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Art for the Masses!

How Juxtapoz magazine sparked a lowbrow art revolution

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"My rule of thumb is, when your work ends up on a refrigerator magnet, you're over," wrote artist Robert Williams in the Winter 1998 issue of Juxtapoz, the magazine he co-founded four years earlier. Artists say this kind of thing all the time, of course. The idea that the purest expressions of one's soul might be reduced to mere décor, pleasant but innocuous images that hungry philistines barely acknowledge in their hurry to retrieve last night's pizza, is anathema to all but those rare geniuses who know that no amount of public acclaim or financial reward can ever smudge their brilliance.

That Williams should say this, however, was more than a little ironic. For one thing, in that very issue, there was a full-page ad for Zippo lighters emblazoned with "exclusive designs…from the best artists around," including Robert Williams. In addition, Williams had in part founded Juxtapoz as an alternative to the insular, impenetrable pedantry that characterized the New York-centric art establishment which favored conceptual canvas-splashers over artists (like Williams) who could actually draw, say, a sexy stripper relaxing on a pair of giant enchiladas. The paintings Juxtapoz championed were representational, narrative-driven, steeped in pop culture imagery that made them immediately visually appealing and accessible to the average viewer. They evoked movie posters, tattoos, comic books, and pulp novels, and while they contained plenty of surrealist ambiguity, they didn't require an aesthetic translator from Artforum to decode them. Fine art, Juxtapoz insisted, could speak to more than just curators, collectors, gallery owners, and critics. It could speak to a much wider audience, and not just from the tastefully generic walls of the nation's most corporate-sponsored museums. A Zippo lighter, a skateboard, a pair of sneakers—they were all potential canvases.

Not too surprisingly, this populist approach has been quite successful. This month, as Juxtapoz celebrates its 100th issue and its 15th anniversary, it boasts the highest circulation of any U.S. art magazine, beating out more established counterparts like Art News, Art in America, and ArtForum for that distinction. The style of art it emphasizes—most commonly short-handed as Pop Surrealism or Lowbrow—has spawned an ever-widening network of galleries and publications, and even some fairly tony museum exhibitions. Its most coveted practitioners command as much as $800,000 for original works. Which isn't exactly Warhol territory—yet—but also isn't bad for a genre that has consistently positioned itself as the domain of outlaws and outsiders.

Indeed, while Juxtapoz seems most inclined to invoke the underground cachet and street-level credibility of the artists it showcases, its most impressive feature is its commercial savvy. In addition to Williams, its founders included Thrasher publisher Fausto Vitello, eternally prescient cultural seismologist Craig Stecyk, and L.A. art collector and entrepreneur, Greg Escalante. As Juxtapoz's official curator, Escalante chose which artists the magazine would cover; as co-founder of Copra/Nason Fine Art, a publisher of lithographs and silk-screen prints by Robert Williams, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Coop, Shag, and many other Juxtapoz favorites, he offered the magazine's readers an inexpensive way to purchase works from the artists it had exposed them to.

Conventional wisdom holds that fine artists are only interested in money when the numbers are astronomical: If you can sell a painting, or even better, a roomful of 2x4s, to a museum or collector for at least seven figures, that is proof of your talent and unimpeachable artistic integrity. If you peddle calendars and greeting cards a little too enthusiastically, however, that's a little gauche. You don't have to spend too much time at MOMA or the Getty to see that the gift shop is true heart of most museums, the place where patrons truly come alive and engage with art, or at least art-like things. People like stuff they can touch without fear of censure from a docent, stuff they can own without going so deep into debt they end up living like starving artists.

Juxtapoz took these simple facts to heart and so did many of the artists it featured. Because the sort of figurative, representational art they produced had so little currency in the fine arts world, many
of them paid their bills doing work-for-hire gigs that acclimated them to the idea of merchandising their talents in less rarefied ways than high-end sales of one-offs. Frank Kozik produced concert posters, Mark Ryden worked as an illustrator, Robert Williams was part of the Zap Comix collective and served as the art director for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Roth, who first came to prominence in the early 1960s by producing wildly imaginative originals in America's favorite medium of expression, the automobile, eventually added graphic T-shirts, motorcycle helmets, car enthusiast magazines, stickers, patches, skateboards, and Revell plastic model kits, amongst other wares, to his ouvre. Using his efforts as a roadmap, Juxtapoz made sure to offer its readers an array of low-cost purchasing opportunities through a section of the magazine that was dubbed the Juxtapoz Product Shop: posters, calendars, jackets, watches, and baseball hats, all decorated with designs from artists featured in the magazine, and all under $20. (The prices have gone up a bit over the years, but are still quite reasonable.) Individual artists began doing the same, and eventually Juxtapoz added a department, Showroom, to showcase merchandise that seemed better suited to Target than, say, the Mary Boone Gallery: beer coasters, jewelry, glassware, skateboard decks, shoes, stationery sets, lunchboxes, etc.

In its May/June 2004 issue, Juxtapoz introduced a new section, Toybox, to showcase "limited edition artist toys," aka plastic action figures. In the late 1990s, these toys had begun catching on in the skateboarding and hip-hop subcultures, and by the early 2000s, young collectors were lining up at retail emporiums like Kidrobot to purchase the latest "urban vinyl" releases from their favorite grafitti artists, musicians, and illustrators. In an interview with Frank Kozik that appeared in that May/June 2004 issue, Juxtapoz contributor Rick Page discussed how the growing market for artist toys in the U.S. might someday reach the size of the huge Asian market for such items. "It's getting there," Kozik predicted. "All it's going to take is a publication latching onto it."

Needless to say, Juxtapoz latched. In many ways, designer toys are the ultimate embodiment of the Juxtapoz ethos. They're fun, tactile, easily accessible works of three-dimensional figurative craftmanship, the polar opposite of white canvases painted white and other highwater marks of minimalism and conceptual art. They're affordable to more than just the most well-heeled collectors, and yet their limited-edition nature keeps them exclusive, underground, and beyond the grasp of the mainstream. They're extremely commercial, with a built-in speculative component that essentially positions them as Beanie Babies for hipsters, and yet their creators often derive cachet from their anti-commercial status as creators of graffiti and other forms of street art that are emphatically not for sale.

In the wake of Juxtapoz' embrace of designer toys, its circulation continued to increase. In 2006, it went monthly. Today, as magazines of all stripes go under due to slumping ad sales and declining circulation, it appears to be doing better than ever. Its 100th issue weighs in at a robust 176 pages, with ads from lifestyle marketers like Nike, Vans, and Scion in addition to dozens of pages of art-related ads. Last summer, The Laguna Art Museum staged In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor, a major exhibition featuring works from 150 artists whose works have appeared in the magazine. By embracing Juxtapoz' populist mandate and creating their own low-cost merchandise, Mark Ryden, Frank Kozik, Tim Biskup, Coop, Shag, and many others Juxtapoz stalwarts have all created more demand for the original paintings, and achieved a level of career autonomy few artists enjoy. Perhaps one day some Pop Surrealist virtuoso might even paint some homage to the virtues of commerce and slap it on a refrigerator magnet. In the meantime, we'll have to do with Frank Kozik's limited-edition decorative bust of Ho Chi Minh and a machine gun.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.