Books

The Little Magazines Behind Avant-Garde Art and Literature

These magazines often served as laboratories for thought experiments, and were crucial to the creative and political development of many artists.

Sophie Seita, Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital (image courtesy of Stanford University Press)

Is the avant-garde long dead? Is it an anachronism best suited for academic study? Or is it just as relevant and contemporary as it was when the term emerged in art circles a century ago? Sophie Seita’s Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital takes on these questions through the medium of the “little magazine” — small-run literary or art magazines.

Focusing on both well-known and obscure little magazines, Seita challenges the notion that there exists a formula for what can be called avant-garde. Instead, she presents the category as fluid, broad-minded, and sometimes contradictory. Positioning little magazines as forums for creative expression and means of engendering provisional and heterogenous communities, she organizes the book into periods: proto-Dada (~1914–29), proto-conceptual (~1965–75), proto-language and queer New Narrative (~1971–89), feminist (~1983–2009), and contemporary digital magazine communities (~2008–17). This concept of “proto-forms,” she explains, “conceives of avant-gardes as provisional networks of affiliation rather than rigidly demarcated groups, where proto- suggests provisionality and heterogeneity, while form stresses media, genres, and groups.”

Within these periods, Seita examines the materiality of the magazines, as well as the social contexts from which they grew, the groups’ defining statements, and who was included or excluded. In addition to expected titles like Others, 0 to 9, some/thing, Contact, The Little Review, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, she pays important attention to post-1980s queer and feminist avant-garde magazines like Raddle Moon, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, HOW(ever), HOW2, and Chain, thus filling a huge lacuna that exists in the understanding of the category. Digital magazines are also given their due in the book, neatly rounding off the history Seita charts.

Most little magazines were established by friends within close circles of artists, writers, and poets. Seita examines how the magazines served as laboratories for thought experiments. Little magazines were crucial to the creative and political development of many artists who went on to have successful careers, such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry, Vito Acconci, and Lawrence Weiner. But more often than not, they were outlets for work by the editors or the editors’ friends. As Seita discusses, this led to exclusivity in some cases, as many artists and writers published only in their little magazine communities.

In other cases, communication between publications forged significant conversations. For instance, New York-based magazines like 0 to 9 and some/thing “exemplified a network of magazines that generated dialogue among poetry, performance, and what would become known as ‘conceptual art,’ challenging the form and content of the avant-garde little magazines.”

Seita uses abundant examples to show how these magazines acted as “laboratories” for new typographies and verbal and visual collaborations, and how they foregrounded the medium of the magazine itself. She also highlights the treatment of women in the history of Dada and other modernist genres — mostly “remembered as wives or muses” rather than creators in their own right. While Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review was a notable and influential early magazine, publishing from 1914 through 1929, in later decades women artists and writers were increasingly written out of avant-garde history or pushed to the margins. Seita cites, for instance, the case of Beatrice Wood, who edited the short-lived proto-Dada magazine The Blind Man with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roche. The magazine folded after only two issues, its end determined by a chess game between Roche and Francis Picabia, supposedly to avoid competition with the latter’s 391, another New York Dada little magazine. Picabia won the game, and The Blind Man ceased publication. Seita writes, “The moves of the match were published and printed in the single issue of the follow-up magazine rongwrong, also edited by Duchamp, Wood, and Roche, with the help of Man Ray.” These men would go on to find fame and success, while Wood remains understudied.

Seita concludes by looking at little magazines in the digital era. Digital magazines allow readers, writers, and editors to process the idea of the “printing” community in real time and to create “imagined books” that are often “unprintable,” as in Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, which would be a 740-page tome of almost entirely black ink if printed. Provisional Avant-Gardes poses questions about the printed page in digital avant-garde publishing. Little magazines, such as n+1, BOMB, and McSweeny’swhich have both print versions and websites with exclusive online content — are widely known compared to the little magazines of the past; their reach transcends geographical boundaries and, in turn, the exclusivity that defined earlier little magazines. Today, the sense of community that little magazines were designed to create and foster is largely open-ended and ever-changing. As a result, Seita argues for the need to “instantiate avant-gardism as a contemporary concept, beyond the simple model of the original and its lesser copy.” Little magazines, she adds, remain a laboratory, “but the experiments in, and realities of, form, politics, and sociality are available for much larger networks to see and participate in.” Likening the little magazine to a vivarium, she notes that “the reader, or ‘user,’ can observe a small ecosystem as it takes place. It is all about visibility.”

Along with her analysis, Seita includes stories of collaborations, friendships, and the creative evolution of some of the most famous names in 20th-century art. While she relies perhaps too heavily on academic language, Provisional Avant-Gardes is important as a study of the impact of little magazines on art, literature, and politics, on their changing aesthetics, and on how print communities are created, then and now.

Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital by Sophie Seita is now out from Stanford University Press.

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