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We live in a country divided. Americans today are struggling to have frank, productive dialogues about politics, civil liberties, and social issues. Thanks to livestreaming and social media, our impassioned reactions, firsthand accounts, and official statements catalog each day’s debates in real time and on a vast public scale. While it is tempting to attribute our current state of the union to uniquely twenty-first-century problems—terrorism, technology, or globalization, to name a few—it is clear that neither these issues nor our reliance on real-time, real-talk commentary are new. In fact, America is presently grappling with many of the same challenges that affected it some fifty years ago, including racism, police brutality, sexism, and sexuality.
Or at least this is what Realize Your Desires: Underground Press from the Library of Stefan Brecht, curated by Max and Solvieg Schumann, would suggest. The exhibition brings to light an expansive private collection of underground newspapers dating from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s—a tumultuous era. Encompassing over four hundred individual issues (nearly all of which are for sale) printed by roughly thirty different presses, the exhibition proves both timely and enlightening, rewarding the patient, dedicated viewer with a rare glimpse into America’s troubled past as a way of clarifying our muddled present if not envisioning a more harmonious future.
The term “underground press” is, by its very nature, defined apophatically—more by what it is not than what it is. Generally speaking, a periodical is considered “underground” if it is not backed by a major publisher, distributed widely, or concerned with mainstream news items. Rather, such publications are typically small, independent endeavors dedicated to countercultural, often radically left-leaning subject matter. Consequently, they respond to a dizzying array of issues; this exhibition alone includes newspapers centered on gay rights, feminism, Catholicism, the Vietnam War, pornography, Marxism, conceptualism, and comic strips, among other subjects. The variety and profusion of such periodicals during this era is due largely to a slackening of censorship laws by the Supreme Court in 1966, when the case Memoirs v. Massachusetts established that potentially obscene or inflammatory material could be distributed to the public as long as it represented some “redeeming social value” (“Excerpts from Pornography Opinions,” The New York Times [June 22, 1973]: 42). The ruling, coinciding with seismic social, cultural, and political shifts in the United States, briefly endowed writers and activists with the power to engage a wider audience on previously taboo topics without fear of legal retribution (the victory was short-lived, however, since by the early 1970s new conservative legislation passed, and the countercultural spirit became co-opted by the mainstream media). Concurrent advancements in print technology meant that media outlets like newspapers—once prohibitively expensive to produce in a limited run—could now be established by virtually any interested party. In all, as substantiated in Realize Your Desires, the underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, unlike traditional news vehicles, proved a direct, unfiltered means to initiate dialogues about subjects that, while vital, had previously only been discussed behind closed doors.
The exhibition is appropriately staged at Printed Matter, the world’s leading nonprofit organization devoted to artists’ books and, more generally, a mecca for lovers of all things typed, pasted, copied, or bound. The sheer number and diversity of items on offer is overwhelming. Every surface—table, shelf, wall, floor, desk—is covered with printed visual material. The gallery portion of the space, tracing the shop’s back wall and extending into a short, adjacent hallway, is no exception. Here underground periodicals are hung in clear archival sleeves and arranged in large grids on the wall. Still other issues are laid out and occasionally splayed open to reveal interesting articles, in long glass cases. Though all of the publications on view are serial newspapers printed in roughly tabloid format, their installation recalls nothing so much as a massive comic book collector’s display, with rare issues carefully preserved in pristine encasements out of reach of grubby hands. The show has no formal checklist, and wall labels mention periodicals only in groups, effectively discouraging viewers from contemplating the individual merits of each edition beyond their diverse approaches to cover art. Preventing visitors from holding or reading these periodicals, as one can with every other publication on sale in the store, seems a missed opportunity, particularly for this singular organization devoted to the perusal, delectation, and collection of enticing printed matter.
Instead, it is evident that the curators have set out to emphasize the periodicals more as a reflection of the tastes of their collector, Stefan Brecht, than as primary source documents of their time. Brecht, son of famed playwright Bertolt Brecht, boasted a compelling life story: as a child he and his family fled the Nazis; he received his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard and later, upon moving to Manhattan in the early 1960s, became a poet and avid chronicler of New York’s avant-garde theater scene. Brecht obsessively compiled archival documents and firsthand accounts of innumerable productions, eventually publishing several books on the subject before his death in 2009. This dedication to the preservation of cutting-edge culture apparently manifested itself in a parallel interest in underground periodicals, where Brecht amassed long runs of the most renegade papers in New York and beyond.
A major theme of Brecht’s collection and, indeed, the most eye-catching motif on the walls of Printed Matter is sex. Scores of periodical covers feature images of nude women in compromising positions. (Nude men, however, are rarely to be found.) If not for the gallery’s pristine white walls and glass cases, one could easily imagine oneself transported to the back racks of an erotica shop; an emergency exit door stands nearby, tempting the prudish visitor to flee. Though Playboy was founded in 1953, the underground papers on view here, with pithy titles such as Sex, Kiss, and Climax! , promoted a much racier, more blatant espousal of a new wave of sexuality ushered in by the Summer of Love and formalized by blue movie theaters screening Russ Meyer sexploitation films. Intermixing erotic poetry, titillating writing, and pornographic imagery, these periodicals were often cheeky side projects enacted by rising figures in the art and literary worlds. One wall label, for example, declares that Kiss was founded in 1969 by Fluxus pioneer Al Hansen, who impishly coined the tagline “the magazine you read with one hand.” Further research reveals that prominent graphic-design historian Steven Heller was involved as a teenager with producing two of the most well-represented sex papers in the show: Screw, where he served as art director, and The New York Review of Sex, where he acted as publisher (Steven Heller, “Turn of the Screw,” Eye 21, no. 84 [Fall 2012]: http://www.eyemagazine.com/review/article/turn-of-the-screw). Though the intellectual merit of such publications could easily be occluded by their apparent misogyny (two internal pages taken from Pleasure suggest a woman uncrossing her legs is “spreading joy”), they open onto a unique feminist debate at the time: Should pornography be viewed as empowering women to embrace a sexuality long considered an inalienable right only of men? Or was it yet another symbol of male oppression and the subjugation of women via the male gaze?
Elsewhere in the exhibition other, equally compelling debates about oppression are sparked through documentation of America’s tense race relations of the late 1960s. Numerous issues of The Black Panther, a newspaper published as part of the African American political movement, enliven the walls with photographs of protests, arrests, and illustrations of AK-47 assault rifles. One case highlights a 1971 Black Panther article on the acquittal of twelve African Americans who had been indicted on conspiracy charges. The essay is couched in heated language, citing the verdict as a “cease-fire” between the freedom fighters and the police “pigs.” The conflict between these two groups is palpably felt in the article’s accusations of police corruption, racial profiling, and the murder of innocent black citizens. Just one case over, a spread in the generalist counterculture paper RAT offers a stark contrast: a profile of the Beatles featuring a photo of a jocular, smiling John Lennon. Implicating the vast discrepancy in treatment between white and black citizens, these displays provide an eerie echo to the pressing issues facing the United States today, as the Black Lives Matter movement clearly demonstrates.
Ironically, the fervency of these periodicals overshadows the show’s most renowned underground papers, including mint-condition editions of The East Village Other, The Los Angeles Free Press, and Andy Warhol’s Interview. Though no doubt the jewels of the exhibition from a collector’s perspective, the gallery’s jam-packed installation prevents the viewer from being able to grasp the more multi-faceted dialogues at play in such iconic, but more generally countercultural, periodicals. Instead, Realize Your Desires gains its power not by demonstrating the breadth and depth of the underground press movement but by celebrating lesser-known, single-minded periodicals like Pleasure and The Black Panther, whose issues so clearly presage our own. Today, as the Republican Party attempts to brand pornography as a “national health crisis” and people of color fear for their lives at every routine traffic stop, these papers become more than just ephemeral collector’s items. They become reflections of our gravest problems and calls to action for permanent, effective solutions.
Katharine J. Wright
Andrew J. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow and Collections Specialist, Metropolitan Museum of Art