JONATHAN GAMS (1951-2009)
When Jon Gams, proprietor of Hard Press Editions, died on November 7th at the age of 57, the world of independent publishing lost one of its most notable figures. It may take some time, but one day the contribution that Jon made to contemporary art and literature will be more widely recognized. In the mid-1990s, his magazine Lingo brought together the worlds of visual art and poetry on a scale, and with an unencumbered point of view, that no other journal was attempting. There soon followed two hugely important, beautifully produced poetry collections: Jim Brodey’s Heart of the Breath and Frank Lima’s Inventory. Hard Press single-handedly brought the work of these two major American poets back into public view. With his Hard Press monographs, Jon continued his campaign to fill some glaring gaps on artworld bookshelves, producing impressive volumes devoted to Marjorie Strider, Kenneth Snelson, Bernar Venet and others. During the last big project he and I worked on together, Irving Sandler’s Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, Jon spoke repeatedly about his pride in the book, telling me that what he ultimately cared about was influencing the culture around him. It is all the more tragic that Jon died at a moment when Hard Press was producing its most substantial, ambitious volumes ever.
Like nearly every other small, independent publisher, Jon was engaged in a constant struggle to keep his business afloat. It wasn’t easy to keep Hard Press going, through its several different phases and across ups and downs in the larger economy, but what makes his achievement truly impressive is that he never stepped back from his commitment as a publisher. Jon’s genius was his ability to balance the need to generate enough money to keep Hard Press Editions alive with his profound desire to contribute to contemporary culture through his books. Like those old-fashioned gentlemen publishers, he didn’t hesitate to use well-funded projects to subsidize books that had little or no prospect of making money.
Personally, I owe so much to Jon. Without him, my life as a poet and art critic would have been very different, maybe even unviable. It was in Lingo that I first got a chance to write about artists such as Stanley Whitney and Roland Flexner; and it was for Lingo that I first translated texts by Marcel Cohen. Hard Press published my first collection of poetry, in a series edited by John Yau, which also featured Albert Mobilio, Lynn Crawford, and Andrew Joron. When it came time to do a second book, Jon urged me to put together a collection of experimental prose pieces rather than poetry. In both of these books, and with every other project Jon and I did together, he applied only the gentlest of editorial hands, but he had an unerring eye for spotting the unnecessary. He also had a gift for titles. A few years ago I edited an anthology of art criticism for Hard Press. As the book neared completion, I kept suggesting titles to Jon, none of them any good. Then, out of the blue, at nearly the last minute, he produced a daring title that perfectly summed up the aims of the anthology, Critical Mess.
Although Hard Press moved away from poetry after 2000, Jon didn’t lose his ear and eye for verse. Late one night last year, I finished a poem in which Keith Richards, John Wieners, and Jim Brodey all made appearances, and I immediately emailed to Jon. His reply the next day zeroed in on the weak lines in the poem. I cut them without a second thought, because I knew Jon was right. One line in this poem goes “The wager of poetry, lost & won.” All his life, Jon placed rash bets on poetry and art. The bets that involved actual money didn’t always pan out, but it was a different story when it came to the greater wager, on the survival and nurturing of creativity, on the vision Jon had of a holistic, non-elitist creative community.
Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.