Steven Leiber Catalogs
(Inventory Press and RITE Editions, 2019)
The art of the 1960s and 1970s is characterized by its tendency to disintegrate—to take forms other than physical ones. As Lucy Lippard writes in the opening to her book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, “Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or ‘dematerialized.’” As a consequence, things that were once considered to be unimportant, detritus, and even trash, became essential to telling the story of this transformative period in art history. Ephemera—announcement cards, artists’ flyers and zines, and other printed materials generated by artworks that otherwise leave no trace—become invaluable as works of art. Enter Steven Leiber—dealer, collector, and archivist of this era. No story of this period could be effectively told without him, or his extensive collection of ephemera that he meticulously catalogued and documented. His 2001 Extra Art show at California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco has been oft cited as the first to take these materials seriously. Steven Leiber Catalogs, published by Inventory Press and RITE Editions (of which Leiber was a cofounder) details a central aspect of Leiber’s efforts: his sales catalogs. 52 catalogs made between 1992 and 2010, each meticulously produced and designed in the fashion of contemporary conceptual art projects. As Robin Wright, the other cofounder of RITE Editions, notes in the preface, “His catalogs had to be visually and conceptually engaging and the contents had to be exact in format, factual in every detail. And whenever possible, definitive.”
Steven Leiber Catalogs, itself designed after Sol LeWitt’s Autobiography (1980), does the exhaustive work of documenting all of these labors of love—or perhaps labors of obsession—with images of all 52 catalogs, in addition to a full bibliographic caption that cites the conceptual reference material, when known. His first catalog, in 1992, was an unbound selection of index cards in a manila envelope, modeled after Lucy Lippard’s “numbers shows” catalogs. It included works by now canonical conceptual and mail art artists: Ed Ruscha’s artists’ books Babycakes (1970) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966); an undated Ray Johnson collage; a 1974 Vito Acconci instructional drawing. I am pulling these examples directly from the cards themselves, as all 50 of them are reproduced at a legible quality and resolution. The catalogs were mailed to Leiber’s list of dealers and collectors, and these sharp reproductions of them are the result of what Wright refers to as a “treasure hunt that would have amused Steven,” a painstaking process of locating, scanning, and fact-checking these objects that, in addition to being important historical documents of a period of art making, are themselves ephemeral objects.
Throughout art history, certain dealers have been credited as instrumental figures for certain movements—Leo Castelli, Seth Seigelaub, and Paula Cooper come immediately to mind. Steven Leiber Catalogs adds Leiber to this list, highlighting the enormous research that went into his collection. What sets him apart from other gallerists or dealers is the incomparable historical record his catalogs created for an important and still undervalued art material—art ephemera, not to be mistaken for other kinds of ephemera! As he writes in his essay for the Extra Art catalog (co-authored with dealer Todd Alden, who continues to exhibit and deal related materials), “[T]his shifting supplementary character situates ephemera not simply in an external relationship to art, but also ambivalently as an integral component of art itself.” Leiber tasked himself with assigning monetary and cultural value to these items. As contemporary interest in these materials now grows, this new publication, like Leiber’s own, salvages this endeavor for future researchers and enthusiasts.
Some of these catalogs took the form of other types of ephemeral objects like floppy disks (#37, 1999) or unexposed film (#38, 2000), which this publication provides clever access to. In the case of the disk, the book includes a web address where the contents can be downloaded as a spreadsheet. As for the unexposed film, each role was slightly different, but the book includes images of two exposed rolls of film, showing various objects staged in Leiber’s grandmother’s house (both Leiber and his grandmother appear in some of these images holding up various items).
In addition to being an important historical record, Steven Leiber Catalogs also includes personal recollections from his friends and colleagues, conveying his eccentricities and passion beyond his collecting habits. “He had a website. A hysterical parody of early AOL,” former museum director Chris Fitzpatrick points out, “It wasn’t a parody of artists’ ephemera or general art ephemera like his sales catalogs, but in retrospect I see his endearingly dysfunctional website as his most ephemeral bit of ephemera. After all, it no longer exists.” As a former classmate of his, Alexandra Bowes recalls, “He kept things forever, which gave the objects he touched a patina as well as a meaning.” As an art historian and collector of artists’ books and ephemera—files and files and stacks and stacks of exhibition announcement cards, press releases, posters, personal cards and handwritten notes from publishers sent with review copies—I was moved by the concluding “Recollections.” Steven Leiber Catalogs is not just a record of Leiber as a historian, it is also a network of relationships; an example of each of his 52 catalogs could be located because many copies were saved (or donated to an institution for safe keeping) by the people to whom he mailed them.