General Idea Pageant and the Toronto art and music scene. The 1977 “Punk ’til You Puke” issue featured Debbie Harry of Blondie on the cover and showcased important Punk/New-Wave musicians such as Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Canadian bands The Dishes and Rough Trade. In Fall 1979, a special issue titled “Transgressions” offered an explicit exploration of the politics of gender and sexual identity. The magazine inspired several other manifestations – VILE (founded by artist Anna Banana) and BILE magazine (published by artist Bradley Lastname) – each a further appropriation of the LIFE brand and a testament to the renegade nature of artists’ magazines.
Despite their ephemeral nature, the lure of the concept of artist magazines persists, and every intervening decade sees its own iteration of this format come and go.
Examples of FILE Megazine are on view in the General Idea exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 November 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.