A letter to the Internal Revenue Services, drafted by Lucy Lippard as part of a year-long process of attempting to gain non-profit status for a new organization proclaims, “The Printed Matter Inc. project did not change so much as it evolved. Originally, the idea was to provide publishing support for artists working with the new books medium in an attempt to reach a public outside the national art centers and the gallery/museum system. It soon became apparent, however, that the real necessity was for a means by which these works could reach their public.”1 Founded in 1976 in downtown New York and now located in Chelsea a block from the Hudson River, Printed Matter is a bookstore and exhibition space that hosts book launches, conversations between publishers and artists, and readings. The organization produces books, offers support for emerging artists to publish, and runs one of the largest book fairs in the world, taking place on both the East and West coasts. But its mission statement remains simple, declaring it to be “the world’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination, understanding and appreciation of artists’ books and related publications”—true to the spirit of the statement Lippard made for the hard-won 501(c)3 status, which Printed Matter applied for in July of 1978, was denied in January, and then finally awarded in July 1979.
Printed Matter has something of a legendary origin story, equal parts oral history, hearsay, and gossip, passed down through the decades in letters, postcards, photographs, and artist accounts. The exact series of events remains a bit murky—nearly all the early participants claim status as an originator. “Sol LeWitt and I started it first, although a lot of other people have credit for being in there at the beginning,” Lippard recalls in her oral history, housed at the Archives of American Art.2 But if you ask painter and former Semiotext(e) editor Pat Steir, it was her and LeWitt: “One day Sol and I were crossing a street in Genoa, and I said, ‘You know, if art doesn’t work out for me, I need to have another business. I would like to publish artists’ books. Will you back me?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And we started a little private company called Printed Matter.”3 Yet another founding member, Mimi Wheeler, claims it was her and LeWitt in Amsterdam, the birthplace of another famous art bookstore, Other Books and So.4 It’s no coincidence LeWitt is at the center of all these accounts, since at this time he was already establishing himself as conceptual book-maker, just as the term artists’ book was developing, and is credited with designing the organization’s first poster—the iconic red background with bulky block lettering announcing “ARTISTS’ BOOKS” at 105 Hudson Street.
The mysterious nature of its roots remains true to the organization’s spirit, devoted as it is to ephemeral materials that, like the origin story, are hard to pin down and hard to define. Digging through Printed Matter’s extant archives—some of which have been donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art by former director David Platzker, and some of which remain onsite at the store, (and some of which were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012)—confirms the founders were among the most legendary artists, critics, and thinkers of conceptual art: LeWitt, Lippard, Steir, and Wheeler among them, in addition to Edit deAk, Walter Robinson, Robin White, and Irena von Zahn. Also heavily involved in the early days were Mike Glier, Ingrid Sischy, Nancy Linn, Amy Baker Sandback, and Carl Andre. While the legacy and founding of Printed Matter is undoubtedly tied to conceptual art, particularly through the involvement of LeWitt and Lippard, it also attracted many others who would go into different facets of the arts, as critics, editors, gallerists, publishers, designers, and artists, a testament to the ways in which artists’ books continue to represent a cross section of the arts. As artist Martha Wilson—not a founder but closely involved during the early years through her sister archival organization, Franklin Furnace—explained, “We all wanted to service a new field that hadn’t really been acknowledged or defined yet. We didn't even have the term artists’ books, we called them book-like works by artists for a while.”5
There was a shared belief in art for the masses. The appeal letter to the IRS cites the democratized potential of book arts: “Artists’ Books take art and ideas into places where there are not other facilities for the housing of these ideas. They are direct communication between artist and audience and they make it possible for the ideas in art to exist in the hands of all people.”6 Along these lines, the early years of Printed Matter were characterized by a frenzied energy as the founders determined what, exactly, the project would be. The first meetings were held at the Franklin Furnace space, that is, until the building’s owner “came downstairs and said, ‘This will never be known as the Printed Matter Building!’ which frightened Printed Matter away and they went to the Fine Arts Building,” Wilson explained in her oral history.7 From that first office on Hudson Street, the group mailed out a flyer showcasing some of their holdings and announcing their activities as “a group of nine artists and artworkers devoted to the publication, distribution and promotion of artists’ books.”
Initially, publishing was the primary focus. Their first book, Michelle Stuart’s The Fall (1976), was a 28-page, black-and-white offset printed and staple bound, floppy mock history book featuring images of West Coast nature alongside a narrative about a utopian place of only women. Other early publications included Victor Burgin’s Family (1977), published with Lapp Princess Press, an imprint founded by writer and critic Amy Baker Sandback who was heavily involved with Printed Matter and served on its board; Fred Sandback’s 10 Isometric Drawings (1977), also with Lapp Princess Press; and Martha Rosler’s Service: A Trilogy on Colonization (1978), which sold out (it was reprinted in 2008 and continues to sell well). As Rosler notes, “As a publisher of artists’ books, Printed Matter put out a small work collecting three of my postcard novels, thus ensuring a much wider audience for them than I could have obtained on my own.”8 By the end of 1976, the bookstore had stocked 800 titles that ranged in price from .35 - $20 from small artist-run presses such Giorno Poetry Systems and Assembling Press, to books published by well-established galleries like John Weber and Leo Castelli.
Also in 1976, Art-Rite magazine published an issue dedicated to artists’ books. Established in 1973, Art-Rite was an inexpensive artist-driven magazine, and an early model for Printed Matter’s own ethos. According to Lippard, she and the other founders “immediately got Edit DeAk and Mike Robinson in, because they were doing Art-Rite then, the little funny little magazine. And we figured they knew more about publishing, and they were young, and so forth.”9 Both organizations remained closely tied: two of the editors of the artists’ books issue, Walter Robinson and Edit deAk, were also founders of Printed Matter. This past year, Printed Matter and Primary Information, a New York-based independent publisher dedicated to republishing out-of-print artists publications and magazines as well as new works, co-published a complete, bound facsimile of all 21 issues of Art-Rite produced between 1973–1978. This includes the now well-known “Idea Poll” from the artists’ books issue that called on 50 artists and art professionals to respond to the prompt to share their “views on any of the issues related to artists’ books.” Among them are responses from LeWitt (“They are not valuable except for the ideas they contain”) and Lippard (“They open up a way for women artists to get their work out without depending on the undependable museum and gallery system”), in addition to artists like Douglas Huebler (“Artists’ books provide the most accessible and ‘off-the-wall’ location for ideas/works whose essential form is not a function of traditional media”); Adrian Piper (who posited the question, “Suppose art was as accessible to everyone as comic books? as cheap and as available? What social and economic state of things presuppose?” in her response titled “Cheap Art Utopia”); and Kathy Acker (“I hope I’m not being brusque: I don’t mean to be. I’m 29 years old and I’ve spent a lot of that time reading, writing, and thinking with mind and body about writing. I can’t compress ten years or more into a simple statement.”). The fact that these responses vary so much in definition, understanding, and practical function of artists’ books demonstrated the need for an organization such as Printed Matter to collect, distribute, and historicize the differences in this blossoming medium.
In December 1976, Printed Matter produced and mailed out their first “Catalogue of Artists’ Books,” a more detailed version of their mailers, which over the next couple of decades would become invaluable archives of an emerging history of production and critical thinking, as they included not only detailed bibliographic information on the shop’s offerings, but also sometimes substantial essays. The first, a silver brochure the size of a standard letter envelope, included selected black-and-white images of books and a list of titles distributed, organized alphabetically with bibliographic captions and a descriptive note when applicable. Lawrence Weiner’s book HAVING BEEN DONE AT/having been done to (1972) is listed at $6 with the description “statements in upper and lower case (English and Italian).” LeWitt’s own books, totaling nine in this mailer, range in price from $1–$10 with notes like “straight, not-straight and broken lines using all combinations of black, white, yellow, red and blue, for lines and intervals” to describe Lines and Color (1975) and “lines and descriptions of their locations on the page” to describe The Locations of Lines (1974). Rape Is (1972), Suzanne Lacy’s early artist book, is priced at $5 and described simply by the word “texts.”
The catalogue also included Printed Matter’s “packages,” curated lists of books by subject or theme such as feminism, landscape/nature, color, or letters/signs. These packages were (and remain) an essential component of how the organization not only reflected current trends in art book production, but also shaped an audience for them by creating entry points for readers and collectors to experience a range of titles. There is even a specific point made about these booklets in Printed Matter’s plea for non-profit status: “The above mentioned flyers are and should be considered a service. A service to the general public since they announce availability and existence and furthermore provide vital bibliographic data concerning the publications. Specifically they are a service to libraries and institutions. They cost our organization far more than any income which is generated. They are mailed to all 30,000 on our mailing list.”10 Artists often designed the catalogues, including Peter Downsbrough (1979), Don Chiappinelli (1981), Barbara Kruger (1984/85, which also included a Jenny Holzer “truism”), and Tom Sachs (2003). Some contain lengthy essays on topics surrounding artists’ books like an essay on photobooks by Gary Indiana (1987) and Germano Celant on “Artists’ Manifestos & Magazines” (1988). Tracing the varied involvement of the artistic community in the Printed Matter project through the decades is a perhaps unanticipated attribute of the catalogues. Reading through them is much like coming across treasured time capsules of artists’ book history.
Printed Matter is, and always has been, a collective effort, born out of the possibility of affordable art for everyone. This conviction required building an institution for the medium of artists’ books and encouraging collecting by both everyday people and large institutions. “HEART: A Collection of Artists’ Books for Libraries, Museums, and Collectors” a 1980 mailer, offers a curated list of 200 books designed for institutional collecting. It also includes a “Letter to Librarians” by Clive Phillpot that notes, “When a library acquires a bookwork it is effectively adding primary art to its collection, and at small expense.”11 In another catalogue, deAk calls artists’ books a “library vaccine, a healing agent formed from the very disease they cure,” eloquently asserting, “Artists’ books enchant libraries. Each shelf should have one hidden on it to surprise the sluggish researcher.”12 As a distributor, Printed Matter has become not only an important hub for circulating artists’ books, but also for educating both the public and institutions about the importance of this medium, building historic significance through the encouragement of individual and structured collecting.
In 1979 Printed Matter was awarded non-profit status, and the organization began to take shape into the form that we know today, with a full calendar of book launches and exhibitions that highlight emerging artists and independent publishers. The program continued to grow, and its 10-year anniversary marked an important milestone for artist bookmakers and their audience. In 1986, Printed Matter celebrated its anniversary with the exhibition, TEN FOR TEN: Ten Years of Art Between the Covers at the storefront on Lispenard Street, a postcard by Jenny Holzer “YOU ARE CAUGHT THINKING ABOUT KILLING ANYONE YOU WANT,” and a special edition of its mailer catalogue. Designed by Louise Lawler, the catalogue is ambitious in length and scope. Over 150 pages it includes 10 essays by artists’ books makers and thinkers such as Richard Ogust, Phillpot, and comics author Lynda Barry. The list of contributors to this impressive book doesn’t end there; it also includes a director’s letter by Susan Wheeler, editing by Jack Bankowsky (who would go on to Artforum), and catalogue entries by Nancy Princenthal (now a well-known art critic and historian). The year before this decade celebration saw the publication of the invaluable Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology of Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons of the Visual Studies Workshop, which opens with a preface by Dick Higgins, publisher of the Something Else Press. Higgins argues that the moment for artists’ books has come, noting that since artists had long been making publications, “This is a matter of audience more than of artist.” This audience was built in part through the efforts of Printed Matter.
At first Printed Matter’s own collecting strategy was broad: small and affordable editions made in no less than 100 copies that were interested in the book as a form, an alternative space for art—no catalogues or illustrated books with texts by anyone other than the artist.13 The ethos today remains similar, with updated open submission guidelines that highlight inexpensive and open or large editions. Leslie Lasiter, the current Bibliographer and Inventory Manager who joined Printed Matter in 2013, told me about some of the ways the submission process has changed over the years: “As artists’ books in general become more popular with more book fairs and more exposure to the public, there is a stronger understanding of what an artists’ book is, whereas when I first started, a lot of the submissions were not artists’ books by how we define it.” In its early years, Printed Matter sent out postcards and letters inviting artists to submit their books on consignment. But now, as Lasiter told me, “Besides submissions, there is also Instagram and social media, we can see all these great books and reach out to artists that way.” This opens up the potential to connect with artists who may not know that Printed Matter continues to have an open submission policy, or perhaps they don’t even know much about artists’ books, even though they’ve created one.
This mission to make space for underrepresented creatives has also attracted a range of different publishers, from young and independent artists to those working outside the traditional fine arts. “Although we generally have our books and magazines distributed by much larger and more ‘professional’ organizations,” Françoise Mouly, publisher of RAW Books explained in a 1984 letter of support, “We continue to deal with Printed Matter because we feel it allows us to reach a different, more inaccessible (but no less valuable) audience than we can reach throughout more commercial means.” In 2004, AA Bronson—founder of General Idea and Art Metropole, and who also started the Printed Matter book fair program in 2005—was appointed director and with the help of Max Schumann, they “began to do these events for emerging artists, for young people. And very quickly—people heard, more people came,” he recounts in his oral history. “But I just said, you know, just keep saying yes. And these people started to come in and hang out there more and look at things. And then—and of course they wanted to see each other’s stuff.”14
Now in its 44th year, Printed Matter remains true to its founding mission principles, continuing to foster emerging artists and publishers as well as distribute books by established ones. As its 13th director Schumann, who has worked for the organization in varying capacities since the late eighties and became director in 2015, said in an interview with the Rail, “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.” In its fifth and current location on 11th Avenue in Manhattan (with a satellite popup shop location on St. Marks Place housed within the Swiss Institute as a nod to their downtown origins), the large space includes more room dedicated to a robust exhibition schedule, and can accommodate events. Speaking with Keith Gray, the Programming Manager who joined the organization in 2010, the word that comes up most often in his descriptions of these exhibitions, events, and publications, is “ambitious,” highlighting the importance of creating “an entry point into the work” for a diverse and growing audience.
The exhibition program began with window installations at Printed Matter’s first storefront location at 7 Lispenard Street (1977–1989). Lippard initially ran the program: “I don’t think of it as curating, but I organized the windows. The windows faced out to the street, and artists did political pieces in the windows. They were almost all pretty heavily political.”15 Much like the spirit of artists’ books seeks to reach a wider, broader, more diverse audience than traditional gallery exhibitions, the window installations were public artworks visible to everyday street goers. Window artists over the years included Jenny Holzer (1979), Barbara Kruger (1979), Richard Prince (1980), Suzanne Lacy (1982), Guerilla Girls (1986), Sara Cwynar (2012), Eve Fowler & Sam Gorden (2013), and Carmen Winant (2015). Over the years the program expanded to include exhibitions inside the bookstore. In 1992, Schumann curated By Any Means Necessary: Photocopier Artists’ Books and the Politics of Accessible Printing Technologies, which emphasized the DIY punk aesthetic that characterized the organization in the early ’90s. Many of the shows have a similar focus on editions and printed materials, such as General Idea Editions 1967–1995 (2003) and Yoko Ono: Editions, Ephemera & Printed Works (2004). In 2015, Schumann co-organized Learn to Read Art, an exhibition of Printed Matter’s history at New York University’s 80WSE gallery, with their director Jonathan Berger, which largely grew out of post-Sandy archiving efforts.16
Some more recent shows are even more ambitiously archival, like The Schizophrenic Bomb: Richard Tyler and the Uranian Press (2017) that featured troves of archival printed ephemera produced by R.O. (Richard Oviet) Tyler’s Uranian Press, which he co-founded with his wife, the artist Dorothea Baer. The exhibition staged Printed Matter’s back wall with a crowded, salon-style hanging and vitrines below featuring editioned prints, books, and other ephemera by Tyler (who died in 1983), in addition to an “immersive environment” that recreated some of the wall murals from his studio space, and the cart from which he sold many of his materials. This type of dense and all-encompassing show is characteristic of Printed Matter’s potential as a non-traditional gallery. As Gray noted, the “bookstore is an unconventional exhibition space that offers challenges but also an opportunity to show work in an approachable way.” The book can be presented as an artifact and artwork, but also an object available for purchase. Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, a 2017 exhibition, highlighted the work of the Chicago-based writer, book artist, and publisher (Sara Ranchouse Publishing) and was accompanied by a book published by Printed Matter (in addition to copies of her other Ranchouse titles, available to buy). The more recent Everything is where it is expected (2019), an exhibition by artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti that examines the “typographic articulations informed by the box braid and other hair braiding traditions”17 through letterpress and book-objects as well as beauty store supplies, is indicative of expansive considerations of “publishing” since it breaks from the expected show of books to include objects and editions of printed scarves.
In recent years Printed Matter has returned to publishing books under three different branches: books published on the occasion of an exhibition, as previously noted, as well as two titles commissioned annually by invitation, and the Emerging Artist open submission program (which is open to New York artists). The commissioning program is still fairly new, the first artists having been engaged in 2017: And Yet My Mask is Powerful by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme appropriated the visual language of screen culture, using screenshots of layered web browsers to document young people in Palestinian settlements wearing 3D-printed copies of Neolithic masks that originated in the West Bank. The Emerging Artists Publication Series began in 2014 with its first title, Max Stolkin’s Versions, a small 60-page, color offset printed paperback published in an edition of 350, which sold for $10. Stolkin combined texts by literary figures and cultural theorists including Lewis Carroll and Bertrand Russell with images from the Hubble telescope and stock images of modernist tables, using the turning of the pages to build a narrative. “It was surely the thing that kickstarted the work I’ve been doing since—and I would not have been able to go about that work so adventurously were it not for their early support,” Stolkin wrote to me in an email exchange. A core part of the series is to fund projects specifically that could not be funded in other ways, according to Gray. Stolkin explained that he studied literature before turning to art: “through art I had been slowly but surely making my way back to reading and writing and working on the printed page—the series was a hugely impactful green light for something I’d been sensing and asking myself—if those two interests of mine indeed need be, or were a separate thing at all.”
Stolkin’s words underscore not only the program’s larger significance to his career, but also more broadly to the field of artists’ books by showing young creatives the possibilities of interdisciplinary making with books. Other early books in the series include Dawn Kim’s New York Testament (2015), which collects imagery from various religious tracts found on the subway, removing the text in order to capture their visual messages and aesthetic choices. “I gained so much from going into [Printed Matter’s] shop on 10th Avenue next to the Catholic Church—there was that church and then this church,” Kim wrote to me. Kim describes the same aspect of discovery, “It was a place that made me feel less lonely coming across books that were adjacent to my way of thinking I had doubted or dismissed.” For many of the artists represented at Printed Matter, books become a way of connecting with others who share their vision, and as an organization Printed Matter offers an affirmation of their creative thinking.
Another aspect of Printed Matter’s dedication to community is recurring participation. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, for instance, recently produced a fundraising edition for Printed Matter, but his involvement with the organization started much earlier. “Printed Matter was the center of my world as a young, just-beginning photographer and zine-maker in New York. In 2005 they carried my first zines and kept a portfolio of prints in their vitrine,” Sepuya told me in an email. “I’d bike in from Brooklyn with new materials to share with them, and through Printed Matter my work was introduced to countless people and many long-lasting relationships to mentors, collectors and fellow artists came from that.” Sepuya’s continued engagement is characteristic of the way in which the organization moves beyond simply being a distributor, publisher, or exhibitor. Printed Matter also fosters a community built on lasting relationships with artists at all levels. Be Oakley, who runs the publishing initiative GenderFail, highlights this level of support. A couple of years ago, GenderFail was given a dedicated publisher shelf at Printed Matter, which acts much like the “packages” of the old catalogues, highlighting a selection of titles, but also putting their materials in the larger context of artists’ book publishing conversations. “From a practical aspect, a significant portion of my yearly income comes from selling books and attending both the New York Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair,” Oakley tells me in our email exchange. “I recently took the leap of running GenderFail full time and I don’t think I would have been able to take this step without Printed Matter’s continued support of my work.”
As a non-profit, Printed Matter depends on the support of members as much as it offers this support back to a community. Year after year, the organization asks for both monetary and in-kind donations. Artists donate their time and skills in creating fundraising editions, offer words for their campaigns, and occupy the space with their creative energy. Their activities on behalf of Printed Matter promote the more traditional membership program, which is open to individuals and institutions who make a yearly tax-deductible donation and in exchange can receive discounted rates and tiered gifts.
The best way to tell the story of Printed Matter is through artists, of course. A current membership flyer at the store designed by Barbara Kruger is worth quoting at length: “In times of raw brutality and lawless greed, PRINTED MATTER matters. In times when narcissism smashes into voyeurism, PRINTED MATTER matters. In times of rampant corruption, obsessive flaunting, and lack of empathy, PRINTED MATTER matters. In times of public shame and shamelessness, of white grievance, and ecological disaster, PRINTED MATTER matters. In times of scarily short attention spans (including my own), and of lives lived on or through screens, PRINTED MATTER matters.” True to its founding principles of political activism through art, Printed Matter continues to demonstrate how printed matter matters. Their robust program suggests how artists’ publishing remains integral to the history of conceptual art, but also to emerging artists and young publishers creating today. While the vision of artists’ books in supermarkets, totally removed from the forces of the art market may not have succeeded, Printed Matter’s storefront and model of artists’ book distribution does much to continue this vision. Whereas for many, the skyrocketing prices make art a luxury commodity for the few, through the efforts of Printed Matter, artists’ books can remain art for the many.
1. Letter to the Internal Revenue Services, Printed Matter Archives, March 10, 1979. Although the official letter is signed by “Amy Baker for the Board of Directors,” a draft of this letter is also in the archives undated but written by Lucy Lippard. My quotes draw from the Lippard text.
2. Oral history interview with Lucy Lippard, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, March 15, 2011.
3. Oral history interview with Pat Steir, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, March 1-2, 2008.
4. “We started to think about creating an artist books bookstore while we were in Amsterdam for Sol’s exhibition Prenten-Prints at the Stedelijk Museum in 1974.” Justin Polera with photographs by Adrian Gaut, “Printed Matter: An Oral History,” Document Journal, May 18, 2015.
5. “The Founding and Early History of Printed Matter with Mike Glier, Lucy Lippard, Clive Phillpot, Pat Steir & Martha Wilson at Judson Church,” public panel at Judson Church, NY, February 13, 2015.
6. Appeal Letter to IRS non-profit denial, March 10, 1979, p. 3. This portion of the letter is not included in the Lippard draft, so it is not clear who the specific author is.
7. Oral history interview with Martha Wilson, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, May 17-18, 2017.
8. Martha Rosler, Letter of support for fundraising, Feb 29, 1984.
9. Oral history interview with Lucy Lippard, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, March 15, 2011.
10. Appeal Letter to IRS non-profit denial, March 10, 1979, p. 3. This portion of the letter is not included in the Lippard draft, so it is not clear who the specific author is.
11. Clive Phillpot, “Letter to Librarians,” in “HEART: A Collection of Artists’ Books for Libraries, Museums, and Collectors,” New York: Printed Matter, 1980.
12. Edit deAk, “According to the Book,” in 1981 Printed Matter Catalog Artists Books.
13. Discussion points made by Lippard, Phillpot, and Schumann during “The Founding and Early History of Printed Matter with Mike Glier, Lucy Lippard, Clive Phillpot, Pat Steir & Martha Wilson at Judson Church,” public panel at Judson Church, NY, February 13, 2015.
14. Oral history interview with AA Bronson, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, March 3, 5, and 6, 2017.
15. Oral history interview with Lucy Lippard, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, March 15, 2011.
16. In 1991 there was an exhibition with this title at Art Basel. It would be used again and again for exhibitions related to Printed Matter’s history and production, including a 2010 show of fundraising editions at the New York Art Book Fair.
17. Exhibition press release available online.