LEARN TO READ ART: A Surviving History of Printed Matter
MAX SCHUMANN with Maya Harakawa
Printed Matter is an art world institution in the best sense of the word. Founded in 1976 to support the then-fledgling medium of artists’ books, the organization has since become a mainstay of all things art and publishing. Historically linked to artistic figures such as Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Lucy Lippard and now responsible for the ever-growing Art Book Fairs in New York and Los Angeles, Printed Matter has been symbiotically involved in the artistic, political, and social movements alongside which it has developed. To give the organization its proper historical due, Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter opened at NYU’s 80WSE gallery this past December and will remain on view until February 14. Curated by gallery director Jonathan Berger and Printed Matter’s Associate Director Max Schumann, the exhibition traces the organization’s history with ephemera, books, and art objects and includes a satellite bookstore as well as publishing residencies by artists who made their own books over the course of the exhibition. On the occasion of Learn to Read Art, Maya Harakawa visited Schumann at 80WSE gallery to discuss the exhibition, the economics and politics of artists’ publishing, and the medium’s unpredictable future.
Maya Harakawa (Rail): How did this show at 80WSE come about?
Max Schumann: There have been a whole bunch of different iterations of a Printed Matter exhibition called Learn to Read Art. The first one was in 1991 at Art Basel. It was a collaboration between Art Metropole and Printed Matter coordinated by AA Bronson, one of the founders of Art Metropole who later was director of Printed Matter, and John Goodwin, a former director of Art Metropole who was the director of Printed Matter at that time. They collaborated on this first exhibit at Art Basel and used the text piece by Lawrence Weiner “Learn to Read Art” as the exhibition title. Over the years, that name has kind of stuck.
The exhibition format went dormant for a long time, but in 2010 AA put together a kind of “survey” of the different fundraising editions that Printed Matter has done over the years, and that show was also called Learn to Read Art. We premiered it at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1. It was a very dramatic and wonderful exhibit. We started putting out the fundraising editions in 1986, so there was a lot to show. But the thing about the fundraising editions is they’re not part of Printed Matter’s programming, really; they support our programming. So it was basically a survey of our fundraising editions, but not our real true history or programming history. I also did a version of it in Portland at Pacific Northwest College of Art. And when I did it I supplemented the show with more material from the archives with more mostly programming materials from different events and things like that.
And then the flood happened—
Rail: You mean Sandy.
Schumann: Yes, Sandy. Sandy became a whole new element that played a big role in this current project. When Sandy happened, our basement—which was where all our archives were—was flooded. After the storm, there was this very dramatic rescue where we scrambled to try and save everything down there. The archive, it’s not books really. The archive is our administrative and programming history, but all of these things—books, archives—were living together in one place, in the basement that was now completely flooded. So initially we were rescuing books, but then we started pulling out the archive stuff and were like, “Oh, my God.” We realized that the books were replaceable—they also exist in other places, upstairs in the store, and stuff like that. The archive, however, was irreplaceable. So we had to shift our priorities and focus on rescuing the archive.
There were something like 60 boxes. Over his tenure, AA had developed a really nice archive organization and a bulk of the archive was in one place. Everything ultimately got all jumbled and totally mixed together, and as we were hauling it all out we were trying to separate archive material from inventory stuff, but then at the same time we were madly calling people to help us save these soaked materials. It was ridiculously flooded with foul water. There were bricks of paper that had been soaking for two days and nights in water before we could get to them.
So after we had gone through this whole ordeal of having to confront all of the archival material, and losing most of it, we were invited to make a proposal for a show at Art Basel from the archive. This was in 2013. But it was on a super short timeline, and I threw it together in two weeks inside of the storage space where we were keeping these materials. I was able to identify a lot of really great stuff, and the show was very well received. But it was about a fifth of the size of what we’ve done here at 80WSE, and it was put together hastily. That experience made me realize that this show needed to be done in a proper way with a full scale and the proper preparation, identifications, selection, and all that kind of stuff.
So I floated the idea to Jonathan Berger, the director of 80WSE, and he was interested. Ultimately, he invited us, and that’s how the show ended up being here. This exhibition is really distinct from the other Learn to Read Art exhibitions. Although they did have some other programming and material, the focus was on the fundraising editions we’ve done, and this show is really on the history of our programming, services, and administration.
Rail: And how did the publishing residencies become a part of the story that you wanted the exhibition to tell?
Schumann: I think that was an agreed-on thing between me and Jonathan from the very beginning. Many of the exhibitions that Jonathan has done have these engagements and processes: they’re not static exhibitions, there tends to be something happening within them. For example, when they did the Bob Mizer show here, they turned the exhibition into an archive process where they had students and other people actually archiving the material. So knowing that curatorial history, I was kind of thinking of something like that, and when Jonathan brought it up I thought, “Totally, we should totally do that.”
Also, I really wanted to have a bookstore in the show because a really important part of artists’ books is the economic model that they propose and the bookstore, as a store, is the best way to demonstrate that. The reason that artists make them, or have made them, is to have an independent economic model of production and distribution, and so the actual selling of the book in a way fulfills part of a concept of the book as a piece of art. Artists’ books take art out into the world, outside of the gallery through other paths. So even though university galleries are kind of like, “What? You want to sell stuff? That’s not what we do!” [Laughs.] Even though they’re wary of that, for me the bookstore is a really important part.
So we framed the exhibit with these two critical aspects of it: the production on one end, and then the distribution on the other. When artists were making books in the ’60s and ’70s, there was this interest in engaging in the industrial production of artworks as a way of being more engaged in historical and social realities, instead of being sequestered in their studio and painting masterpieces that are given monetary values which have no relationship to social-use value. The model of books happening in reproducible, industrial forms place them into real social-historical economic relations and the artist then really becomes a producer as opposed to someone who’s checked out of history and hovering above everything.
Rail: I’m really interested in the question of production as a way to talk about the artists’ book practice. Part of what makes artists’ books so compelling is that they really straddle a line, constantly fluctuating between the two poles of commodity on the one hand and art object on the other, right? I mean, we can argue that any artwork does this, but because artists’ books are often so much more attainable, they do so very explicitly. So returning to the popularity of the word production and the connection to art workers—and you brought up this Marxist economic framework—I often struggle with how to deal with two conflicting ideas: Even as artists’ books try to propose a potentially different economic model, if you think about these works as commodities in a Marxist context and production in a Marxist context, then one might argue that they still contribute to capitalism. You definitely see this in the show: that throughout its history, Printed Matter is asking how it can stay true to the idea that art can be an alternative economic model while still making money as a legitimate business. It isn’t something that the show shies away from.
Schumann: It’s very problematic. It’s an ideal and it has not been achieved yet, and this idea of an independent economic model is still something that we’re trying to figure out.
When Printed Matter was founded in 1976, it was founded as a for-profit company, and it wasn’t because anyone thought they were going to make money or anything like that, but it was because they wanted to have an independent, sustainable economic model for artists’ book production and distribution. But the problem was that it just wasn’t. Lucy Lippard wrote an essay on the eve of Printed Matter’s opening talking with this real enthusiasm and idealism. And shortly after, maybe one or two years into Printed Matter, she did a follow-up article that was very pessimistic. She said that the problem with artists’ books is that they’re god-damn art. They’re part of the esoteric, the conceptual, and art that is completely inaccessible except to a very educated, middle- and upper-class audience.
It’s interesting to see that very early on, it became obvious that most of what Printed Matter was doing was marketing; that education and the circulation and distribution of these books goes hand in hand with marketing. In one of the vitrines in the show, you can see lots and lots of ads that we’ve taken out in different local and New York newspapers and art magazines, and you can see that there’s an immediate investigation of market research and strategies, and things like that.
And the question becomes: How do you reconcile the desire to have an alternative model with the realization that sometimes it’s really just the same model? I mean I think the difference is that it’s micro; it’s small grass-roots capitalist [laughs]—I don’t know what you would call that. It’s not corporate capitalism.
What I find really exciting about the current time is that I see people seeking alternative models to corporate capitalism in everything—not just in cultural production but in all kinds of other things. Since the crash of 2007/2008, there’s this realization that growth, progress, and economic growth aren’t givens anymore. And at the same time, there are people who are projecting that we are in a 500-year phase of major a geopolitical paradigm shift from capitalism to something else, and that we don’t know what that’s going to be yet. As I see a new interest in artists’ books in this current generation, I see an attempt to find sustainable economic models that are controlled, self-controlled, that are not being imposed from above, but that are being built from below, and this is really a continuation of the ideals that started Printed Matter.
Rail: This leads me to a question about the show, which is the way in which stories get told through objects. With the exhibition, you are creating a story, but it’s done through objects—invoices, letters, and things like that—and there are many other narratives that get left out when you rely only on ephemera. I did notice that the political and historical context Printed Matter came out of isn’t made that explicit.
In bringing this up, I’m particularly thinking about Lucy Lippard and her role in founding Printed Matter. How everything that she did—or at least now that’s how we think of her; maybe it’s been hyperbolized, but I want to believe it’s true—everything she did was influenced by a sense of political justice, and that was very tied to the historical moment that pushed her to found Printed Matter. Obviously, there isn’t one perfect way to tell one story, but I’m wondering if you were conscious of what kind of story you wanted to tell when you were putting the exhibition together.
Schumann: I think some of these things we’ve been talking about are actually implied, referenced, or suggested within the different narrative threads that are happening in the materials. Probably the most relevant or the most legible narrative thread is the financial struggle of keeping this place going, which immediately references the idealism of independent publishing as an alternative form of distribution. And the materials are very explicit about it, about the beginning, where there is desire for art that isn’t meant to be shown in galleries and museums. It’s a different way for people to encounter art, within the context of their lived realities, which is very much a part of the idea that personal is political and also the avant-garde impulse, or political impulse, to engage art in social and political reality.
And then to me the whole realization that it isn’t really possible to be self-sustaining and that the struggle going forward really has culminated in this new generation of young people who are really interested in artists’ books who continue to experiment with that original vision. I mean the book fairs that we do now, like the last one in New York, there were 35,000 people there; it was like a freaking rock concert. When you go to the book fair, for most of those publishers it’s labor of love, and it’s out of pocket, or the small presses there are also subsidized by a commercial design outfit or by some other commercial publishing thing. But the ones that are truly independent really struggle. That being said, I think in this time of big historical shifts and change it’s the best chance we’ll have of making these models succeed.
There’s an underlying problem that at Printed Matter we are dependent on art audiences; we are in the art world and our audience is mostly art-educated and such. But these moments where you can see it reaching beyond that, that is really exciting. And that happens at the book fairs, and that’s happening with the raised profile we enjoy from them. The art world isn’t this monolithic closed box. It’s many, many different communities, and there’s a lot of really interesting and important things that are happening within it. It’s not negative or bad to have a relationship with the art world, but I think that part of the project—to take it outside of that and reach audiences outside of that—is really important to continue to pursue, and that this is this moment where Lucy Lippard’s vision is almost palpable. Maybe we can make this into a self-sustaining thing.
That being said, publishing Printed Matter connotes physical publishing. But from the very beginning we’ve taken on other media forms, not only books. Artists’ audio and video entered our inventory very early on. And we even still have completely out-of-date floppy disks and stuff like that.
Rail: Well, artists have always been thinking about how new media could be thought of as a publishing platform as well, so it makes sense that that would be incorporated. I’m thinking about something like Tellus, which was an artists’ magazine that was a cassette, but it was still a magazine.
Schumann: Right and that’s something that I think categorizes the new generation of publishers. There is still an interest in the physical book, which continues to play an important role. But it’s being deployed within a wider range of communication forms as well, or media forms I should say. I definitely want us to stay current in other publishing forms including digital and Internet platforms.
Rail: Printed Matter’s history is a perfect place to engage this push and pull with materialism. It was founded by Sol LeWitt, who is known as the Conceptual artist who led the path towards dematerialization. But at the same time, as a founder of Printed Matter, he clearly had this investment in artists’ books—a medium that was, at that time, inherently material. So that it shows that there is this more complex story, that as much as we might like to think otherwise, even Conceptual art didn’t completely vanquish the object.
Schumann: Not at all. That’s the thing, even as Lucy Lippard is idolized in the art world, notably for being the first historian to trace conceptual art practice, she is actually incredibly critical of the art world. She shows that the story can never be unequivocally told. She’s incredibly wary of Conceptual art and she also sees the way that market trumps concept—that’s for sure. [Laughs.] Conceptual artists are now completely fetishized and are in play with those inherent contradictions of the art world, or the culture industry. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it’s not.
Rail: How do you deal with that when you function as a storefront? Have you had to re-think how you present yourself to the public if you want to distribute and sell artists’ books that are in forms that aren’t physical books? If someone comes to you says, “I want to market a digital work, I’m an artist and I make artists’ books that are digital,” does Printed Matter have a role there? You’ve already touched upon this a little, but the digital seems to add a whole new level of urgency to what we’ve already been talking about.
Schumann: We need to figure this out. We just switched over to a new website and computer administration system and one of the goals was to make it more multimedia and also to educate ourselves about interesting internet projects. I often wonder if Lawrence Weiner, and maybe Sol LeWitt, if they were kids today, would they be doing books or would they be doing digital works?
So the idea was both that our website would be a resource as well as a distribution platform with links and other kinds of things to Internet projects. This is definitely an important thing that we have to keep working on.
Rail: It’s interesting to me that on the one hand the book fair is becoming such a popular model where people physically come, sit down, set up a table and put all of their work on a table, and the public comes through, they flip through the pages and they handle the actual physical objects. But at the same time here is this huge surge to the digital. The question of whether these two experiences really are that antithetical, if the digital is truly “de-materialized,” this is really a whole other conversation. But that being said, as we see these two models are expanding at the same time, it seems that people are really going to have to think very specifically how to integrate them.
Schumann: There already are a lot of what I would call more “inter-media” projects, where there’s a book form of a project that is also happening in social media, or through other digital means as well. And then the production of the books is often done collaboratively, so they’re kind of embedded in digital communication forms even as physical objects. As people are sourcing their material from the Internet, they’re collaborating via email and things like that, they’re creating an integrated practice that is more complex than just traditional cut-and-paste on the one hand and the digital on the other. It can be this hybrid form. Books might have a print form as well as some digital distribution form, too. So to me that’s an interesting thing, and it’s exciting to see.
I do need to educate myself more on the publishing or artists’ projects that are happening purely in virtual space. We haven’t had any e-book submissions yet, but I am totally curious to see some interesting e-books. I remember when CD-ROMs came on the scene. There were a few books in that medium. Louise Lawler did a cool project once, I remember. But I don’t think artists really figured out how to make interesting CD-ROM projects. So at Printed Matter, we are definitely interested in these other forms of publishing, distribution, and circulation and art as a communication form that doesn’t need big huge markets and things like that.
Rail: I guess another question that comes out of what we’re talking about is one of history. We’ve moved towards the contemporary, with the digital as a manifestation of that. But doing so brings out one of Printed Matter’s complexities, which is that it is constantly looking forward as it embraces contemporary practice but, as an institution with so much historical significance, it is simultaneously looking back. Like here within the exhibition even, we’re getting this historical framework, we’re being told a historical story, but then with the publishing residencies there are actual people working in real time, making contemporary work. I’m wondering how you see Printed Matter dealing with those two things, or how they work in tandem?
Schumann: The pushing and pulling with history I think is a very good thing, especially in this culture where the amnesia is pretty bad. [Laughs.] Historical amnesia is not good, you need to have context. But I do see many exciting things in this regard. For example, I’m on the board of Primary Information, a contemporary publisher. They started doing PDFs of the Art Workers Coalition and the Seth Siegelaub books, and then re-printing facsimiles of Avalanche, and they’ve been hugely successful. To see the amount of interest there is from this newer generation about learning that history is really, really exciting.
But then I think about something like zines and the way that the terminology has changed. Zines now mean anything that looks like it’s Xeroxed, looks like it has a cut-and-paste aesthetic. It’s about a look. But I was introduced to zines through punk rock when it was all a part of D.I.Y. media. It was basically the idea that if you don’t get represented by the mainstream culture, if you’re an outcast and you’re part of some sub-cultural group, then you make your own media, you make your own band you make your own record label, you book your own tours, you play in all the teen centers and you make your own zines. It was more of an alternative news media in a way, as opposed to just cohering to a visual profile. There was great design and aesthetics, but the primary objective was not to make an artists’ book, it was to make your own medium. I don’t know if that’s the case today. Zines have shifted into either an artists’ book or more likely a place for artists to showcase their work. Because if you want to do alternative news media, you do blogs and things like that; now there are mediums other than zines that can serve that purpose.
Rail: Are you pretty adamant that this is a history of Printed Matter versus the artists’ book medium as a whole?
Schumann: I think that Printed Matter is really caught up in that history. We have the reading library in the tables in the middle of each room in the exhibition with artists’ books from that time that are actually still available and in print, even though they were produced as far back as the ’70s or ’60s. Some of them are re-prints, but the goal was to show a sample of the books that were being done at the time.
Also a big part of the show is both the print catalogues that Printed Matter produced, as well as other kind of thematic books lists, and they have a strong presence in all of the vitrines. Those objects really trace the evolution of artists’ books within them and then they tie that history right in to the history of Printed Matter. If you look at those details, those documents are a real representation of the activity happening, of the publishing that was happening. What’s more, a lot of the programming is for book launches and exhibitions about books, so that’s represented in the materials too. I think the history of artists’ books has a presence in there as well. And I hope that that continues to be the case.
MAYA HARAKAWA is a Ph.D. student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the social media manager of the Brooklyn Rail.