299 books by funny, insightful and creative artists up for auction
Why make an artist’s 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 said in Lucy Lippard’s essay “Remarkable Consumption: new artists’ books. “While the qualities Steir enumerated certainly do not apply to the whole nebulous genre of” artist’s book, “they do evoke some of the impulses underlying the rise in popularity of the artist. form in the 1960s. At a time when mistrust of artistic institutions was fermenting, artists could manufacture and distribute these books independently, or in collaboration with small presses, at a lower cost. Approaching books as works of art also allowed creators to play with the often overlooked materiality of the object, the dependence on sequence and the curious relationship to time.
At the Swann Galleries in New York, an upcoming sale with 299 artist books hints at the range and elasticity of the term. The unique collection sale focuses on books by contemporary artists made between the 60s and the 21st century. While there are a few outliers, including an aphrodisiac cookbook by Marina Abramović, many artist books on offer have been written by figures closely associated with the genre. One of these artists is the Californian artist Ed Ruscha.
Ruscha’s early artist books – such as Twenty-six gas stations (1963), which depicts gas stations along its route from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, or Every building on the Sunset Strip (1966), an accordion-folded almost 25-foot-long book about the buildings of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – contradicts traditional notions of the artist book, or luxury books with artist illustrations. While the artist book, which was popularized in France in the 1890s, married image to text in exciting new ways for the time, it was a high-end endeavor that did not put the artist in charge.
Ruscha, on the other hand, designed his books from start to finish, producing relatively affordable objects that conceptually engaged with the book’s format and characteristically celebrated banality – or at least declared banality worthy of scrutiny. more in-depth. Oddly enough, the sale at Swann also includes the Burn small fires (1968), in which Nauman set fire to an artist’s book by Ruscha, photographed the remains, and linked the images into his own artist’s book.
Humor is not uncommon in artist books, and concept artist David Hammons brings his signature tongue-in-cheek to the form with Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002). Bound in black leather with gold lettering on the back, the tome is a duplicate of a (slightly oversized) Bible. However, the opening of this particular sacred book reveals a discrepancy between the inside and the outside: its pages consist of the two volumes of the 1997 edition of the book by Arturo Schwarz. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. By swapping the Old Testament for a catalog raisonné, Hammons riffs on Duchamp’s signature ready-made while signaling – with the tongue firmly in the cheek – the canonization of the French artist and the printed materials that perpetuate it.
Several artist books by post-minimalist artist Richard Tuttle, whose practice has long incorporated printmaking and book-making, are also on sale. Tuttle made a particularly convincing example, The missing portrait, in collaboration with poet, art critic and Hyperallergic editor John Yau. Verses from Yau’s five-part poem of 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 pieces of metal.
The front and back covers of the book are surmounted by a tortoiseshell pattern and a three-dimensional lizard, which artist and stationer Lisa Switalski made from hand-cast cotton fibers. The missing portrait isn’t the only artist’s book here with a poetic slant. The folio of 17 lithographs by Willem de Kooning 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 the accordion style of Pat Steir Cry Stall Regard (2012) superimposes the poetry of Anne Waldman on screen printing and photoengraving on sewn sheets.
Large-scale artists’ books are on display at Swann on November 4, 5 and 8 before the November 9 auction.
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