Under the (Magazine) Covers

Tod Lippy's Esopus magazine remains a beautiful artifact


in Features • Illustrated by Kat Zale Heller


Since Tod Lippy had worked for other magazines before starting his own, you might think that’s how he learned what to do to make his new venture a success. 

But when asked about Esopus, the design and culture magazine he founded in 2003, he has said it’s the things he learned not to do that made it garner praise such as: “The most beautiful magazine you probably never heard of” (Steven Heller, The Atlantic); “a thing of lavish, eccentric beauty, less flipped through than stared at,” (David Carr, The New York Times) and “that rare arts magazine that itself becomes a work of art”  (Seth Rogovoy, The Berkshire Review).  

Lippy’s explanation of the name Esopus employs a metaphor for his ideas about “unmediated” magazine publishing. “Esopus is named after a beautiful, very pristine creek that runs through the Catskill Mountains, but which ends up emptying into the Hudson River,” he told Baltimore Magazine in 2014 — “a river less than pristine. The idea . . . was to create something that was pure in intention — no advertising, no commercially driven editorial material, and as little “filtering” as possible — with the knowledge that it would eventually end up on a newsstand next to  InStyle or whatever.”  

In a 2010 panel discussion on “The Public Consumption of Print,” the text of which was published in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, Lippy explained his adversity to advertising: “I came at this (Esopus) with an enormous amount of frustration, not only as a reader but also as an editor. I worked at a design magazine and a film magazine and dealt with a very mild version of the pressure from advertisers and publishers that I’m sure editors at Vogue and everywhere else are overwhelmed by — namely, to tailor content to whoever is buying the biggest ad that week or creating advertorials or things like that.” His alternative course was hardly the easy way out: he created a nonprofit entity, the Esopus Foundation Ltd., a 501(c)(3), which depends on contributions. 

In an interview with Aesop.com, Lippy said that:

“‘unmediated’ also means that, as the sole person producing the publication, I always have direct contact with the artists, and never with ‘handlers’ — whether they be gallerists, publicists, managers, or agents. For a publication as unconventional as ours, I think it’s essential that I convey my belief in and passion for the project directly to the person I’m inviting to contribute.”

As for readership, Lippy wanted Esopus to reach a wider audience than special-interest magazines do. So he made sure the magazine was interdisciplinary. In the same RBM panel, he said, “ We have contributions from contemporary artists and filmmakers, writers, poets, musicians — a CD is included in every issue . . . to avoid the kind of ghettoization that comes with specialization in creative disciplines.” One downside of this approach is that some stores didn’t know in what section of their magazine racks Esopus belonged; in fact, Lippy once found his pride and joy in an automotive section.   

But perhaps the most important reason that Esopus was so highly praised in its industry was intangible. Another participant in the RBM panel was Eli Horowitz, then editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly, a literary journal that has shared the innovative spirit of Esopus. At McSweeney’s, Horowitz said:

“…we let what we’re excited about guide what we do rather than preconceived notions of what journals can be. I think particularly in the world of literary journals, and often probably in the arts magazines, there’s an attitude that it should exist. It’s like ‘eating your vegetables’…. We tried not to start from that point. This was going to be an exciting thing that we care about and I think that really spreads to our readers and our audience.”

Lippy agreed, citing “the optimism I feel about people being much smarter — and more open-minded — than they are given credit for.” 

To give The Smart Set readers some credit, you must have noticed that I’ve been talking about Esopus in the past tense. That’s because as the magazine’s high production expenses (for “extensive handwork, multiple specialty papers, inks, varnishes and costly procedures such as die-cutting and embossing,” as Lippy noted in a bad-news press release) became even costlier and readership began to fall off, in 2018 he had to suspend publication. And so, ironically, the easiest way to see this jewel of the print medium now is, digitally, on the Esopus website

Online you can see the unique, intriguing covers that stood out in the magazine racks of my local Border’s Bookstore, where I first discovered Esopus. Adding to the covers’ draw, the images wrapped from front to back. The only other magazine with covers that are so appealing to me is The New Yorker, which famously limits its covers to illustrations. (Apparently, that fact wasn’t famous enough to reach Bob Dylan in 2004, when he was negotiating with The New Yorker over publishing an excerpt from his Chronicles: Volume One and wanted his picture on the cover of the magazine, according to The New Yorker editor David Remnick’s recent article about Dylan.) 

In an interview with the online journal Aesop.com, Lippy laid out his preference for “quiet” covers: 

“We live in this intense culture, especially in urban environments, which is constantly about stimulation — horns, sirens, yelling, jackhammers, the constant barrage of advertising, etc. — and I feel like many magazine covers kind of replicate that cacophony visually by using Day-Glo colors, provocative cover lines, and celebrity photos to sell copies. I think it’s nice to offer people a little respite from that.”

Beyond a respite, an Esopus cover offered a quick introduction to the magazine’s aesthetic. It was invariably a freestanding image that is of interest on its own, giving no indication of how it might be related to the articles inside — if it was at all. If Esopus 6 were a regular art magazine, the image of a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting on the cover could be some conceptual artist’s photo symbolizing all the mishaps that can befall mankind. But in this case, it’s one of several photos in an article about how “a musicologist combed archives and spoke with a number of truck drivers and inventors to chart the evolution of that perennial summer anthem, the ice cream truck jingle.” Why did this innovative cultural magazine devote two covers to images related to war? Because in fact, the battle scene on the cover of Esopus 6 was taken from the issue’s selection of 13-year-old Alex Brown’s “drawings of real and imagined battles.” “These barrages of gesture and color take on conflict in formal, psychological, and social terms,” Lippy said of the drawings, “betraying the vision and drive of an artist in the making.” The other seemingly bellicose image, on the front and back covers of Esopus 11, is a big “BOOM!” At ease: it’s from an announcement for artist and botanist Dwight Ripley’s show at the gallery in Nevada that he owned in the early 1940s. He was referencing the atomic bomb tests in the state at that time, which prompted Ripley to relocate. 

For comparison, on the RBM panel with Lippy, Eli Horowitz said that McSweeney’s Quarterly sometimes looks like a book but other issues have more than different covers — they “take different forms.” For instance, Issue 16, which was clothbound with pockets, “had a comb in it, for no good reason, and included a book of short stories, an Ann Beattie novella, and a Robert Coover story that’s on a deck of cards that can be shuffled in any order . . . Issue 19 was like a cigar box of old ephemera: mostly civil defense, an anti-syphilis-in-the-army journal, the stuff that wins air raid instruction, and a bunch of stories.” Why these odd formats for what’s essentially a literary journal? Horowitz explained that although McSweeney’s has had a substantial website since it was founded in 1998, producing a physical object is something that excites the staff, and they think that holds true for their readers, too. His motto is “if it’s going to be printed, there has to be a need for it to be printed.”  

That explains why the three issues of McSweeney’s that I own comprise three paperback books held inside a grained, leather-like cover by magnets (Issue 22); a multi-section, Sunday-edition size newspaper “with original contributions from over 150 writers and photographers, inside a sealed plastic bag (Issue 33); and a mustachioed, pink-skinned man’s head in the form of a cube-shaped box with a flip-top that holds a dozen booklets, pamphlets, postcards and a tiny roll of paper printed with messages that could go inside fortune cookies (like “You will say ‘moider’ instead of ‘murder’ on your deathbed to lighten the mood.”) 

It’s been over a decade since I’ve had these McSweeney issues, and I’ve read hardly any of the elaborately packaged texts. Yet whenever I pick up an Esopus issue I rediscover how good it feels in my hands, and the lure of “What next?”  keeps me turning the substantial pages. (I often rub my forefinger and thumb on the pages to see if they are part of a larger fold-out, used frequently in the magazine.)  

Although Lippy eschewed the naming of sections found in most magazines, he established a number of series that organized the contents. (The difference is that sections name subjects, like sports and cinema, while series define the type of content, like artifacts and songs.)  The main Esopus series’ were: “Artist Projects,” the ‘anchor’ of the publication (there were usually six of them in each issue); “Modern Artifacts,” from the Museum of Modern Arts’ archive; “Guarded Opinions,” about what museum guards thought of the art they watched over; and “Subscriber Invitationals,” which asked readers to share their personal experiences or ideas on a certain subject. Each issue concluded with a themed CD with songs by various musicians based on a particular subject.

Both well-known artists (like Jenny Holzer, Kerry James Marshsll, Richard Tuttle) and emerging ones contributed projects. Lippy hoped that appearing in the same publication as established artists would boost recognition for upcoming ones — part of his plan for Esopus to be a springboard for the latter. Marshall’s project was a comic strip using  Black vernacular English to talk about theory, history, and culture (Issue 14). In the same issue, Jared Flood, a knitwear designer, and photographer, came up with a variation of the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse using six knitwear designers. “Each designer created a single piece of one garment after having been shown only the piece that had been worked (on) by the previous designer,” Flood explained. When all parts had been fabricated, they were sewn together to create a finished sweater. 

The “Modern Artifacts” series entry in Esopus 10 tells us that in the mid-20th century, MoMA would sometimes present exhibits of art from centuries before that time to underscore the universal themes expressed by art from all ages. To mount “Arts of the South Seas” in 1946, René D’ Harnoncourt, the museum’s director at the time as well as an accomplished draughtsman and exhibition designer, made hundreds of drawings of the pieces in the show “to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of them,” according to Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections at MoMA. Fifteen pages of those drawings are included in this issue, along with a sketch of some items in the exhibit, each one placed “where it would shine and make the most of itself,” according to Anne D’ Harnoncourt, the daughter of the late director. For all of us who have wondered what museum guards think of the art they spend so much time with, there was an Esopus series that asked them just that — with the perfect name of “Guarded Opinions.” The installment in Issue 17 elicits the opinions of two guards at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), in North Adams. A man in his seventies who oversees the museum’s three floors of Sol LeWitt’s work especially likes the artist’s Scribble drawings and tells people: “Don’t let the word ‘scribble’ fool you. They’re very complicated drawings.” And even though he’s done this job for five years, he said, “The art hasn’t become like wallpaper at all.” A young woman said her favorite exhibit since starting work as a guard has been Petah Coyne’s, especially the installation “Scalapino Nu Shu,” which for some unknown reason made her think of her best friend. She feels she found out why when she later learned the piece was named for the late poet Leslie Scalapino, a close friend of Coyne’s. The young woman guard also found out that Nu Shu is the name of a type of secret writing Chinese women once used to communicate with each other in an era when they had no rights. “The fact that the piece is very much about women’s friendship explains why it made me think of my best friend,” she said. 

In the “100 Frames” series, Issue 25 showed us a number of color stills from the 2014 feature French film Force Majeure, about a family’s ski trip, by Ruben Östlund. The “100 Frames” series never used captions, but since I had seen Force Majureau I already knew the plot was centered around what happened when an avalanche interrupted the skier’s outdoor lunch: the father ran to safety, leaving his wife and children alone. In Alex Witchell’s accompanying essay on the film, she relates the avalanche’s aftershocks felt by the husband and wife and how their relations with their children had been strained. But you can see the resulting emotions for yourself on the faces of the family members in the frames. 

For Issue 22, on Medicine, readers were asked to submit their subjective descriptions of their recent illnesses or injuries, which were then passed on to students from the Biomedical Visualization Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago to illustrate them. All of the pictures were much more vivid and compassionate than x-rays, the usual medium for depicting what ails us, and one of them was the funniest image I’d ever seen in any issue of Esopus. The patient said his plantar fasciitis felt like “hundreds of little Sarah Palins gnawing at your feet,” and so we see clones of the former VP candidate in miniature with large needles, attacking a big foot on its heel, two of them gnawing on the flesh. One of them is even giving us that familiar wink. 

You may wonder how Lippy got his ideas for all this diverse content. In Issue 19, he tells us that while Esopus was moving its offices recently, he had to make a lot of customer-service calls to get what he needed for relocation.  Knowing that almost everyone has experienced the frustrations of these calls, he decided to make them the theme of the Issue 19 CD. It turned out to be so entertaining that Lippy was invited to play and discuss some of the tracks on WNYC’s very popular “New Sounds” radio show, hosted by John Schafer, the voice of the latest and greatest new music. 

Although Esopus has stopped publication, you can see all 18 installments of the “Modern Artifacts” series in their full-size, printed glory in a critically acclaimed and readily available book of the same name. In addition to the series on the MoMA archive, the book also includes six new “Artist Projects” inspired by the themes of “Modern Artifacts.” In a playful project titled “MoMA and DADA,” Paul Ramirez Jonas charts the shared history of the museum and the art movement on the same timeline as the history of “Mama and Dada” — his parents. Entries in the six-page timeline include family photos, soccer posters (the artist is clearly a fan), museum catalog covers for Dada exhibits, a map of the world and John and Yoko’s “WAR IS OVER” declaration. These images and others are connected by swooping, curving directional arrows, so the project looks like a diagram of an elaborate soccer play. Like many of the visually striking Esopus articles over the years, it’s enough to make the reader exclaim, “Momma mia!”•


Stan Tymorek is a freelance writer specializing in the arts. His writing has appeared in the poetry website Jacket2, New Music USA, New York Public Radio's New Sounds, and Artenol, "a purgative for an ailing art world, a palliative for afflicted aesthetes," founded by the artist Alex Melamid. "Caught Dead In It" is one of a series of essays he is writing about the comedy in clothing throughout history, including the afterlife. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.