PRINT December 2013


Seth Siegelaub

Seth Siegelaub, 44 East 52nd Street, New York, ca. 1969. Photo: Robert Barry.

LIKE MANY OTHERS OF MY GENERATION, I knew Seth Siegelaub as the legendary figure who launched the most visible and canonical practices of Conceptual art: the “fab four” (Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner) and all that. It’s a story that’s become a little pat. But history is far more interesting, and Siegelaub’s role more complicated and improvisatory. From the 1960s until his death, Siegelaub seems to have been resolutely practical and nondogmatic, and almost maddeningly mobile. He responded to the moment as if making things up as he went along.

Who else could go from issuing Weiner’s landmark artist’s book Statements in 1968 to publishing the first English translation of How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic just seven years later? Both books are foundational in completely different fields. Initially published in Chile in 1971, How to Read Donald Duck is a political analysis of popular culture and a powerful critique of North American cultural imperialism, written by Argentine Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman and Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart. (Siegelaub and Mattelart went on to coauthor the two-volume anthology Communication and Class Struggle in 1979.) Its publication in France in 1975 by Siegelaub’s International General Editions led to a four-year legal battle with Walt Disney Productions over claims of copyright infringement.

Even Siegelaub’s lifelong interest in tapestries and textiles was intertwined with history and politics: According to the catalogue for the recent show of his extensive textile collection at Raven Row in London, the first such item he ever acquired was an arpillera made by families of political prisoners in Chile that he received in 1973, after the Pinochet coup. Following his “retirement” from the art world in 1972, Siegelaub then had at least two other important careers: as a publisher and political theorist; and as an obsessive collector, researcher, and bibliographer devoted to the long history of textiles.

So to describe Siegelaub as a dealer and “independent curator,” as is so often done now, feels like an exercise in historical falsification. His activities inhabited completely different worlds from those of today’s globe-trotting professionals migrating from art fair to biennial. Siegelaub had a global view, to be sure, but it was oriented toward broader systems of distribution and mediation, not just the market. In a 1969 conversation with Charles Harrison, Siegelaub famously declared: “For many years it has been well known that more people are aware of an artist’s work through (1) the printed media or (2) conversation than by direct confrontation with the art itself.” The situation, to Siegelaub, was self-evident; the question was how to respond. If Warhol vamped mass media and celebrity culture, Siegelaub embraced printing and mailing. He collaborated with friends and adapted accordingly. Reflecting on his benchmark 1968 Douglas Huebler publication-as-exhibition, Siegelaub later insisted that “this new form of exhibition arose directly from Huebler’s work itself.”

While Siegelaub may be best known for organizing the Xerox Book in 1968, to me, one of his most important accomplishments is, with the assistance of Virginia Dwan, the 1969 publication of Carl Andre’s Seven Books of Poetry. Retracing his steps across the Siegelaub and Dwan archives, we can follow the division of labor: Dwan provided the original manuscripts and funding, Siegelaub the legwork and logistics. The resulting collection of seven books is a major work of twentieth-century poetry, one that foregrounds the gridded substrate of writing and mark-making to an unprecedented degree. And, of course, Siegelaub’s role is all but invisible; his name appears on the title page, but it is Andre’s work, not his.

In a 2006 interview, Siegelaub described his projects as “more like research and development as opposed to merchandizing or mass marketing.” The 1971 Siegelaub–Robert Projansky contract—“The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement”—is perhaps his most significant intervention into the art system, a quixotic effort to rectify artists’ lack of control over their works and guarantee them a percentage of resale profits. Its recent recirculation and relevance makes us aware of how odd it is that art-historical discourses of “institutional critique” have focused on museums precisely at the moment when public institutions have been thoroughly outpaced by the art market.

In the last few decades, Siegelaub repeatedly underlined certain inescapable historical shifts, noting how the art world had changed “from a small marginal activity on the edge of capitalism” to a sphere completely absorbed into the capitalist system. It’s a condition we all recognize, but we are less sure how to proceed. In a 1970 letter to the curator (and later gallerist) Helene Winer, Siegelaub explained his own aims and uncertainties as his increasingly direct political involvement changed his position: “‘International political communication’ means the way mass media effects [sic] our view of life and what I can do to increase the activity between the different radical (underground?) communities around the world. Very complicated and unclear at this time.”

Liz Kotz teaches modern and contemporary art history at the University of California, Riverside.

For additional reflections on the life and work of Seth Siegelaub, visit