“Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments”, says a pull quote in issue four of Aspen magazine, the issue that was guest edited and by Marshall MacLuhan and designed by Quentin Fiore in 1967. The second part of this quote could be a motto for Aspen, as it went far beyond any other magazine would or could go in striving to become an environment. Each issue was a box set containing a plethora of printed items in multiple formats along with records, slides and cine film to be projected, and cardboard models to be built. Perhaps better to think of Aspen as an experiment in postal art, as an exhibition in a box, than a magazine. The magazine was sold only by subscription, so readers would have no idea what to expect before opening each issue. We can imagine the mixture or pleasure, confusion and discovery that would occur while exploring the contents.
In terms of a concept for an arts magazine, it is difficult to imagine a more radical approach. With complete disregard for normal magazine conventions each part of the content – whether essay, fiction, poetry or uncategorisable snippit of text, sound and image – could be in a format that suited its own form; tiny booklet, fold-out poster, loose sheets of paper. Each issue had a different designer, and many had their own editor – ensuring divergent content – and exceptional editors and designers they were; Mario Amaya, Brian O’Doherty, Dan Graham, Jon Hendricks, George Lois, Angus and Hetty MacLise, George Maciunas, Andy Warhol. Other key contributors crop up more than once, notably the incredibly influential John Cage and Sol LeWitt.
The ambition and vision of Aspen’s founder Phyllis Johnson seem staggering, how did she manage to get so many significant people involved, and with such great timing? Issue 4, the MacLuhan/Fiore issue was released in the same year but before their classic book The Medium is the Massage, and works as a primer, or a distillation of their ideas. In more than one instance texts were published that would become a classics of cultural theory – Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author; art writing – Robert Morris’ Strata, a Geographic Fiction; or fiction – an excerpt of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
Since only 10 issues of Aspen were made, the Whitechapel are able to display them all at the same time on flat tables, they are protected under perspex (and some pages and covers mounted on the wall), but much of the content can still be read, certainly enough to allow a good level of submersion in each issue. Since each number has its own visual style, it is fascinating to compare the different issues. Numbers 5 and 6 constitute the Minimalism issue, which has an icy cold aesthetic with extremely simple black on white typography, interesting to compare with the Dan Graham edited issue which which shares its stripped down approach while projecting an intense intelligence with its dense text pages; line diagrams of wave forms and sculpture arrangements (Richard Serra); and monotone aerial photographs of large-scale environmental works (Dennis Oppenheim). Issue one has great visual panache which begins on the outside of its box with a large elegant “A” on a black background, standing both for Aspen and for the start of the series.
Warhols’ Pop issue comes in a box designed to look like detergent packaging, the Performance Art issue has a slightly manic feel to it, with typed or hand drawn text and images on pink, yellow and sky blue paper. In all, the complexity and richness of these publications is hard to describe in a few words, so much is packed in and so much is going on in the issues that Aspen must be seen to be comprehended.
In the age of the Turbine Hall installations, in which we are getting used to the idea that art gestures must be of a huge scale, Aspen provides a timely contrast, it is a glimpse into an era when the cutting edge of art was theoretically informed, highly conceptual, focused on the notion of exploring and pushing ideas, and each issue of the Magazine demonstrates how sometimes the best way to communicate ideas is small and compact and the best art can even exist in your own home.
Aspen Magazine: 1965-1971, until 3 March, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX.
1. Aspen, Vol. 1, no. 3 (December 1965), Edited by Phillis Johnson, designed by Andy Warhol and David Dalton © Aspen Magazine / The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /DACS, London 2012 Victoria and Albert Museum and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).
2. Aspen, no. 9 (Winter-Spring 1970) Edited byAngus and Hetty MacLise. Folder designed by Hetty MacLise © Aspen Magazine / The authors Victoria Courtesy of Boo-Hooray NYC Victoria and Albert Museum and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).
3. Aspen, no. 5+6 (Fall 1967) Edited and designed by Brian O’Doherty. Art direction by David Dalton and Lynn Letterman © Aspen Magazine / The authors Victoria and Albert Museum and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).