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Review: Aspen Magazine, 1965–1971

by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Aspen Magazine was published in New York from 1965-1971. Aspen has become synonymous with “magazine in a box,” “the New York art scene” and the “avant-garde.” The Charles H. Scott Gallery Winter/Spring 2015 brochure describes Aspen as a “multimedia magazine…featuring a diverse and impressive array of contributors, from such key artists, musicians, authors and theorists as Andy Warhol… J.G. Ballard…[and] the Velvet Underground.”

These magazines in boxes containing unbound contents such as booklets, flexi-discs and film reels are on display at the Charles H. Scott Gallery until February 8, 2015. The exhibit is on loan from the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where it first opened in autumn 2012.

In the “letter from the editor” for the first issue of Aspen Magazine, founding publisher and editor Phyllis Johnson writes: “This is the first issue of Aspen, the Magazine in a Box. In calling it a ‘magazine,’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as ‘a storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’ That’s what we want each issue to be.”

Immediately following Johnson’s introductory letter, however, I didn’t see work by the famous artists of the 1960s. Instead, posted on the wall next to Johnson’s letter is a United States Postal Decision document, listing reasons why Aspen is not eligible for a publications mailing agreement, some of which are: “Aspen is not a periodic publication within the meaning of 39 U.S. Code 4354,” and “that each issue of Aspen could be considered to be an independent work, capable of standing alone,” and also “that periodicity is not an element of the character of Aspen.”

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The juxtaposition of Johnson’s “letter from the editor” with the U.S. Postal Decision recontextualizes Aspen for a contemporary framework. These two documents—side by side—still continue to encapsulate the problems faced by magazine publishers, particularly artists’ publishers today: the cost of shipping and distribution, the need for a clear, marketable “brand” (which Aspen avoided by offering editorial freedom and embodying the element of surprise as one its editorial concepts), and the necessity to meet a regular production schedule in order to secure advertising and subscribers.

What struck me as the first object from Aspen was a pencil-and-paper draft of Mel Bochner’s Seven Translucent Tiers (the final translucencies of which were published in Aspen no. 5+6, “The Conceptual Issue,” which is the focus of the exhibition and was edited and designed by Brian O’Doherty in 1976). But I didn’t see Bochner’s actual Seven Translucent Tiers until later, where it was placed in linear sequence among objects from the rest of the issues, resting underneath a glass table.

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Back to Bochner’s draft, following it was correspondence between Susan Sontag (“The Aesthetics of Silence” was published in Aspen no. 5+6) and O’Doherty, if I remember correctly. Sontag had inquired more than once about the publication date of Aspen no. 5+6—she needed to know because it was to be listed in her book, which was being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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Aspen’s irregular and uncertain publication schedule is not simply due to its leisurely beginnings in Aspen, but a catch-22 situation regarding financial difficulties. In a 2012 interview between curator Nayia Yiakoumaki and Dan Graham, editor of Aspen no. 8, “The Fluxus Issue,” Graham says:

You know Aspen came about because she (Phyllis Johnson) and her husband, who was a businessman and I think she was in advertising or something, and every summer they went to Aspen where they attended conferences about science and art. She came up with doing this box and then she actually didn’t give me instructions. She was a very dynamic person. […] She just let me do anything I want to do. … she made only one mistake. It was a kind of a Ponzi scheme, in other words, she was advertising to get subscribers and then she ran with the money.

I laughed here—possibly because I identified both with Johnson and remembered times when I have not been paid for my work. Roland Barthes’ seminal essay “The Death of the Author” was first published as “The Destruction of the Author” in Aspen no. 5+6, and it is reputed that Barthes did not receive payment for the essay, despite asking.

In a contained cultural scene such as that of New York in the 1960s, perhaps Aspen could be sustained only until people were not willing to contribute for free, and until the existing subscriber base could no longer be renewed. Maybe this explains Aspen’s diversification in later issues: Aspen no. 7, “The British Box,” published in 1970 coincides with the mod revival, and Aspen no. 10, “The Asia Issue,” published in 1971, with the year of the May Day Protests against the Vietnam War.

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Even my attempt to situate these instances of “diversification” is a catch-22; my focus on the doom-and-gloom of publishing concerns faced by Aspen clearly became a fixation. Quotes from Marshall McLuhan high up on the white gallery wall felt like pages floating in space and the regular gallery restrictions about touching anything (except the tablets and accompanying headphones) was quite unAspen. But rest assured, Aspen Magazine, 1965–1971 definitely offers aesthetic and experiential pleasure. It is not to be missed—not just for the big names and great works—but for the simple reason that Aspen is in and of its time, and continues to be resonant due to the innovative potential (and accompanying bureaucratic classifications and restrictions) created when form and content merge.