The Daily Heller: The Fate of Esopus Magazine Unsealed at Colby College

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Archives are not crypts. You don’t just throw a few boxes in a closet and wait for the silverfish and mice to turn printed pages into salad. Archives require tender-loving care (aka maintenance, attention and organization) so that scholars in the future can cash in on the benefits of a well-kept repository of significant historical documents. Amen.

Tod Lippy, founder, editor and director of the Esopus Foundation, the entity that for 25 years published one of the smartest-looking and smartest-reading magazines in the world, has recently inaugurated the Esopus Magazine Archive at the Colby College Library. The publication featured contemporary projects by both established and emerging figures such as William Christenberry, Mary Lum, Alex Masket, Mickalene Thomas and Richard Tuttle. It presented personal reflections by creative practitioners—for instance, novelist Karl Ove Knausgård and theatrical lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, alongside short plays, visual essays, film excerpts, poetry and fiction. Each of the 25 issues concluded with a themed audio compilation of new songs by genre-spanning musicians.

This is just the tip of the spear. Lippy spared no time, effort and money to make a pre-digital interactive magazine experience. Now, he is launching the exhibition A Lot More Inside: Esopus Magazine—and publishing one final issue.

I’ve written about and interviewed Lippy many times over the past quarter century. He was an editor of PRINT (in its print days), editor of Scenario and organizer of many art and culture events. This probably won’t be the last time we talk, but with Esopus settling into its new climate-controlled home, this may be the last interview about this incredible journal.

Photos from A Lot More Inside: Esopus Magazine at Colby College Museum of Art

Will you explain your reason for launching this ambitiously edited and designed arts and culture magazine; how it evolved over its lifespan; and your own feelings toward its final outcome as a printed entity?
I wanted to create an unmediated, accessible forum in which artists and the public could interact in all kinds of productive ways. And one which was resolutely multidisciplinary. Over the course of 25 issues, Esopus presented work by artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, chefs, choreographers, lighting designers, cruciverbalists, mathematicians, theoretical physicists, playwrights, actors, show-runners, curators, translators, comedians, architects—you name it. I was also keen to make it affordable (the main reason I created the nonprofit Esopus Foundation Ltd. was to enable us to receive grants from places like the NEA and the Warhol Foundation, which were essential to its survival). And I wanted it to be “friendly,” I guess. That’s a word I’ve never used in relation to the magazine before, but it’s accurate. I didn’t want to scare off people with needless jargon or the air of exclusivity that is employed to reinforce the insularity of the art world, in particular. And I was hoping it would feel on some level like an artwork in its own right—something you hopefully wouldn’t toss in the trash the minute you finished reading it. It evolved in all kinds of important ways because I had the most amazing, loyal group of contributors, supporters, and readers whose participation, suggestions and enthusiasm constantly encouraged me to push it in new directions.

You put the printed version on hiatus for a number of years—why is now a propitious moment for publishing its last issue?
The only reason for doing another, and final, issue, was A Lot More Inside: Esopus Magazine, an exhibition focusing on the Esopus archive that just opened at the Colby College Museum of Art. (Colby College Libraries acquired the archive in 2019.) The show presents a representative selection of items from the archive: original artworks, correspondence, mockups, press sheets, and a bunch of other process-related material. I co-curated it with Megan Carey, the museum’s Barbara Alfond Director of Exhibitions and Publications, and at some point during the process—probably six or so months ago—Megan and I talked about how nice it would be to do a “simple” exhibition catalog. I started pondering this more, and suddenly realized how much I’d missed putting together an issue of Esopus, and within a couple of months the “simple catalog” had become a six-part publication in a custom-designed slipcase with a removable poster, an eight-panel foldout featuring an artists’ project by Colby professors Gianluca Rizzo and Gary Green, and two invitationals. It was really fun to put together, and I think a lot of that had to do with my knowing that this would be the final Esopus publication.

Did Esopus accomplish everything you set out to do? Is there anything more that you’d want to do with it?
I think so. As I already said, I set out to make an affordable, accessible magazine that would bring creative expression of all forms to a broad audience, and to do that with no commercial interference (advertising, etc.). Another goal of mine was to create a space in which artists and our readership not only could connect but also actually create things together (something that happened, particularly, with the many subscriber invitationals we did, like the “Imaginary Friends” CD, or Jason Polan’s “My Favorite Things About New York” artist’s project). I think all of that was accomplished to varying degrees, and a lot of other great stuff happened along the way, too. Most important, a community was created and maintained, and that community made the magazine better, richer and more inclusive.

What does the archive contain? How is it organized? And do you hope the public will be able to access the material?
The archive contains roughly 30,000 items—not to mention its digital component, which is vast. These range from more than 200 original artworks by artists including Kerry James Marshall, Richard Tuttle, Marilyn Minter and Robert Gober; hundreds of press sheets from every issue and other Esopus publication; a bunch of mockups I created during the course of production; correspondence with contributors (and with those who never heeded the call to contribute, despite my best efforts, like Stephen Sondheim and Jasper Johns); audio and video files documenting Esopus events and most of its press runs; signed copies; and, well, a lot more. One section of this final Esopus publication is a book called “Exploring the Archive,” and it features mostly items that didn’t make it into the exhibition. I wanted to include this as a kind of teaser for students and faculty at Colby, and hopefully for an audience beyond that, as well. The archive’s home is at the Colby Library’s fantastic Special Collections department, and the people there are committed to continuing to activate the archive in all kinds of exciting ways after the exhibition. My hope is that all of these materials will lead to other magazines, or books, or films, or any other kind of creative activity.

What has Esopus “taught” you … as artist, editor, cultural historian, etc.?
I sound like a Pollyanna here, but what doing Esopus has taught me is that, if you really believe in something, and are willing to go to the mat for it over and over, it is more likely than not you can make it happen. The key is to have a clear vision of what you want it to be, and never lose sight of that vision along the way.

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