Nostalgia for 1970s New York is nothing new. It seems we are forever looking back on those halcyon days of unbridled creativity stemming from the small community of artists, photographers and writers in the city during that time. With Andy Warhol’s Factory as the then-epicentre, the names of those synonymous with the New York downtown arts scene like Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, and Diane Arbus have been endlessly revisited and disseminated by the contemporary art world. The freedom and creativity represented by that time, along with the recognition that it birthed the conceptual art movement, has been well-documented. It would seem that everything there is to know about those artists and the scene that they emerged from had been discovered, but there are still secrets to be unearthed.
In the summer of 2015, 19-year-old art history student Marcelo Yáñez stumbled across a little-known publication called NEWSPAPER. Started in 1969 by Steven Lawrence and Peter Hujar, it was the product of that early conceptual art movement and was also an important part of the lineage of queer New York art history. NEWSPAPER was an alternative to the traditional gallery space. (You can see a slideshow of the original here.)
To revive those traditions, Yáñez started his own reincarnation of the publication – even selling his Mamiya 7 camera to fund the project. The contemporary broadsheet, like the original, acts as an art form in its own right and features photographers like Mark Fitton and Hobbes Ginsberg. Focusing on queer sensibilities, it provides an alternative image to the one often propagated by mainstream media. As he releases NEWSPAPER vol. 1, we speak with Yáñez to find out the secret history behind the original publication as we look towards the reincarnation.
Can you explain a little about your contemporary NEWSPAPER project?
Marcelo Yáñez: So NEWSPAPER is basically a collection of 21 living, queer artists, and anonymous photographers. The first issue is a cross-generational interaction between older and younger artists focusing on a particular queer sensibility. It's 48 pages, no words. It's only black and white large-scale images and is printed on newsprint.
Why is a project like this so important today?
Marcelo Yáñez: There's a certain amount of gay media that exists that are really pushing forward certain images that have developed over the past 40 years. Images that haven't really been made by queer people, but have been adopted by queer people and have sort of become an alienating thing. I want NEWSPAPER to function as an exhibition space for people who are trying to challenge this imagery and redefine it. By this image I mean white, thin boys or muscly Greek-God body types and nothing in between.
Where did the inspiration for your publication come from?
Marcelo Yáñez: So I found the original NEWSPAPER from 1969 over the summer and I started investigating the scene that revolved around the original publication, which was a pretty counter-cultural, queer arts scene that was going on in New York. It started around the Warhol Factory but then developed into its own thing. The original NEWSPAPER came out in 1969 in the midst of a whole mess of anti-government stuff in the United States. It was inspired by the Whole Earth Catalogue, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller… all that sort of thinking. I have a particular interest in counter-culture and religion. Investigating these influences and the art that was being made during this period, that was in dialogue with all this writing and all this psychedelia, sort of inspired me to bring back this revolutionary idea of transgressive queer work that was being done then and in the 1980s. After the AIDS crisis when everyone was in mourning, it sort of fell into silence…
“There’s a certain amount of gay media that exists that are really pushing forward certain images that have developed over the past 40 years. Images that haven’t really been made by queer people, but have been adopted by queer people and have sort of become an alienating thing” – Marcelo Yáñez
How did you find out about the original NEWSPAPER?
Marcelo Yáñez: Over the summer I was working for this guy Danny Fields, who's known as one of the key figures of the punk-rock movement. Yale had bought his archives to put them in their music library. Danny signed The Doors, The Stooges, and MC5. After that he worked with Velvet Underground and The Ramones, so he was involved in a pretty transgressive New York Downtown scene. In his closet, when I was sifting through everything he had to send to Yale, I found this binder of crumbling old newspapers. I started taking them out and flipping through them and picking up on images that were done by Diane Arbus, Paul Thek, Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, Peter Hujar – a lot of really important artists from the time and their work was all in this underground magazine before they were even famous. So that's how I found the original one. There wasn't a lot of information about it online or anywhere else and there were maybe a total of three posts online? And a friend of both Peter Hujar and the editor of NEWSPAPER wrote one of those, so I got in contact with him. That led me down a pretty big rabbit hole, which I've been working through over the past almost 12 months.
What have you managed to find out about the original NEWSPAPER?
Marcelo Yáñez: When I first found them, there were pretty much no credits. There's little to no text in the original and I just kept seeing the name, Steve Lawrence. I searched that name online and connected it to Peter Hujar. The three key people that were involved were Steve Lawrence, Peter Hujar and Paul Thek. They were all living together in the East Village. Everything was coming out of this period of counterculture and those three were really engaging in the early conceptual art scene that was going on in New York, which started maybe two years before they put together the original NEWSPAPER. One of the first details I found was that the publication was shown at a MOMA exhibition called Information that happened in 1970. It’s considered by art historians as one of the most important contemporary art shows in history, because it was the first survey of conceptual art. The fact that the publication was in that show made me feel it was really important to continue the research.
What did you learn about the publication?
Marcelo Yáñez: It gave me a new way of interpreting the work of those artists. I had originally looked at it and noticed all these beautiful photographers, but then I found that it was linked to a larger more ‘proper’ art movement. The thing is, up until 1977/1978 photography wasn't considered art. You would go to a museum and you wouldn't see photography. You might see it at MOMA but it was a very small thing, most museums didn't start accepting photography as an art form until the late 70s. There was this interaction happening in NEWSPAPER between conceptual artists, pop artists and formal photographers like Arbus and Hujar that hadn't been happening in day-to-day publications, or even in art publications. They were already breaking boundaries down!
NEWSPAPER was also in dialogue with a lot of the media theory and the cybernetics system theory that was happening in the 60s. Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller were really talking about these whole systems and widespread use of information. People weren't going to museum exhibitions anymore – they were looking at articles on the exhibits or looking at pictures of the exhibits or hearing about the exhibit, but no one was actually visiting the exhibit. So people were now fascinated with making the exhibits happen in media because people would actually see them, so there's a lot of theory behind the original and a lot of thought that it tied into. I think it just had to do with the fact that people in New York, especially younger people at this time, were really engaged with these ideas and politics. 1968 was a total crisis year around the world but was also just a great moment for young, liberal people.
The bigger art movement – what was that exactly?
Marcelo Yáñez: In art history there's a lineage – you have abstract expressionism like Jackson Pollock paintings, moving into pop art which is Andy Warhol and then you start having this conceptual art which is like Sol LeWitt, Vito Acconci, performance pieces and the emphasis on the idea and concept behind the work, rather than the work itself. It was really about breaking the boundaries of sacredness in the art. ‘Dematerialising’ the object is a term often used. There wasn't an emphasis on the painting on the wall, which was beautiful and holy and there's a lot of work involved in it. It was more about here – cheap newsprint, a magazine, an audio recording, a dance. Something that people really couldn't hold onto. These artists were against a museum system in a way. They were just trying to think more deeply about the work, but escaping the consumer culture of pop art, so making work that couldn't exactly be held onto or collected but was really engaging with ideas. That was the principle driving force of it, not the final aesthetic object but the concept and the thinking and the lineage .
“I don’t think they were thinking long term about how this was going to fit into history and whatever because they were rejecting that. It wasn’t really meant to be consumed beyond their friendship group, I don't think” – Marcelo Yáñez
Why is the history of the original NEWSPAPER so shrouded in mystery?
Marcelo Yáñez: I don't think they were making this for a widespread audience. You have to place yourself in the mindset and the place. New York in the 1960s was cheap – nobody had money. The art world in the 1960s – there was no money to be had. It wasn't like what we have today where people are competitive because there's a race to the top and you can actually win money from your art. That just didn't exist. You were making artwork for your friends. Those were the people who were seeing it, and that was it. You were never going to get anything else out of it. It was more for satisfaction and the interactions you were having. So… I don't think they were thinking long term about how this was going to fit into history and whatever because they were rejecting that. It wasn't really meant to be consumed beyond their friendship group, I don't think.
What do you feel that NEWSPAPER’s legacy has been?
Marcelo Yáñez: I think it's a matter of trying to establish that legacy now. There are attitudes that were going on in the 60s, particularly to this queer arts movement that have been lost. I want to bring them back. People were open to a lot of different experiences. They really didn't give a fuck about anything. And now everyone is so fixated on looks or money or getting somewhere or being somebody and there's this holding back on a lot of things that these artists weren't. That countercultural thinking of ‘fuck this body-type’ or ‘fuck this system that has been feeding us these images. Let's make something for ourselves’ is something I wanted to bring back. Because queer people now aren't really making their own work. The mainstream media makes it all more acceptable and creating the images for us that do damage to us. And then they're appropriated because nobody is actually dissecting what's being done, so their thinking in trying to reject all of it is inspiring to me, at least.
Do you feel like there’s a sense of young people railing against the system and becoming more aware now than before?
Marcelo Yáñez: Yeah. It's only been in the last five years that people have been making consciously queer work that's transgressive and looking back on the past – the AIDS crisis and before. At least here in New York in the art scene, there's been a large creative output from the trans community in making work that I think is challenging absolutely everything that's been established in the queer world. Now is the time for a re-emergence for countercultural thinking. People think they can fix things from an established system, through trying to get themselves in mass media and asking for help from politicians. That's not really going to do anything. And so now people are taking things into their own hands. There have been a lot of scenes starting to come out in New York and Los Angeles. This independence of the market and critiques of the market are certainly prevalent.
What do you want to see from your contemporary incarnation of NEWSPAPER? Will you run it in the same way?
Marcelo Yáñez: No. I'm primarily an art historian and archivist and so I've already started shipping copies to different schools, libraries and institutions. I want them to hold onto it. I don't want it to get lost, and I don't want a publication promoting the wrong images to be the one that's remembered. So I'm not trying to keep up the ephemerality of the original! But the local and grassroots nature of it all I am trying to maintain. For the most part, I've been selling them person-to-person. I get messages from people saying they heard about it from X or Y and that they want a copy and so I go and meet them. I've met some really interesting people through it. But it's not something I'm trying to get in every bookstore. The way I'm getting it overseas is just, you know, I have a friend over there in that arts community and I'll send him 20 copies and he can give away 15 to people he thinks would appreciate it. I'm not that concerned with getting it into the most hands, but I am concerned with getting it into the right hands and to people who will tune into the thinking and engage with the ideas.
What do you want for the future of NEWSPAPER?
Marcelo Yáñez: The next issue is focusing on Latin American artists. I've been drawn to media art that was happening in the 1960s (it) started around the conceptual art movement. Since museums weren't going to have an exhibit on the work that these people were doing and they didn't have the money to hold something fancy they would make cheap prints, populate rooms and make a party around the work that would ‘happen’ in a day or whatever. The point was just to document that it happened and then that's the end of the event. There's a strong lineage of this in Latin America, particularly in Argentina and I've been looking at that as inspiration. These Latin American artists are making work that no one has really seen before and they can't show in museums or galleries because they don't have the money or it's illegal or frowned upon.
So my idea with the next issue is for the publication to be taken apart, put up on a wall and an exhibition had around it. For example, a friend of mine in Chile told me that by the end of the night if you're in a bar and there's a good amount of gay people, you're probably going to get arrested. The cops will raid the place and you're going to be taken away. Sort of what the US faced 40 years ago, they're facing that in Latin America now. They're making this beautiful work but you can't get a gallery, you can't get a museum space. So I want them to rent a cheap space and put up the NEWSPAPER. If the cops show up they can abandon it because it's not worth anything. It's not that great a loss. Since it is so large, 23 by 34 inches, hung up it occupies a whole room. So I want people to make use of it as a tool to have these exhibits and create a conversation.
Follow Alice Nicolov on Twitter here @alicenicolov