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Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995
Installation shot of Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995 (2021)Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

How alternative magazines confronted and transformed the world

From 80s mag Blitz to The Face, Chicago exhibition Subscribe traces the counterculture that publications of the 70s, 80s, and 90s brought to life

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, an innovative new publishing phenomenon emerged, fusing the production values of photo-led titles such as Vogue and Life with the more subversive, experimental design elements of zines. Bridging the gap between the political, underground pamphlets and newspapers of the 1960s with the glossy mainstream publications that dominated the newsstands, this wave of alternative magazines created a new space for artists to exhibit their work and a new means by which they could disseminate their art and ideas. 

Through these turbulent few decades, magazines such as Dazed & Confused, The Face, i–D, Think Ink, The Source, Blitz, and Out/Look became important repositories for artists and writers such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Hilton Als, Laurie Simmons (mother of Lena Dunham), Liz Johnson Artur, and Lyle Ashton Harris. Where magazines had once been regarded as ephemera, these new publications were more potent forces with the power to tangibly shape popular culture, bringing subcultures and underground movements to the fore while challenging what mainstream culture looked like and what it could conceivably contain. 

A new exhibition, Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995 at the Art Institute of Chicago explores ways in which these publications amplified the voices and visibility of marginalised groups. “These magazines fostered networks that were vitally important for rising artists at the time,” co-curator Michal Raz-Russo explains in a statement about the exhibition. “By underscoring a collaborative approach, they were among the most innovative and groundbreaking spaces for discussions about art, culture, and politics.” 

Containing over 130 issues of these seminal magazines, along with photographs and time-based media works by artists featured in the publications, the exhibition traces developing threads and discourses through their pages. “Rather than attempt a complete survey, Subscribe focuses on particular moments of innovation,’ noted co-curator Solveig Nelson. “One important arc is how queer content and perspectives became central to magazines as art objects and as spaces. Another is the way that many artists pushed back against the limitations of magazines.”

Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995 is at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 2 2022