When I arrived at the museum as its new librarian in 1983, there was no actual collection of artists’ books. Seeds had been planted, however, in the form of a few pieces acquired from a 1981 exhibition, Artists’ Books, that had been organized by then chief curator Graham Beal—including the aptly titled Book by Lucas Samaras, currently on view in the exhibition Text/Messages: Books by Artists. This signaled to me that artists’ books were on the radar screen at the Walker, and worthy of serious consideration. Having taught printmaking and photography at a liberal arts college, I knew a little something about artists’ books myself, and decided that the development of the library’s collection would have to include them. After all, why shouldn’t artists with paintings or sculptures in our permanent collection also be represented by their book works?
A couple of key events in those early days helped me to build the collection. One was a gift in 1986 from Sol LeWitt: a $500 donation to be matched by the Walker and to be used at Printed Matter, a nonprofit shop in New York that has been a key source since the ‘70s for publications made by artists. That doesn’t sound like much now, but it was exceedingly generous; back then, I suspect you could acquire any of Ed Ruscha’s books for $15 or less. I also acquired 112 books, including an early work by Richard Prince, from Judith Hoffberg in California, who has for years published Umbrella, a reviewing source for artists’ books.
When it comes to acquiring artist’s books for the library, I am, like the Walker’s visual art curators, constantly trying to balance the need for new works with an attempt to acquire out-of- print and historical material that might represent a significant period or style of bookmaking. One of our goals is for the library to have books by all artists represented in the Walker’s permanent collection who have made books, so in an effort to fill those gaps, I’m always scanning the lists of offerings that antiquarian dealers send around. That’s how we came to acquire, in 2008, a copy of Der Blaue Reiter, a 1912 almanac with illustrations by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. First and foremost on my current list of desiderata is Dieter Roth’s Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage) from the 1960s, made from an actual sausage recipe and substituting a ground-up novel for meat. There were only 50 made, so this is quite an elusive work.
Over the years, many books have come into the collection as a result of artists bringing in their latest work. I remember Laurie Coughlin, a book artist and graphic designer from California, coming to the library carrying a small cooler: inside were artificial ice cubes, a pear, and several ice cream sandwiches—that is, books made to look like the real thing. It was a charming way to get my attention, and several works from her Motormouth Press came into the collection that morning.
The visual arts staff is another source for artists’ books, passing on those they receive or that they pick up during their travels to far-flung places. Curators also make their own gifts to the collection, as former chief curator Richard Flood did with Sigmar Polke’s huge book, Daphne. Other gifts in the show include one from Ellsworth Kelly, who donated his Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard; and Salvador Dali’s Alice in Wonderland, a gift from the estate of Phoebe Hansen.
Recently, we made our first acquisitions of artists’ books by bidding over the phone at an auction from the estate of the legendary Eugenia Butler, whose gallery was the first to show work by Dieter Roth in Los Angeles. Along with the books were prints and objects, and the prices climbed, in many cases far beyond what I had thought feasible. As a result of that nail-biting session, we managed to get three out-of-print books, two by Roth, whose work has been extensively collected by the Walker, and one by James Lee Byars.
Today, the library’s collection of 35,000 books includes about 1,600 artists’ books. Simon Cutts, a great bookmaker and publisher of other artists’ books through his Coracle Press, recently quoted an overheard and intentionally misheard question: “What’s the difference between artists’ books and books made by artists that are not artists’ books, and books?” It is indeed a confusing topic—but one that is endlessly enjoyable for me as I continue to sort it out.