The Medium Is The Massage
By Lauranne Corneau
The self-proclaimed “multimedia magazine in a box”, Aspen, lasted just 10 issues, released over seven years, from 1965 to 1971. It was founded by Phyllis Johnson, former editor of Women’s Wear Daily and Advertising Age, and although it was a niche publication at the time, it is now recognised as a seminal event in publishing, with a list of contributors that reads like a sale catalogue for Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary. The archetype of multimedia expression and experience that it established is played out today in the tactile sensuality of Visionaire, the arch exclusivity of Egoiste and the whimsical intellectualism of McSweeny’s.
Issue #1 covered topics relevant to the magazine’s editorial home and namesake, such as winter sport, wild- life and local architecture. (Aspen, Colorado has long been the ski-resort destination of choice for America’s affluent upper classes.) But it also included extracts from papers presented at a recent design conference, with titles like “The Victory of Technique over Content” and “The Interrelationships between Ethics and Power in Design”, and a 7” flexidisc of jazz that the liner notes describe as “wayoutland”. It was all packaged in a striking mono- chrome box emblazoned with a giant letter A.
By issue #3, though, Johnson had left Colorado far behind. Published in December 1966 and guest-edited by Andy Warhol and David Dalton, it was a medley of under- ground, hedonistic New York life. It contained 12 prints of paintings from the Thomas Powers collection, with work by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning and Bridget Riley; a flipbook of Jack Smith and Warhol film stills; excerpts of papers from a conference on LSD; and the Plastic Exploding Inevitable, Warhol’s one-off newspaper documentation of his infamous Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance nights. Lou Reed submitted a four-page, single-spaced essay on rock’n’roll: “Everybody sat like an unpeeled orange,” he wrote, “but the music was so beautiful…” The flexidisc was split between John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, and Peter Walker, “musical director” for the psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. As Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, tells Dapper Dan, it was the moment the world of print went Pop.
“One day Andy called me and he said, ‘There’s this lady, Phyllis Johnson, and she wants to do this magazine, and it is a magazine that comes in a box.’ The two previous issues were done by well-known art directors like the graphic-design genius George Lois. But the funny thing was, they weren’t too imaginative when you consider what an art director could do with a concept like this. Andy and I were far from being art directors, though Andy’s sense of design was impeccable. He said to me, ‘Oh, we have both got to do this box! And it should be like Pop!’ So off we went to the supermarket and looked around for a suitable box to copy. And the most striking boxes we saw were the boxes of detergent. They had very graphic Day-Glo swirls and vortexes on them to simulate the power of their deter- gent in a washing machine.
“The way that issue was put together was the way Andy did a lot of projects. He would tell you what the thing was, and then you would do it as if you were Andy Warhol. He wasn’t too involved, except to make it more Pop, or simpler, or dumber. My job was to think about what Andy would do. Basically, it was a question of learning the Pop language for each object that had to go into the box.
“We had pictures of Pop artists’ work, and we used the pictures like postcards, put them in a package like a tourist item. Like if you went to Times Square you could buy all these pictures of New York and take them away in a little package. And the flip book – there was a Jack Smith movie, Buzzards of Baghdad. Jack Smith was Andy’s ideal filmmaker, he was the most famous, outrageous filmmaker at the time — until Andy started doing his still movies, like Kiss and Sleep and Empire. The joke, of course, in the Andy flip movie, is that it doesn’t move.
“The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was the name of the Warhol/Velvet Underground touring show. It was the show that started at a place called the Dom, a Ukrainian community hall. In 1966, Andy took it over with a big light show. The Velvet Underground played and Gerard Malanga [Warhol’s principal assistant] and Mary Woronov [a Warhol Superstar also known as Penny Arcade] danced with whips. Nico was still with the Velvets and Edie Sedgwick was also briefly involved. And then they took it to LA and they took it to Chicago. And it was like taking the Factory on the road. So I called the newspaper the Plastic Exploding Inevitable. It was a mock underground newspaper, like the East Village Other, the local Lower East Side underground newspaper at the time.
“Aspen turned out to be one hip thing. Pop art was a movement that got a lot of coverage in the magazines. It was extremely popular. Very bright, very colourful. I think the thing that was very 1960s about this magazine was the idea of multimedia. It was a world that people loved. The whole idea of the 1960s was pushing the boundaries, and people were very open to this kind of experiment. That really hasn’t happened in quite the same way since. Very normal people suddenly took an interest in quite exotic and peculiar things. And art. Of course it had a lot to do with drugs, but it also had a lot to do with the collective sense of the 1960s. The world was changing; the world was kind of becoming aware of itself as becoming modern in a way that the 20th century had promised from the very beginning. And here we were! We were actually making history: stopping wars, stopping racism, making crazy art and crazy movies and music like the music of John Cage and [experimental Polish composer Krzysztof] Penderecki. Andy believed that you could do anything in your life. It never occurred to him that I wouldn’t be able to take all this stuff and get a box manufactured. You just have to believe that you can do it, and then you do it.”