In on the ground floor: Avalanche and the SoHo art scene, 1970-1976.
By eliminating art criticism and exhibition reviews in favor of process documents and interviews, the publication fostered a direct channel for the artist's voice. According to Willoughby Sharp, the magazine's publisher and cofounder (with Liza Bear), Avalanche's raison d'etre was "to amplify the artist not merely by putting their faces on the cover but to go into some kind of dialogue with them and find out how we could serve them.... Avalanche was an artists' magazine." The close-up black-and-white portraits of artists on the cover peer out with startling directness: Lawrence Weiner frowns sardonically (Spring 1972); Vito Acconci gloomily drags on his cigarette (Fall 1972); Yvonne Rainer gazes at the camera with a matter-of-fact, penetrating intelligence (Summer 1972); and Robert Smithson stares ponderously into the distance (Summer/Fall 1973).
If the stated goal of Avalanche was to empower the artist, its format inevitably--and in all likelihood, intentionally--echoed the cult of celebrity then sweeping American popular culture. Interviews and cover shots were, after all, defining features of Playboy, Rolling Stone, and of course, Interview. Knowingly or not, Avalanche certainly in some sense foreshadowed the celebritization all too familiar in today's art world. Looking back, it is impossible not to see in the magazine, albeit in nascent form, the contemporary art world's infatuation with the image of the artist as star. Yet Avalanche manifests a different kind of glamour: The unmade-up, unshaven, and at times defiant cover portraits--and the studied informality of the interviews--corresponded to the countercultural politics and grassroots ethos embodied by the publication, with its ad hoc feel and comparatively modest circulation. Its frank presentation of artists and their words--not to mention their art--was vital to the politicization of the alternative art scene in the '70s.
As curator of the seminal "Earth Art" exhibition at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University in 1969, Sharp gained firsthand experience with the ways in which art of the period put pressure on mainstream art institutions. Earth art not only inspired the geological metaphor of the magazine's title, but suggested to Sharp how a magazine might constitute a new material support or medium for this art, assuming a primary role in the work's communicability instead of the secondary, supplementary role it had performed traditionally as criticism or archive. It was through the "Earth Art" exhibition that Sharp became acquainted with Smithson, who saw magazine pages as prime opportunities for "non-sites," the artist's term for the documentation through which he represented his remote, large-scale works in the gallery space and in media. Asked by Sharp to elaborate on the concept of the non-site during an interview published in the first issue of Avalanche, Smithson explains:
There's a central focus point which is the non-site; the site is the unfocused fringe where your mind loses its boundaries and a sense of the oceanic pervades, as it were.... The interesting thing about the site is that, unlike the non-site, it throws you out into the fringes .... One might even say that the place has absconded or been lost.... This is a map that will take you somewhere, but when you get there you won't really know where you are. In a sense the non-site is the center of the system, and the site itself is the fringe or the edge.
Smithson's site/non-site dialectic suggests a compelling model for the relationship between Avalanche and the art it documented in Lower Manhattan. The SoHo art community, while not that far physically from the uptown gallery scene was "on the fringes," as Smithson might say: situated outside the dominant art-world centers and largely excluded by its main vehicles of publicity. Like other progressive art publications that emerged out of this milieu, such as Art-Rite (1973-78), Heresies (1977-93), The Fox (1975-76), and Artworkers News (subsequently Art & Artists) (1971-89), Avalanche focused on an aspect of the art world that its editors felt was marginalized in the mainstream art press. Although artists, lured by low rents and the uncharted feel of SoHo, had been illegally squatting in its abandoned factories and manufacturing loft spaces since the early '50s--a story by now well known and oft romanticized--the neighborhood still had relatively few inhabitants in the early '70s. "At the time, there wasn't a car in SoHo at night," Jackie Winsor recalls. "Usually if you saw someone on the street you'd know who they were. The buildings would be black except for red lights on the staircase." Avalanche served as a guide to this milieu, publicizing its emerging alternative spaces and performance venues. Indeed, the magazine hosted screenings and performances in its own cavernous loft spaces on Grand Street, right around the corner from a constellation of brand-new alternative art venues, including 112 Greene Street, Paula Cooper Gallery, and Food restaurant. "If Avalanche hadn't had offices in SoHo long before it was SoHo," Sharp recalls, "it wouldn't have been what it was.... You could knock on the window." Avalanche was in the thick of it--on street level as a fledgling artistic community began to take hold.
If, however, the magazine functioned as a kind of map for the unmarked space of early SoHo, it was not merely an empirical record of this space. Instead, like Smithson's non-site, it existed in a reciprocal and constitutive relationship to its site. Smithson was fond of describing printed matter through geological imagery and once characterized art magazines as "strata" with "land masses of print (called criticism) and little oceans with right angles (called photographs)." Qua Smithson, Avalanche mined the materiality of printed matter. The magazine unfolds in a dense, layered manner, as texts and photographs cascade across the page, full-bleed images alternating with spare, white pages. The sheer quantity of photographs published in Avalanche is remarkable: In the first issue, a conversation between Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Dennis Oppenheim is illustrated with no less than thirty-two photos, several of which bleed across two pages. To come across this layout in Avalanche is to comprehend more fully how the representational concerns of '70s art were inflected by the communication forms of an emerging media culture.
In Avalanche, artists explored new ways to present their process-oriented and time-based work to the public, experimenting with layout and developing a visual rhetoric to signify the passage of time through the static mediums of typography and photography. Richard Long contributed "Retrospective," eight pages of photographs recording the artist's subtle interventions in the landscape (Fall 1970); Robert Morris, "Document: Pace and Process," instructions for and photodocumentation of a performance that involved riding several ponies back and forth along a single line (Fall 1970); Richard Serra, "Verb List Compilation," a succession of verbs in the infinitive tense describing sculptural processes (Winter 1971); Hanne Darboven, "Words," one of the artist's writing projects in which she marks the passage of time through lists of consecutive numbers typed out in Courier font over ten pages of the magazine (Spring 1972); Alice Aycock, "Four 36-38 Exposures," a series of contact sheets showing cloud formations moving and dissipating over a given time interval (Spring 1972); Gordon Matta-Clark, "Jacks," a set of photographs documenting the artist's junkyard performance (Fall 1971); Sol LeWitt, "Page Drawings," consisting of instructions for the reader to draw directly on the magazine page (Spring 1972); and Vito Acconci, "Drifts and Conversions," documentation of a performance in which the artist created illusions of gender transformations (Winter 1971). Acconci was essentially given the Fall 1972 issue in which to document his work--a minicatalogue complete with bibliography and index.
Avalanche, like so many worthwhile endeavors, had its origins in a chance encounter: Sharp, an art historian working as an independent curator, met Bear in 1968. A London-based magazine editor on her first trip to New York, Bear contacted Sharp to retrieve a film for a friend back home. This casual errand turned into a fortuitous meeting, as the two struck an instant rapport, discovering their common interests in art and media, and they almost immediately agreed to produce an art magazine together. Bear sold her return ticket to England and the two set up shop in Sharp's Gramercy Park apartment, where they pooled their expertise and went to work conceptualizing and designing the publication, selling ads, and sorting through the huge quantity of mail that had started to flow in as word of the new magazine spread in the art world. Bear remembers, "We jumped right in and literally got down to work on the magazine's format, laying out early issues of Life and Dadaist publications on the floor. It never occurred to us to try to raise some money first." Two years later, in late October 1970, the first issue was on the newsstands, with a picture of Joseph Beuys on its cover.
"When Avalanche came along, I said this is the first time there's a magazine that's more interesting than Artforum," remembered critic Robert Pincus-Witten. Avalanche borrowed Artforum's square format--a choice that reads in retrospect as both homage and challenge to the latter's authority at the time. Printed on glossy, high-quality paper, the upstart had a solidity to it and even a degree of polish that stood in contrast to--almost contradicted--the process-oriented "unfinish" of so much of the art it documented (even as it was the very vehicle of that art, or in some cases, actually was the art). It gave the offhanded snapshots of performances and installations a sudden feeling of legitimacy, made their haphazard cropping and accidental blurring seem intentional, even stylized, once neatly framed by a bright white border and surrounded by immaculate lines of Univers font. The magazine came out somewhat sporadically: The first year there was one issue, the next year two, then three. In 1974, when printing costs skyrocketed, Avalanche switched to a newspaper format, a cheap throwaway circular that seemed to mirror the grittiness of the neighborhood in Lower Manhattan during those years.
The choice of Beuys's portrait for the premiere cover of Avalanche signaled the editors' ambition for their magazine to be international in scope, which to some extent they fulfilled, lining up distribution in Europe and publishing a number of interviews and projects by European Conceptualists. However, the image of Beuys, who was known for the radical ideas he espoused at the Dusseldorf Academy as well as his influential role in the formation of the leftist German Student Party (DSP), surely also embodied the editors' own political leanings and their desire to challenge the status quo. Indeed, speaking of the magazine's title, Sharp insists, "The word avalanche and what it signified was very appealing to me because I saw myself as a renegade. I had hair that I could sit on, I started smoking marijuana in '64 and was still smoking at that time, and I wanted this thing, this magazine, to represent a cultural break-through ... something that an avalanche does. It reconfigures, breaks down the old structure."
Bear and Sharp were sympathetic to the political issues of greatest concern to artists during the late '60s and early '70s, when numerous grassroots artist-activist groups (like the Art Workers Coalition) were established to address social injustice in the art world and beyond. The editors of Avalanche were in fact instrumental in the formation of the AWC, and they even took part in occasional protests (as in January 1969, when they helped to stage a demonstration at the Museum of Modern Art for their friend Vassilakis Takis, a Greek kinetic artist, who removed his work from the museum in a calculated act of institutional defiance). Nevertheless, Avalanche's significance had less to do with the explicitly political stance of its editors than with their savvy understanding of publicity. In an art world that was increasingly an "information system" (as Jack Burnham put it in these pages in 1969), Bear and Sharp grasped that participation in the media was not a choice for artists but a necessity. It is within this context of '60s media politics that Avalanche's legacy can be most accurately located.
Artists didn't have to be at the mercy of their critics, Avalanche's editors maintained; they could be proactive about their own portrayal in the media. This insight was timely, since artists had already begun to "talk back" to critics, penning articles and criticism such as the spate of Minimalist writings famously appearing in Artforum in the mid- to late '60s. Avalanche went even further by circumventing the critic altogether and pioneering a novel set of terms for critical discourse, based on nonhierarchical and cooperative forms of communication.
For example, instead of exhibition reviews Avalanche published a section called "Rumbles," a communique from the front lines of the art world to keep readers posted on performances, Happenings, exhibitions, openings, readings, and screenings. Compiled by the editors from correspondence they received from artists around the world, the Rumbles section provided invaluable eyewitness accounts of such events through vignettes and news flashes. "For his first New York show, San Francisco artist Terry Fox performed a 30 minute piece in a dilapidated part of Reese Palley's basement," read a dispatch in the inaugural issue. "Besides the audience of about two dozen friends, a Bowery bum whose chest was covered with the tattoo of a large snake had been invited by Fox to sleep at his feet throughout the performance." Other goings-on reported in Rumbles included: "John Baldessari is burning all his paintings in a California crematorium" (Fall 1970); "William Wegman performed Three Speeds, Three Temperatures this May in the faculty men's room at the University of Wisconsin, Madison" (Fall 1970); and "the preliminary draft of an Artist's Reserved Rights Sale Agreement, drawn up by Seth Siegelaub ... has been submitted to some five hundred people in the international art community for their approval" (Winter 1971).
Gossip and anecdotes of a more personal nature were printed in a section called "Messages," a kind of community newsletter where one could read trivialities such as "Richard Long passed an afternoon watching hippopotami at the Central Park Zoo.... Gordon Matta served a bone dinner at Food on Sunday February 20.... Terry Fox has had his sternum removed" (Spring 1972). On a more sober note, issue no. 8 (Summer/Fall 1973) included news of Robert Smithson's accidental death in a plane crash and the birth of Food cofounder Rachel Lew's twins (complete with pictures of the newborn infants and details about their breastfeeding). The inclusion of such information gives a decidedly local and personal tenor to Avalanche's mode of address. It presumes a level of familiarity, even camaraderie, with and among its readers and the artists it covered. While Avalanche's editors sought to make the magazine international in scope by including news from Europe and the rest of the US, the magazine remained rooted in the local SoHo community.
In the interviews published in Avalanche, artists were encouraged to talk frankly about their art without the mediation of critics. Over six years, Avalanche published sixty-one artist interviews, including conversations with Carl Andre, Jan Dibbets, Smithson, Heizer, Oppenheim, Bruce Nauman, Fox, Le Va, Winsor, Weiner, Matta-Clark, Philip Glass, Janis Kounellis, Yvonne Rainer, General Idea, Acconci, Wegman, Ed Ruscha, Tina Girouard, Chris Burden, Meredith Monk, and Daniel Buren. Bear and Sharp conducted all but one or two of the interviews themselves, preparing assiduously by doing weeks' worth of reading and research. The Avalanche conversations were "no kissing cousin of the celebrity interview," Bear insists, "but a kind of investigative reporting that aimed to understand rather than to expose, in which the questioning voice was closely attuned to the artist's sensibility."
The closeness between interviewer and subject manifests itself as a kind of fluency and spontaneity that is largely absent from such exchanges today, which are heavily edited and frequently conducted via e-mail. The Avalanche interviews, by contrast, circle and ramble, the way real conversations do. Utterly idiosyncratic, they convey something of the affective nuance and informal quality of the original exchanges they record, capturing the rhythm and cadence of natural speech, brimming with pauses, non sequiturs, phatic expressions. Artist and interviewer think out loud, on occasion finish one another's sentences. When Rainer describes her discovery of performance, the immediacy of her revelation is such that we can practically imagine being in the room with her: "Mmmmmm. It was my first dance.... I stood waiting for the curtain to go up--no, it didn't go up, it parted, and I had the sense of uh ... it was like an epiphany of beauty and power that I have rarely experienced since" (Summer 1972). At the other end of the affective spectrum, an interview by Sharp with Ruscha (appropriately entitled "... a kind of a Huh?") concludes an in-depth discussion of the artist's work with the following exchange: "(Doorbell rings) S[amantha]E[ggar]: Who is it? (A voice) Night Service. WS: Who is it? ER: Night Service. WS: Are there any more Uneedas? ER: I don't think so. WS: Oh, well. (Pause.) ER: Turn on the TV" (Winter/Spring 1973). Often the interviews take place over a meal or over the course of a long afternoon. Sometimes they kick off with the passing of a joint or lighting of hash (as may be apparent in the previous example). Questions are posed unpretentiously, candidly, even bluntly. To Buren: "So what were you trying to do, exactly?" (December 1974); to Smithson: "What exactly is your concept of a non-site?" (Fall 1970); to Matta-Clark: "What's a metaphoric void?" (December 1974); to Girouard: "So in what ways does the choice of medium become significant?" (Summer/Fall 1973); to Weiner: "At what point did you see yourself as an artist?" (Spring 1972); to Andre: "Do you feel that your work is subversive in any way?" (Fall 1970); to Rainer: "Has being a woman made a difference to your work?" (Summer 1972).
Asked recently about his attitude toward the art market, Sharp remarked, somewhat surprisingly, "If anything I was trying to encourage these artists to get in the market, helping them market their work. I'm not against the market." Besides revealing a certain seat-of-the-pants pragmatism, without which the magazine couldn't have survived for as long as it did, this statement touches on one of the more arresting ironies of Conceptual art: Famous for its implicit contempt for the market, this dematerialized art's refusal of the traditional commodity object ultimately rendered it all the more reliant on those newer (and more insidious) forms of publicity and spectacle so central to the information age. However, while the benefits of the art world's information systems typically accrued to those at the top of pecking order, Avalanche worked to the artists' advantage.
Avalanche's biased sponsorship of particular artists in both its editorial and advertising sections (today one is struck by the strict correlation between the artists featured in prominent ad space and a not insignificant portion of the editorial content) provoked accusations that the magazine was "clannish, in the editors' protection of too few reputations" and "more a part of the continuum of promotion than it is a critical journal," in the words of Lawrence Alloway ("Artists as Writers, Part Two: The Realm of Language," Artforum, April 1974). However valid such critiques, in its unabashed and tactical use of publicity, Avalanche perspicaciously anticipated critical media practices of the '80s and '90s. Furthermore, Avalanche's advertising space was not only used for promotional purposes but appropriated to publicize political and controversial affairs within the art world. When the Guggenheim Museum censored Buren's work in 1971, Avalanche ran a full-page advertisement courtesy of art dealer Konrad Fischer broadcasting the scandal (Winter 1971). In other instances, ad space was used for antiwar statements or even left blank, paid for by galleries that wished to support the magazine without endorsing name-brand artists.
The publicity generated by Avalanche benefited not only the artists it promoted but also the alternative spaces and lofts that had begun cropping up in SoHo: 112 Greene Street and Paula Cooper were soon joined by Holly Solomon's 98 Greene Street Loft and the cluster of commercial galleries at 420 Broadway, including the new downtown branches of Dwan (later John Weber Gallery), Castelli, and Sonnabend. The ads for such spaces reveal their ideological aims by showing their unfinished, makeshift interiors, which corresponded to a process-oriented, collectivist ethos. Moreover, Avalanche represents something of the social character of '70s art through advertisements for watering holes like Max's Kansas City and Fanelli's, an Italian working-class bar where artists would gather after openings, and for Food, the cooperative eatery founded by artists Caroline Goodden, Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Matta-Clark, and Lew. The latter establishment was especially significant for the downtown art community. Opening its doors in September 1971, Food served up an unusual mix of health food and inedible concoctions, as it seems fair to describe many of the dishes prepared by the artists who served as guest chefs in a series of Sunday-night dinners organized by Matta-Clark. Food functioned as a social experiment--a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (Matta-Clark in fact conceived of the restaurant as "one big sculpture").
How we read Avalanche's significance today comes back to historical context--specifically, the milieu of the alternative art community in SoHo. "This was the epoch of retail-free bliss," Bear recalls. "There was as yet no art scene as such for the public." Part of what Avalanche did was to create this scene, to shape the character of the emerging art public as it metamorphosed from a loosely affiliated group of like-minded individuals into a thriving artistic community (which, as we know, would eventually evolve into a highly commercialized gallery scene). Avalanche not only witnessed the accumulation of value by both the art and the spaces in which it was shown in SoHo but was also a part of that escalation, which ultimately eroded the very public sphere the magazine's editors had sought to cultivate, and artists soon began to imagine alternative scenarios for maintaining that sphere's viability.
The effects of such processes--indeed their intensification--is evident today: 93 Grand Street, the site of the original Avalanche workplace, is now a fashion boutique, its unfinished concrete floors both referencing the original use of the space and suggesting the fetishization of "process" as mere style. And yet the disappearance of Avalanche magazine--its ephemerality, which speaks to the volatility of collective meaning--amounts to a kind of resistance to such conditions as well. With no major corporate sponsorship, Avalanche was supported solely by subscriptions, advertisements, public and private grants, and, not least, the intellectual labor of its editors and artists. The last issue, published in 1976, shows on its cover the financial ledger for the magazine, revealing its fiscal straits. (Sharp also acknowledges that the winds of the art world were already starting to shift in a different direction--toward neo-expressionist painting--and, as he put it, he was no longer "with the art.") The final cover image suggests that Avalanche quite literally refused to profit from its engagement with the artists it revered. Then, as if mimicking much of the art it had championed for the past six years, the magazine silently faded out of existence.
Gwen Allen teaches art history at the Maine College of Art in Portland and is the author of "Against Criticism: The Avalanche Artist Interview, 1970-1976" in Art Journal (Fall 2005). (See Contributors.)
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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