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Rosemary Furtak: Artist Books

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 While working at the Walker Art Center as one of the 2006-7 design fellows, I greatly appreciated the Walker’s amazing library resource. A trip to the library was always a welcome break from the heavy workload in the design department, but also […]

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While working at the Walker Art Center as one of the 2006-7 design fellows, I greatly appreciated the Walker’s amazing library resource. A trip to the library was always a welcome break from the heavy workload in the design department, but also an excuse to visit to Rosemary, the Walker’s librarian for 25 years. Rosemary always had wonderful stories to tell, and in particular I enjoyed her commentary on the extensive artist book collection. Recently I decided to ask her a few more questions:

Did you inherit a collection; how did the collection at Walker get started?

When I arrived at the museum in 1983, there was no collection of artists’ books to speak of, but an initiative had been made by Graham Beal, Chief Curator who organized an exhibition, Artists’ Books, in 1981. Remnants from that exhibition formed a small nucleus of material, enough to let me know that artists’ books were on the radar screen and worthy of serious consideration. Collection development would have to include artists’ books. After all why shouldn’t an artist, whose painting or sculpture might be in our permanent collection, be represented by the bookworks as well?

How do you go about acquiring artist books for the Walker collection and are there any guiding principles behind your selection?

Books for the Walker Library Collection are acquired by various means. For out-of-print books, it is through antiquarian dealers whose lists are exceedingly helpful when trying to fill gaps in the collection. This year the Library bought a copy of Der Blaue Reiter (1912). This almanac has illustrations by Kandinsky and Marc, whose masterpiece, Large Blue Horses, is one of the anchors of our permanent collection. These lists of rare books come through the mail but increasingly are found on the Web. The Library tries to have books by all artists represented in our permanent collection who have made books. Many of these permanent collection artists are prolific book artists–LeWitt, Weiner, and Ruscha come to mind. Also there are outlets for recently published artists’ books, i.e. Granary, Booklyn, Printed Matter, and Women’s Studio Workshop to name only four. The reps for these and other vendors are constantly calling or sending e-mail alerts. Artists themselves often make appointments to show their work. Over the years many books have come into the collection as a result of artists bringing in their latest book. The visual arts staff is also a source for artists’ books. Curators are often given books or they pick
them up during their travels to far-flung places. Lastly, this year, for the first time, we acquired several books at auction from the estate of Cornelia Butler who showed Dieter Roth for the first time in Los Angeles. As a result of a nail-biting session on the phone we managed to get three out-of-print books, two by Dieter Roth and one by James Lee Byars. I am constantly trying to balance the need for new titles with an attempt to acquire out-of-print material that might represent a significant period or style of book making. Yes, there are Futurist and Surrealist books in the collection!

What constitutes an artist book?

This question of what constitutes an artist’s book reminds me of something I saw recently in a publication called Some Forms of Availability. In the section “ Polemical Postcards” Simon Cutts, author, quotes the following over-heard and intentionally mis-heard question: “ What’s the difference between artist’s books and books made by artists which are not artists’ books, and books?” See how confusing this topic can be? Cutts, a great bookmaker and publisher of Coracle Press, spends a good deal of time trying to sort it out for the reader. Martha Wilson, who founded Printed Matter, once said an artist’s book was a book that was more self-conscious of itself as book (or words to that effect). I maintain, as a collector of more than 1600 artists’ books, that it is a book that refuses to behave like a book (like the 35,000 books that sit in the stacks).

Could you talk a bit more about what you mean by refuse’ to behave like a book?

I mean books that have no pages, books that refuse to open, books that wear trousers like Daniel Spoerri’s Kosta Theos: “ Dogma I Am God”. I mean books that when opened become sculpture, Teraguchi’s Cuckoo for Coracle Press, Rein Jansma’s Stairs or books that cannot stand upright; Unnecessary Disclosures by Sarah Peters rolls like a ball and Sarah Parkel’s book, Even The Birds Were On Fire is meant to hang like a Buddhist prayer flag. I mean books with no title page or table of contents or index, books devoid of text. Think Sol LeWitt, but there are others too numerous to mention.

Why do you think artists are attracted to working with the book form?

Artists were attracted to working with the book form originally because, as Marian Goodman who founded Multiples, Inc. put it: “ Artists were really interested in experimenting and also in the idea of reaching a larger population and younger public who could actually afford to collect such work.” An excellent example of what she’s talking about would be Artists and Photographs. Published by Multiples, Inc. in 1970 it is a box full of multiples and artists’ books, Clearsky by Bruce Nauman and Babycakes by Edward Ruscha among them. Nowadays I am not so sure what the motivation might be; it might vary with each artist. The examples would be endless.

I agree that accessibility and reaching a wider public must be a big motivating factor behind producing artist books. Do you think an artist book offers anything else that the artists’ work doesn’t – the serial nature of a book for example, or the opportunity to use text? I can’t help but think, that with your unusually large and comprehensive experience with artist books certain threads must begin to emerge?

Artists who deliberately choose to work with poets must see the text as an opportunity for expression, an easy way into bookmaking because it follows a tradition, and there are many, many, many examples in Walker’s collection from Lesley Dill who took the poetry of Emily Dickinson to Ellen Phelan who illustrated Ann Lauterbach’s prose as part of the Whitney Museum Friends of the Library publishing effort that paired an artist and an author and commissioned a book every year for some 15 years, to Led Almost By My Tie, poems by Jeremy Sigler and images by Jessica Stockholder published just a few months ago, a book that represents our latest acquisition.

Finally, are there, in your opinion, artist books that have added substantially to, or materially altered, the interpretation of their work by the wider community? What would your most significant example be?

Although there are many examples, I will cite Lawrence Weiner whose first book Statements (1968), a collection of general and specific statements as works of art, puts his art directly into the hands of his public. The meaning and the consequence of the work is left in the hands of the reader. His propositions are all works which the artist fabricated although no documentation is offered. The book itself, with its recipes for making art, whether public or private or left unrealized, is the only lasting effect.

Fig. 1:Wassily Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter, edited by Kandinsky and Franz Marc; 2nd Ed.; Munich: R. Piper, 1914

Fig. 2-3:Daniel Spoerri, Kosta Theos, “ Dogma I Am God”, Lebeer-Hossmann, 1987. Edition of 25

Fig. 4:Yoko Terauchi, Cuckoo; Coracle Press, 1992. Edition of 30

Fig. 5-6:Rein Jansma, Stairs, Elffers, 1982 Fig. 7-8:Sarah Peters, Necessary Disclosures, Women’s Studio Workshop, 2003. Edition of 40

Fig. 9-11:Jeremy Sigler (poems) and Jessica Stockholder (images) in collaboration with Ruth Lingen, Led Almost By My Tie, 2007, Edition of 30

Fig. 12-13:Lawrence Weiner, Apples & Eggs/Salt & Pepper, CCA Kitakyushu, Japan, 1999

  • Images of Rosemary’s display window — which highlights a bit of the collection — has been posted to the Walker’s Flick’r account here.

  • Sam Demas says:

    I love the Rosemary’s displays! Won’t you come do one at Carleton?! I hope more libraries will collect artist books and its clear that Rosemary can help them think through how to shape their collections.

    Cheers to Rosemary for her work in bringing this genre to life at Walker,

    Sam