Shamelessly Arty, The Tiger’s Eye Is Back at Yale by Hilton Kramer
There can’t be many people today who remember The Tiger’s Eye , a short-lived, lavishly printed journal of contemporary art and literature that is currently the subject of an unusual exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. The Tiger’s Eye took its name from the well-known lines of a poem by William Blake:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
It was published quarterly in New York from 1947 to 1949, and its entire life span consisted of nine issues. Yet in both the quality of its production and the character of its contents, it was so unlike any of the other “little magazines” that commanded attention in those years that its small circle of devoted readers tended to regard each issue as a rarity to be “collected” and preserved for future reference.
This was largely owing to the fact that, in every issue, The Tiger’s Eye published a generous selection of reproductions of paintings, sculpture and prints by contemporary artists, most of whom were scarcely even names beyond the ranks of the artists themselves and their families and friends. Some of these reproductions were finely printed color plates that were individually mounted on the sturdy pages of the magazine. Some were accompanied by artists’ statements, others by literary texts. Most of them were published without commentary or criticism.
Thus, in issue No. 5 for October 1948, there was a handsome color plate of William Baziotes’ painting Blue Mirror (1948), plus three black-and-white reproductions of other recently completed paintings and a brief statement by the artist. In issue No. 4 for June 1948, there was a photograph of Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture Man Pointing (1947), accompanied by a poem, “Giacometti,” by the young Richard Wilbur, based on the poet’s recent visit to the sculptor’s Paris studio. And the last issue, No. 9 for October 1949, featured five reproductions of new paintings by Mark Rothko, one of them a tipped-in color plate, plus a somewhat opaque statement by Rothko on “the progress of a painter’s work.”
That last issue also featured an excerpt, “The Night’s Children,” from Bernard Frechtman’s translation of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers ; a selection of Japanese goblin poems, translated by Lafcadio Hearn; an Anne Ryan color wood-block, In a Street (1946); and black-and-white reproductions of paintings by André Masson, Barnett Newman, Jimmy Ernst and Loren MacIver.
Nonfiction prose was never one of The Tiger’s Eye ‘s strengths, but it did occasionally bow to some of the intellectual currents of the period. In its final issue, the huge vogue for psychoanalysis was represented by a lengthy symposium on a now mercifully forgotten treatise, The Neurosis of Man by Dr. Trigant Burrow, who was then a widely read psychoanalyst; and the then-burgeoning Henry James revival prompted the publication of an essay by Edwin Honig, a poet then teaching at Harvard, called “The Merciful Fraud in Three Stories by James,” an exercise in the kind of myth-and-ritual literary criticism that was also one of the intellectual fashions of the day.
The Tiger’s Eye was never intended to be a critical review, however. Poetry and the visual arts were the magazine’s principal interests–a reflection, no doubt, of the tastes of John and Ruth Stephan, the husband-and-wife team of editors who founded and produced the journal. John Stephan was a gifted painter whose work was exhibited by Betty Parsons when her gallery was one of the principal venues for the growing Abstract Expressionist movement. Ruth Stephan was a poet, and though she doesn’t appear to have published much, poetry and a certain mode of aesthetic mysticism were clearly her principal interests. As the daughter of the drugstore magnate Charles Walgreen, she was also the source of the ample funds that supported The Tiger’s Eye ‘s lavish style.
She once characterized The Tiger’s Eye as “an aesthetic magazine,” and so it was. It was also avowedly avant-garde and shamelessly arty in its affectations. In lieu of the usual table of contents in the front of the magazine, The Tiger’s Eye had what was called a “Tale of Contents” tucked into the middle of each issue, and sometimes printed in colored inks on colored stock that defied easy legibility. Neither the poems nor the prose nor the pictures were identified with bylines on the pages on which they were printed; you had to consult the “Tale of Contents” for that information. The titles of the poems, however, were hand-drawn.
Still, if The Tiger’s Eye was excessively arty in its format and design–and not always up to the highest standards in the poetry and prose it published–the many pages each issue devoted to the visual arts were often a revelation. They certainly were for me when I began reading the magazine as an undergraduate in upstate New York in the late 1940’s. It was in The Tiger’s Eye that I first encountered the painters of the New York School and some of the Surrealists who had influenced them. You could read about these artists, as well as others of this period, in the articles and reviews that Clement Greenberg was writing for The Nation and Partisan Review , but it was in The Tiger’s Eye that you could see abundant reproductions of their work. And while the editors of the magazine certainly favored some artists over others (as all good editors do), it wasn’t only the Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists who were illustrated in the magazine.
It is one of the virtues of the exhibition called The Tiger’s Eye : The Art of a Magazine, which Pamela Franks has now organized at the Yale University Art Gallery, that it strikes a nice balance between the magazine’s favorites, the Abstract Expressionists and the Surrealists, and certain other artists–Milton Avery and Walter Murch, to cite two outstanding examples–who belonged to neither group. It isn’t often that we get to see an early Abstract Expressionist painting by Ad Reinhardt juxtaposed with precisely the kind of Surrealist painting that Reinhardt loathed (Paul Delvaux’s Procession ). But this incongruous juxtaposition in the Yale exhibition faithfully represents the undoctrinaire, pluralist outlook of The Tiger’s Eye . So does the presence of other objects in the exhibition: Constantin Brancusi’s classic bronze, Mlle. Pogany II (1925); Picasso’s haunting Portrait of Vollard (1937); Kurt Schwitter’s Merzmappe lithograph (1923); Clyfford Still’s untitled oil of 1945; and sundry examples of many artists whose work is not likely to be familiar today, but was much admired in their day.
Every issue of The Tiger’s Eye was something of a miscellany, and this, too, is something that needs to be kept in mind in visiting this exhibition. In the late 1940’s, nothing about the New York art scene had yet been codified or classified or assigned its place in the hierarchy of styles and aesthetic ideologies. It wasn’t that either the artists or their supporters lacked conviction or were free of bias. It was that the minority of people who avidly followed developments in the new art of the time were too involved in the task of making sense of the broad range of innovation that was suddenly available to them to think seriously about establishing party lines. That came later, in the 1950’s, by which time The Tiger’s Eye had folded.
No exhibition could be expected to revive the spirit of that period, but the show that Ms. Franks has mounted at Yale does succeed in conveying something of the ethos of the New York art world in the late 1940’s, and in documenting the role played by The Tiger’s Eye in mapping its development. And if there’s a certain irony to be observed in the fact that it has fallen to an august institution to recall us to the achievements of a journal that conspicuously eschewed all the paraphernalia of academic discourse–well, that too is a vivid reminder of the vast cultural distance that now separates our art world, in the year 2002, from the more amateur, more innocent, less codified art world of those exciting postwar years in which The Tiger’s Eye enjoyed its brief moment in the limelight.
The Tiger’s Eye: The Art of a Magazine remains on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through March 30. It’s accompanied by an excellent catalog in which many of the art works in the exhibition are reproduced and all of the magazine’s contributors are listed. Its distinctive cover, like those of all nine issues of the magazine, is based on a painting by John Stephan.