Intervista con Ed Ruscha

di Silvia Freiles

Silvia Freiles: A distanza di quasi 60 anni dalla creazione di Twentysix Gasoline , quale crede che sia il destino del libro d’artista nella nostra epoca  globalizzata che ha profondamente modificato e amplificato il rapporto con l’immagine?

Ed Ruscha: Nel 2008 il libro d’artista costituisce una forza minuscola all’interno del mondo dell’arte. Sorge inoltre e abbraccia il mondo del lavoro artigianale e fatto a mano. Esiste inoltre una linea non definita fra i libri d’artista e i cataloghi di un artista.

S.F.: La parola, parte integrante del libro d’artista come titolo, come didascalia, e considerata da lei materiale visivo al pari di una scultura, si è nel corso dei decenni svuotata del suo valore simbolico per diventare puro strumento comunicativo. Questo ha influito nell’architettura dei suoi ultimi libri d’arte?

E.R.: Le parole opereranno sempre nell’ambito del mondo dell’arte e non devono necessariamente comunicare qualcosa. Possono risultare astratte o prive di senso o in entrambi i modi.

S.F.: Ed inoltre la sostituzione dei libri con i supporti informatici renderà ancora più rara e preziosa la forma del libro d’artista contravvenendo a quella che era la sua reale intenzione, ovvero di creare «un prodotto di serie di prim’ordine». Come si pone nei confronti di questa contraddizione?

E.R.: A mio parere non vi è nessuna contraddizione dal momento che ritengo che i computer non possano sostituire i libri. Continuo a essere un uomo del 1960.

S.F.: Gli oggetti fotografati nei suoi libri sembrano congelati in una inesistente perfezione, ‘fatti’ su cui posare disinteressatamente lo sguardo, così come le parole, al di là del referente a cui rimandano («Quelle parole erano come fiori in un vaso. Mi accadde di dipingere parole come qualcuno dipinge fiori»). Ma oltre alla registrazione immediata del dato concreto esiste un secondo rapporto con la realtà, tutt’altro che semplice (anche quella amata e familiare di Los Angeles, da sempre al centro del suo interesse) che si esplica in uno spiraglio meditativo, assorto, astratto.

Quanto questo aspetto è sotterraneo e quanto invece volutamente esibito?

E.R.: Gli artisti si limitano a esibire la parte artistica dell’intero disegno. Sarebbe temerario tentare di spiegare il tutto, la storia per intero. Un lavoro artistico perderebbe significato se mostrasse tutte le sue carte.

S.F.: Quale crede che sia oggi il ruolo e l’identità del soggetto sia come artista che come spettatore?

E.R.: Mi piace quando l’artista può costituire sia il creatore che lo spettatore della propria arte. Ciò permette al creatore di curare e rinnovare un lavoro specifico. Il lavoro dell’artista continuamente si focalizza, abbandona e poi ritorna a focalizzarsi sull’oggetto che vuole rappresentare. Ed è ciò che io prediligo piuttosto che soffermarmi su qualcosa che è semplicemente accettabile e statico.

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Clive Phillpot

1. naming: ‘archive’, ‘collection’, ‘library’, ‘museum’.

I don’t think it’s self indulgent to talk about my own experience (though I was in two minds about that), for it seems to me that the whole idea of collecting artist books (the way I tend to define them), and their institutionalisation, has happened more or less in parallel with my own involvement since the early 1970s. In some ways my experience might be useful in illustrating both what was in the atmosphere at a particular time in the last thirty years, and responses to that. So I thought I would simply sum up chronologically through my involvement with artist books, not just personally, simply enough to make the issues come out. Responding to the idea that this occasion is about issues of collecting, and the purpose and development of archives and collections, it seemed not inappropriate to take that tack.

My title, and you may need to see it in print rather than verbally is: “N.E.Thing Co. to anything goes”. N.E.Thing Co. was a Canadian conceptual group. They were a two-person company and they played games with all of this corporatism – quite fascinating, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. So it’s from N.E. Thing Co. conceptualism all the way to ‘anything goes’. We’ll see?

The first part of what I want to say is about the notion of archives. It seems to me that for some reason the idea of ‘archives’ got attached to artist book collections. I really don’t understand why. I’ll read you a definition of archives that might perhaps make you understand why I have a problem with this:

Archives , Definition 1: Public records of selected materials kept in arecognised archival repository. And 2: An accumulation of originalrecords assembled in the course of the activities of a person or persons, or of a public or private institution … Etc. etc. (Librarian’s Glossary.)

So archives, some people say, are the memory of an organisation, or in some cases something to do with the life of a person. Yet in popular parlance, the word ‘archive’ is often applied to collections of things, like an archive of birds eggs or something, which seems to be inappropriate. So I’ll just say that I do have problems with the word archive attached to artist books, but it’s one of those things like the phrase ‘artists’ books’ itself, that won’t go away, and that’s not very satisfactory either.  So when I had the chance to actually name something, when I was in New York, in fact I actually called it a ‘collection’ – the Artist Book Collection, within the Library of the Museum of Modern Art. It seems to me that most of what I know as archives of artist books are just collections. There was the case when I took over the Franklin Furnace Archive (which I’ll explain to you in a minute). We took over this collection for the Museum of Modern Art, and then they said: “What do you want to do about the archives?” And I said “We have the Franklin Furnace Archive, thank you.” I didn’t know that there were Franklin Furnace Archive archives out there too. So you may begin to see that there’s something that needs to be sorted out at some point.

2. assessing: ‘odd pamphlets’, Chelsea School of Art.

I was working in public libraries in the 1960s and at the end of the 60s was working in Hastings in Sussex. Although I could make journeys to London I was pretty cut off from metropolitan art. Then in 1970 I began to work at Chelsea School of Art Library and was dropped into the art scene there at a time when American art was very prominent and Art Forum was the text one had to refer to. I got a very rapid supplementary education by being there with the faculty, and students too, and got into some quite different ideas – mainly the emergence of conceptual art which I hadn’t really perceived from 60 miles away at the seashore.

Very quickly I was also assessing my role for the first time in an academic environment. Like how can you make the library important to people. And what I began to hear was the gripes of students who were forced, as they would say, to spend 15% of their time on art history and complementary studies. The library seemed to be some sort of adjunct to this situation, and it therefore had some negative vibes for the students. So I was trying to think what one could do to make the library more relevant. (In some ways this didn’t matter, because people know what libraries are for and if they are motivated can find their way to anything they want. But I didn’t like this sort of negative, um, slopover from the art history department to the library.)

At this time I gradually became aware of certain publications that were coming through the mail from a ‘standing order’ system that we had. We subscribed to something called Worldwide Art Books and they would just send us 20 to 30 exhibition catalogues a month from America, and in amongst these were what I would call odd pamphlets (and later ‘artist books’).

Simultaneously, to give you the whole context for this phenomenon – even though it may seem too detailed it is part of the history of what was happening in Britain at the time – just down the road Nigel Greenwood had a gallery. (This is when he was in Glebe Place, for those of you who know his history.) Very soon people were disappearing from the art school and going across the road because, for example, this duo called Gilbert and George were standing on a table apparently singing. People were drifting down there all the time and gradually this proximity to the Nigel Greenwood Gallery became very significant for Chelsea. Nigel Greenwood also got interested in artist books, which hadn’t quite got a name at that time, although it might sound a bit silly to say that – it hadn’t been formalised, let’s say.  But he was fascinated by these pamphlets – a lot from America, he used to show a lot of Ed Ruscha’s books when they were just, like, £2 each. (Nobody realised that you would have to pay £400 for them in time, in the next century.) But he was also open to British artists, for example one of his artists was John Stezaker who was producing little pamphlets. He also had connections with dealers in mainland Europe, so he showed a lot of publications from German and French galleries which were doing things with people like Mario Merz and Richard Long. So I responded to Nigel Greenwood’s resource of material as well.

The publications that I mentioned that came regularly to the library from America were also fascinating, including one by the group whose name I put in the title of this talk. It was something called A Portfolio of Piles by this fake company N.E.Thing Co. As a librarian I had to think: “Now where does this fit, where does it go?” And it seemed to me that it certainly wasn’t an exhibition catalogue, but then it wasn’t a book either. There were these sheets falling out of this small portfolio – they were about a hundred photographs of piles. Now before you jump to conclusions, they were like piles of tyres or a pile of sand by the side of the road. The artists had just taken photographs of miscellaneous piles, which is now a very familiar kind of act to people looking at conceptual art, just an inventory of similar things.  Then there also happened to be two copies of pile No. 96. Now was this a conceptual trick, or was it just that they had put two pages in the same portfolio by mistake? All this stuck in my gullet. I thought: “What is this?”  I put it aside for a while. But, to me, this puzzlement was something to do with the fascination of these early artist books and related publications. They were doing something very different from the previous history of the interaction of the artist and the book. That’s why I’m saying that people can talk about the history of artist books going back for ever, but to me there was a radical break – as there was back in art history – with conceptualism in the 60s.  For me conceptualism might be even more of a radical break than cubism, and these publications accompanied this break. What’s so beautiful, at a time when things are changing, is that you can’t quite understand what you’ve got in your hand or what’s happening; then to lose that confusion later on is rather sad. (There are now two new books coming out on conceptual art every month or so it seems.)

Thus I became aware of this vague area in which artists were suddenly producing publications, which I saw down the road at Nigel Greenwood’s, which people began to bring to show me, and which I got through the mail. I began to think that students could come to the library for art, not just for conventional publications and secondary images and the texts of critics, and so on, they could come for art. Here’s a book that’s art. This began to be a way in which a college library could be more relevant to future practising artists and which would side step the taint of academic art history.

At this time in 1972 – and this is where my personal history comes in a bit, but is not, I think, irrelevant to the history of how the medium has been handled in this country – I was asked to write for Studio International and do a monthly column called ‘Feedback’, about normally unreviewed publications. I immediately had this idea, I said: “I want to write about these books by artists that I am surveying.” If you read these columns of short notes now they are not too exciting, but Feedback was one of the first places to actually say there is this new phenomenon – that we would now call book art or artist books. In the same year, 1972/73, two exhibitions came up, one in London and one in Philadelphia. And the one in Philadelphia was simply called Artists Books (sic). It seems that this was the first time that phrase had been used for an exhibition of the kind of publications that we are talking about today. I think it was probably the origin of the phrase ‘artists’ books’, which we can’t get rid of now, it seems. Again, in the same year, Nigel Greenwood took a show which derived from a magazine that Germano Celant was writing for – Data – in Italy. Celant coined this phrase which was the title of his article and of the subsequent exhibition at Nigel Greenwood’s, it was “Book as Artwork”. You might, if you’re into genealogy and terminology, recognise the term ‘bookwork’ as coming out of that because ‘book as artwork’ was the way that Celant tried to define this thing that was emerging.

One other component in the understanding of this phenomenon for me, and for other people in Britain, was a show at the Hayward Gallery in early 1973. It was called Dieter Rot(sic): Graphics and Books. If you don’t know Roth’s work I should say that he was into books from the 50s, though some of these were not in large editions. They had his Collected Works hung on chains from the ceiling in the Hayward in part of this exhibition. So suddenly all these things came together for me. I innocently, I think, and possibly independently found something hot and cold in there, and the hot and cold were Roth and Ruscha. I won’t go into it all now, but if you do some homework on textbooks and articles on artist books, ever since then other people get into this thing about the hot and cold of Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha. All this based on fortuitous juxtapositions in London! To me these two artists were pioneers, and I still find people who can’t quite deal with the fact that in 1963 Ed Ruscha made this revolutionary book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (with a date inside of 1962, just to be pedantic). There’s a  particular resistance even in America somehow, where you’d think they’d accept this as the history. Anyway almost everyone who’s seriously got into this book at sometime has realised that it has become an icon, a major work, sending art and books in a new direction. But I won’t belabour that now because I’ve done it many times before. It seems very odd to me that people, so many people, wanted a continuous history of artist books from, say, 1900. Well it seems to me that isn’t what happened and there is a disruption in the 60s.

So that’s how it sort of all began for me. Then after this column appeared I got asked to work on an exhibition at the British Council – partly because I was about the only voice out there that was talking about this phenomenon. The other thing was that I’d become friendly with an artist called Telfer Stokes. I had found his first book which is titled Passage, also from 1972, in Nigel Greenwood’s bookshop and I had to have it. It’s one of those things that are wonderful in life, when you just know you have to have something. Or, if it’s a painting, say, you have to see it, and see it again. It’s just something that gets you and everything’s right. This book by Telfer Stokes was right somehow, and I wrote about it in like only a paragraph in Feedback. As I said, these things are not particularly worth re-reading, because these columns I did then functioned simply as part of the news system, the information system. But I could throw these names out in print and people who read Studio might be alerted to the work of Ruscha or Roth or Stokes, or whoever it might be. So I don’t have any great pretensions about the significance of the writing in any other way except that I was one of the people who was beginning to feel what was happening here and abroad.

At the same time I was busy being a librarian and was aware of library activities going on internationally. In about 1972, a very active librarian from USA came over to England because she wanted to found an organisation of art librarians in America based upon what was already being done in this country. Her name was Judy Hoffberg, and as well as surveying libraries, she also shared this excitement with me about artist books. Coming from California, she already knew about Ruscha and other West Coast artists’ publications, and filled me in some more. Subsequently she started an art librarians’ organisation in the USA and edited a newsletter for them, but she soon took off and started almost subverting the library magazine when she included pieces on artist books as well, including some of mine. In the end – maybe you know this – she broke away from that and began her own magazine about artist books and mail art called Umbrella, which is still going and can be accessed through the web. So a lot of things came out of that time that in retrospect were significant to my view of the territory in some way, and may at least explain to you the forces on someone like myself who just felt that there was this phenomenon to be sorted out. And the fortuitous nature of Dieter Roth being shown at the same time that these two exhibitions (and catalogues) on Artists Books and Book as Artwork came out, led me to make connections that may have been fortuitous but built something that I think still has some significance.

3. building: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Now let me move on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I think – well, one last thing about Chelsea. After I left it was said that I founded this collection of artist books. Well, thank you very much, but it wasn’t quite like that.When I got to Chelsea there were what might be called artist books in the collection, and when I left there were some more. Certainly my interests meant, for sure, that there would have been more acquired than someone else might have done. But I treated these books, and I think it’s an important point, as other components of the library that people could see or use. They weren’t segregated out as ‘artist books’ unless they were fragile or odd, they were put in with exhibition catalogues and the like, and if they were chunky they went in with the regular books. And that’s why I like the idea of the library being that repository for a collection, not an archive which is a somewhat more precious entity. You can correct me if I’m going too far in that direction, but the library is there for people to take out the books and use them. I’ll come at the end to the problem of collections. But if you’re going to have a collection that is publicly accessible then these books – that are often designated as or thought to be ‘art for the people’ – should also be accessible. (This is a democratic idea that somehow didn’t work, but that’s another discussion.) So why not have them in a library so that they’re next to the textbooks, next to the catalogues, so that they have equal status, and you have people getting surprises – instead of going specially to the area for ‘the art of the book’ and saying: “These are wonderful”, whatever they are. That’s something I would like to encourage, creating opportunities for people to get that wonderful moment of not understanding.

So, back to the Museum of Modern Art. Naturally I had sent them my resumé (or c.v.) and it listed the various essays that I’d written about artist books, amongst other things. This sort of gave me the motive, or license, to carry on in New York. Furthermore, when I went there for my interview in Easter ‘77 the Museum of Modern Art had opened an art show called Bookworks and this was pretty well chosen, it was pretty good; it was done by the video curator. So when I got there in the autumn it seemed like people almost expected me to do something with artist books, and I thought well I’m just going to do it. Meanwhile the book exhibition curator, Barbara London, was so busy with video (she’s made a real name for herself in video curating), and didn’t have any sort of long term interest in artist books, even though she had been important in making the museum aware of them. So I just got on with it and I thought to myself: “I think I’m going to build a collection”. I also began to realise that the Museum Library had bits and pieces by certain artists, including Oldenburg and Ruscha, already. So I began to think I should take a serious look at this, and what about this artist, and so on, and I actually got the collection going. Then, later, I thought about the library stuff, about conservation, and got all that tidied up too. And it just began to expand itself. Suddenly it was being recognised as, like, a resource people thought was useful. Plus what had become an artists’ community in New York was listening in as well. Like, if the flagship Museum of Modern Art was taking an interest in artist books, then perhaps this was OK? There were all sorts of things happening here and, as I say, I don’t want to aggrandise my role, but I was just in the right place at the right time. This is all part of the history of acceptance and institutionalisation of artist books.

4. expanding: Printed Matter and Franklin Furnace.

To cut a long story short I must also say that I got invaluable assistance from Printed Matter, the organisation founded in 1976 by Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt. They put it together because Sol LeWitt was making books and Lucy was fascinated by them, and they decided they needed a place to see these things. And when they opened in 76 they shared a space with something else called Franklin Furnace, which I’ll mention in a minute. They also started publishing artist books. So Printed Matter published about a dozen books before they suddenly re-examined this activity and realised that all these artists were coming to them with their own books, so the problem was not publishing it was distribution. Again I’m just sketching something here about Printed Matter, but my relations with them got very close and I was on the Board and so on. What ended up happening during the time I was there, was that they would put aside new acquisitions from the Printed Matter inventory, and I would go down every two or three weeks and select stuff for the Museum Library. So in a strange way the Museum of Modern Art collection was like an archive of the changing inventory of Printed Matter in a sense. But I didn’t buy everything they had because they were very catholic, so that if an artist walked in with a folded xerox sheet which they said was a book, they said OK it’s a book. I had slightly different criteria but I’ll say more about that later.

The other artist book organisation in New York was also founded in 1976. Again there was something happening at about that time that again illustrates the institutionalisation phenomenon. Martha Wilson, who came from Canada and had actually made a book herself by that time, set up something called the Franklin Furnace Archive. She saw the need to archive, if we’re using the word ‘archive’, to archive these new publications, but what she really did was to build up a collection. I won’t go into all this now because you can find out about it another time, but she asked artists to donate books, since she couldn’t afford to buy anything. So artists were asked if they could possibly donate three copies of each of their books, one for a handling collection, one for a reserve archival collection, and one to be sent on the road for exhibitions. And an enormous number of artists did this. Some of the artists lived in New York, but others were people who came through New York. It was the right place, again, at the right time. The visiting artists mixed with the artists that hung out at Franklin Furnace which also supported a performance art programme, a very strong performance programme. So a lot of people were involved in that kind of breaking down of the old art forms and were coming into these places. The Furnace also fronted and collected a little bit of literature, poetry perhaps, but not very strongly, and to get to the end of this story I was on and off the Board there. Martha Wilson and I often disagreed, but we also sort of co-existed over a period of time. And also because of our bond I eventually bought the Franklin Furnace collection for the Museum of Modern Art for ‘an undisclosed sum’ and this made a lot of artists very happy. As it happened the two collections weren’t so different. I never said it in public, but Franklin Furnace were saying how they got all these tiny pieces of artwork into the great Mausoleum of Modern Art, not realising that many were there already. And it’s just fine that artists could suddenly put on their c.v. ‘work in The Museum of Modern Art Collection’. Having accomplished that, several things came to a conclusion and I quit MoMA and came back to Britain.

It was rather a nice way to end this period at the Museum of Modern Art, but just as a footnote, I should say that all the time I spent with artist books at the Museum only added up to 3 or 4% of my week, or less than that. I was also building up the existing collection on dada and surrealism, which was already very strong, and I was making sure that conceptual art was well documented too. I was also doing all the other things librarians do, so I had to work on artist books almost undercover. One reason for this was that some people started accusing me of spending all my time doing artist books and spending too much money on them. This wasn’t true, it just wasn’t true, but I even had to prove it was untrue. Around the time I left the Museum it was coming home to people what a valuable resource the library, including its collection of artist books, was. Suddenly in a kind of audit, the Museum was asked, like, what works do you have by certain key American artists. They went through the art collection only to discover that for Allan Kaprow they had absolutely nothing. But when they went to the artist book collection in the library they found we had nearly everything he’d ever published. Suddenly the library had this visibility that it had never had before, but I’ll leave that story.

5. proliferating: collections and/or readers.

So, I’m getting towards the end of this rant. There is something I keep mentioning which is this idea of the institutionalisation of the artist book. I think one of the things that happened after this burst of enthusiasm and activity in the 70s and so on, was that it suddenly became OK to have collections of artist books in libraries, in particular, which is now very familiar to us. Fortunately collections were also set up in other places which had different criteria or a different environment which these artist book collections could be in. In any case it became fashionable to have these things brought together in such places as libraries. Academic and other book courses also started coming up; perhaps some were there earlier as binding courses or typography courses but suddenly there were artist book courses. This led to libraries getting much more involved with the unique object, but to me the whole point of the original artist books was to get away from the unique object. So some of the original impulse has been kind of subverted over the years. So, somehow it’s gone from N.E.Thing Co. to ‘anything goes’, my title.

Multiple artist books were very often published in editions of 100. This was quite common, especially because Printed Matter would only take books published in 100 or more. Artists often sweated to get an edition of 100. But I sort of regret that with the activities of all these libraries establishing ‘archives’ the 100 books that constituted these editions quite quickly disappeared into collections. So in the middle of all this where is the reader? I think it’s really sad in a way that if you want to see an artist book you might think you can find a bookshop somewhere, (like Bookartbookshop, if you’re lucky). But generally in this country I guess there are only a few gallery bookshops with poor stocks. So if you want to buy an artist book and have it for yourself, for your own use, tough! You will have to go to an ‘archive’ and see it there. And there it’s secured, archived, held for posterity. I think in some ways librarians, but perhaps other collectors too, have done this, because they have suddenly felt guilty about missing all the old dada pamphlets, all the old surrealist pamphlets and this sort of stuff when it was much more available. And they look at contemporary artist books and think: “We mustn’t miss these, we’ve got to get these books, and document them, and save them.” And after they’ve all been saved and wrapped up in acid-free containers, it’s like: “Where are the readers?”

This text, used with Clive Phillpot’s  kind permission for this exhibition, was transcribed from a conversation held in 2003 and has never been published; it preserves its informal quality and gives a lively and fresh contribution to the artist’s book.

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