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What We Need Are These Early Experimental Art Magazines From the West

By Harriet Staff

How about a beautiful, must-read article about the origins, evolution, and geographical dimensions of early experimental art magazines in the West—going back to Wallace Berman’s Semina (1955-1964) and focusing partly on Artforum’s start in San Francisco as an alternative to the New York art world. Also noted are rare gems like Los Angeles’s Landslide, which “caricatured the art world with fake interviews and pseudonymous contributors, and its title referenced the collapsing California hillsides as a spoof on the prevalence of earth art. Its format evolved from a mimeographed and hand-stapled zine into an ‘expandable sculpture,’ consisting of several packing peanuts in an envelope. One issue was, allegedly, an actual McDonald’s hamburger mailed out in a cardboard box.”

This is all at East of Borneo. Authored by Gwen L. Allen, “Experiments in Print: A Survey of Los Angeles Artists’ Magazines from 1955 to 1986” focuses mostly on Los Angeles as the “second city” of American art through the lens of these L.A. mags: L.A. Artists’ Publication, Intermedia, Straight Turkey, The Dumb Ox, Choke, Criss Cross Double Cross, Chrysalis, The Performance Art Journal, Spectacle, and the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) “house organ,” the LAICA Journal. A bit about the latter:

LAICA cofounder Bob Smith recalled a preliminary meeting with local artists at which Billy Al Bengston insisted, “We don’t need another gallery. What we need is a magazine.” He and Danieli soon found themselves sitting around his dining room table with examples of other artists’ magazines—among them Avalanche, Art-Rite, and Aspen—planning the first issue of the LAICA Journal. Following the example of Art-Rite, a zinelike half-tabloid publication for experimental and alternative art in SoHo, they originally wanted to print the magazine on newsprint, to emphasize its difference from glossy commercial publications, but discovered that it was actually cheaper to use coated stock. (It would later switch to newsprint for issues 11–29.)

From the beginning the Journal reflected a concern with the history and identity of the Los Angeles artistic community, publishing writings and works by artists, including Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Allan Sekula, Allan Kaprow, Miriam Shapiro, Judy Chicago, Guy de Cointet, Rachel Rosenthal, Lowell Darling, Billy Adler, and Van Schley. In a piece in the first issue entitled “ARTFROM” (in Artforum’s signature font), Joni Gordon presented a comprehensive chart of Los Angeles galleries from 1963 to 1974. The fourth issue, guest-edited by Antin, was devoted to exploring why artists were drawn to California. As she wrote in her editorial preface, “Why do artists, especially, choose to live here when admittedly it isn’t the center of the art world, which makes negotiating an art career a much more complicated and difficult process than would be the case, say, in New York?”

Like so many artists’ magazines at the time, the LAICA Journal highlighted the potential of the page as an alternative medium and exhibition space. Yet, if the LAICA Journal emphasized the magazine’s significance as a new kind of artistic medium, it equally explored its social potential as a communication medium for artists. A collection of statements by various members of the Los Angeles art community published in the first issue voiced some of the social concerns that guided LAICA at its inception. Entitled “Observations,” the statements functioned as a kind of collective editorial, demanding that artists gain control over their lives and economic circumstances, strengthen the Southern Californian art community, and address classism, sexism, and racism within the art world. As Lucy Lippard later observed, “Artists’ publications were and still are important not only for their content and educational information but also for the networking they generate. At a time when little politics appeared in art magazines (and if it did, it was treated as a separate category), these portable objects could be mailed around the country, sparking actions in other contexts.”

Certainly we can find similar such objects in the poetry-magazine economy (thank goodness!). But back to Allen’s piece, which also explores in detail non-white and feminist publications; the rise of performance art and the artists associated; and single issues of magazines like Choke, which published original works and writings by Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Guy de Cointet, and Billy Adler. Choke’s ethos: “The editors vowed to publish a cost breakdown for each issue, explaining that the magazine’s policy of economic transparency ran counter to the approach of more mainstream art magazines, which depended on advertising by commercial galleries. Funded by an NEA grant, Choke rejected paid advertising entirely—a strategy that unfortunately led to its demise after the first issue.”

Allen also looks at what was going on with art writing at the time, though many of the mags were resistant to a reliance on criticism, and considers the relationship art had with the film industry. There was Spectacle:

Spectacle: A Field Journal from Los Angeles published artists’ writings and works that explored media representations. While such practices are most often associated with the New York–based Pictures Generation, Spectacle emphasized the importance of Los Angeles to these practices (several of the Pictures artists had, in fact, studied at CalArts) while suggesting how such practices were shaped there by the city’s proximity to the film industry. Like previous artists’ magazines, Spectacle suggests how Los Angeles art took place in dialogue with advanced artistic practices elsewhere, yet was also inflected by the city’s specific geographical and cultural conditions.

These conditions not only affected the art produced in Los Angeles, but surely shaped the character and role of artists’ magazines themselves. Indeed, artist Thomas Lawson, writing in his 2010 foreword to East of Borneo, reflected back on his own impressions of Los Angeles during a visit to the city with Susan Morgan in 1980, a period in which they were publishing REAL LIFE (1979–94), an important experimental artists’ magazine for the Pictures artists in New York. Driving around Los Angeles in a borrowed 1960 Rambler, they observed the very different experience of producing a magazine within the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles than in the densely inhabited urban grid of Lower Manhattan:

We experienced an expansive feeling of discovery as we drove the freeway, gaining a sense of place much broader, but also less specific than we knew in Lower Manhattan. There, most of our daily business was conducted on foot, meeting and talking to people face-to-face, often in unplanned encounters. In many ways, we lived as villagers, members of a shadow community of artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who walked the same streets, frequented the same bars and restaurants, dropped in on the same galleries, performance spaces, and movie theaters. […] Coming from New York, we found [Los Angeles] both exhilarating and baffling; Los Angeles seemed to be a city hiding in plain sight. There was plenty to see, interesting people to talk to, all easily accessible by the sporadically flowing freeway. But that veneer of easy connectivity masked a deeper, and more troubling, sense that nothing was easily available, a misleading perception of nothing going on. This was a city of outposts and easily missed landmarks connected by a sprawling, historical disposition not to connect.


Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.