With it’s high production values and innovative approaches to format, Aspen Magazine remains one of the most important artists’ periodicals, despite only publishing ten issues, over forty years ago. Calling itself “the first 3-dimensional magazine”, Aspen produced the first commercially available recording by the Velvet Underground, the first commercially available recording by La Monte Young, and the first appearance of Roland Barthes’ influential essay Death of the Author. It was also the first periodical to include a reel of films (Issue 5-6). It’s influence was felt immediately (with S.M.S. and Source, which followed shortly afterwards, both of which included artists’ multiples and audio projects) and continues to be seen in the boxed periodicals that Dave Egger’s McSweeney’s produces, the fashion&art quarterly Visionaire, Trans magazine and countless others. The editors and designers of periodicals such as Cabinet and Esopus, which combine writings with artists projects, often in the form of tipped in booklets, posters or postcards, clearly owe a debt to Aspen, also.
Mainstream magazines at the time, however, viewed it suspiciously, or ignored it altogether. In the June 7th, 1968 issue of Time Magazine, the periodical was reviewed in an article titled “Magazines: Hear It, Feel It, Hang It”. It begins:
Aspen is a magazine for people who don't like to read much. It is designed by artists and comes in boxes containing movie film, records, sculpture, puzzles, games, posters, and a few other things that defy definition. The first publication devoted to the "mixed media" popularized by Marshall McLuhan, Aspen assaults all the senses, not just the visual. As the magazine proclaims, "You don't simply read Aspen, you hear it, hang it, feel it, fly it, project it, even sniff it."
Any reader (participant? player? victim?) who takes the trouble to wade through the latest issue, designed by Brian O'Doherty, should find his senses fully exhausted. There is the script of a "structural play" that diagrams the movements of the performers, who are instructed to costume themselves in "white bodystockings or leotards, with tight-fitting hoods covering the ears and featureless silver masks." There is a do-it-yourself poem in which the author provides the ingredients (adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, gerunds, capitalized words, etc.) and leaves the composition to the reader. There is a recording of percussion instruments with the sensible instructions that it be played so low "you almost don't hear it.....For those who seek refuge in conventional words, a few are supplied. They are, however, often as inscrutable as the rest of the contents.
The article is online, here, but blocked by a paywall and available only to subscribers. The above quote was pieced together from the few fragments quoted elsewhere.
Johnson had successfully petitioned the Post Office for second class mail status in December of 1966, allowing the periodical to be shipped at reduced rates. In October 1970 the Post Office found her not in compliance with the original agreement and a hearing was called for December 11, 1970. This hearing discussed both the format and the content of Aspen, as well as the frequency with which it was published:
Q. “Do you do each issue around a separate theme?
The witness: Yes, we try to, in that it expresses what is going on in art and literature.
William A. Duvall, the Chief Hearing Examiner wrote in his decision:
In any event, I find that, while “Aspen” is the embodiment of an original, clever and imaginative idea, it is not a periodical publication. As a matter of law, I conclude that the publication “Aspen” is not a newspaper or a periodical publication within the meaning of 39 U. S. Code 4351 and 4354. Accordingly, the action of the Respondent in proposing to revoke the second-class mailing permit previously issued for the publication “Aspen” was correct, and, in the absence of an appeal followed by a ruling to the contrary by competent authority, is sustained.
In view of the foregoing conclusion, it is unnecessary to decide the question as to whether “Aspen” is regularly issued at stated intervals as frequently as four times a year. That has become a moot question.
By revoking its second-class license and the reduced mailing rates that come with it, the post office effectively ended Aspen’s ability to sustain itself.
Gwen Allen, in her 2011 book Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space For Art, writes that after Aspen, Phyllis Johnson lost touch with the artists with whom she worked, and moved from New York City back to Colorado to care for her aging mother. She helped found a retirement home there and wrote and illustrated a book on mushrooms.
She “traveled around the world, climbed mountains, and learned to tango in Argentina”. At the time of her death in 2001, at aged 75, she was working as a docent at the Contemporary Museum of Honolulu. A 337-word obituary in the Honolulu Advertiser mentions a variety of occupations (including “ski bum”) but fails to note her role as founder, editor and publisher of Aspen Magazine.
Last year a complete set of all ten issues of Aspen sold for $22,915.00 from ABE Books. It was the site’s third largest sale of the year, following Karl Marx’s Das Kapital ($51,739) and a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird ($25,000). Aspen outsold a first edition, first impression copy of Tolkein's The Hobbit, which went for $20,447.
An exhibition titled Aspen Magazine: 1965-1971 continues from September 11 to March 3 of 2013 at the Pat Matthews Gallery (Gallery 4) of Whitechapel Gallery in London. The show consists of every issue of the periodical, additional research materials, as well as every audio and film work included in the magazine.
Click here for a rundown of the ten issues, in reverse order.