PRINT March 2003


In 1980 I had yet to enter an art gallery. Likewise, I was unaware of Artforum’s existence—or, for that matter, any other art magazine’s—until I came across ZG. Rooting through the anarchist periodicals and music fanzines at Grassroots, Manchester’s most progressive bookshop, I stumbled on the debut issue. ZG didn’t look out of place there. Its signature black, white, and red color scheme mirrored the revolutionary graphic style of the leftist political titles it shared shelf space with; Garrard Martin’s spare, artful design echoed the austere corporate identities of influential independent record labels such as Tony Wilson et al.’s Factory Records and Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records. Curious, I forked over fifty pence, unaware that my world was about to change.

ZG’s founder and editor was Rosetta Brooks, who in the early ’70s had been assistant director of Gallery House, an influential experimental artists’ space lodged in a run-down mansion close to London’s Albert Hall. In the (very) late ’70s and (very) early ’80s, Britain was at loggerheads with itself. On the one hand, it was a society pregnant with potential (arising, to a great degree, from its effervescent popular cultures), while on the other, it was a society inextricably caught up in a deep, prolonged economic (and spiritual) recession. Somehow everything felt political, and ZG seemed, even to a naive fifteen-year-old, to be trying to reconcile—and interrogate—these social and cultural contradictions.

Started with a seven-hundred-pound bank loan (about $1,500), ZG was born out of Brooks’s desire to expand the possibilities—and the audience—for art, a field she saw as becoming increasingly ghettoized. In her inaugural editorial Brooks laid out the territory that the new magazine would seek to address. Opening somewhat pessimistically, Brooks reflected that:

Trends in the ’70s make the prospects seem gloomy for a magazine which intends to deal with diverse areas of cultural activity. [ . . . ] The loss of a mainstream has given the impression of a culture of ghettoes. This has meant the erection of false barriers between different worlds of cultural experience and a return to the safety of traditional ideas.

For Brooks, art was increasingly isolated. Describing the art world as “a cottage industry protected by a minority group of conservationists,” she proposed instead that ZG would privilege newly emergent and “self-consciously borderline activities” that “refuse to accept the self-imposed limits of their cultural microcosm.” What excited Brooks most was the potential offered up by “hybrid styles.” Just as different types of music such as reggae, punk, and funk were increasingly “mere ingredients within an overall stylistic mix,” Brooks wrote in her editorial, so too fashion was “no longer the simple identification with the lifestyle to which one aspires.” Rather it was “tending to become a symbolic articulation of one image in relation to many images.” As for art, Brooks saw “the rediscovery of the image as a reality of broad cultural experience” as proferring a sustainable challenge to “the purism of art fed only on its own history.” Seen together, Brooks concluded, these new hybrid social and cultural manifestations sought to “challenge our most deep-rooted orientations to the world whether they are in terms of art/culture, elite/popular or male/female.”

Possessed of an almost missionary zeal, ZG would introduce me to an art world I could scarcely have imagined. Brooks’s colliding of popular music with other cultural (and social) forms would stimulate this impressionable teenager’s as yet unformed ideas about both. Twenty-three years on, Brooks’s focus on identifying and scrutinizing overlapping, mutating, and merging cultural and social territories remains convincing. That said—and Brooks’s editorial aside—the first issue of ZG was something of a disappointment. Articles on Giulio Paolini, Bruce McLean, and Duggie Fields, a curious, dandyish figure known as much for his sartorial savvy as for his paintings, hardly laid siege to art’s ivory towers. Essays on Factory Records, Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1979), and ska revivalists the Beat—not to mention Brooks’s own “BlitzCulture,” a quasi-sociological account of London’s tribal nightlife, notable for its accompanying image of a seventeen-year-old Boy George—offered little more than a critical spin on the then emergent style press. (Both i-D and The Face were launched roughly contemporaneously with ZG. At that time Brooks was teaching at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art, where her students included Sade and John Galliano.) In retrospect ZG no. 1 looks somewhat hastily assembled. Brooks’s desire to conflate club culture—then centered around venues like Covent Garden’s Blitz, where Steve Strange hosted proto–New Romantic nights—with more traditional art practices seems unfocused and unresolved.

Indeed, little in ZG’s inaugural issue prepared the reader for the complex proposition that was ZG no. 2 (1980). The sophomore issue was effectively a different magazine. Its central theme—sadomasochism—would be interrogated through conflicting inquiries into “violent images of sexuality” as they manifested themselves in film, fashion, art, and music. To my sixteen-year-old eyes (and mind), ZG’s “sadomasochism” issue was incendiary. It opened with “Mistaken Identities,” Dick Hebdige’s account—interwoven with a textual collage of contemporary news reports—of the brutal and sordid death of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious’s muse and partner in crime, Nancy Spungen. (Here Spungen emerges as an almost sympathetic character, a victim at the hands of both a scandal-mongering—and patriarchal—press and the waywardly violent Vicious.) Elsewhere, reports from the subterranean worlds of s/m (straight, gay, and what have you) were framed alongside Brooks’s essay “Brutality Chic,” which considered the sadomasochistic tendencies in the fashion photography of Jean-Paul Goude, David Bailey, and Helmut Newton (“Clothes to be raped in, shoes to be found dead in, a scarf to be strangled by, the promises of Newton’s photographs are of violence, bestiality and death”). An interview with Vivienne Westwood in her post–Sex Seditionaires Kings Road store preceded Bernard Tschumi’s essay “Erotic Spaces,” which was followed by a survey of sadomasochistic graphic art that would introduce me to the work of Tom of Finland. Brian Hatton’s essay on Günther Brus, the subject of a major exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1979; Raymond Durgnat’s examination of Barbet Schroeder’s 1976 film Maîtresse; and António Lagarto’s essay pegged on William Friedkin’s controversial Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980) further troubled my teenage view of the world—sexual or otherwise.

All subsequent issues of ZG would likewise be structured around a central theme. The third issue, “Image Culture” (1981)—confusingly labeled no. 1 on its cover—reverted to the discordant music/art editorial mix of the real Issue One. Articles on Victor Burgin and Annette Messager rubbed shoulders with pioneering texts on the history and role of women in rock. A prophetic essay by George Barber (given the current vogue for the hybrid punk-funk of the Rapture, Radio 4, and LCD Soundsystem)—although somewhat out of synch with the issue’s thematic drift—struggled to define the “modernist disco” of the 1979–80 postpunk funk of A Certain Ratio, the Pop Group, Gang of Four, and ESG.

ZG’s fourth issue (labeled no. 2 on the cover), “Future Dread” (1981), was a return to the editorial coherence of (the actual) Issue Two. Published in a climate of worrying popular support for the far right in Britain and anticipating the imminent arrival of the Orwellian year 1984, “Future Dread” wrestled with the appropriation of fascistic imagery in fashion, popular music, and contemporary art. It also introduced me to the work of Cerith Wyn Evans, Jack Goldstein, and Dan Graham, an early supporter of the magazine, whose essay “The End of Liberalism,” a far-reaching riff on art, punk, architecture, film, propaganda, and fascism, remains as astute today as when first published. In many respects Graham’s associative method mirrored ZG’s own theoretical approach and editorial direction. By collapsing distinct—and often diverse—cultural, social, and intellectual territories, Graham established a hybrid form that fused sociology, anthropology, art history, and journalism into precise accounts and analyses of the urban cultural landscape.

By late 1981 ZG was on a roll, and that momentum would be sustained through its penultimate “Icons & Idols” issue, no. 14, of 1985. (The fifteenth and final issue, “Altered States,” would appear, belatedly, in 1988, accompanying a group show of the same name organized by Brooks for New York’s Kent Fine Art.) ZG no. 5, the “New York” issue—which was in part the consequence of Dan Graham’s suggestion to Brooks that she consider devoting an issue to the city—consolidated the magazine’s increasing preoccupation (first announced in no. 4) with the cross-cultural currents of Manhattan’s downtown scene. ZG no. 5 sought to consider “the institutional thinness and arbitrariness of the divide between activities which ‘belong’ to the galleries or the museum and those that belong to the street or the club.” From Robert Longo’s cover images, taken from his “Men in the Cities” series, 1978–82, to Brooks’s pointed autopsy of “Sighs and Whispers,” the fall 1976 Bloomingdale’s lingerie catalogue photographed by Guy Bourdin, the entire “New York” issue remains a compelling document. Further coverage of Jack Goldstein’s work; interviews with musicians James Chance, Glenn Branca, and Rhys Chatham; Richard Prince’s text “War Picture,” reprinted from his book Menthol Pictures (1980); Edit deAk’s quasi-rap essay “Urban Kisses—Slum Hisses”; and a sublime deadpan interview with the sublimely deadpan Neil Jenney crystallized the downtown scene.

Most significantly—from an autobiographical vantage at least—ZG’s fifth issue (labeled no. 3 of 1981) would alert me to the existence of Real Life magazine, the other consistently adventurous alternative art publication of the period, by way of an article written by its editor, Thomas Lawson. Lawson was an expatriate Scot who moved to New York in 1975 and enrolled at CUNY’s Graduate Center to avoid visa problems. He soon found himself studying under Rosalind Krauss in the art history department (where his fellow students included Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp, who went on to curate the seminal “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space in 1977). Editorializing in Real Life in 1990, on the occasion of its twentieth issue, Lawson reflected on the genesis of the magazine: “When we [Lawson and Susan Morgan, Real Life’s associate editor] first started the magazine the pious rectitude of postminimalism held sway in the art world, and we confronted that with the shameless thievery and media fascination of appropriationist work. When that in turn became acceptable enough for the pages of Artforum and Art in America and the walls of the Whitney Museum, we went looking for other artists, other ways of working. We managed never to be of the mainstream, but much of what we have published has gone on to find acceptance there temporarily.”

Writing in ZG’s “New York” issue in 1981, Lawson proposed a group of artists—including himself, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Walter Robinson—whom he saw as presenting an alternative to an art world “caught up in a narcissistic system” that was “self-regarding, self-enclosed, and irredeemably boring.” For these artists, “the most arresting images were being presented by the propaganda industries—the mass media of television, movies and advertising.” Collectively these artists’ works displayed a “familiarity towards popular culture. A mixture of love and contempt for the ever present images of capitalist consumerism.” Lawson and Morgan, feeling the lack of a public forum for their work—which, according to Lawson, “sought precisely to provoke dialogue”—realized that what was needed was a magazine. (By the late ’70s Robinson and Edit deAk’s influential New York–based Art-Rite had all but ceased publication, and the mainstream art press had yet to signal any substantial interest in the new work that so enthused Lawson.) So in March 1979 Real Life—a title suggested by its debut-issue cover star, Sherrie Levine—was launched on an unsuspecting world.

Lawson’s ambition for the magazine was modest: “To collect written and visual material which reflects the actual concerns of the artists I associate with, a clearing house for ideas as free as possible from the strictures of self-promotion and commodity fetishism.” Unlike ZG—or indeed October, which had debuted in 1976—Real Life featured little in the way of editorial (or theoretical) grandstanding. The first issue opened with a report about New York’s burgeoning alternative spaces. Its (uncredited) author advised that

anyone looking for innovative work [in New York] had better steer clear of the commercial galleries, for in the current recession most dealers are playing an extremely safe game. As a result, younger artists look to the publicly funded spaces for support, or improvise and find their own means for getting the work out into some kind of public space. Unfortunately, little attention is paid any of this by the press and the audience tends to remain a small group of artists and friends who live in the neighborhood. . . . By simply reporting on a cross-section of these low-key events, this column will attempt to attract the attention of that wider public. At the same time, a record of things as they happen may help bring the range of current interests into focus. In the long run it ought to be possible to build a set of critical distinctions out of this information. Should that happen, this publication will have served its purpose.

Of the activities discussed, the most intriguing was a group show (organized by Janelle Reiring at Artists Space) that involved Cindy Sherman’s daily appearance in the gallery dressed in ’50s costume, complete with wigs and accessories. The issue also included an interview with Robert Moskowitz; a polemical piece by Dee Axelrod, which opined that “pluralism is theory for the nontheoretical”; an appreciation of Levine’s work; and a report on Bernard Tschumi’s “Architectural Manifestos” show (also at Artists Space). Over the next few years Real Life’s extraordinary circle of contributors would come to include Barbara Kruger, David Salle, James Welling, Richard Prince (who also contributed under the pseudonym Fulton Ryder), Dan Graham, Kim Gordon, Jennifer Bolande, Paul McMahon, Douglas Blau, Laura Cottingham, Peter Nadin, Laurie Simmons, Ken Lum, John Roberts, John Miller, Dara Birnbaum, Allan McCollum, Michael Smith, David Robbins (who masqueraded as the magazine’s Rome correspondent, Rex Reason), Judith Barry, Eric Bogosian, and Howard Singerman, whose 1981 essay “The Artist as Adolescent” considered the work of Chris Burden and the then little-known Mike Kelley.

ZG’s print run began at fifteen hundred and ended at an impressive seventeen thousand copies; Real Life printed a more modest one to two thousand copies. Initially, both magazines would appear roughly every three to six months. Reading these early issues, one gets a clear sense of the urgency felt by the editors as they struggled to report on the cultural developments rapidly unfolding before them. By 1984, as the once marginal activities the magazines had embraced were increasingly assimilated into the mainstream, both titles sought to adjust their radar.

By its ninth issue, “Breakdown” (1983), ZG would be published between London and New York, a natural development given the magazine’s persistent interest in—almost fixation with—Manhattan’s downtown scene. (Brooks even relocated to New York the following year.) Embracing the city’s burgeoning rap and graffiti scenes, ZG no. 6, “Street Vision” (1982), focused on the urban milieu of the street as a site for both political provocation and cultural production. Music critic (now filmmaker) Mary Harron’s essay “Rapping—A Postcard from the Ghetto to the City” and short pieces on “break-mixing” and the “Crew Style”—the appropriation of white middle-class leisure wear by New York’s b-boys—sat alongside a consideration of the awkward courtship of graffiti art by the booming downtown art market. “Desire” (1982), ZG’s seventh issue, featured a Marilyn-like self-portrait by Cindy Sherman on its cover and included an extensive interview with Malcolm McLaren, whose post–Sex Pistols project Bow Wow Wow, featuring the fourteen-year-old Annabella Lwin on vocals, was the subject of Dan Graham’s “McLaren’s Children” (the groundwork for which—his November 1980 essay “Bow Wow Wow”—had been published in Real Life no. 6 [Summer 1981]).

In the summer of 1982, ZG and Real Life would be joined by Wedge, Brian Wallis and Phil Mariani’s more theoretically (and politically) inclined journal, which would publish ten issues, in various formats, until 1988. Positioned somewhere between October and Real Life, Wedge conflated the former’s privileging of the essay as a critical form with the latter’s embrace of artists’ writings and projects. “The Spectacle,” Wedge’s seminal second issue (Fall 1982), featured the portrait of Ronald Reagan from Hans Haacke’s Oil Painting: Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers, 1981, on its cover and included contributions from Jonathan Crary, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Martha Rosler, in addition to the spectacle’s chief nemesis himself, Guy Debord. Issue 3/4/5 (1983) would prove to be Wedge’s most ambitious. Titled “Partial Texts: Essays and Fictions,” the issue comprised a series of fourteen individual artists’ books, housed in a red folder, that sought to consider the “viability of a politically engaged form of writing” and included among its discrete projects important contributions from Kathy Acker, Sarah Charlesworth, and Silvia Kolbowski. Kolbowski would later edit the sixth issue of Wedge (“Sexuality: Re/Positions” [Winter 1984]), which accompanied the 1984–85 touring exhibition “Difference: On Representation and Sexuality.”

In 1983 Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, the ubiquitous New York–based curatorial (and critical) tagteam, who would throughout the ’80s (and beyond) organize innumerable exhibitions and pen countless articles in a foreign-seeming language uniquely their own, joined the fray with their own magazine, Effects. Subtitled “Magazine for New Art Theory,” Effects—which, paradoxically, appeared to be fairly theory-free and, like Real Life, consisted mostly of artists’ projects—would publish only erratically, capitulating after three issues (the last, winter 1986).

Effects, and to a lesser extent Wedge, lacked the editorial urgency that made both ZG and Real Life so vital. As the mid-’80s approached, the new, market-led landscape of the New York (and international) art world was firmly established. Writing in ZG no. 14 in summer 1985, on the occasion of the magazine’s fifth anniversary—in what would prove to be the magazine’s last regular issue—Brooks considered ZG’s future in light of the increased assimilation of its once peripheral concerns by the mainstream. Suggesting a move away from the thematic format of the past, which Brooks had seen as being necessary “in a culture of fragmentation and marginalisation,” ZG’s editor felt the need for a change of direction. During this time, described by Brooks as a “period of consolidation, entrenchment and a move towards the center,” Lawson and Real Life would also seek out “other artists, other ways of working.” Real Life no. 11/12 (Winter 1983) introduced a shift away from the media-obsessed appropriation practices of the early ’80s; instead it invoked a more complex alliance between aesthetic and political intent, where questions of sexual politics, sexual orientation, and grassroots political activism would predominate. The issue contains a substantial interview with the core members of Group Material—an artists’ collective described by participant Tim Rollins as “an aesthetic boot camp”—which was accompanied by individual statements from members including Rollins, Mundy McLaughlin, Julie Ault, and Doug Ashford. An interview by Rex Reason with Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher, codirectors of Nature Morte, illuminated the unfolding drama that would become the late-’80s boom-and-bust art economy:

PETER NAGY: Due to massive hype and exposure, the art world is on the verge of becoming something it’s never been before. More in the vein of popular culture, movies, television, fashion. It’s competing for that segment of Newsweek magazine, that four-page color spread.

REX REASON: There’s a statement attributed to you guys, “In the Fifties everyone wanted to have a car, in the Sixties and Seventies everyone wanted to be a rock star, and in the Eighties everyone wants to be an artist.”

PETER NAGY: Yeah, or a gallery owner. [ . . . ] In ’78 you open a nightclub, in ’82 you open a gallery, a dayclub. The whole change in atmosphere can be attributed to Mary Boone–ism and Julian Schnabelism. It’s the mass movement of popular youth culture from music into art. [ . . . ] Music flopped into art. Mary Boone gave confidence to a lot of young artists. Artists were taken more seriously, getting more press, so at least it seemed like the market, the whole environment was much more open to younger artists, to unknown people, because of the success of the biggies . . .

ALAN BELCHER: Of course you get a lot of schlocky work because you have more people looking at and thinking about art that had never previously done it. But it also means that soon in the future we will have art everywhere.

Nagy and Belcher were spookily on the money. Before the decade was out, art was indeed everywhere: Artists and dealers (and even collectors) were afforded the status of minor celebrities; the auction houses generated headlines as successive auction records fell. What followed—the overheated art market’s crash beginning in the late ’80s—is well documented.

Between 1983 and 1985, ZG’s new contributors would include Peter Halley, Glenn O’Brien, Carlo McCormick, Silvia Kolbowski, Gary Indiana, and Paul Taylor, whose Melbourne-based journal Art & Text had covered some of the same territories as ZG. Taylor’s alliance with ZG resulted in 1984’s “Double Trouble” issue, a collaboration between the titles. After 1985’s “Icons & Idols,” ZG was, effectively, no more. During the second half of the ’80s Real Life continued to publish innovative writings and projects by a newer generation of artists—Ronald Jones, Jana Sterbak, Mark Dion, Kay Rosen, Richard Hawkins, Jessica Diamond, the Critical Art Ensemble, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among others. No. 20 (1990), the last issue to be published in New York (Lawson and Morgan soon decamped permanently to California), brought together new projects by its earlier correspondents. Belated issues of Real Life would be published in 1991 and 1994 under the auspices of CalArts, Lawson’s new employer.

If precedents existed for ZG and Real Life, I wasn’t aware of them at the time. With hindsight it’s easy to see how both Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) and General Idea’s FILE anticipated ZG’s editorial flux, although Brooks herself has said that when she began ZG she was unaware of such precursors. Her key model was the journal of the Situationist International. For Lawson and Morgan, Walter Robinson and Edit deAk’s Art-Rite was clearly a pervasive influence. Given the pioneering ambition of Real Life and ZG, it is remarkable that they survived for as long as they did. And notwithstanding the subjective fascinations of their respective editors, the contents of both magazines bear sustained scrutiny today. (Indeed, the work covered in both titles would make for an illuminating exhibition.) Despite their shared interests (e.g., their championing of the downtown New York art scene) and contributors in common (Dan Graham, Kim Gordon, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince), the two magazines remained impressively distinct. Gordon and Graham’s contributions aside, Real Life would focus little on the art/music/fashion crossovers that fascinated Brooks and ZG. Where Real Life would almost exclusively publish artists’ writings and projects, ZG would approach its subjects with its own brand of what the English collective Inventory has dubbed a “fierce sociology.”

At some point around 1984, either I had changed or ZG and Real Life had changed. (In truth, probably we all had changed.) I stopped buying ZG after the “Religion” issue (no. 12, Fall 1984). Real Life, which was always much harder for me to come by, figured less prominently in my reading habits after no. 11/12, the issue that introduced me to Group Material. Before Real Life’s nineteenth issue and by the time ZG folded in spring 1988, Damien Hirst and his colleagues from Goldsmiths College in London were already planning the exhibition “Freeze.”

Of course, what was missing from those fledgling years of British art’s renaissance (ca. 1988–90) was an independent journal like ZG or Real Life to make sense of it all. As Nagy and Belcher anticipated, the art world had changed. For better or worse, things would never be the same again.

Matthew Higgs is curator of art and design at the CCAC Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, and a regular contributor to Artforum.