The exhibit features blockbusters like Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, but maybe that’s beside the point.
“‘The Tiger’s Eye’: The Art of a Magazine,” a new show at the Yale University Art Gallery, takes a close look at a short-lived artistic and literary magazine from the late-1940s that made a point of emphasizing art itself, rather than the reputation of its creators.
Despite its two-year life span and a relatively small circulation, “The Tiger’s Eye” was a powerful force in New York’s newly dominant art scene. The art gallery exhibit features original copies of the magazines’ nine issues, along with text excerpts and about 60 paintings, sculptures and prints that were once reproduced in its pages.
The magazine was the brain child of editor Ruth Stephan, a poet and heiress to the Walgreen fortune, and her painter husband John Stephan, who served as the magazines’ art director. As part of their philosophical commitment to the purity of art, the Stephans printed the magazine with a distinctive format. They separated artist’s and author’s credits from their work and deposited them in a “tale of the contents,” which was then printed on heavy, colored stock paper and inserted in the center of the magazine.
This structure allowed lesser-known but interesting artists like Mark Tobey, Maud Morgan and Loren MacIver to compete for attention with big names like Clyfford Still, Giacometti, Rothko and Picasso, the original marquee player of the period. Odile Redon, the brilliant colorist, contributed a black-and-white print to the eighth issue, along with an eccentric note.
“One must respect black,” wrote Redon, who had spent his career creating gorgeous, swirling fields of color. “Nothing prostitutes it.”
Mark Rothko, the most frequent contributor to the magazine, is prominently represented in the exhibition, which includes six of his paintings. Coincidentally or not, the period of the magazine’s publication was a transitional period, as he moved from his earlier surrealism to his now-familiar mature style of textured planes of luminous color.
As Rothko’s work evolved, the uncluttered presentation of his work in the magazine allowed observers to view it without distraction.
In a bright cornerof the exhibit, an abstract Ad Reinhardt work, “Number 18,” is juxtaposed with the surrealist “Procession” of Paul Delvaux, just as it had been in the magazine. In fact, the comparison seems to work even better in real life than on the page. The colors of the two works, which had been reproduced in black-and-white for the magazine, harmonize beautifully, heightening the works’ affinity.
The Stephans’ commitment to quality drove them to carefully examine every submission, regardless of its pedigree. This painstaking work proved so taxing that it led them to cease publishing after just two years. But this effort was absolutely necessary to achieve the impressive breadth of the journal, which featured examples of virtually every major movement of the period.
Redon’s comment on his print made up a part of the impressive written content of the journal, which was an essential counterpart to its illustrations. The magazine featured commentaries by artist-contributors along with the poetry and prose of such literary figures as William Carlos Williams.
Unfortunately, before this exhibition, the journal had languished in relatively obscurity for decades, lost among a number of other such magazines that once flourished in that turbulent, productive era.
Its reemergence at the art gallery is the culmination of two years of work by curator Pamela Franks. Her effort is justified by the impressive collection of works on view.
“I want vision in my work if I am to continue; I want to look at pictures that not only arrest me, I want also to look at pictures that detain me,” Tiger’s Eye contributor Mark Tobey wrote. With its well-focused selection of beautiful works, carefully supplemented by copies of the original reproductions, “The Art of a Magazine” has precisely this effect.
The Yale University Art Gallery is at Chapel and York streets.