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Aspen no. 5+6, editada por Phyllis Johnson, diseñada por Brian O’Doherty. © Aspen Magazine, 1967. Cortesía del artista.
Aspen: the magazine in a box (1965-1971)

In the early 1960s, it was still possible, broadly speaking, to assign a work of art to a specific category such as painting or sculpture. That said, artists from the historic vanguards had already defied these discrete compartments passed down through tradition by proclaiming new means of expression; think, for instance, of the Futurist performances or the Dadaist events at the beginning of the twentieth century. The decade of the sixties witnessed a cultural paradigm shift that paved the way for a new context in which what would come to be known as postmodernism could flourish. Though the stylistic features of postmodernism were not generally agreed upon until the eighties, it was in the sixties when new ways of understanding the world began to emerge in all forms possible. There was no longer any talk of a unique discourse or a linear History. Rather it was a question of trying to dismantle the hegemonic ideas constructed from power and replacing them with a new conception based on the idea that there is no such thing as an axiomatic truth, but instead a wide panoply of relative cultural constructs, dependent on a context. The artists from this period employed language as a key visual device, as one can see with the Fluxus group or the artists later classified within Pop Art, Conceptual Art or Minimalism, some of the movements that used it as a tool to question their surrounding environs.

Aspen “the magazine in a box” came into being against this backdrop, in December 1965. Phyllis Johnson, the publisher of the magazine, was a regular visitor to Aspen, Colorado, a city which had become the mecca for skiing in the USA after the Second World War and a frequent watering-hole for intellectuals and academics. During the 15th annual International Design Conference - IDCA held at the Aspen Institute, in which creatives and entrepreneurs engaged in a collective rethinking of configurations of the new world, Johnson conceived her own personal vision of the magazine which she would put into practice over the next few months. Aspen was not to be a run-of-the-mill journal. On the contrary, as the editor explained in the letter opening the first issue, [1] “in calling it a ‘magazine,’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as ‘a storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’ That’s what we want each issue to be." [2] The word “magazine” etymologically comes from the French “magasin”, the Italian “magazzino”, or the Arabic “makhazin”, which in turn gave rise to the Spanish “almacén” or warehouse.

Aspen was a magazine in a box. Every issue was a totally new experience conceived by a guest designer and/or editor who would develop his/her own personal vision of the contents. A particular issue might contain posters, flip books, postcards, flexidisc records, kites, newspapers, puzzles, letters and even super-8 films. The subscriber to Aspen never knew exactly when to expect the magazine — initially it was to be published every two months but it ended up coming out at random intervals, with a total of ten issues in the period spanning 1965 and 1971 — nor what to expect inside it.

Thanks to her prior experience as editor of Women’s Wear Daily and Advertising Age, Phyllis Johnson was acquainted with George Lois, who was then chief art director of the majority of the covers for Esquire, already in circulation at the time. Lois was commissioned to design Aspen no. 1, a tentative approach to the initial idea for the publication, focused on the city from which it took its name. Besides the opening letter from the editor mentioned above, the first box contained another seven items: Jazz: A Cool Duel a record with three tracks, another phonograph recording featuring jazz, a pamphlet on the pleasures of cross-country skiing, a booklet by Peggy Clifford on a visit to architect Frederic Benedict’s ranch, a pamphlet on the elusive white-tailed ptarmigan in Timberline and, finally, the thirteen papers presented at IDCA. Designed by Frank Kirk and Tony Angotti, Aspen no. 2 did not differ substantially from the previous issue. Presented in a white box, it contained six items that were still connected in some way with the city of Aspen. One was a folder with documents pertaining to the lingering demise of Glenwood Canyon; a poster with images and text describing a visit to the inhabitants of a house in a rural area outside the city, an accordion leaflet on downhill skiing, and a phonograph recording of works by Alexander Scriabin performed by Daniel Kunin.

Aspen no. 3 however introduced a radical change. While issues 1 and 2 had subtly explored the new cultural fashion associated with the enjoyment of nature and outdoor sports in what was known as the “Athens of the mountains”, issue 3 offered a counterpoint from the big city. In the Fab Issue, also known as The Pop Art Issue, Andy Warhol engaged with the counterculture movement that was taking place in New York. In point of truth, similarly to other works signed by Warhol, as is the case of POPism: The Warhol Sixties and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again), it was not Warhol himself who did the actual work, but others in his name. In a recent interview, David Dalton recollects how he received a call from Andy Warhol saying “I have a magazine to do, what don’t you come and do it?”, [3] and that’s what happened. After a visit to the nearest supermarket, Warhol and Dalton arrived at what would be the cover of the third issue of Aspen magazine. Aspen no. 3 would become a kind of time capsule for a movement at this moment of upheaval, a container of documents of the era: a collection of cards reproducing artworks by artists like Rosenquist, Riley, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Jasper Johns, a flip book with the piece Kiss by Warhol and a ticket book with excerpts from papers given at a conference on LSD at Berkeley.

Aspen challenged the viewer. There was no linear structure nor did it follow any set order. The magazine user was free to start wherever he liked and, to do so, he had to interact with the object by opening it and then spread out, fold, assemble, smell or listen to countless elements and things. After the Andy Warhol issue, the magazine became a vibrant critical container of the artistic discourse of the moment. The publication embraced advertising as a medium and appropriated everyday objects with the goal of popularising the very notion of art. Reading the magazine was a multisensorial experience. It operated in fact like a collage of contents, not far removed from the theoretical stance adopted by Marshall McLuhan with regards the mass media to which Johnson dedicated the following issue of the magazine. Aspen no. 4 included an advance from the author’s celebrated book The Medium is the Massage published just a few months afterwards, as well as a piece by John Cage called Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), containing a mosaic of ideas by the artist.

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Aspen no. 5+6, editada por Phyllis Johnson, diseñada por Brian O’Doherty. © Aspen Magazine, 1967. Cortesía del artista.

In his essay S/Z from the very early seventies, the semiologist Roland Barthes developed the idea of hypertextuality and argued that he had in mind a “text composed by blocks of words (or images), linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web and path”. Implicit in the idea of hypertext is the notion of fragmented, composed and linked text. To a certain extent, it expands the democratization of the multiple experience, bringing us closer to the current mode in which one reads in digital media like tablets or smartphones where, not unlike Aspen, it is the reader who decides what path his/her editorial experience will take.

With the following double issue of the magazine, the idea of the box as a multisensorial and hypertextual time capsule reached a level of complexity that it would not match again in the remaining issues. One of the reasons for this was the dwindling funding, and from the following issue there were no advertisements inside the magazine. The artist Brian O’Doherty was responsible for putting together and designing the contents of Aspen 5+6, an editorial project he put together over the course of a year. In it, he consciously developed the first conceptual exhibition within a cardboard container. This little museum dedicated to Mallarmé focused on notions of time, silence and language, and included works that signalled a transition from Minimalism to Conceptual Art. Inside were works by Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, John Cage, Dan Graham and Merce Cunningham, among others. At once, O’Doherty commissioned the seminal text known later as The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes (called The Destruction of the Author in the first draft), The Aesthetics of Silence by Susan Sontag and Style and the Representation of Historical Time by George Kubler, jotting down in a small notebook the theoretical foundations on which to develop his particular vision of the artistic moment or some of the principles that would later define postmodernism. [4]

Dedicated to performance and edited by Jon Hendricks, Aspen no. 6A appeared towards the end of 1968, a year after Brian O’Doherty’s seminal publication. It contained notes and collages by Lil Picard, Kate Millett and Takahiko Imura, as well as a description for performances by Allan Kaprow and by Nam June Paik. The seventh issue was known as Aspen no. 7 The British Issue and was edited by Mario Amaya and designed by John Kosh. Inside the box were drawings by Eduardo Paolozzi, a book with texts by J.G. Ballard, Edward Lucie-Smith and Christopher Finch, among others, as well as various kitsch souvenirs by Peter Blake, a diary of the future by John Lennon, a phonograph recording with previously unreleased songs by a sweet-voiced Yoko Ono singing a cappella and an almost inaudible John Lennon, and some drawings by David Hockney.

Dan Graham edited Aspen no. 8, what has been called The Fluxus Issue as the design was by George Maciunas, one of the founding members and coordinator of the Fluxus movement. [5] For economic reasons the idea of the box had to be discarded, and the eighth issue of Aspen ended up as a kind of folder which the editor was not entirely satisfied with. It contained paintings and texts by Jo Baer, a text by Eleanor and David Antin, a score by Philip Glass, a phonograph recording by La Monte Young, a description of a sculptural project by Richard Serra, the fold-out text Strata a Geophotograhic Fiction by Robert Smithson, and a piece by Edward Ruscha called Parking Lot. And while the latest magazine edited by Dan Graham already showed signs of the impoverishment of the publication due to Phyllis Johnson’s problems with funding, the last two issues dedicated to psychodelia in the case of Aspen no. 9 — edited by Angus and Hetty MacLise, and works by Don Snyder, Ira Cohen and John Cale — and to contemporary Asian art in the case of Aspen no. 10 — with the collaboration de Kuo Hsi and Ching Ying but without a credited editor or designer — signalled the end of a cycle that ran in parallel to the Vietnam War and came to a dramatic end with the editor disappearing virtually without a trace and leaving numerous unpaid debts with contributors.

An evident change in mood took place at the same time as Phyllis Johnson developed her personal concept of the magazine. As she said in the editorial for the first issue, her primary goal was to return to “all the civilized pleasures of modern living, based on the Greek idea of the ‘whole man’." Nonetheless, in a similar process to what took place with the idealist proposals of the hippie movement at the time against the war, Aspen was shown to be a naïve and utopian creative stance for the diffusion of the arts, which was quickly swallowed up by the mass media on which the magazine itself had heaped flattering praise, increasingly more frenetic in its functioning, removed from thoughtful reflection and centred on capital.

One of the theses developed by both Foucault and Barthes with regards the death of the author argued for the independence of the spectator with regards to the work, allowing language to articulate itself in multifarious interpretations. Aspen became an art object that spoke about art itself. Despite the fact that Phyllis Johnson came from the mass media and the daily press, and despite their change in direction, "the magazine in a box" ended up being a dissemination of the plural language of the moment and a demonstration of the democratization of contents and freedom of creation.

[1Letter-editorial by Phyllis Johnson in the opening issue of Aspen Magazine, 1965.


[3Interview on 23 April 2009 by Maarten van Gageldonk in the English Department of Radboud University, Nijmegen, accessible in the recent exhibition on Aspen Magazine at Whitechapel Gallery, London.

[4Complete contents of Aspen Magazine on Last consulted on 15 March 2013.

[5In a recent interview by Maarten van Gageldonk in the English Department of Radboud University, Nijmegen, accessible in the exhibition on Aspen Magazine at Whitechapel Gallery, London, Dan Graham explained that he did not know about the Fluxus movement and therefore he does not understand that his issue was given this name. Nevertheless, he underlined his interest in the idea of anti-art associated with humour inherent to the work of some of the movement’s artists, contrasting it with the cynicism and philosophy of Conceptual Art, which he did not identify with.


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