What Is a Magazine?—The Aspen Archive (1965-71)
Gwen Allen’s comprehensive 2011 book about the 20th century American art magazine, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, devotes a chapter to Phyllis Johnson’s game-changing 1965-71 mixed-media art magazine, Aspen. I first ran into the magazine five years ago at the “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” exhibition at the Whitney Museum, a floor of largely mass-produced 1960s art and memorabilia primarily focused on the two frameworks the age is usually simplified into: great drugs and free love. The exhibition—or what I could see of it in the jam-packed crowd (which my wife called “not your usual museum crowd”)—was made up of things like concert posters, art installations, photography of icons (The Beatles, the Kennedys), and the era’s newspaper and magazine publications, which is where Aspen fit in.
Aspen didn’t really “fit in” with the rest of the exhibition. It felt like it should have been with Richard Serra’s steel sculptures down the street at the MoMA, instead of below a neon poster of Jimi Hendrix. Aspen famously broke the rules of magazine construction, a direction publishers were becoming interested in. (Frederick Barthelme often recalled in my graduate school classes that one of his first late 60s/early 70s books was a “book in a bag,” just random documents.) Aspen wasn’t bound in the typical magazine fashion, but rather—like McSweeney’s recent magazine-in-a-head-shaped-box—it came in a variety of packages. At the Whitney, the issues magazine were displayed in (if I remember correctly) a long glass case, with it’s shapely containers and contents laid out in a row: the white box of Brian O’Doherty’s groundbreaking issue 5+6, the original publication of Roland Barthes’s “Death of an Author,” an issue designed to look like a box of Fab detergent, a musical score by Philip Glass, and a variety of super-8 films and vinyl recordings.
Years ago, sometime not long after the Whitney visit, I came across UbuWeb’s digital archive of Aspen magazine, which includes all or nearly all of the contents from the magazine’s ten issues. When I first came across the archive, I was still just rooting around in my research of literary and little magazines, sort of just seeing what they were and what was out there. No one had ever taught me about the history and traditions of these things, so I was becoming, in a minor way, a little magazine autodidact. And though this education included a lot of reading, it included even more filing away for later research, due to the great amount of magazines and matieral out there, and the Aspen material got saved away into my database of links, notes, and files scattering my computer desktop. Now, after reading Gwen Allen, I feel a bit stupid not noticing what I’d stumbled upon.
Aspen—as argued by Allen—was perhaps the first magazine to successfully and fully promote the “magazine as a medium.” The following quote is from Allen’s chapter about Aspen doing just that; this text comes just after she explains how the US Postal Service revoked Aspen’s second class mail license because it didn’t fit with their idea of what a magazine was:
Aspen’s breach of the bureaucratic category of the periodical illustrates the indeterminacy of the publication: the deep uncertainty about its format, contents, and publication schedule. This indeterminacy suggested how the conventions of the magazine—the rules that made it legible as such—might be conceived anew, so that the magazine was no longer merely a prescription for a given format, but a set of conditions rife with unforeseen possibilities. Aspen raises the question: What is a magazine? It suggests, in ways that parallel new understandings of artistic medium itself at the time, that a magazine might be something compelled by its own internal logic and rules, without determining ahead of its time what kind of experience or object these rules will create. (67)
The UbuWeb Aspen archive is the most exciting digital magazine archive I have ever come across, even compared against stunning archives like Jerome McGann’s early archive of The Germ and the insanely thorough modernist magazine archives at the Modernist Journals Project. Not “best,” or most researched, but most exciting. I think what makes the Aspen archive so compelling is that the magazine itself seemed to call forth the medium-democracy of the internet, and its assemblage construction along with the multivocality of its various works all functions fantastically well as on a digital platform. More importantly, Aspen is a document of its time—a critical, exciting moment in art, literary, and political history—in ways that the other archives don’t seem to be, due to the amazing curatorial work of Johnson and Aspen’s guest-editors. They were able to document their time in a way that still speaks to, and in a way spoke for, the future. They turned magazine into art.