by Cornelia Lauf
“Learn to read art,” is the motto of one of the oldest distributors of artist’s books, Printed Matter. founded in New York in 1976 by Sol Lewitt and Lucy Lippard. Even the store motto is an artwork: a “statement” by Lawrence Weiner, which was made into a small pin. As anyone in the field of artist’s books knows, books are more than mere tools of communication. Books are things. Artist’s books are works by artists of equal value to any other vehicle the artist chooses to use. Weiner has also said: “Books do furnish a room.” As if to emphasize that point, artists are increasingly designing bookshelves. In the late 1980s, Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner, and Martin Kippenberger conceived a bookshelf for Meterverlag, a small press founded in Hamburg with the goal of ending when the books reached one meter. Heimo Zobernig and Tobias Rehberger have produced examples for Edition Artelier, Graz. The bookshelves designed by Hans Schabus, Lawrence Weiner, and Haim Steinbach, for Paris-based onestarpress, will become classics. (http://executiveartists.com/weiner_working_hard) Not to mention predecessors such as the bookshelves of Donald Judd.
Okay. Books have gone from being objects of information to becoming objects. The motor behind this transformation is the Internet. Artists, always one step ahead of the game, have invented a way out of the book’s obsolescence. This is the bookwork, to use a phrase now synonymous with one of the best makers of artist’s books in London. Although there are many who claim that the inexpensive offset version of the artist’s book is its only true manifestation, in fact, a rash of conceptually nimble artists are also making works in more limited fashion, works that hover between object, sculpture, concept, and book. Ed Ruscha, who recently printed a large and exceptional tome with Steidl, is once again at the forefront in stretching the limits of how a high-end publication can also be a challenging and aesthetically viable artist’s book.
The phenomenon of the modern artist’s book has its origins nearly seventy years ago. Offset artist’s books developed in conjunction with changes in publishing and new approaches to the use of reproductions in printed material. In the 1950s, magazines such as Time, Fortune, and Life began to set new standards in the use of the photo essay. The anthology of images entitled The Family of Man (1955) became a classic of books driven entirely by photography. Sequences of images had long been explored in photography–at least since the time of Edward Muybridge, the nature studies of Albert Renger-Patsch, or the physiognomic and nation-based photographic surveys of August Sander, as well as the sociological studies commissioned during Depression-era America, by the WPA (Works Progress Administration). Photographic picture books such as William Klein’s Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance, Witness, Revels (1955), took the shape of visual anthologies, which have been called precursors to the artist’s book. Other types of publishing, including children’s books, fashion and cinema magazines used unbroken sequences of black and white images before the genre “artist’s book” was invented.
The idea of the photo “catalogue,” was to undergo its most significant metamorphosis during the 1960s, in the work of artists Diter Rot, Ed Ruscha, and Andy Warhol. It was Ruscha whose sensibility came to rule the field of artist’s books, while Warhol’s legacy went more into a return to the field of mass media, and trade publishing, with his invention of Interview magazine and experiments with other major publishing houses. In Ruscha’s self-published books such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1962), Various Small Fires (1964), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967), a typology of artwork and way of making books was established that still has repercussions today, particularly in this age of desktop self-publishing. Ruscha’s books, , continue to be the standard in terms of wit, brevity, use of medium, and ironic distance from the professional trade of the photographer. They set the stage for the use of photography itself as a ready-made technique in the service of art.
Art magazines have also played a major role in the development of the contemporary artist’s book. With their versatility, visibility, and speed of publication, they influenced the development of the genre. Scholar and former Librarian of The Museum of Modern Art Library, Clive Phillpot dates the development of the artistic use of magazine pages to the late 1960s, when artists begin to “question the nature of artworks” and make art specifically for dissemination through mass-media. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of an artist’s publication which champions the notion of unlimited reproduction is the so-called “Xerox Book,” Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, published by Seth Siegelaub and Jack Wendler in 1968 In the 1960s, Joseph Kosuth and Dan Graham took out advertisements in magazines and newspapers, and Stephen Kaltenbach placed print artworks within the pages of Artforum. In August 1970, an entire issue of Studio International was used as a space for artwork. TriQuarterly (Winter 1975) featured editor John Perrault dedicating the entire issue to art. And Phillpot cites further instances of magazines which would introduce art as concept in their pages: Analytical Art, The Fox, Art-Rite, File, Art & Language, Interfunktionen, Pages, and Avalanche–magazines with a political and theoretical bent. October, founded by a group of writers and artists who welcomed theoretical contributions by artists, continues to this day.
Some of the most interesting consequences of artistic intervention in publishing occur in the hands of artists who chose to make artist’s pages by respecting the very conventions of publishing. Memorable examples in this field include the works of John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, Marcel Broodthaers, Stanley Brouwn, Daniel Buren, Victor Burgin, Sol LeWitt, Diter Rot, Andy Warhol, and many others. Art that looks like editorial contributions, in the way that advertising has become “advertorial.” American magazine Artforum led the way in the interplay between critical and artistic use of its pages, beginning in the early 1970s By the 1980s, under the editorial leadership of Ingrid Sischy, and with the contributions of curator and artist’s book proponent, Germano Celant, magazine publication of art projects had their heyday. Take the example of an artist such as Victor Burgin, who received a commission to contribute to Artforum for its February1980 issue. In his essay, “Seeing Sense,” Burgin uses the same typeface, page layout, header style, and illustration conventions as the rest of the editorial contributions. He thereby created a profound argument that artists are not to be shifted into non-academic, or non-literary kind of languages, but should be fully at home in academia. In addition, he even supplied both text and illustration, in the presumption that there is no fissure between art and other cognitive sciences. Interestingly, Burgin’s essay displays page numbers, while the contribution of Art & Language, “Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock,” in the same issue of Artforum, does not include the use of page numbers in its equally academic-looking layout,. Despite their eponymous magazine, and many scholarly articles, Art & Language miss the delicious irony of Burgin’s complete assimilation into the editorial body of Artforum.
In the current exhibition organized by Antonio Freiles at the Museum of Messina several issues of Artforum are featured. These issues demonstrate the importance of the artist’s pages in the identity of the entire magazine. Accompanying his notes to the November 1981 contribution of artist’s pages by A.R. Penck, Germano Celant writes,
“We need the blinding flashes that result from the interaction of criticism, poetry, and art. This is how to read the project that traverses the following pages. It is at once theory, art, and poetry, in which the artist’s vision takes its revenge by presenting its own essay.”
Although his idealistic comments seem less pertinent to the work of Penck than to other artists, Celant’s editorial suggestions in the way of artist’s pages often do achieve precisely this tension. In the month preceding the Penck contribution, Sol Lewitt created a project utilizing diagrams, in the shape of squares and rhomboids, that implicitly seem to question the plane of the page, and the notion of magazine space. An earlier project by Lewitt, “On the Walls of the Lower East Side,” while the magazine was under the editorship of Joseph Mascheck, again demonstrates Lewitt’s ability to make projects that straddled both art language and the kind of typologies we have seen earlier. In March, 1982, Giuseppe Penone, edited by Germano Celant, offered “A Forest of Fingerprints as the Structure for the Trees,” drawings and penciled notations created specifically for the pages of the magazine, which offered a tactile and hand-made contrast to the printed and typed pages. Other art contributions of note include Jonathan Borofsky (February 1981), Anselm Kiefer (Summer 1981), Andy Warhol (February 1982), Louise Bourgeois (December 1982), Sigmar Polke (December 1983), and Chuck Close (May 1984).
But even more interesting than these specific pages dedicated to artists are the interventions by artists into the very body of the magazine. In an article by Jean-François Lyotard, on Daniel Buren, the artist himself supplied a life-sized version of one of his stripe paintings, as well as all the illustrations for the text, including the image of a small bird against a blue sky (perhaps a reference to a bookwork by Jan Dibbets). (Illustration).
“All of these illustrations are photos/souvenirs of the works they are depicting. In addition to the visual distortion that a photograph always inflicts upon any piece, these photos/souvenirs show a work completely. They show only fragments or small details. What they show is as far from the work as the photo/souvenir is from the actual bird.”
Here there is a total conflation between critical and artistic text. Many Conceptual artists explored these crossovers. In many of the catalogues of John Baldessari, such as, for example, National City (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997) the choice of writers (Jan Avgikos, Bice Curiger, Dave Hickey, Anne Rorimer, and Abigail-Solomon Godeau) demonstrates the artist’s choice no less than the works or images depicted. Buren’s gallery and museum catalogues, such as those produced by Samanedizioni, under the editorship of Ida Gianelli, or one from at the Kunstmuseum Luzern (1975), can safely be considered artworks.
If we include the category “catalogue,” as this author does, in a definition of artist’s books, the medium can be seen to explode exponentially during the 1970s. A cursory survey of the creative uses of autobiography and visual self-representation reveals an elastic formula whose artistic aspects have yet to be systematically explored. Artists who have used the exhibition catalogue as a seminal means of disseminating their own critical and aesthetic points of view include: John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, George Brecht, Marcel Broodthaers, Stanley Brouwn, Daniel Buren, Victor Burgin, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, General Idea, Gilbert & George, Dan Graham, Dick Higgins, Douglas Huebler, Allan Kaprow, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Mario Merz, Maurizio Nannucci, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Diter Rot, Ed Ruscha, Michael Snow, Wolf Vostell, and many others.
Want to create a mini-museum on shelves? This author would propose going to trade publishers, and assembling a modestly priced but art historically significant collection of names. Many of the following artists have incorporated elements of the artist’s book, if not wholesale adoption of it, into their catalogues and publications: Doug Aitken, Carl Andre, Baldessari, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Vanessa Beecroft, Alighiero Boetti, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Maurizio Cattelan, Larry Clark, Jeremy Deller, Thomas Demand, Mark Dion, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Peter Downsbrough, Cerith Wyn Evans, Guenther Foerg, Liam Gillick, Rodney Graham, Alfredo Jaar, Donald Judd, Ilya Kabakov, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Anselm Kiefer, Martin Kippenberger, Imi Knoebel, Paul McCarthy, John Miller, Jonathan Monk, Antoni Muntadas, Bruce Nauman, Olaf Nicolai, Laura Owen, Raymond Pettibon, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Pippilotti Rist, David Robbins, Thomas Ruff, Gregor Schneider, David Shrigely, Haim Steinbach, Sam Taylor-Wood, Diana Thater, , Piotr Uklanski, Jeff Wall, Franz West, Christopher Williams.
It is as feasible to make Catania a center of the book arts, as as any other location. With Amazon and the search databases of sites of organizations ranging from Printed Matter to http://www.abebooks, to D.A.P. and Specific Object, it is possible to create a library, and art collection in a relatively small space. To isolate books in libraries, print departments, or on book shelves is practical, but gives them a cloak of invisibility out of place with their actual significance The conceptual and artistic decision of an artist and a publisher to make a declaration in the form of a volume, is a spatial but also spiritual object. Artist’s books are speaking volumes–projects that take moral spine.