When some people visit New York City, they head to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a store that groups its offerings in such categories as chocolate, gummy candy, jelly beans, and nostalgic candy.
For me, visiting the E/AB Fair (Editions/Artists Books) was like being in the best candy store of all: An inspirational store that could mitigate the rudest comment from a client in anticipation of being able to break away and make personal art.
From January 23 to 27, the Altman Building, an event venue on West 18th Street, was transformed into a showcase for 50 small publishers, galleries, printmakers, and artists who live and work in that narrow, wavering knife blade of space between fine art and graphic design. Here are a few highlights:
“The artist’s book is like an intimate little piece of performance art,” explained Marshall Weber of Booklyn, a nonprofit collaborative that helps artists publish, exhibit, promote, and sell their work. After a few minutes of conversation, Weber and I found we have something particular in common: we’ve both been photographing people taking pictures at tourist sites in China and making books with those images. Thus, I loved “Forward, 2012” (edition of 20, $2,400), which he made with San Francisco artist Dana Smith. Presented in a zippered case, it’s a double-accordion-fold constructed from back-to-back photos of people photographing the Emperor’s Throne in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Open the book one way and you unfold and view the jostling crowds of silhouetted people with cameras. Open it the other way and you view the background of sky and historic site minus the people. It’s two different ways of looking at the same scene.
In Weber’s “Central Beijing Codex” (one-of-a-kind, $18,000), the book is both the printing plates and the impressions made from them: he made rubbings of various Beijing manhole covers directly onto the right-hand pages of a 20 by 13” blank book, then inked the pages and transferred the images to the left-hand pages. The book, Weber says, “embeds samples of the Beijing environment, soil, dust and other residues. It’s not a book about Beijing. It’s part of Beijing.”
Booklyn also represents the work of 35 other artists, including Robbin Ami Silverberg. I enjoyed turning the pages (carefully) of her “Subterranean Geography” (edition of 5, $2,200), a book that is part of New York City. Silverberg superimposes blocks of text that chronicle her thoughts and feelings during her subway commute onto actual New York Subway maps that are cut up with surgical, yet lacy, precision.
Martin Mazorra and Mike Houston of Cannonball Press have been making art and printing it as a team since 1991. Their business card is a black comb that says, “20 DOLLAR NO HOLLER.”
Their work shows that the woodblock print and the linoleum print are still alive and well; that black and white is a powerful medium; and that affordable art still exists: $20 (no kidding) for an 18 x 24-inch print. “How do you stay in business?” I asked. “Volume” was the answer. Prominently displayed in their booth was “Bounding Billow,” a limited-edition letterpress book, a modern re-interpretation of an 1989 ship’s newspaper that chronicled the victorious voyage of the U.S.S. Olympia during the Spanish-American war.
I stopped to chat with Alan Zipkin of Derringer Books, a Connecticut collector whose booth looked most like a bookstore. “I’m a specialist in rare art and poetry books, especially books about the counterculture and about 20th-century art movements,” he said, showing first editions and signed copies of commercially published books as well as handmade artists’ books.
“I sell things that appeal to me on a personal level: poetry, photos, letters, posters, photographs, manuscripts, things that are not in book form but that are related to artists and writers.” Derringer’s current catalog features works by the Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998), considered one of the early innovators in deconstructed books—books with holes in them, rearrangeable pages, or made from unconventional materials—for example, “Literaturwurst,” (not at this show, alas), which was made from newspaper pages mixed with foodstuffs and spices from actual sausage recipes and stuffed into a sausage casing.
David Krut Projects
William Kentridge (1955 – ) is a widely known artist whose work often incorporates references to his native South Africa’s apartheid past. David Krut Projects—with a print workshop, bookstore, and galleries in Johannesburg and Cape Town and a gallery in New York City—publishes monographs on contemporary South African artists and sells editions of prints. At E/AB, I was transfixed by “Universal Archive,” a series of linocuts that, I learned, Kentridge began as brush-and-ink drawings. The images were carved into linoleum plates and then printed on pages of the Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Old typewriters, cats, birds, and human figures rendered in bold black-on-white strokes on the pages of old books seem to say that handmade, rough, and expressive art can exist in the same universe as highly structured, grid-bound layouts with columns of justified type divided by neat hairline rules.
Carroll and Sons
The last stop on this eye-candy tour is Boston-based Carroll and Sons. If there were an award for best-designed exhibit booth, this one might have won. Neatly attired in V-neck sweater and striped shirt, Joseph Carroll almost seemed to be part of the carefully arranged diorama of works by Joe Zane (1971 – ): framed pictures, mirrors, plates, and three-dimensional objects, including flowers entitled “Everything Is Coming Up Roses” (acrylic and enamel paint on copper, edition of five $300).
”Every aspiring artist knows they’re successful when they have a Phaidon monograph,” said Carroll, guiding me through the pages of a fake monograph by and about Zane (edition of five, $7,000). “Why wait?” Joe didn’t. He studied the form, the layout, the typography, and created all the content,” said Carroll. Is this a spoof or a comment on how the artist is seen by the art establishment? I wasn’t sure.
Are these the books of the past or the future?
I asked that question of Warren Lehrer, the chair of the communication design program at Purchase College, SUNY, who has been teaching “Writing and Designing the Visual Book” since the School of Visual Arts MFA/Design program was founded by Steve Heller and Lita Talarico in 1998.
“I think artists’ books—artfully conceived and produced books of many kinds—are alive and well, soaring actually, at this time of tumult and freak-out within the commercial publishing industry,” he said. “With e-books in ascendancy, even among older readers, the physical book is no longer the most convenient or economical container for longer texts. This technological shift is forcing publishers, writers, and designers to think intently about how the physical book can distinguish itself from books served up on phones, e-readers, and tablets. Meanwhile, artist book and ‘vis lit’ practitioners have been grappling with existential questions about the form: they’re exploring the book as object, aware of the feel and smell of the materials, the action involved in turning a page, the notion of the book as a time-based medium, and the effect typographic and pictorial composition can have on interpretation of a text.
“What I see happening now is really very exciting,” Lehrer continues. “The revolution in literature of Mallarmé and Apollinaire and Futurist and Dada and Fluxus and early artist-book folk never really took hold outside the fringes. But now that the ‘big six’ publishers have pretty much sold their souls and barely take chances, independent presses, writers, and artists are grabbing the torch, reinventing the book with tools discarded by the publishing industry and with new tools that the industry can barely figure out what to do with.”
Want to learn more or try it yourself?
Lehrer suggests—in addition to continuing-ed classes offered at colleges including The Cooper Union and RISD—The Center for Book Arts in NYC; Minnesota Center for Book Arts; Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY; BookWorks in Asheville, NC; Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deere Isle, ME. This link from a Book Arts website offers a list of programs that are non-degree and degree granting.
Learn more about how to create artists’ books with Book + Art from MyDesignShop.