Esopus: Not Another Art Mag

Editor Tod Lippy on ad-free publishing, the role of art jargon, and why avant garde often equals boring
November 15, 2010
Esopus, No. 13

I met Tod Lippy last winter, right as I was starting to report on the art beat for the New York Observer. An artist I’d met recently put me in touch with him because she saw I was trying to figure out how the art world worked, and thought Lippy, a magazine editor who knew the art world but deliberately avoided participating in it directly, would be able to help. Lippy’s magazine was Esopus, an impossibly beautiful thing that had been coming out twice a year since 2003 and was full, every time, of interviews with artists and filmmakers and musicians, archival materials from the Museum of Modern Art, and consistently arresting artwork by people I’d never heard of. The issue I bought in anticipation of meeting Lippy, number thirteen, included, among other things, a portfolio of work by a severely autistic 22-year-old, a series of marked up manuscript pages from a memoir by poet Jennifer Moxley, an essay by the rare book librarian Marjorie Wynne, and a short piece by a guard from the New Museum about Urs Fischer. The magazine was about 150 pages long; there were little booklets to pull out, posters printed in gorgeous inks and special paper, and a compilation CD attached to the inside back cover featuring songs by bands like Frightened Rabbit and Savoir Adore. According to a piece in the New York Times from when Esopus first launched, Lippy was responsible for every aspect of the magazine’s production.

[pullq: align = “left”]I don’t believe for a second that contemporary art really should only be seen or discussed or appreciated by people with master’s degrees in art history or gallerists — it just doesn’t make any sense to me.[/pullq]

The most recent issue of Esopus, number fifteen, is themed around television. Lippy published it last month, printing about 10,000 copies. Inside you’ll find a hilarious and pleasingly technical interview with the long-serving director of the soap opera “Love of Life,” one with Lisa Kudrow about her HBO show The Comeback, and an essay on the significance and connotations of sofas in sitcoms that is accompanied by a full-color poster featuring 64 of them. In the back of the issue there’s a feature called “What Would You Like to See on Television?” consisting of about two dozen responses from the likes of Devendra Banhart, Louis Menand, Nathaniel Rich, Charles Renfro, Liam Gillick, and David Carr. The CD that comes with the issue includes new songs — all TV-related — by musicians like Stephen Merritt, Cloud Nothings, and Andrew Cedermark.

I interviewed Lippy last year in his office near N.Y.U., next door to an exhibition space he opened there last fall and where he has been mounting shows and hosting screenings, performances, and lectures that always seem to draw a loyal group of Esopus subscribers. In the interview, which has been edited and condensed, Lippy talks about his intentions for Esopus, his reasons for trying to reach an audience beyond the art world, and the role jargon plays in keeping contemporary art at the relative margins of mainstream culture.

Bookish: What did you do before you started Esopus?

Tod Lippy: I had worked on a number of magazines in the 90s — I did a zine [called Publicsfear], I worked at Print magazine, and I cofounded this magazine called Scenario, which was kind of a literary magazine for screenwriting. I left Scenario in the mid-90s and decided I would try to make films. I made a couple of shorts that did pretty well at festivals, and I tried very hard to make a feature but didn’t have much luck doing so, and then I did a book about New York filmmaking for Faber & Faber. And in the midst of all that I realized that the thing I really loved about magazines was having this immediate feedback from your audience — you know, you do it once a month or once every quarter, and you’re almost immediately in the hands of people who will get something out of it and hopefully respond to you in some way. I missed it. What I didn’t miss was the advertising model that you have to deal with, and dealing with publicists and agents and handlers and all that kind of stuff. So I decided I would do a magazine but I would only do it on my own terms — I’d have no advertising at all and no dealing with anyone other than the actual contributors. And I’d be selling it for less than it would cost to produce, so it could reach a wider audience instead of being another ghettoized art magazine.

B: And you wanted to do it all by yourself, right?

TL: The idea in the early years and to a certain extent now is that I kind of wanted to do everything, yeah, rather than have a staff of art directors and editors and production people. I just wanted to be the person who was dealing with everything from soliciting content, to designing it, to editing it, to producing it, to printing it, and to  promoting it. It seemed like the most direct way to keep to the whole mission of making it this very unfiltered, unmediated thing.

B: What did you want the magazine to be publishing?

TL: I wanted to put out not another art magazine, not another film magazine, and not another music magazine, but something that was very purposefully eclectic. And the goal behind that was to bring a much wider audience to all these various disciplines. If you have a CD of fairly well known alternative musicians, you bring in an audience that wants to hear, you know, the latest Mountain Goats song, but they don’t know anything about Jenny Holzer or Richard Tuttle or Ed Ruscha and they’ll be exposed to that work as well. That was the basic strategy. The one thing I didn’t anticipate which I should have is that if you create something that doesn’t fit comfortably into a niche, you suffer — with distribution, with coverage of the magazine because no one quite knows how to do it. I would go into Barnes & Noble and find it in the automotive section or the gardening section.

B: How and why did you intend to distinguish Esopus from other art magazines?

TL: I think art magazines are necessary and wonderful tools for people who are involved in the art world, but I find often that they tend to be off-putting, jargon-wise. I don’t think many people who know nothing about art go into a store and pick up a critically oriented art journal and feel welcomed to read on. I think if you present a conceptually driven art project and there’s no explanation for it, some people might be a little confused, but people are often really up to the challenge of accessing contemporary art on their own terms.

B: Is that why you don’t offer much in the way of explanation or context when you present the work of an artist in Esopus?

TL: Yeah. You can always explain why an artist is using, you know, a razor blade to slice things into their skin to protest the objectification of whatever — there are a million ways to talk about it. But sometimes the more you talk about it, the more you take people away from its visceral impact. And I’m not so sure it’s all explainable anyway. With a lot of conceptual art, you do need to talk about it and the artist needs to articulate what it’s about, but I think a lot of times you just talk it out of having any kind of effect, you know? I also really don’t want there to be an editorial voice to the magazine. And that goes for design, too: I definitely think it’s easy to see that something is an issue of Esopus rather than another publication, but when I design, I don’t design to make all of the content look the same, so that there’s always 10.5 pica text and this kind of body font and this many columns on each page. It’s much better to let each piece do its own thing, design-wise.  I also generally avoid doing editor’s notes because I find them horrible to write and often tedious to read. There’s not a worldview that we’re presenting with every issue.

B: I’d say you do have a preoccupation with process, though — you’re always showing sort of behind the scenes work that normally is invisible.

TL: Yeah, every issue is process-themed, in a way. Because it’s about drafts and work books and notes and marked-up manuscripts — all that is fascinating to me. It’s a way to bring people into the world of an artist and the mind of an artist without telling them what their art is about. Because I think it’s a glimpse into a process that is mysterious and maybe even kind of impossible to imagine for most people. Also I think it makes you vulnerable as an artist — and when people make themselves vulnerable or make a gesture that suggests they’re vulnerable, I’m immediately drawn to them. So it seems like a no-brainer — if artists are willing to do that, why wouldn’t you do it?

B: Speaking of process, how do you pay for the magazine?

TL: A third of our income comes directly from sales and earned revenue, and the rest is a combination of grants and donations. For the most part that’s places like the Andy Warhol Foundation and the NEA and NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts], and, you know, the Greenwall Foundation, et cetera. I have a wonderful assistant who has taken over a lot of the work of researching new grant sources. I was a little naive, I thought it’d be so great not to deal with advertisers and have to pitch to advertisers all the time, and of course now I’m pitching to [donors.] Every foundation has its agenda and you have to kind of figure out what that agenda is and then tailor your pitch to it.

B: Was there ever a time when there were more people consuming art than there are today?

Yeah, I think probably it was more popularly consumed when it was more obviously consumable — when people were doing, you know, realist paintings and beautiful black and white photography. It was hard not to look at that and not say, at least, ‘That’s pretty,’ or ‘That’s nice,’ or ‘I understand what that’s about.’ But I think art post-Duchamp has become more and more ‘difficult.’ And my hunch is some of its difficulty — or the fact of its being perceived as difficult — relates to the discourse that surrounds it.

B: My understanding of the PR side of running a gallery is that one of the reasons they write that kind of stuff — in press releases or in wall copy or catalogues — is it makes the collectors they’re trying to sell the work to feel more secure about buying it.

TL: Exactly. It’s a jargon that fulfills its function on several different levels. You could really have a great time reading gallery press releases for the rest of your life — they’re often hilarious! I mean, some of them are great — now that I have to write them I’m much more sympathetic. But really, sometimes, it’s like, what are they talking about? It makes absolutely no sense! But it’s sufficiently oblique — it’s very much about maintaining this sort of rigorous front.

B: It’s funny to think that those press releases, which do confound and bewilder, are in fact designed to calm and reassure the people who are reading them that the work they’re looking at is very serious and complex.

TL: Do you think that’s true? I think that’s certainly one outcome of the whole thing.

B: Well they just make a person think, ‘OK, even if I don’t get this, it would appear that there’s something to it.’

Right — because somebody knows — some expert. This gallerist, this critic, this museum curator, this magazine editor — they all think its valuable, ergo it’s valuable — and I’m going to make it valuable by buying it. That’s right. To bring it back to Esopus, maybe it’s interesting to not guarantee that our authority is such that the market value for a particular person is necessarily a sure thing.

B: One thing I’ve been trying to figure out is whether there is an identifiable — or self-identifying- – avant garde in art. Like, are there people who are considered to be doing things that are more “out there” than the everybody else?

TL: Good luck! Let me know when you figure it out. It’s so messy now — in 1915, yeah, obviously there was an avant garde, it was very clear. But everything has become so institutionalized that, you know, what’s ‘out there’? Nothing is out there! It’s all just ‘in here’ now. If you’re doing something to shock or épater le bourgeois, forget it, it’s over. Britney Spears is shocking now when she shaves her hair — that’s an avant garde gesture to me, because it provokes people who are not used to being provoked that way. If you’re in the art world you’re sort of jaded — you’re like, ‘Oh, he murdered six people as part of his installation. So tacky, so boring!’

B: It’s very hard to point to someone who is not embraced by the art world because they’re too weird, or not embraced because they’re too difficult or too experimental.

I think the point is also, can an avant garde gesture exist without being completely and immediately commodified or institutionalized or turned into the underpinnings of the next Calvin Klein campaign? That’s nothing new — but I think maybe while the gestures may still be very interesting and provocative and out there and edgy and valuable, they just get immediately subsumed into this suck-hole, this commercial suck-hole. I’m trying to get around to better explaining why it’s important to me not to have ads and not to fit into this whole world, and maybe the point is if you can resist that happening — if you can prevent that from happening to content that you’re presenting, at least as far as getting it to the newsstand, then maybe that’s a valuable thing to offer to people, and to artists too.

B: Why is it so important to you that Esopus reaches an audience beyond the art world?

TL: Because I think contemporary art has enormous potential to make people think about the complexity of existence and to question things and find nuance in life. And it just doesn’t reach that audience very often… I don’t think a lot of the general public are heading over to Chelsea on Saturday to check out the latest show at Mary Boone or whatever. If there are all these amazing artworks being made that really either make you laugh or make you confused about something in a productive way, why shouldn’t they reach more than just the people who go to galleries or museums or read Artforum, for that matter? I don’t believe for a second that contemporary art really should only be seen or discussed or appreciated by people with master’s degrees in art history or gallerists — it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So it may be specialized, but I think a lot of that comes from it being very carefully guarded and sequestered by people whose livelihoods and reputations come from keeping it that way. Any magazine that’s speaking to a particular audience about a particular discipline is going to adopt a certain kind of jargon that works for the professionals in that field. It can be highfalutin academic discourse or it can be technical language, but I think with art magazines in particular– I just can’t imagine being me at 14 and opening October and saying, ‘Ohhh, this is really interesting, it’s really inviting, I want to learn more about Ros Krauss!’ There’s a place for all those kinds of magazines– they’re very important, they keep the discipline vital and active and interesting, and they also, frankly, maintain markets for various kinds of creative output. A lot of artists and critics and curators and directors and writers read Esopus, and that’s great, and it’s always a thrill to recognize a name when a new subscription comes in. But it would be a failure if they were the only ones who read the magazine.

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