The Aspen attitude

As one of the first multimedia publications, Aspen hinted at what a magazine could be. It’s now the subject of a new show

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There are a number of publications that have achieved a legendary status reaching beyond their brief life as a published magazine. Alexey Brodovitch’s Portfolio (1949–50) is one such project, 8vo’s Octavo (1986–92) another. Herb Lubalin made a speciality of highly designed short-lived magazines (Eros, fact, Avant Garde). That all these magazines fit into a larger body of design work by their principals means the projects are well-known to anyone interested to track them down. And as traditional magazines – printed, bound runs of pages – they have easily identifiable ‘hero’ parts; front covers with logos, double page spreads with typographic headlines and imagery. These elements can be reproduced individually and used to symbolise the larger magazine.

Aspen magazine (1965–71) has a reputation far beyond its relatively small 1960s footprint and deserves legendary status, but thanks to its relative invisibility it borders on the mythical. In the art world it is renowned for the then-young artists it persuaded to contribute to its ten-issue run. For those with an interest in editorial history it was the first magazine-in-a-box, a project that encouraged others including more recent projects La Mas Bella, Visionaire and MK Bruce/Lee to look beyond the standard printed magazine format.

Its form is not only what is so exciting about Aspen – it also makes it difficult to reproduce satisfactorily. We hear a lot about Aspen but it remains remarkably unseen. Until now that is, thanks to a new show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Inspired by a trip to the US ski resort Aspen and its then annual design conference, founder/editor Phyllis Johnson set out to produce a magazine for the wealthy, creative  milieu she found there, a publication both serious and playful at the same time. The content was serious, the way it was presented as a collection of different items in a box was fun. In the editor’s letter introducing the first issue of Aspen, Johnson refers to the etymological roots of the word ‘magazine’ and notes its link to warehouses and shops, to collections of goods. Despite its unique format, the first two issues were quite a traditional mix of unlinked material. The first was designed by George Lois, Tom Courtos and Ralph Tuzzo, and included work by Peter Blake and others alongside material about the town of Aspen. By the third issue Johnson had more confidence in her project and handed the whole thing over to her chosen guest editor/designer – Andy Warhol. And so its reputation in the art world was assured. Strong, original content, presented using the many types of media available at the time: film reels, flexi-discs, different-sized printed items. Subsequent issues form a unique record of the 60s: John Cale, Willem de Kooning, William S Burroughs, Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, John Lennon, Marshall McLuhan… the list goes on.

Warhol worked with his favoured designer David Dalton on his issue, and Dalton later co-edited (with artist Brian Doherty) the highly conceptual issue 5+6 (1967). This linked two generations of US-based artists and intellectuals, with work by Susan Sontag, Burroughs, Roland Barthes and Marcel Duchamp in an all-black and white set of printed items which were boxed with a reel of Super-8 movie film featuring pieces by László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter and Robert Rauschenberg. Later issues looked at psychedelia, Asian art and the Fluxus movement.

Nothing can beat seeing the real issues, and according to curator Nayia Yiakoumaki, this exhibition is the first time a complete set has been displayed in one place. Each is presented separately under glass (sadly but not surprisingly you can’t touch them), with a number of facsimiles of supporting documents on the walls – letters from contributors etc. A second set of issues is presented covers-only, and all the audio and film contributions are available to hear and watch alongside contemporary and recent interviews with some of those involved (including George Lois).

Interesting though it is to read, hear and watch the various elements, the most important part of the show is the way the visitor can map the editorial thinking behind the project as it develops issue by issue. Better known magazines can seduce through design and imagery (we rarely see the lesser parts such as contents pages and secondary pages when a few copies are opened at ‘hero’ spreads under glass) but Aspen can’t hide. The exhibition exposes the editorial process behind every magazine. From a pure design perspective some elements appear dated, but the overall exuberance of the magazine more than stands the test of time. Aspen’s multimedia approach was so advanced that it’s perhaps only now we can fully appreciate it.

Among the documents on the walls is a copy of the papers that finally closed the magazine. The US Postal Service refused to accept Aspen as a magazine and rescinded Johnson’s right to use the cheap rates available to publishers. Her magazine was too special. Flattering, but cruel, it shows how even 40 years ago innovative magazine publishing survived on a shoestring.

This show is a must-see for anyone with an interest in magazines. I’ve been along twice already and hope to return several times before the show ends next spring.

Jeremy Leslie blogs at