The 1968 Exhibit: AVANT-GARDE, No. 4, September 1968

avantgarde-tookerHigh Art-- and high-class erotica

Wander through cyberspace looking for "Avant-Garde," and you're likely to encounter more about it as the name of the typeface invented for this magazine than for the magazine itself.  Neither the typeface nor the magazine lasted very long:  Avant-Garde (the hyphen was not in the logo, but was in the fine print) began publication in January 1968 and ended just 15 issues later, in July 1971.  So to call 1968 the "high-water mark" of Avant-Garde would be kind of obvious.  It's also described as a "hardbound" periodical, which is not quite true--more like a thick version of a paperback book cover.  But that was enough to set it apart from, say, LIFE or Time or Art News, and to mark it as High Art, something to save and display on a coffee table, next to the water-pipe, perhaps.  There is real art, in abundance:  one of Avant-Garde's most famous issues included a vast survey of Picasso's erotic drawings.  The September 1968 issue (pictured here) features work by American artist George Tooker, including his 1965-66 "Landscape with Figures" on the cover--as haunting an image of modern alienation as ever produced.  And thrust onto the cover of a later 1968 issue is an astounding pair of breasts by Pop-Art star Tom Wesselman.


Knowing it when you see it?

The man behind "Avant-Garde" the Typeface was famed graphic designer Herb Lubalin.  The man behind Avant-Garde editorially was Ralph Ginzburg, a great Sixties character who had by this time served eight months in federal prison on a conviction (1963) of distributing obscene literature through the mails in a case that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court.  (The original indictment had been brought by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.)  The conviction involved previous publications (such as his EROS magazine), but that doesn't mean that Ginzburg, in Avant-Garde, gave up on material that many people probably considered at least soft-core (did we even have that term in 1968?) porn.  There's a color-photo story in this issue on New York's "Playhouse of the Ridiculous," a very downtown avant-garde theatrical troupe, who engaged in wild "happenings"-like performances and onstage sex simulations.  Another color spread spotlights a "Voodoo ritual dance," executed by a voluptuous Caribbean dancer, nude save for well-placed props (live chicken, a human skull).   There's a story by a female writer about a spectacularly endowed "Haitian Negro" male performer in a sex exhibition she saw in Cuba in the 1950s.  And there's a calendar for 1969 that consists of 12 different cleverly set up photo shoots, each of them with bare-breasted women on prominent display.

A hawk's story of why he wants to kill

But the most arresting story has nothing to do with sex. It's "The Battle Hymn of Jeffrey Weinper," a non-fiction article by "a young hawk who tells why he quit college to slaughter in Vietnam."   Jeffrey enlisted in the Airborne in July 1967, and writes:  "Curiosity was a major reason for my enlistment . . . I am not enthused over the Vietnam War, but it is the place where I can go and kill people and they me. . . . The persistence of human violence . . . leads me to doubt the condemnation of war more than the phenomenon itself. . . . It may be that at some time, man will lose all his aggressiveness, rip off all his clothes, and spend his day dragging pot and sticking his finger in his navel.  The day of Hippie Heaven and Universal Love may come, but when they do, man will no longer be man but something else."

A black box on the same page announced that "as this issue was going to press," Avant-Garde learned that Pfc. Jeffrey Weinper had been killed near Hue in South Vietnam.