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Printed Matter, From Idea to Execution

Author : Safoora Seyedi

Reading Time : 15 Minutes

Original text in Farsi by Safoora Seyedi

Translated to English by Omid Armat

Sol LeWitt; The Painter Who Liked Books More Than Paints

In the autumn of 1975, Sol LeWitt, one of the founders of Printed Matter, the first artist book publishing company, met with Lucy R. Lippard, critique and curator in her apartment located on Wooster street, Manhattan. LeWitt, leaning against a chair, proposed establishing an organization for advertising and publishing artists'  books. Until then, LeWitt had written seventeen books; for him, the book was the ideal form of an artwork, while others believed that in conveying artist's ideas, a book is inferior to paintings and structures. However, he conceived equal properties for both mediums. in 1976, when the first artists'  book publisher company was founded, LeWitt said in an interview:

"Unlike most other media they are available to all at a low cost. They are not valuable except for the ideas they contain. They are works themselves, not reproductions of works. Books are the best medium for many artists working today. The material seen on the walls of galleries in many cases cannot be easily understood on the walls but can be more easily read at home under less intimidating conditions. "

Sol LeWitt | Image courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

This perception of the artist's book was not actually exclusive to LeWitt; for more than a decade, artists had developed an interest in this medium, a favor obviously inspired by Germano Celant's book called "Book as Artwork". Between 1966 and 1971, materials were less favored by artists. The Fluxus movement artists were probably pioneers of this "happening", which was planned in advance, with no predetermined scenario to force artists to remain committed. Regarding language as an artistic format, Celant wrote that language is understood "as the ultimate artistic abstraction." So artists considered the book as a natural tool, with which they could include language in their works, while at the same time reducing the use of physical materials to the least possible.

Edward Ruscha | "Twenty-six gas stations" | Image courtesy of Phaidon Publication co.

Moreover, during the 1960s, small and decentralized organizations were substantially popular. The trend was additionally supported by the newly provided means of quick reproduction of images with xerography, mimeography, and offset printing. During this period, many artists used these developing technologies to mass reproduce their art in the format of books. For instance, in 1963, Edward Ruscha started collecting his minimalistic book series called Twenty-six Gas Stations with these technologies.

The mentioned trend among artists towards books as an artistic medium started while photography was emerging as an efficient artistic medium. Conceptual and dramatic artists usually collected their artistic experiences into books. Many feminist artists also used the book as their medium since it had much more narration capabilities than any other medium. John Howell, a famous critic, refers to a convention among women artists of that period, in accords with what has just been said about the book as an artistic medium. Clear examples of these books are "The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object" by Adrian Piper and "The Way My Mind Works" by Athena Tacha. Anyway, a book was now more than just a book, but of course, this review does not have the capacity to proceed with an anthological approach. Therefore, the only thing we need to understand here is that Printed Matter has emerged in such contexts.

Athena Tacha | The Way My Mind Works


Maybe We Should All Be Feminists; Lucy Lippard

Lucy Lippard | Image courtesy of PARISLA

LeWitt was tired of the gallery directors'  negligence; compared to an artwork, a book was considered unproductive and of less value and at best, it could be used as an advertising catalog to increase sales of "more important" artworks. Although LeWitt did not know much about an organization, it was pretty obvious to him that there had to be an independent system to support the artists and their works, in order for the books to be accessed by their real audience. On the other hand, Lippard had the experience of cooperatively establishing some other organizations. She later said in an interview that during those years, you could not help coming up with the decision of establishing an organization right after meeting and talking to someone. Lippard had founded the "Heresies" which later published a magazine and turned into an organization for feminist men and women. She was also a member of Art Workers' Coalition and collaborated with the Society of Women Artists.

Publishing artist's books was a familiar, tempting proposal; and was egalitarian and protesting against the power structure as well. Lippard, in communities and conferences, had constantly asked artists to critically observe their artworks' distribution process throughout the society and had asked them to let people control the distribution of art. So, publishing books as artworks was a way to fulfill this ambition. Books did not need to be exhibited in galleries or museums. Therefore, artists could have more control over the distribution of their work. Additionally, the book was a liberating medium; it was the best place to publish controversial ideas; a context over which galleries and museums had no control. So, now artists could picture whatever they wanted, in whatever way they wanted. Isn't art supposed to be liberating? Moreover, books were cheaper, so almost infinite copies of them could be printed, and, in theory, artworks were given the opportunity to be read and understood infinitely. Lippard regarded publishing artist's books in accordance with her egalitarian purposes. When asked what is the most interesting point about artist's book, she expressed clearly:

"One of the reasons artists' books are important to me is their value as a means of spreading information. I'm talking about communication but I guess I'm also talking about propaganda. Artists'  books spread the word—whatever that word may be. So far the content of most of them hasn't caught up to the accessibility of the form. I have this vision of feminist artists'  books in school libraries (or being passed around under the desks), in hairdressers, in gynecologists'  waiting rooms, in Girl Scout Cookies; I wanted it, that is what I wanted for art."

So she accepted LeWitt's suggestion and Printed Matter was born on a cold autumn evening.

The Art-Rite Magazine

Printed Matter; Revolt and Organization

When they reached an agreement, LeWitt and Lippard called some of their friends who had experience in arts and publishing. Walter Robinson and Edit DeAk, were founders of Art-Rite, an art magazine which represented the new generation of artists in the United States. Other members were connected to Robinson and DeAk through intermediaries. Mimi Wheeler was the editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine. LeWitt worked for a while as an illustrator for the magazine and they had become friends there. Robin White was Wheeler's assistant. Pat Steir was a member of Heresies. So all these seven people became the board of directors of Printed Matter. Of course, the team gathered not only because of their friendships but also because of their mutual ideas and ambitions. White mentioned in an interview that each of the members was attracted to the idea of Printed Matter for a specific reason:

"Lucy was very interested in feminist art… Mimi and Edit and Mike Robinson and I were particularly interested in it as alternative art that wasn't precious. "

The first step was to stock books. Each of the members had many friends in the art world; so it was not so hard to collect books. Wheeler had mentioned repeatedly that many well-known artists had produced art books, but the books were stocked by middlemen, gallery owners, and sellers until Printed Matter's name was widely known.

Additionally, the members engaged in correspondence with artists and asked them to make contact if there are any books that they intend to publish or distribute. After a while, a considerable amount of books was stocked and artists were excited. As mentioned earlier, the 1970s in the United States was the period during which books emerged as artworks. In a meeting on April 4, 1976, the organization's outlook was discussed and the members agreed that the purpose of Printed Matter was: "To publish, distribute and promote artists'  books and works, to publish catalogues of artists'  books, to exhibit books, to reprint artists'  books and to provide information services for artists'   publications." Lippard suggested that Printed Matter should focus more on emerging and unknown artists, who have been unnoticed in New York's artistic community. Printed Matter was not officially a political group, but today we can hardly think of an organization or activity with no political concerns. The goal was to provide every artist, with emphasis on "every", with the opportunity to be seen. Amy Baker Sandback, who joined the board of directors right after Printed Matter was established, said that Printed Matter was an example of revolt.

Printed Matter, Framework and Fortune

During the spring of 1976 there were many books for the members to choose from. In a meeting on January 14, the directors chose nine books, three of which were ready to be published by the end of the year: "Moogambo" by Tony Shafrazi, "Real Time" by Eve Sonneman, and "The Fall" by Michelle Stuart. Six more books were also published by the end of the year. There were many discussions regarding the essence of artist's book. The variety of the books published by Printed Matter had caused the modern art world to consider: what exactly is an artist's book? Lippard wrote then:

"It is partly a matter of context, of seeing these works in relation to the other visual arts. I also think of an artists' book as being all of a piece… but there are always exceptions and these are harder still to explain. "

Later she added:

"My own definition of an artist's book was quite strict: mass produced, relatively cheap, accessible to a broad public, all art and no commentary or preface or anything that wasn't part of the artwork by anyone—artist or critic. Art, and just art; the viewer's encounter with art is all that matters."

Not everyone in New York agreed with her. Nevertheless, two basic criteria were set for selecting books: books should be available in 100 or more copies, and they should be affordable for the public. So they should be relatively cheap, mass-produced, and accessible with no intermediacy.

Printed Matter was not only interested in promoting books. The next step was archiving and organizing. This was a process to benefit art publications. In late 1976, Martha Wilson turned one part of her apartment into a library to archive artists' books. She wanted to list artists' books that were published during the 1970s. Although Printed Matter had become so established in just a few years, it was facing serious challenges: Stock management, financial problems, and most important of all, books did not reach beyond the borders of New York's artistic community. The company did not need to take any special measures to sell books. During the first years of Printed Matters'  activity, Irena von Zahn once wrote in response to one of the customers: "We have been deluged with orders and haven’t been able to keep up." Emerging artists were so excited about the new opportunity they had found to distribute their works, and established artists also approved of entrusting the distribution of their works to another organization. After one year, Printed Matter's book stock reached 800 titles, and every week ten more books were added to the list. Printed Matters' remarkable growth in its first years, was soon noticed by "Publishers Weekly" and "Print Collector Newsletter". This made Printed Matter even more famous. By December of 1978, Printed Matter was recognized as the largest and most comprehensive distributor of artists'  books in the country.

Printed Matter | 1979 | Image courtesy of Printed Matter


Printed Matter; Challenges and Experiences

In the 1980s a different kind of artist's book emerged. Publications established in the previous decade provided artists with an opportunity to create their books in new ways. Although these publications were generally small, independent, and decentralized, but they all shared a mutual attitude; they did not necessarily aim at mass production. On the contrary, most of these publications were directed by individuals with remarkable backgrounds in photography, printing, writing, and publishing. This new atmosphere of artist's book publishing encouraged artists to focus more on form, rather than content. Most of these projects led to the creation of unique art objects. The Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, was one example, in which artists could experiment with technique and concept. During the same years, Keith A. Smith presented an article about how an artist can manipulate the form of a book through motif, symbols, space, composition, or using holes, in order to create a new visual flow. In 1982, Martha Gever, wrote for Afterimage that: "Making limited edition, if not unique books, has become a legitimate art activity," while "a very different sort of book art, the legacy of Ruscha, LeWitt, Kosuth and others, has become less fashionable." The legacy of conceptual art, which was publishing artist's books that could reach a broad audience at an inexpensive price, was not of interest anymore. Moreover, Printed Matters'  nature was challenged by artists and scholars. Ulises Carrión not only questioned the value of creating art for mass distribution purposes but also presented an alternative definition of artist's book. Here, the form was emphasized again. Clive Phillpot joined the challenge and emphasized the physicality of the book, just as it is emphasized in sculptures and paintings.

In 1983, Alice Weiner joined Printed Matter so as to revive the organization. Weiner suggested more sophisticated marketing techniques, including production and distribution of new catalogs for wholesaling, targeting specific markets for specific artists, holding book release parties for artists, assigning book cover's design process to the artist so as to turn it into an artwork that can interest collectors, seeking financial support, and analyzing the market. Printed Matter had turned from an idea into an organization. The real world was tough and cold, and numbers mattered the most. The company's sales were still prosperous, but as Mike Glier said, the artist's book was not for everyone. Glier saw art as a means to make changes in society. He was disappointed by the challenge ahead of Printed Matter and said:

"You must have heard my rap about inexpensive art for all. Well, the stuff is cheap and there's plenty of it, but Aunt Susie in Ohio ain't lounging in her cyclo-massager with an artists'  book."

Printed Matter had taken important steps in making artists'  books available to more people. Yet as Lippard admitted in 1985: "The real vision with which the phenomenon gained momentum in the mid-to-late sixties has not been fulfilled. Artists' books remained part of a significant subcurrent beneath the art world mainstream that threatens to introduce blood, sweat, and tears to the flow of liquitex, bronze and bubbly."  Printed Matters'  staff had also faced the fact that artists'  books may always have limited audience. In 1985, Ingrid Sischy said in an interview:

"The idea that the whole thing only works if all books have a mass audience is not true. Each book finds its own audience, its own life."

This change of attitude took Printed Matters to its highest point again. Directors adopted a more sophisticated business plan. Of course, they still remained focused on the public. In 1986, Printed Matter was still run exclusively by artists and art workers. Criteria for determining what an artists'  book was remained the same: inexpensive and available in 100 or more copies. Printed Matter was, and is, still dedicated to art that is not precious and continues to provide valuable resources to artists and scholars.

Printed Matter | 1983 | Image courtesy of Printed Matter