Remember newsstands? “Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970–1995,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, is like falling backward through the looking glass into the hippest, most inclusive magazine rack in Wonderland, where you’ll find publications that range from Interview and Vibe to obscurities such as the feminist zine Ben Is Dead and genderqueer artist Vaginal Davis’s Fertile La Toyah Jackson.
Spanning an era where Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, and Bill Cunningham were shooting for underground independents, “Subscribe” is a tour of what happened when alternative publications challenged the status quo by using the tools of magazines like Vogue for their own purposes, becoming “portable exhibitions” that upended the notion that mainstream publishers had cornered the market on great photography and innovative design.
Some of what you’ll find is exactly what you might expect: Bob Dylan hanging with Patti Smith, lots of Boy George covers, the requisite Grace Jones photo collage, and a pictorial of people that look like friends of Andy Warhol’s who turn out to be just that. It’s all great fun to look at.
The exhibition’s extraordinary displays illustrate the evolution of a particular magazine, from the stunning experimental design of i-D to the camp irony of Out/Look (don’t miss the tabloid-parody cover with the headline: Jodie Foster hugged me! Avowed lesbian says) to the irreverent photography of the Village Voice fashion supplement Vue. “Subscribe” will take you back to a world where marginalized groups used print as a playground, challenging traditional culture and beating mainstream publishers at their own game.
“Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970–1995” is on at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 2