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Why make an artist book? Abstract painter Pat Steir had a few ideas. “1. portable, 2. durable, 3. inexpensive, 4. intimate, 5. non-precious, 6. replicable, 7. historical, and 8. universal,” Steir is quoted as saying in Lucy Lippard’s essay “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artist Books.” While the qualities enumerated by Steir certainly don’t hold true for the entirety of the nebulous “artist’s book” genre, they gesture at some of the impulses underpinning the surge in the form’s popularity in the 1960s. At a moment when distrust of arts institutions was fermenting, artists could make and distribute these books independently, or in collaboration with small presses, at a low cost. Approaching books as artworks also afforded creators the opportunity to play with the object’s oft-overlooked materiality, reliance on sequencing, and curious relationship to time.
At Swann Galleries in New York, an upcoming sale featuring 299 artists’ books hints at the range and elasticity of the term. The single-collection sale focuses on contemporary artists’ books made from the ’60s into the 21st century. While there are some outliers, including an aphrodisiac recipe book by Marina Abramović, many of the artists’ books on offer were made by figures closely associated with the genre. One such artist is California artist Ed Ruscha.
Ruscha’s early artist’s books — such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), which depicted gas stations along his drive between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, or Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a nearly 25-foot-long accordion-folded book of edifices on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard — countered traditional notions of the livre d’artiste, or deluxe books with artist illustrations. While the livre d’artiste, which was popularized in France in the 1890s, wed image to text in exciting new ways for the time, it was a high-end enterprise that didn’t put the artist in the driver’s seat.
Ruscha, meanwhile, conceived his books from start to finish, producing relatively affordable objects that engaged with the book format conceptually, and characteristically celebrated mundanity — or at least declared mundanity worthy of a closer look. Amusingly, the sale at Swann also includes Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), in which Nauman set an artist’s book by Ruscha on fire, photographed the remains, and bound the images into an artist’s book of his own.
It’s not unusual for humor to find its way into artists’ books, and conceptual artist David Hammons brings his characteristic deadpan to the form with Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002). Bound in black leather with gilt lettering on the spine, the tome is a dead ringer for a (slightly oversized) Bible. However, cracking open this particular holy book reveals a mismatch between interior and exterior: its pages consist of both volumes of the 1997 edition of Arturo Schwarz’s The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. By swapping out the Old Testament for a catalogue raisonné, Hammons riffs on Duchamp’s signature readymade while motioning — tongue firmly in cheek — at the French artist’s canonization and the printed materials that perpetuate it.
Several artist’s books by Postminimalist artist Richard Tuttle, whose practice has long incorporated printmaking and bookmaking, are also hitting the auction block. Tuttle made one particularly compelling example, The Missing Portrait, in collaboration with poet, art critic, and Hyperallergic editor John Yau. Verses from Yau’s five-part poem by the same name run through the square-format folio, the lines alternately punctuated, intercepted, and amplified by aesthetic elements such as colored string, cheesecloth, and bits of metal.
The book’s front and back covers are overtaken by a scale-like pattern and a three-dimensional lizard, which artist and papermaker Lisa Switalski fabricated from hand-cast cotton fiber. The Missing Portrait isn’t the only artist’s book here with a poetic slant. Willem de Kooning’s 17-lithograph folio Poems by Frank O’Hara (1988) features 13 poems by O’Hara, who was in de Kooning’s circle before the writer-curator’s untimely death, while Pat Steir’s accordion-style Cry Stall Gaze (2012) layers poetry by Anne Waldman with silkscreen and photogravure on stitched sheets.
The wide-ranging artists’ books are on view at Swann on November 4, 5, and 8 in advance of the November 9 sale.
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Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. More by Cassie Packard
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