A Universe of Print: Inside the Last Days of Parkett

Over its three-decade run, the iconic arts journal “Parkett” has worked with and championed artists like Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. But as it prepares to print its final issue, its legacy lives on.


For the past 33 years, Parkett, the world’s most singular arts journal, has been produced in a neighborhood of Zurich that has transitioned from working-class to junkie shooting range to red-light district to quietly trendy. Modest in circulation but massive in influence, the biannual, bilingual English-German publication has fused its commentary with commissioned art, offering subscribers limited-edition works from Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Nan Goldin, Damien Hirst, and Barbara Kruger, among others. In 2001, those pieces were the subject of an exhibition at MoMA.

“It’s much more than a magazine,” says Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the prominent curator, art historian, and director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. “It’s a very important magazine, foremost, but it’s many more things: an exhibition space, an archive… a cultural project.”

Late last year, however, there were rumors that Parkett might fold. Not exactly breaking news in this era of all-free, all-online, all-the-time. But though the journal always had a satellite office, and vital presence, in New York, it was founded and headquartered in Zurich, where, the legend goes, gold is buried under the Bahnhofstrasse, the grand shopping boulevard. Surely a deep-pocketed investor would save the day.

Then in February it was confirmed: Issue number 100/101, set to come out this fall, would be the last. How would one of Parkett’s exacting translators finesse “say it ain’t so” into German?

During a recent visit to the Zurich office — the same one Parkett has worked out of since 1984 — there wasn’t a sense of doom, just of Swiss practicality. There was work still to be done, after all. Surrounded by thousands of artist monographs and catalogs, a poster for a Laurie Anderson gig, and invites to a 2000 Geneva show by Kara Walker, the small staff was putting the finishing touches on that last book, a double issue expected to be five hundred pages. They were also working on a new installation in their five-year-old gallery space a few blocks away, in a converted Löwenbräu brewery that’s now a contemporary art complex where Parkett operates alongside the likes of Hauser & Wirth.

“The internet has changed how people read,” says Bice Curiger, Parkett’s editor-in-chief, who founded the journal along with senior editor Jacqueline Burckhardt, Peter Blum — who left in 1993 to start his own New York gallery — and the late Walter Keller, eventual founder of Scalo, the art-book publishing house. (Dieter von Graffenried joined soon after and remains the publisher.) “Parkett is still incredibly present. It’s not that you can say it’s obsolete. We were always so pleased when we approached young artists or writers: ‘Do you want to collaborate with Parkett?’ ”

“And they were always so enthusiastic,” says Burckhardt, finishing Curiger’s sentence from across the small conference room.

“That shows [Parkett] itself is still vivid,” Curiger continues, “and it’s just the whole internet era has changed something. We’re not even able to say what it all means… So we are in a moment of big change.”

As they pore over the archives and old photos in their office, it’s clear time has been kind to both Burckhardt, 69, and Curiger, 69, whose vast c.v. includes being only the third woman to curate the Venice Biennale (in 2011), curating at Kunsthaus Zurich, and, since 2013, working as the artistic director of Fondation Vincent van Gogh, in Arles, France. They both still have the same insouciant downtown cool they did in Parkett’s early years, while they caused trouble with artist friends like Enzo Cucchi (who collaborated on the debut issue), Méret Oppenheim, and fellow Zürchers Fischli/Weiss.

It was issue 2, though, that both Burckhardt and Curiger cite as the breakthrough. In it, Sigmar Polke painstakingly produced a sixty-piece photographic insert of Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra, developed, in part, with brandy and milk. Elsewhere in that issue, Curiger and Blum moderated a discussion with four New York art critics: Lisa Liebmann, Carter Ratcliff,  Jane Weinstock, and the Voice‘s Gary Indiana, who also interviewed Francesco Clemente in the same issue. The bravura Polke insert, and the accompanying limited-edition print (Parkett’s “Editions” cost 350 Swiss francs, or about $150, at the time), caught the attention of the Centre Pompidou, which approached Parkett to curate a 1987 exhibit. The rest is (art) history. Parkett’s circulation would grow from two thousand to a peak of twelve thousand (though now it’s down to nine thousand, according to Graffenried, the publisher), and its in-the-know subscribers were spread across more than forty countries. In New York, it was sold at museum shops and bookstores like McNally Jackson. Karen Marta, Parkett’s first New York editor, always maintained that Jeff Koons, before he attained notoriety, was the first artist to subscribe. “We don’t know if it’s true,” Curiger says. “But it makes a good story.”

Parkett — German for “parquet,” which also designates the seating closest to a theater’s stage — was the Slow Food of print. It wasn’t even a conventional journal. Inspired by Minotaure, the art magazine published in 1930s Paris, and the short-lived Cologne-based Interfunktionen, from the early 1970s, Parkett has had no reviews or newsy items, for one thing. Launched as a quarterly, it transitioned to a triannual in 1994, and by 2010 into a biannual, bolstering its page counts along the way. Ads — the few that there were — went straight to the back-of-the-book, which wasn’t just magazine parlance in this case. Parkett began as a paperback book, like the Paris Review or Granta, and went from glued to sewn binding in ’95.

Most significantly, it collaborated with artists directly. “Parkett will be partial and bold in discussing notable, yet unnoted undercurrents, and quick to recognize new developments in the bud,” Curiger wrote in her short opening statement — just under 120 words — for the debut issue. “We are aiming to produce a vehicle of direct confrontation with art, providing not only coverage about artists, but original contributions by them.”

Artists created new pieces and conferred on layouts and cover designs. By issue 15, even the spines of the book were specially designed, so clusters of three or four issues made up a single image. (For issues 42-45, Christian Marclay — who would go on to direct the audacious 24-hour film montage The Clock in 2010 — used the spines to create an illustration of the Beatles.) These whimsical spines encouraged vertical display, on the bookshelf rather than the coffee table, that vacuous dumping ground of the aspirational. It always stressed substance over status; it was never meant to be tasteful or becoming.

Parkett’s boldest move, though, was to commission limited-edition artworks — a photograph, painting, sculpture, video, whatever medium — which were signed and numbered, and available to subscribers at a modest price. Artists who created these “Editions,” as they’re known, included Francesco Clemente, James Turrell, Maurizio Cattelan, Rosemarie Trockel, Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Sue Williams, Ai Weiwei, Thomases Struth and Ruff, and on and on. So while Parkett could project a slight chill of exclusivity — like the contemporary art world it reflected, from neo-Expressionism to neo-Pop to neo-Minimalism, YBAs included — there was a refreshing egalitarianism attached to its Editions. Never bought a piece of art? You too, mere mortal, could own a signed Ellsworth Kelly for in the three figures, delivered to your door via snail mail.

Obrist, a Zurich native, spent his teenage years inhaling each issue, and wrote one of his first texts for the journal in 1990, when he was just 23. “Parkett was my school. For a kid like me growing up in Zurich, it was a window into New York and the U.S. Bice and Jacqueline would go there and bring articles back. I remember one of my first visits to the Parkett office, and I saw all these catalogs, piles of catalogs, like heaven, from all over the world.”

The global perspective was one Parkett’s distinctive qualities — texts were bilingual, with English and German translations juxtaposed as a visual statement, Curiger says, “to show that it’s equally important. It was about this exchange of cultures.” But along with the universal shift to digital, that same global perspective is part of the reason Parkett is folding, a move that, according to Burckhardt, has been under consideration “for years.”

Burckhardt began her career as an art restorer, and Curiger started hers as a cultural critic for the Zurich daily Tages Anzeiger. Both fell in love with New York’s anarchic spirit when they visited in the mid-1970s, and though Curiger found the city’s galleries “boring” at that time, she felt something stirring in the underground. By the 1980s, with the advent of Transavanguardia in Italy and the Neue Wilde (“New Savages”) in Germany, she noticed New York, the self-obsessed center of the art world since the rise of Abstract Expressionism after the war, was interested in Europe again. “We thought it needs texts, thoughts about the artworks,” Curiger says. “An expanded exchange,” in her words, was in order.

Now, they both agree, the art world beyond the Europe-to-JFK corridor has attained a new reach and vitality. “We are no longer experts in the whole globe,” Burckhardt says. Parkett has featured artists from outside Europe and the U.S., like Rokni Haerizadeh, Damián Ortega, Cao Fei, Ernesto Neto, Mariko Mori, and El Anatsui, to name only a few. But Burckhardt feels she and Curiger “are dilettantes now on lots of territories.” They don’t have “the immediate closeness to themes and artists that live in New Zealand or wherever.” She stresses that it’s important to avoid “intellectual colonization” in certain parts of the world. “I think the art critics must be from there,” she says. “They have the knowledge. We need the people from there to grow and know and teach us what it’s about.”

And there were, apparently, potential new investors, just not the angelic kind. “Many people would help us,” Burckhardt says. But they wanted changes geared to commercial success, “and naturally we don’t make any of these.” Plus, she adds with a laugh, “We are no longer that young. It’s a question of energy. We slept on the floors with the artists in the lofts and went to bed at 5 and got up at 8.”

I’ve often wondered whether, if Curiger and Burckhardt were men, they would have become boldface names outside rarefied art precincts, in the same way as George Plimpton, say, or Bill Buford, thinkers who edited literary journals but bobbed and weaved both in and out of the literati. Curiger doesn’t see it that way. “Don’t forget, we were four people in the beginning, and Walter [Keller], was more important in a certain period, so we were not just a female team.”

Although female artists were always well represented in Parkett, including several issues where only women contributed, it was done, Curiger says, “without even thinking about it.”

“We were never really just fighting for women,” adds Burckhardt. “I think we really felt free to choose what was interesting.”

The final issue features ten new artist collaborations (Cattelan, Marilyn Minter, and Katharina Grosse, among them); over a hundred short texts by past artists, editors, and curators on what Parkett meant to them, and two roundtable discussions, on the history of the journal and on future platforms for the arts, one of which took place in Berlin and the other at the Swiss Institute in Tribeca with Parkett New York editor Nikki Columbus. The archive, meanwhile, will eventually reside in Arles, on the LUMA Foundation campus, the experimental arts center that will be completed next year with a Frank Gehry-designed tower as its centerpiece. (Parkett’s own website and the Swiss National Library are also in the process of digitizing all of Parkett’s 1,500 texts.)

“On the one hand, it’s absolutely very sad,” Obrist says, “because we will miss Parkett so much. It’s been a very important ritual in all our lives. At the same time, it’s a moment we have to celebrate this extraordinary achievement, one of the great publishing achievements.”

Then again, Parkett’s not necessarily down for the count. Not yet, anyway. “If we have time,” Curiger says, “and there are other people that are interested to develop something around Parkett, to make it something that deserves the name Parkett, I’m not against listening to them or even participating in a discussion.”

And all those years ago, in 1984, that’s is how it started, with that just that: discussion, exchange. Parkett lives.