How to Read an Art Magazine

Joanne Mattera, "Stack (Uttar 292)," 2006-08.

Most people don’t.

Picture in your head an issue of the most important art magazine in the world: its circulation is less than the students currently enrolled in MFA programs. Less than one-tenth the attendance of the Venice Biennale. Less than the population of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Following art’s first kiss, most acolytes turn to magazines to desperately try and understand the arcane ways and eddying histories of this quarrelsome international gang of weirdos, opportunists, and fanatics. Waves of apathy follow, a crippling jealousy snakes out when you spot all the scoundrels winning on every page. Or more softly, you might simply step away to develop your own voice, without a magazine’s cacophony blaring over your personal little songs. Even then, if you live in art, it’s advisable to have a general idea of what’s going on out there, easily accomplished by glancing at a magazine. Looking like you know what’s happening in the artworld has its power. However I read magazines not merely to appear knowledgeable but as an attempt to understand the nuances and layers of this thing that moves me, how it works and where it came from. I read magazines to piece together a world from the fragments of those that make it.

Different than a journal, a magazine is made for a general reader. But these are art magazines, so not too general. Expect to slog through sardonic pretensions, hollow cant, and grandstanding along with sundry other aesthetic pomposities. Not every page, but they’ll be present, to be sure.

To read an art magazine, first you have to get one*. Libraries, newsstands, the fluttering subscription cards that fall out from either; stealing your older/wealthier friends’ back issues from their coffee tables. Maybe even heading to the website and simply signing up. If you’re broke, don’t worry about it. The writers and editors and publishers and advertisers all want you reading (and part of their circulation numbers depend on how many people read each copy). If you’re not broke,  however, contemplateif only for a momentthat nothing good exists without people like you supporting it. Besides, a magazine reveals a larger, labyrinthine world made accessible for just the cost of its cover price.

In my first forays into serious magazine reading, I dissected the creatures with methodological care. Rubbing the paper between my fingers, dismantling the binding, examining the typography and layout of every page, attempting to memorize all the names of who was showing where, who was writing what, what group exhibitions included whom and where, where the advertisements were situated in the issue and why, how the various ads interacted with the editorial content. I investigated what was covered and why, examining how the writers structured their sentences and paragraphs, the arc of their arguments and narratives, analyzing each unfamiliar word, deciphering the jargon, looking for and even sometimes finding truly inspired art and writing. The names and ideas would rise and fall through the issues over time, crescendoing through the pages; before dissipating, replaced by other ascendants.

Firstly, the cover: sometimes it’s very clear what the cover image is and who made it, sometimes less so. One particular magazine always makes me feel just a tiny bit less smart every time I scan the table of contents to see what internationally renowned luminary’s work made the cover. Another magazine usually does portraits of people on their covers, mostly artists, and they make it very clear who it is with their design. These are positioned like two poles of a spectrum.

After you peel open the cover, the first magazine begins with advertisements. The second with editorial.

I like both. As a reader, I linger longer on the editorial, but no one should begrudge the visual arts from communicating to its audience through pictures.

The advertisements tell the history of galleries in our time, what risks they’re taking (if any), their bid for significant artists, movements, ideas, refracted through commerce.

The editorial is who and what the critics, historians, writers, and sometimes curators believe to be the artists and ideas of our time. These concurrent histories are not wholly independent of each other and give hints to other parts of the system, like the collectors who support the galleries and the museums, or the museums who hold the most influence in arbitrating economic and historic value.

Feel free to pay as little or as much attention to what you’re looking over and reading as you like. No one is going to test you, and besides, it’s a magazine’s job to enthrall.

The first few pages of the magazine between the cover and the table of contents are the most expensive and difficult to obtain for advertisers, as they can be sure that in the crumple from cover to contents most everyone will see their ads. So these clients (almost universally art galleries but occasionally luxury brands or services) have paid the most money, but also earned the right to do this. These are the longest and most important supporters of the magazine; understanding who these people are and why they’re in the front of the book gives one insight into the history of the publication as a business enterprise in other words, who has kept it in business. Typically, there is no (spoken) quid pro quo for coverage, but there is, at a minimum, mutual appreciation between a magazine and its strongest supporters. Money alone can’t buy the first few ad pages, but serious commitment over time would. In my favorite ads, three or four dealers get together to congratulate an artist on a big show or prize, while letting everyone know that it’s their guy that won.  

Dan Graham, in his essay “My Works for Magazine Pages” (1985), discusses the necessary relationship between galleries and art magazines. “Through the actual experience of running a gallery, I learned that if a work of art wasn’t written about and reproduced in a magazine it would have difficulty attaining the status of ‘art’.” If the artworld/system is intellectually lively (and this is debatable), it’s because there are smart, vibrant individuals willing to discuss in print the things we’re all looking at. They’re perhaps even able to see things for you that you couldn’t see yourself, or in a way you didn’t know to look. This magic, cerebral umami doesn’t get made by bad tans on pushy oligarchs or the click of a slide in a lecture hall, but by a spirited conversation made by a diverse group of thoughtful, articulate humans. Artists become artists because they have something to say through the media of art, but also because there’s a possibilityhowever vagueof communion with others, an exchange that happens both over beers and over centuries; the kindling for this conversation is the words you find in magazines. Systematically, of course, the various stakeholders need a vaguely independent entity that depends on its survival loosely from the system it reports on but still maintains enough distance to assess quality and collect intelligence. (On some intuitive level, galleries understand all this, and that’s why they support magazines.) This aside, I still read to see if there’s something out in the world that will make my thoughts crackle and heart thump. 

Pause for a moment on the table of contents, scan it quickly to see if you know anyone, artists or writers. If a friend has a big article, you can turn to it immediately. Otherwise, note the names (especially as you peruse the ads) and keep turning.

The pace of turning pages is private and deliciously yours. No one can see where your eyes linger or dart. You’ll harbor a vague anxiety, maybe, that you should be reading this like homework, but once the rhythm sets in, it’s just a wash of names like incantations, flashes of images, phrases plucked out and sometimes followed to a long lingering sojourn in an essay or a picture.

The ads usually break down throughout the magazine in a curious way: art fairs, non-profits, and schools are typically clustered (schools are almost always in the back). Every magazine runs these differently, and all of them have been known to very quietly throw a free ad to a worthy supplicant from time to time, but advertising is usually the primary source of revenue for the publication and, further, a fundamental aspect of how our community communicates to itself. Commercial endeavors dominate as they still attempt proof that the daubings and scratchings and readymades displayed on their concrete floors and stretches of white wall are actually art with lasting spiritual, historical, and, of course, economic value. These advertisements communicate what advertisements rarely accomplish: they tell me things I mostly wish to know. What’s left out of this capitalist scrum, the editors have the difficult task of having to include those artists and ideas without of course too obviously excluding those that financially support the magazine.

The editorial is traditionally broken down into front, middle, and back of book. The front includes letters, minimally worth a glance. Usually here some ax-grinder bemoans an overlooked obscurity, but sometimes it’s a total war between intellectual nemeses, back-and-forths flavored with dismissive asides and punchy declarations, outright attacks and acidic ripostes. Though not often, this can be the spiciest part of the magazine.

After this come the obituaries and current urgencies mixed with occasional essays and columns. This is where you can really tune in or out. You’re the master of your own reading, you don’t have to waste a flash of memory on anyone or anything that doesn’t feel meaningful. You’re already ahead of 99.999% of people who don’t even manage to pick up a single issue. (One of the great mentors of my youth put the unworthy in their place by refusing to remember their names.)

The middle of the book contains the features: a shorter thing about a young artist, a medium-length essay about a mid-careerist, a throwback historical assessment to re-animate the canonical (for whatever reason, Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson get at least one of these yearly). These are sometimes followed by an overlong multi-part treatise by an august academic giving their generalizations about the sweep of history.

Read a few words, look at the pictures, decide whether you want to linger or not. Are you inspired, angered, bored? It’s easy to reject the new and often the most cynical work turns out to be the most immediately successful, but read and look and observe without too much judgement until you really understand what you’re looking at, until you feel some sense of perspective on its author. Then, imagine them as having lovers and parents and children and siblings who don’t understand them but love and support them anyway. Do your best to think about them as struggling humans before making any final declaration. But then again, fuck it. Don’t worry. Do whatever you want, you’re just cruising.

The back of the book is saved for reviews, sometimes comics and other sundries, but mostly reviews. This is the direct monthly interaction that magazines perform through exhibitions, beholden to time. First, glance at the list of who’s reviewed and where. If there are longer reviews at the front of the section, suffer though at least a paragraph or two (first and last if you’re in a rush or the writing sucks). These usually frame the big-deal shows that everyone talks about and are generally assigned to someone who’s particularly knowledgeable on the artist/subject or whose voice is picked for its resonance to the community, earned through a career of contributions. This is a solid place to figure out what’s going on. After the statement reviews, focus in more closely on those featuring work in your hometown, drawn in by words on characters and places you know, curiosity on alternative perspectives for things you’ve seen, or another’s research to fill in the gaps of things you might have missed.

Look at the names of the writers: over time you may come to have affection for one or another and an understanding of their city through them. Though mixed with multi-decade stalwarts, art magazines tend to have a high turnover of reviewers. It’s a hard business. Most writers check out after five years to become professors or curators; the ones left often become mostly the reviewers for their generation (or their generation’s perspective). But not always some stay lively throughout. Reviews force a writer to stay connected and vibrant; the good ones force a reader to do the same.

The sections for particularly faraway cities can be tough, but you give a peek anyway, maybe something will stick. However unless you have a reason to linger over an unknown artist reviewed by workmanlike stringer in Stuttgart, a glance usually suffices. If it was really unmissably important, it would have made the front of the book.

Depending on how engaged you are in the articles, you can traverse the pages of a decent-sized magazine in twenty minutes or four hours. Fat summer editions tend to take longer, but those double issues give you two months so take your time on the beach flicking lotioned fingers across glossy pages. As soon as it thunks onto your nightstand, it’s always there whenever you feel like dipping in, poring over, or actively ignoring.

Reading a good magazine is like going to a cocktail party of incredibly bright though sometimes pretentious people, dropping in and out of conversations, listening to and lingering on those things and people that appeal or engage, scurrying away or simply ignoring the trite, boring, and otherwise repulsive. If you’re prone to such things, you can network but only through knowledge as this is a cocktail party you circulate unseen. No one can see the look of disbelief on your face responding to some asinine claim by your greatest enemy or the way you read and reread some random bit of prose that broke your heart.

A magazine is a long flirtation without ever having to put out. It’s a way to see art in a thousand places through as many eyes all at once whilst sitting in your kitchen table eating your morning toast. And somewhere within all of its positioning and arguments, travels and travails, grandstanding and judgments, dreaming and thinking, there is something, just maybe, in there that’s real and meaningful, if only just for you.


*Many wondrous art magazines exist online, like this one, but this particular instructional focuses on print publications as the two operate on different logics. Digital publications will doubtlessly be covered in another essay when I’ve run out of other things to write about. This is not about the hierarchy of print vs. digital, although that’s totally a thing too.


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