Alastair M. Johnston is one of the experts of artist book printing and publishing. An English transplant to California in 1970, he co-founded Poltroon Press with Frances Butler and was editor of Ampersand, a book arts quarterly. He has written many books on type, typesetting and the poetry of type specimens. His recent book, Dreaming On the Edge: Poets & Book Artists in California (Oak Knoll Press) fills in some wide gaps, at least for me, in the history of the artist book. I asked him why, for instance, California was such a wellspring.
I never realized California was such a book arts state. Why such a concentration?
We are famous for communities, from religious and spiritual to artistic, which include both literary and visual arts, and such scenes (collective thinking and goals) foster creative growth. Also, there is a strong concentration of book making in workshop situations, from the LA Women’s Building in the ’70s to places like the Center for the Book in San Francisco today.
Obviously, you’ve been doing books and art for a long time. But why a book on the subject now? And what was the research process like?
California Historical Society inaugurated a book prize three years ago for the best unpublished manuscript on some aspect of the state’s history. I realized no one had ever written a book that surveyed the whole history of the book arts in the state. I came in second (with a very rough draft) but kept going anyway. I relied on other writers a lot. Victoria Dailey, who writes perceptively on the art scene in Los Angeles, pointed out some gaps, including Ida Meacham Strobridge, who is a fascinating figure I did not know about previously. Most of the book is post-WWII, which is the era I have been writing about for some time.
Who are the maestros of book arts on your side of the states? And why?
An important pioneers is Gellett Burgess in the early days. (1890s is early for us!) He published the little magazine The Lark, he tried everything in terms of shape, structure, material and approach. And then Bern Porter, a nuclear physicist in the ’40s, and Henry Evans, a printmaker in the 50s; those two were the fathers of the small press movement—publishers who printed authors they believed in, that also were artistic in their way. Today one of the most impressive book artists is Dorothy Yule, who makes impeccable works, often miniatures, that have pop-up elements and worthwhile content. For me there is no point in being a genius with creative structure, like say Julie Chen of Flying Fish Press, if your books are not engaging to a reader also.
How are indie books best distributed and sold?
There’s the dilemma. There used to be venues like Franklin Furnace in New York and Umbrella in LA that sold artists’ books. Nowadays it’s largely dealers who do book fairs, but they take forever to pay and want a big percentage. This of course drives the price up. You have to make friends with librarians and collectors, or sit at a table yourself, which has the added problem of seeing the look of revulsion on the faces of those who hurry past your wares!
You have a chapter on “The Artist Book Arrives.” What came before?
Illustrated books or typographically engaging books. There’s the odd isolato like Kenneth Patchen, who could conceptualize an entire book. But even great artists like your boy Alvin Lustig were working in a constrained environment: He didn’t have a say on the structure or even the shape and size of the books; he merely provided some visual relief for the cover. You sometimes (rarely) get a successful fine press book, in terms of the harmony between type and illustration, but the artist’s book began to conceive the whole thing as a unified work. You no longer had separate designer, illustrator, typographer and binder. It all started to become one job, and because those are all extremely complex skills, you rarely get a successful result. The Kickshaws Press in Paris is among the best, because they consistently come up with the whole package. But look at Gunnar Kaldewey, for example, who is often hailed as an important book artist: His structures and artworks are compelling but his typography sucks. He really has no clue about type on the page!
Is Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gasoline Stations the quintessential California book?
That book has become so mythologized it transcends place. It’s an icon like Robert Frank’s The Americans. But it’s also about rootlessness and moving through the country. Quintessential: What do people take home from the state? A Guide to Yosemite National Park or Death Valley is probably it!
How do the underground comics artists fit into the artist book culture?
I think comics were a separate universe until the artists got older and decided they wanted to be in book form, like Robert Crumb’s Genesis or S. Clay Wilson’s Grimm’s Tales. But comics, graphic novels and manga are a wonderful democratic way of getting the youth culture back into looking at print! It’s a tangible thing you own and house and don’t have to remember or bookmark to find again. Before he died, Bob Callahan, who edited some major comic book anthologies like Komplete Krazy Kat and the New Smithsonian Book of Comics, was working with Spain Rodriguez on some graphic adaptations of contemporary literature, but he also was drawn to the online environment.
What is happening now?
In the ’70s there was polite indifference to our work and that of Rebis Press and scant notice in venues like Fine Print magazine. Now there’s a network of reviews, classes, exhibits and exchange of information, so the scene is thriving. But on one hand with knowledge comes the kind of stupid remark you hear when people say, “ooh I love the kiss of letterpress,” when what they are looking for is deep throat, and the fetishization of worn-out wood type which you see everywhere on posters and record covers. On the other hand there are people like Danny Gonzalez in LA who is doing fantastic traditional work in wood engraving and has a grasp of all the printing technology—he even studied film and animation at school—so there’s a bright future.
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