The Odd Accessibility of the Art Book

I am one of many people who largely view the world mostly via a computer screen. My reason for this limiting behavior is that there is an incredible amount of things to learn and discover through this tiny, abstract, flat portal that does not manage to do much for my sense of touch or smell. Ironically, I live in New York City, which itself holds an incredible amount of things to learn and discover, but in real space and time, which would serve to stimulate all my senses and further delight my brain. Last weekend it was time for me to get off my sorry ass and go to the New York Art Book Fair.

Not the very same sausage I saw at the book fair, but one of Dieter’s many. Courtesy of MoMA: Dieter Roth. Literature Sausage (Literaturwurst). 1969, published 1961–70
 Artist’s book of ground book, gelatin, lard, and spices in natural casing, 12 x 6 11/16 x 3 9/16″ (30.5 x 17 x 9 cm). Publisher and fabricator: the artist. Edition: artist’s proof before the edition of 50. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Print Associates Fund in honor of Deborah Wye. Photograph: Thomas Griesel. © 2013 Estate of Dieter Roth

My attendance of the 2016 Art Book Fair served as quite a jolt from my digital playground. It provided me with a plethora of stimulation in the form of jostling and squeezing through the dense crowds and small rooms of MoMA’s PS-1 in Queens. It also in deluged me with a gluttony of printed things (mostly book-shaped objects, but also pins, posters, patches, pencils, porno, and ever so much more). Much of it was wonderful. My favorite sighting was a small collection of Dieter Roth books, including a chunky Literature Sausage, dutifully conserved within a glass display. (MoMA, 2013) I also stumbled upon a talk by Cory Archangel, who was funny and humble, and whose reading of his own book heightened my understanding and appreciation of his sarcastic digital computer art.

Conversely, a lot of the fair’s content leaned too close Disneyland standards. For example, Gagosian gallery’s tattoo parlor, even though it involved some names I appreciate, caused me to eye-roll so hard, I left its space with a headache (and, admittedly, a free blacker-than-black @Gagosian pencil). I also kept stumbling upon books that contained collections of prettily filtered photos of landscapes and forests, not unlike what I see on social networking sites, like Instagram and Tumblr, or modern stock image sites like Unsplash. Overall, the experience was wonderful; PS-1 is a playground for chaos in art and artmaking, a thing we direly need in this age, even when, like me, you don’t particularly think the art they tend to show is more meaningful than a sandcastle on any beach in the world. But after three hours, and before seeing every table in the entire show, my introverted self ran back to the comfort of my tiny computer portal to learn more about the book-as-art phenomenon.

There is a plethora of Book Art information on the internet. I found myself in a black hole finding more and more wonderful sites, which host and promote this art form. Many of these sites are old, such as Colophon and Book Arts Web, and therefore no longer seem to do justice to the works they attempt to support. The genre of Book Art is vast and varied, so all the sites I encountered contributed to my overall understanding regardless of design or upkeep.

Booklyn stands out from them all for the way it promotes the artists it has worked with, the genre as a whole, as well as the community of artists it has fostered and grown since the organization’s inception in 1999. A 2007 interview by Tony White of Marshall Weber, who was the Head of Exhibition and Collection Development of Booklyn at the time, gave a clear impression that Art Books, and the community around them, are best experienced in person. Truly, the texture, weight and physical turning of pages is part of the genre’s language, as are the people and communities behind the objects. Only some of this can be conveyed via a constrained digital portal website thingie, yet, almost ten years after the White interview, the organization’s website caters as best it can to people like me who have not yet visited their space, nor attended their events. It provided a sufficient tease, although I didn’t find many art books that matched my favorite genres of the dark, grotesque, absurd, and esoteric.

Booklyn’s book prices indicate a strong move away from the accessibility priorities described by Book Art advocates from the 1960s and 1970s, who wished to make items within the genre collectible by all by keeping the editions high and prices low. (Drucker, 1997; Newlights Press: Et al, 2011; White, 2013) Some of Booklyn’s books were listed upwards of $200, matching edition prices of artist limited edition prints, which can be quite expensive, even in a computer age when such prints are inexpensive to make. Perhaps the book, which costs more to print and bind actually deserves to command such a price, rather than the giclee print which costs much less, is printed in bulk from a digital file, and lives within an edition established to artificially create rarity.

In conclusion, the Booklyn website has largely tempted me to further explore the Book Art genre in person, even after my somewhat traumatizing experience at the 2016 New York Book Fair at PS-1. Really, much of my disappointment for the fair was related to my inability to easily get at the plethora of books piled upon table after table, to touch and smell them, and truly experience them as one might do in a library. One glorious aspect of the unbearable crowd at the fair is that it serves as evidence that the artist book is a popular form of art, that, even with the supposed failure of the Democratic Multiple as initially envisioned, is a widely accessible medium that has been capable of communicating information in rare ways for many generations, and will be for many years to come. (Drucker, 1997)

This article was originally published on SamanthaLevinFineArt in 2016.

References

Drucker, J. (1997). The myth of the artist’s book as a democratic multiple. Art Papers, 21, 10–13.

MoMA. (2013). Dieter Roth | Literature Sausage. Retrieved September 25, 2016, from http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/dieter_roth/works/literature-sausage/index.html

Newlights Press: Et al. (2011, January 25). The Return of the Democratic Multiple? Retrieved from http://newlightspress.blogspot.com/2011/01/return-of-democratic-multiple-1.html

White, T. (2007). Interview With Marshall Weber. Journal Of Artists Books, 21, 27–34.

White, T. (2013). The (r)evolutionary artist book. Book 2.0, 3(2), 163–183.