PRINT October 1989


Artists’ Publications

THE CONFIGURATION OF ARTIST, gallery/museum, and catalogue represents a symbiotic confluence of interests (as Seth Siegelaub proved, printed evidence can carry an exhibition on its shoulders into history) and suggests on infinite number of interactive possibilities. Some of the results are fully realized artists’ books, some ore sheep packaged in a thin layer of creative clothing, and some are hybrids that, in the hands of someone passionate about the book as medium, can be amazingly successful.

An example of the latter is Anselm Kiefer’s 1987–89 American museum catalogue, for which the artist created 35 sequential pages of spectral gray and silver that form a prologue to what otherwise would have been a handsome but conventional catalogue. Likewise, in Christian Boltanski: Lessons of Darkness (for a traveling exhibition, 1988), sandwiched between the introduction and catalogue essay is Boltanski’s bookwork “Detective,” a section of translucently printed photographs depicting “an indiscriminate blend of assassins and victims, the unintentional heroes of forgotten dramas.”

A funkier publication is Symbol Magazine, whose seventh issue also serves as catalogue for an exhibition, “Outside the Clock: Beyond Good and Elvis,” curated by Robert Longo at the Scan Hanson Gallery in New York. Symbol’s publication method is a variant on “assemblings,” where each contributor fabricates his or her own entry in a requisite number of copies, which are then collated and bound by the editor/publisher. Symbol’s provocative twist, which identifies it as a product of the appropriative ’80s, is to use issues of glossy commercial or art periodicals—Esquire, Mademoiselle, Flash Art, whatever might be at your corner newsstand—as the binding medium, with the sheets and small objects produced by the artists rather crudely and emphatically taped, glued, or stapled to each preexisting page. Thus, while the artists’ entries remain consistent and in fixed order from copy to copy, the background vehicle is never the same, and each copy in the relatively small handmade edition is unique.

In “Outside the Clock” the results are eclectic and uneven. In fact, sometimes the most interesting pages are a result of chance juxtapositions. The art obliterates part of each four-color magazine page while unavoidably interacting with it. Social relevance and spatial and design issues that are not always the artist’s intention crop up in all the borders. This sense of combined intentional and inadvertent collaboration is invigorating. An artists’ book surely, but more than some artists might have bargained for.

This conclusion might also be reached for another exhibition affiliated book by an artist who mines the possibilities of ambiguity very well. Richard Prince’s extravagant Inside World, less a catalogue than Prince’s comment on the show of which he was a part and which he titled (although it was curated by Thea Westreich at Kent Fine Arts in New York, 1989), alternates his own selection of found media imagery and texts with reproductions of paintings and photographs by the artists in the exhibition. It’s a brilliant stroke. By considering the work of colleagues—Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, et al.—as found cultural artifacts, Prince adds another layer to his meaning-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder questions. But at whose expense? The book is unquestionably Prince’s view, not necessarily that of the other artists.

Twenty years ago Ed Ruscha, the paradigmatic self-publisher, created one of his best publications on assignment for someone else: a totally empathetic catalogue with flocked sandpaper covers for his buddy Billy AI Bengston. Ordinarily, it’s touchy to be called a designer in the aristocracy of fine art, but Ruscha’s embrace of the role transformed the conventional into the memorable.

Similarly, Joseph Kosuth ’s elegant, unillustrated schema for the group-show catalogue Natura Naturata, at the Josh Boer Gallery in New York, 1989, a hand-sized volume of black-rimmed, translucent pages, might be compared to the dramatic black-and-white designs of Massimo Vignelli. And sculptor Nancy Dwyer’s punchy accordion-fold design for The Beauty of Circumstance (a group show at Josh Boer, 1987) culls from the best traditions of typography with her own distinctive stamp.

For several years Daniel Buren and John Knight have engaged in an extended private interplay via their catalogues. Buren’s 1986 Venice Biennale volume, MCMLXXXVI, jointly credited to Buren and Ph. Robert, is an elaborate anthology of bookmaking elements—paper thickness, texture, and transparency; color, grayness, and absence of ink; form, composition, folding, cutting, and reproduction—all demonstrated by Buren’s magical stripes. It’s a virtual retrospective of ideas and the most sumptuous book Buren has ever produced. Later that same year a Knight catalogue appeared with the same title, printed in almost identical Roman typeface. Coincidence? Plagiarism? Knight’s meticulously laid-out pamphlet bore a designer’s credit, and had an essay about Knight by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, but carried no hint of any ulterior motive.

The explanation appears in Knight’s most recent catalogue, Leetsoii (for a show at the Hoshour Gallery, Albuquerque, in 1988) which takes the identical format and layout of his own MCMLXXXVI, but with substituted information. The physical shape of Buchloh’ s original essay remains intact, but the lines of type are obliterated by black bars, credited as an essay by none other than Buren himself. Knight, whose reference-filled work is about framing, has orchestrated on the one hand a nod to Marcel Broodthaers’ Un coup de dés (Broodthaers, incidentally, is one of Buchloh’ s specialties) and on the other a Möbius relationship with Buren, the consummate framer.

The United States of America/Enlarged from the Catalogue, by Silvia Kolbowski (produced for her show at the Postmasters Gallery, New York , in 1988), makes references and connections all over the place: to her site-specific installation, almost an antiexhibition, of which it is an active part; to another catalogue—the Metropolitan Museum’s The United States of America; and, by extension, to the sanitized museological practice of presenting art in formalist terms that ignore other issues. Kolbowski’ s collaborators in this venture are the museum’s own words and holdings, capable of spinning romantic “legends of young girls captured by Indians” and turning them into mythologized marble sculptures. No wonder that, following the Met’s catalogue/guidebook to “an entrance to the United States of America . . . [she pulls] the golden handles on the four glass doors,” only to find that “they don’t open.”

Not all catalogue collaborations are in the artist’s best interest. In the most recent marketing of Barbara Kruger’s work by Mary Boone, Boone has been the catalyst for a bizarre alchemy in which house designer Anthony McCall, once a radical Marxist filmmaker, and Kruger, whose striking graphics have been ideally suited to the printed page, from whence she came, have turned out a flawless and dispassionate volume in which Kruger’s gigantic works have been reduced, but only to the dimensions of the largest bookshelf (if it weren’t for the large platter-shaped format, you’d lose the expensive dull-maroon doth binding, not even marked on the spine, on the shelf). Within this 13-inch square, her images achieve maximum size by borderless cropping; the bleeds are captioned by the gallery titles, with no indication that they’re only details. Although the book is listed under Artists’ Books in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, and the gallery emphasizes that Kruger had extensive input, it can’t seem to make up its mind.

James Lee Byars, another Boone artist, and a man who turns every exhibition catalogue or announcement into a treasure, fares better. In a break from her own tradition, Boone produced no catalogue for her 1989 Byars show, which consisted of one pared-down golden shape in the center of each gilt-walled gallery room. Instead she became Byars’ collaborator, acting on his terse instructions for the invitation, “I want a gold card.” He got it: a shimmering gold talisman that speaks volumes, rendering a catalogue unnecessary.

Barbara Moore is an art historian, small-press publisher, and rare-book dealer with a special interest in artists’ publications and performance.