New York

View of “Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter,” 2014–15.

View of “Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter,” 2014–15.

“Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter”

View of “Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter,” 2014–15.

“We had this dream that artists’ books would be in drugstores and airports,” said Lucy R. Lippard a few years ago when I asked her about the early days of Printed Matter, Inc. A founder of the venerable institution in 1976—along with Carl Andre, Edit deAk, Sol LeWitt, Walter Robinson, Pat Steir, Mimi Wheeler, Robin White, and Irena von Zahn—Lippard noted that she hadn’t anticipated back then how these “scribbled little things, misspelled texts, Xeroxes, and so forth” would go on to find their markets. But every format eventually does. If the crowds at the Printed Matter NY Art Book Fair were any indication—the event attracted some 34,000 visitors this past year, and opened its equally successful Los Angeles edition in 2013—the market for published artistic ephemera is surely a lasting and viable one. Indeed, these days it seems like every exhibition has an accompanying publication—except, surprisingly, this one.

Fittingly, the show, “Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter,” which remains on view until February 14, resembles a densely packed document—replete with more than 350 framed items, seventeen vitrines, three reading tables, and several explanatory labels handwritten in pencil. Organized by decade, it features materials culled from the organization’s thirty-nine-year-old archive, including administrative paperwork; book catalogues (dating from 1976 to 2003); publishing projects; exhibition and performance documentation; shipping receipts; inventory lists; job descriptions; documents regarding fund-raising drives and book-selection processes; technical notes on the organization’s first computerized database in 1985; correspondence with figures as varied as Jesse Helms and John Waters; ads in the SoHo Weekly News and the Village Voice; a wealth of programming notices from the 1990s (which echo Lippard’s underacknowledged storefront-windows exhibition program that ran from 1979 to 1989); and, finally, architectural mock-ups for Printed Matter’s spacious new storefront and offices, which will open in Chelsea later this year. Providing a vast biographical arc and a vivid overview of the establishment’s internal mechanizations, the show presents a full and transparent picture of what sustainable cultural production and distribution actually looks like—broadcasting the highs (gaining nonprofit status, the popularity of the fairs) and lows (the 2008 economic downturn, the loss of more than nine thousand books during Hurricane Sandy).

To offset nostalgia, the show’s organizers—Printed Matter acting director Max Schumann and 80WSE gallery director Jonathan Berger—established a print shop in the final room, inviting six artists and collectives to undertake residencies. With a Risograph, a Xerox machine, a Vandercook letterpress proof press, and silk-screening and binding stations, this is a publishing paradise. Some of the resultant wares, such as stacks of silk-screened posters asserting RESISTANCE IS POSSIBLE (from the collective Red76) and DEEDS NOT WORDS (from Research and Destroy New York City), are being offered free near the entrance, where a pop-up Printed Matter storefront has also settled in. The posters came in handy on Saturday, December 13, when the boisterous Millions March protests against police brutality began gathering just outside the gallery in Washington Square Park. Before joining the demonstration, I perused the five-hundred-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s interrogation-and-detention program, which Jesse Hlebo/Swill Children had speedily bolted together the day after it was publicly released.

This busy print shop—located just around the corner from a wall highlighting the NY and LA Art Book Fairs and a vitrine oddly memorializing related promotional items such as pencils, badges, and catalogues—produces an unusual friction, productively counterbalancing the show’s historical approach. Just as the fairs carry forward a flame for alternative publishing, so too does this forward-looking laboratory. In such a largely archival exhibition, that energy, impulse, and spontaneity are key. They’ve been part of Printed Matter all along.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler