Learn to Read Art: An Interview with Lucy R. Lippard on Printed Matter
In conjunction with Learn to Read Art at the Feldman Gallery + Project Space, Lucy R. Lippard speaks about about the history of Printed Matter.
Learn to Read Art: A History of Printed Matter presents a survey of the publishing output of Printed Matter, Inc. over the last 35 years. A non-profit arts organization, Printed Matter was founded by a group of artists and art-workers, and was part of the alternative space movement in New York City. Essentially it was established in response to the growing phenomenon of contemporary artists’ book production. In the context of widespread experimentation in the 1960’s and 70’s – a general challenging of traditional art forms and media – many artists looked to the book both as a formal device rich in possibilities, as well as for its social and political potency. Artists’ books published in larger editions had (and still have) a dual appeal – both as a public art form with the potential to reach broad audiences, and as intimate and interactive works. Printed Matter’s founding directive was to facilitate the distribution of this new democratic and experimental body of artwork in book form, as well as to promote its further understanding and appreciation. Decades later, this role remains the organizations main focus.
While Printed Matter’s primary function is as a distribution hub for artists’ books and related artist-made publications (Printed Matter represents over 15,000 titles by some 5,000 artists), it also serves as an essential educational resource for both the artists’ book community as well as the general public. Printed Matter coordinates a full schedule of programs and events in support of this mission, including publishing, exhibitions, book launches, artists’ talks, performances, and a range of other artists’ projects and activities. In order to support these undertakings (along with other forms of fundraising), Printed Matter also publishes special editions with artists from its extended community. From lapel pins to skateboards to high end photo editions, Printed Matter has benefited from a steady output of these limited editions, including works by John Baldessari, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Lawrence Weiner among many others.
This exhibition assembles a broad sampling of Printed Matter’s artists’ books and special editions, as well as various ephemera produced over the years in support of its programs – print catalogs, posters, flyers, postcards – to convey how Printed Matter exists as much more than just a bookstore. The main legacy of Printed Matter is the tens of thousands of artists’ books and publications that have been circulating around the world over the past four decades. Learn to Read Art offers a distillation of a broad and diverse community and body of work, ultimately committed to experimental and accessible artistic practices.
Max Schumann, Associate Director, Printed Matter, Inc.
Interview with Lucy R. Lippard on Printed Matter
Julie Ault, December 2006
Julie Ault Many art groups and organizations began with a couple friends, colleagues, or like-minded individuals deciding to start something up. I would love to know the origin story of Printed Matter: the who, what, when, where, how, and why of it, and what triggered its inception.
Lucy R. Lippard My first vivid memory of Printed Matter is sitting in my loft with Sol LeWitt (in front of the coffee table he made me years ago, piled with a mess of books; he always remarked on it) and he came up with the idea of publishing artists books. Then another memory of immediately asking Edit DeAk and Mike (Walter) Robinson (who were doing the magazine Art-Rite at the time) to come in on it and sitting with them in the same place. Mimi Wheeler was brought in soon, and Irena Zahn (who ran the place when it was in the Fine Arts Building on Hudson St., our first office) and quite soon Pat Steir. Amy Baker (Sandback) was a valuable addition. And then Carol Androcchio was brought in as book keeper, became another integral member of the group, and then she and Sol got married and have remained major supporters ever since. (Carl Andre came in much later, though for some reason he is often listed as a founder.) Mike Glier was involved, and Nancy Linn. So was Ingrid Sischy. Jack Bankowsky packed books at one point; many years later he edited Artforum.
I don’t remember who thought of the name but it came out of the blue right at the beginning. The term artist’s book was already around, from a show curated by Diane Vanderlip at Moore College of Art in 1973.
Printed Matter was triggered by Sol’s involvement in making artists’ books which got no respect; dealers used them as freebies – bait to draw in collectors to buy the big stuff. We both took them more seriously and wanted them to become a real option for artists. (This was also a point in my own life when I couldn’t sit down at a table with people without starting an organization…)
JA What were the larger contexts at the time that primarily impacted on Printed Matter’s founding?
LRL A major model was Seth Siegelaub’s International General. From the late 60s, he published artists’ books with Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Doug Huebler, and Joseph Kosuth, Jan Dibbets, and others, and catalogues of international shows that were actually the shows themselves, and the famous Xerox book (which included Sol and Carl). Seth was already in Europe by then but we were all in touch.
JA So Printed Matter was initially a publisher?
LRL Yes. Beginning in 1976 for a couple of years, we did several books – by Ellen Lanyon, Michelle Stuart, GAAG (Guerrilla Art Action Group), among others. Franklin Furnace (Martha Wilson) was thinking along the same lines at the same time. So we divvied it up, with us doing the publishing/distribution while she began an Archive of Artists’ Books (now at MoMA). Publishing was too expensive and distribution seemed far more democratic. But for years Printed Matter produced little multiples and things. We were all into artists’ books at the time because they seemed yet another way to get art out of the gallery/museum, to give artists control of their own production, and to get art out to a broader audience. Somebody wrote about “the page as an alternative space.” I did a show of women’s artists’ books called “Speaking Volumes” at AIR, and Mike Glier and I curated “Vigilance” at the Furnace, which was artists’‘ books for social change. It was arranged on card tables (with the books tied to the table legs to avoid their disappearance) with an emblematic kitschy “object” in the center of each table according to its theme.
JA What defined the artists’ book initially and what were the criteria for their support and inclusion at Printed Matter?
LRL Artist’s book meant a book by an artist. I hate it when they are called “artist books” which is ungrammatical and meaningless. My own definition of an artist’s book was quite strict: mass produced, relatively cheap, accessible to a broad public, all art and no commentary or preface or anything that wasn’t part of the artwork by anyone – artist or critic; the sequential nature made it a single piece (maybe at times a whole “exhibition” but that never appealed to me as much as the holistic view). Hand-made, one-of-a-kind books were something else – often very beautiful, but the kind of “precious objects” I hoped we’d escape. We also distributed artists’ magazines, like Fuse, from Canada, and odd catalogues, like my pack of index cards for a series of “conceptual shows” I did in the late 60s early 70s – the ones with the unmemorable numbers for titles (the populations of the cities they originated in). I resisted selling my weird little feminist “novel” (I See/You Mean) there because it wasn’t an artist’s book according to my criteria, but I have to admit that eventually I did give Printed Matter some copies as there was no other distributor.
JA Is the artist’s book still a vital form (and designation) for you?
LRL I can’t say that the artist’s book finally fulfilled my idealistic, populist expectations for it. Even if they had stayed cheap and easily distributed, they remained art, avant-garde art. They were perhaps accessible in terms of form but not of content. What Printed Matter sells now (and has to, to survive) is artists’ books and everything else, including books on art, which I would have excluded. But the place is still great, still unique, and it’s amazing that it has lasted thirty years!
JA Was there an initial philosophy expressed by PM?
LRL I never thought in terms of a philosophy and I doubt if Sol did. It was pretty pragmatic – a way to get this new form out into the world. Maybe we did a mission statement at some point? I’m not sure.
JA What was Printed Matter’s organizational structure like and how did it fund itself at first?
LRL Being an organizational and financial klutz, I never had that much to do with that part, though we had meetings all the time and I’m sure I put in more than my two-cents-worth. I’m sure Sol financed the beginnings and then we got grants and even sold books! At some point we became a “board” instead of a collective, and more people were added. I lived in England in 1977 and wasn’t around when a lot of that was being figured out.
JA The PM windows program, for which you invited artists to make site-specific installations for the membrane between interior and exterior, were an important platform for refreshingly sociopolitical communication. I recall some of those installations vividly, i.e. those by Muntadas and the one by Richard Armijo. What was the genesis of the windows program and how did it function curatorially?
LRL The windows program was my baby. When we moved to Lispenard Street in the late 70s we had these big double windows and instead of making them like most store windows, luring people inside to buy, we aimed them out, at passersby. It was public art. The store was below Canal St and next to a big Post Office facility so our audience was far more diverse than it became later. I think we had just started PADD Political Art Documentation/Distribution (its founding meeting was held at Printed Matter in 1979; Clive Phillpot, then librarian at MoMA, was involved with both and has continued to be a major writer on artists’ books; he’s back in England now.) I was deeply involved in public/political art. I “curated” the windows the whole time, asking artist friends and co-cultural workers to do them, and people sent in proposals I think we had a grant or something for $100 per window for materials. They were done by a huge array of artists, a lot from outside NYC and some from outside of the US. You and Andres Serrano did one – a photograph of a nude woman with blood dripping down her leg paired with a photo of a nude man carrying a skinned animal. Our landlord objected to it and we just turned it to face into the store with a notice on the outside that this one was hot stuff and you had to go in to see it. The Armijo was about generic foods – poverty, black and white boxes of cornflakes and cans of beans… I have slides and/or names of forty five of the window artists. Sometimes they were timed to coincide with a major demonstration or issue. (At the time of the June 12th 1982 huge anti-nuclear march in New York, Jerry Kearns and I did one of the Dutch image of a woman kicking the bomb out, labeled “Kick” “Ass” in the two windows.) I always wanted to get a grant to interview people as they passed by to see what worked and what didn’t, in terms of raising consciousness about the issues covered in the windows. But I never got it together to do it…
JA As a founder who clearly had an investment in the original mission of Printer Matter, have there been shifts in Printed Matter’s history that you were critical of or distressed by?
LRL When Printed Matter moved to the Dia space on Wooster St. in SoHo, it moved into the mainstream artworld in a way, I became less involved. Did they do anything with those windows? I think so, but I didn’t organize them.
JA For a period of a couple or three years, when I was on the board, I organized the PM Windows at 77 Wooster Street and invited artists to make specific installations in them. These included Mary Lum’s neon palm reader sign that said, Reader / Advisor, Marlene McCarty and Bethany John’s “Down Pat” that fused images of Pat Roberston and Pat Buchanan, and Thomas Eggerer and Jochen Klein’s investigation into ideology of Ikea design.
LRL By the time they moved to Chelsea I was no longer living in New York. The store had to get more commercial to survive, but the longtime presence of Max Schumann has kept the exhibition program and the political focus going. I did eventually become a visitor, and I often just slink in and out when I’‘m in the city, without identifying myself.
JA In its first incarnation, Printed Matter had a community feel inside it as well as a community building function, which changed to some degree with the move from Lispenard to Wooster Street. Printed Matter in essence functions as a store but has always been simultaneously a distribution site that essentially exhibits what is for sale, mounts exhibitions within its space, holds events, etc. That hybrid aspect of being part store part non-profit venue presents some perceptual problems, particularly in terms of funding. I recall when I was on the board in the 90s being dismayed by the organization’s perpetual insolvency. In order to compete in the contemporary field, which clearly has changed dramatically since the early 80s, Printed Matter became more commercial in the sense that the offerings are not exclusively artists books and there is greater attention to selling so as to operate in the black along current lines of thinking. How has that shift come across to you?
The Guerrilla Girls’ Art Museum Activity Book. 2004. Courtesy Printed Matter.
LRL Printed Matter was originally a community of radical/avant-garde/experimental (not always the same thing) artists. We were the only place artist’s bookmakers could go and we always got flack when anything was rejected from the store. Whoever was running it at the time did the choosing, and maybe the Board got involved when controversy arose. Printed Matter was an incredible support system for artists (despite its insolvency and various organizational problems). I lost interest to some extent when it became mostly a commercial endeavor. But it couldn’t succeed without doing that. It’s the story of so many non-profits…With my resounding lack of talent for structure and finance, I can’t throw the first stone.
JA You’ve cofounded other groups and entities including Ad Hoc Women Artists Committee, PAD/D, Heresies, Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, and Women’s Slide Registry although I think Printed Matter is the longest running. When did your involvement with Printer Matter downsize or change to one of a visitor? How do you relate to leaving the central governance or arena of such endeavors? (I’ve always felt a dilemma in negotiating saying goodbye to past activities, such as Group Material – on the one hand wanting to get distance but on the other not negate that history I am identified with and perpetually called upon to narrate. It’s strikingly generous to me that you are still giving interviews and reflecting on activities you were involved with decades ago. Is this purely from a sense of responsibility or something you also enjoy as a way of reflecting on your own work and concerns over time? What is the responsibility of telling those histories? (Is there a cut-off date?)
LRL I much enjoy thinking back to that period, even if my memory for details is less than wonderful. It was a great time when a lot of energy was poured into issue-oriented and activist art; I was, needless to say, in my element. There was a terrific community in the late 70s early 80s when all you young folks appeared on the scene and Group Material, Co Lab, Fashion Moda, ABC no Rio, World War 3 Comics, Heresies, Franklin Furnace, Printed Matter, Art Against Apartheid, Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America, and PAD/D were going strong. A lot of us were involved in more than one and there was a lot of working together. The cut-off date for me was probably when I started going to Boulder for five months a year (1986–1994) just as the NYC art activist community was falling apart. I had a great feminist and student activist community in Boulder and most of my energy was going there; also my father had died and I was taking care of my mother part time, which kind of changed my life for 8 years. By the time she died in 1992 I was ready for another life. Activism in rural New Mexico is no less hectic but entirely different…
At the same time I think we all have a responsibility to keep the memories of what we learned in that period alive, so newer art activists don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. You, Greg Sholette, Doug Ashford, and others are doing that work too. And it’s still important.
Julie Ault is a New York City-based artist, curator, writer, and editor who independently and collaboratively organizes exhibitions and multiform projects. Her practice emphasizes interrelationships between cultural production and politics. She was on the board of Printed Matter from 1991 to 1999 and curated its windows program between 1992 and 1996.