THE NEW LITERATURE OF ARTIST BOOKS
by Judith Hoffberg
This column is dedicated to the memory of Dieter Roth, who just died at the age of 68 in Basel, Switzerland. He was a consummate bookmaker, one who set the path for those who have used the offset press from the 1960s on. He was there first, and his printer, Hans-Jorg Mayer, certainly was part of the collaboration. But he was foremost a prolific, irascible, relatively reclusive, and experimental eccentric artist, who used cheese and chocolate before Janine Antoni and who played with the page from 1957 onward. He will be sorely missed by those who knew him in Europe--and those who had the great privilege of even learning about him in the U.S.
As for the field of artist books, it is booming! Not only has it come into its own after a thirty-year generational growth pattern, but there is now a body of literature to support it both in the educational and collectors' world. As a result, rather than give you a bibliography of what's been published, I shall cite the books that have been foremost in promoting, edifying and bolstering the important medium of artist book.
First of all, there have been three reprints of books that certainly merit reading and re-reading: The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (San Francisco, Hardwired, 1996, $9.95) certainly is the Bible for the Wired Community, where book and book design are predominant. The Patron Saint of Wired magazine had insights on society, culture, technology and politics that were prophetic. Then, Lucy Lippard's Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, $18.95) documents the chaotic network of ideas that has been called conceptual art--and bookworks certainly play an important role. Lippard's remarkable intelligence and original sensitivity to a chaotic period in which she meshes all facets into a whole make for fascinating reading. In addition, Jerome Rothenberg's The Book, Spiritual Instrument, edited by Jerome Rothenberg & David Guss (New York, Granary Books, 1996, $21.95) first published in 1982 and long out-of-print, has been published by Granary Books as an important "reader" about artist books with contributions by Michael Gibbs, an interview with Edmond Jabes, Alison Knowles & George Quasha on the Book of Bean, "A Book" by Dick Higgins, and lots more from Karl Young, David Meltzer, Jed Rasula, Paul A.Eluard, Gershom Scholem and Herbert Blau, and Stephane Mallarme among others.
And since this is the period of several anniversaries, Book Works in London has celebrated 20 years of activity, publications and events with a volume entitled Book Works: A Partial History and Sourcebook, edited by Jane Rolo and Ian Hunt (London, 1996, dist. by D.A.P. in New York). There are abstracts of various projects, all illustrated in color with vignettes, projects, commissions, and a fine selective bibliography and chronology of exhibitions. Los Angeles' own David Bunn participated in a recent project called The Reading Room, which has been seen at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park as part of the C.O.L.A. show. Book Works' activities have been collaborative and broad in scope, including performance and CD-Roms as well as bookworks.
And while we're in England, let's talk about Circle Press' 30-year anniversary as documented in The Looking Book by Cathy Courtney (London, Circle Press, 1996, $40) which featured work by John Christie, Ian Tyson, the poet Roy Fisher, and countless young printmakers and bookmakers that have been influenced founder Ron King. Courtney writes the history, but King shows the history by including samples of all the books, even pop-ups, a catalogue raisonnŽ of the output of this stunning press in full color, with annotated description of all the press's publications. If you want to know what a press can do for the history of bookmaking, then buy this book. Write to Circle Press, 26 St. Luke's Mews, London W11 1DF, England.
While we're still in Europe, let's talk about Quant aux livres/On Books by Ulises Carri—n, edited by Juan J. Agius, which includes the most important essays of this artist, theoretician, facilitator, promoter and friend of artist books, who died prematurely in Amsterdam, where he lived and thrived having opened the first artist book shop called Other Books & So in 1975. All of Ulises' texts are under one cover, a tribute to his friend Juan Agius. An exhibition opening in September will honor the memory of Ulises Carri—n in Oaxaca, which will travel after that into other parts of Mexico, his native country. To order this volume, send 42 Swiss francs plus postage to Editions Heros-Limite, 12 rue du Stand, CH-1204 Geneve, Switzerland.
Likewise, if you read French, one of the most important histories of the artist book is Esthetique du livre d'artiste 1960-1980 by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix (Paris, Editions Jean-Michel Place, 1997, $59) which starts with Los Angeles' own Ed Ruscha's 26 Gasoline Stations. Anne Moeglin-Delcroix accounts for the birth and development of the artist's book in the U.S. and Europe in the light of privileged relations it has kept with the avant-garde of the sixties and seventies: Concrete Poetry, Fluxus, Minimal and Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Narrative Art, Land Art, Performance and Happenings, among others. More than 500 books have been analyzed by about 300 artists such as Ruscha, Marcel Broodthaers, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Filliou, Lawrence Weiner, Christian Boltanski, Sol LeWitt, and Dieter Roth. With more than 241 black and white illustrations and 119 black and white bookcover reproductions, this is a major contribution and reference source. Order from Artists' Books, Johan M.H. Deumens, P.O. Box 599, 6400 N Heerlen, Netherlands. e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: (31)45-531-5616.
Closer to home, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books (New York, Granary Books, 1995, $35, reprinted in paper 1997, $24.95) is the first full-length study of the development of artists' books as a twentieth century artform. From Russian Futurism and Surrealism to Fluxus, Conceptual Art, to Postmodernism, the artist/author raises critical and theoretical issues as well as provides a historical overview. This book is a foundation for future work in the history and critical interpretation of artists' books, as well as offering a structure for teaching artists' books to practitioners, collectors, and curators.
The newest book on Artist Books is by Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot: Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists' Books, an exhibition catalog/critical analysis published by D.A.P. and the American Federation of Arts in New York. Suggesting that this is the first exhibition to focus on the role of artists' books in contemporary art, this artist book/catalog addresses the entire spectrum of contemporary artist book productionöfrom zines to visual poetry, sketchbooks to illustrated books, fashion catalogs to photo albums. This book stunningly approaches the radical approaches to the book as an autonomous art form. Available from D.A.P., 155 6th Ave., 2nd flr., New York, NY 10013-1507 or at your local bookstore. $45.00
And the latest critical tome on artist books is Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature by Stefan Klima, Beverly Hills Public Library Head of Fine and Performing Arts. This is an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to explore the development of critical debates on artist books. Klima has charted the discussion from the identity of artist books, their disputed origins, and their current status, all gleaned from the literature with an immense bibliography which is well focused and serves as a departure for any student, librarian, critic, or collector. Hot off the press, this volume costs $17.95 and is available from Granary Books, 568 Broadway #403, New York, NY 10012 or at bookstores through D.A.P.
EXHIBITION CATALOGS Of all the exhibition catalogs published in the past year, two stand out as more than documentation. Designed by the artists involved or stimulated by their work, these catalogs are actually artist books, far more than the exhibition it accompanies. First of these is Fransje Killaars: Full Color, which accompanied an exhibition at Cirrus Gallery of Dutch artists during last summer's International Exhibition. Killaars, Dutch artist, who lives in India, became an installation artist after visiting India, affected by the intense colors and materials found in that country. Instead of painting, she now creates spaces in which one can meditate, reflect and find calm. Contemplation and harmony are the keywords for these spaces, in which richly colored carpets, curtains, cushions and wall hangings embrace the viewer into a complete participatory mode. The book, covered with fuschia silk fabric, is created with high color glossy pages, textile fabric dividing sections, serving as a scrim for the subsequent page. Back and forth, the colors of India meld into the soul of a Dutch artist wanting to be free. $27.00 from Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda, Los Angeles, CA 90013. And the first show in its new venue has generated Santa Monica Museum of Art's contribution in this category: Beck & Al Hansen: Playing with Matches is far more than a catalog, for it incorporates not only Al Hansen's collages, but also his writing. Part diary, part picture book, part interview magazine, this catalog is an amazing contribution to knowing both grandfather and grandson as visual and vocal creators, as human beings, as nomadic artists. Included are not only the innumerable artworks containing found materials such as cigarette butts, burnt matches, old envelopes, German beer coasts, but also Al's rare performative texts and intermedia poems from stream-of-consciousness remembrances of war and peace influenced by John Cage to instructions for Happenings, or "crazy theatre, " that Al co-founded in the late 1950s. A joint publication of Plug In Editions and Smart Art Press, the catalog is available from the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station, Smart Art Press (also at Bergamot Station) or from RAM Publications, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. $25.00 plus tax. The exhibition will be seen in New York in September at Thread Waxing Space and in Winnipeg at Plug In from 14 November - January 1999.
My favorite bookwork of the year is The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon, a kind of diary, travel book, collaged scrapbook, photographically enhanced album including maps, clippings, scraps, shards, trash, words, drawings, clippings, paintings and matchbooks. Much like Al Hansen and Beck, Dan Eldon collaged his life, having been brought up on four continents, worked as a graphic designer in New York, made a film, and became a respected photojournalist, only to die in a sudden, violent death in Somalia at the age of 22. This exquisitely produced bookwork is due to the efforts of his mother, Sally Eldon, who is producing a film on her son's life. But this book has many Los Angeles connections, Dan having been a student at Pasadena City College. Former Los Angeles art dealer, Ruth Schaffner, who left L.A. to go to Nairobi and direct Watatu Gallery, gave Dan a retrospective show of his art, photography and journal pages. Published by Chronicle Books in 1997, this remarkable book is very economically priced, so that everyone can partake of this young man's amazing visual output, his sensitivity to those who are downtrodden and enslaved, and whose hope for a democratic world full of peace was his byword until his so premature dying day. I hope all my readers will find this book in their local bookstores and indulge themselves in a life that was not completed, a vision that needed to be shared in this universe, and a family whose lifeblood was devastated by the death of such a young member of this creative group of people. $27.50
I close noting the deaths of such artists as Jerry Dreva, who used to live in Los Angeles and died in March in 1997; Wolf Vostell, Fluxus artist and human being, who died in Berlin on April; Douglas Huebler whose conceptual art could only be related in his books/catalogs; James Lee Byars, whose bookworks also reflected his sophistication and taste. and of course, Dieter Roth, who all knew that the Journey is the Destination.
Judith A. Hoffberg