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How the S.M.S. portfolios helped make art more accessible

Written by Tom | 4th October 2019

They sound like something that might have leaked from MI6, but the S.M.S. portfolios are more linked to esotericism than espionage. In fact, this art periodical dreamed up by William Copley represented a new kind of accessibility, format and way of consumption that turned the art world on its head. Modern Art expert, Anita Helmy, sat down with us to explain how Copley managed such an impressive feat, as well as the enduring influence and zeitgeist of these portfolios.

The development

In 1968, the United States was in the throes of political and social turbulence. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, subcultures and peace movements were on the rise. And it was these tumultuous times that helped feed the appetite for self-expression and the need to break out against the status quo.

In the art world, things were no different. Art had earned itself a reputation for elitism and exclusivity, a high-culture entity that wasn’t perceived as accessible to everyone. At least that’s what artist William Copley believed. And so the S.M.S. (Shit Must Stop) art periodicals were born. A joint project between Copley and Dimitri Petrov, the S.M.S. portfolios were a six-part series of art journals that sought to recalibrate this balance of access to great art. 

“The series were set up to make art accessible to everybody, against the established art climate at that time. There were beginner artists and well-known artists offering works,” explains Anita. “Its purpose was to disrupt and bypass the power of art institutions of the time (which were far too elitist), and to encourage buying art directly from the artist.”

The portfolios sought to recalibrate the balance of power in the art world, encouraging investors to purchase directly from the artist

The portfolios

But what exactly was in the portfolios and what made them so special? “The collection was made up of six editions that were released throughout 1968, which you could take out a subscription on,'' says Anita. “Each portfolio contains 12-13 works by different artists and each cover was designed by an artist too”. In the space of a year, some of the artists that contributed included Pop Art artist Roy Lichtenstein, sculptor H.C. Westermann and performance artist Yoko Ono. There were about 80 artists who submitted work in total, with many of the pieces being conceptual and hailing from the Fluxus movement of performance art and anti-commercial sentiment. 

Many of the works found in the journals were interactive and they often served as a commentary on the wider world. Ono’s piece, titled ‘Mend Piece for John’, was a plastic bag that came with glue and ribbon, where she invited the reader to “Take [their] favourite cup. Break it into many pieces with a hammer. Repair it with this glue and this poem” – an expression of love and an ominous foreshadowing of things to come. Other objects included cassettes by American composer Terry Riley and letters by Westermann sent to Copley. These letters document proposals he had for the journal and which give readers an insight into the mind of the artist.  

The inclusion of big names in the portfolios had a twofold effect; they gave art enthusiasts who previously wouldn’t have access to their works a gateway to them, while also providing the artists with another creative outlet to circulate their work. 

Bruce Nauman's Footsteps was featured in S.M.S no.5 and was a part audio recording, part craft project.

The legacy

The S.M.S portfolios achieved a lot in their tenure. While Copley halted publication within a year due to a lack of money, the portfolios helped give rise to the art magazine and newfound accessibility in the art world. “The six portfolios are now looked at as a snapshot of the '60s,” says Anita. “The S.M.S. portfolios changed the view on artist multiples [essentially an editioned art object] and helped prove that it could be an innovative way for artists to present their work”.

The portfolios also had softer effects. Copley’s Upper West Side loft doubled as the home to the Letter Edged in Black Press publication house (which published the portfolios). The apartment became a hangout for the artists featured and cultivated a sense of community and collaboration that the art world at the time seemed to be lacking. 

S.M.S. was a revolt and a rebellion, a counter narrative against the politics of the art sphere and the wider world. The kinetic, physical power of being able to participate in interactive works by celebrated artists brought people closer to a world that many were feeling increasingly  alienated from. And though some things didn’t stop, the rallying cry of the artists’ work lives on. 

The S.M.S. portfolios are considered to be a snapshot of the mood of disenfranchisement in the 60s


Get your own piece of this rebellious art movement in our S.M.S. auction

Discover more Modern Art | International Modern & Contemporary Art

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