When I came to the Getty in 1983 and we began to build the collections—beginning with a small curatorial library and three rare books—even collecting early-twentieth-century rare books felt transgressive at first. Avant-garde editions with uneven lines of text (hard to imagine how they set the type) or held together with industrial quality bolts seemed really crazy. Not to mention the Russian books of Ferro-Concrete poetry, with wallpaper covers in loud colors and goofy designs, or the Italian Futurist books with metal covers. They had titles like Tango with Cows, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and The Lyrical Watermelon.
In 1985, with the acquisition of the Jean Brown Archive, we acquired even more—many more—of these revolutionary twentieth-century/Dada/Surrealist books that questioned, often not politely, and basically ignored the traditions of editorial authority and book design: Marcel Duchamp’s boxes, Max Ernst’s proto-graphic novels, Man Ray’s prescient photobooks, artists’ magazines such as 291 and 391.
As we unpacked Jean Brown’s notable Fluxus collections, our director just happened to swing by. He took one look at the boxes, books, and objects, and said “What is this [#%]!” I had never heard an expletive from him, and we quickly closed up the shelves. Looking back, as I became familiar with Dieter Roth’s books, which reference substances best managed by toilets, he may have been right.
For me, this wake-up call about new possibilities for my favorite things, books, was similar to the moment in which I discarded a boring boyfriend and moved on to the punk-rock drummer who’s now my husband. If this is TMI, I suggest that you take a short break and watch the master-printer Didier Mutel making etchings with Sid Vicious singing “My Way” in the background.
Together with Dada and Surrealist books and ephemera, one of Jean’s Brown’s great passions was artists’ books. Among her diverse collections, the artists’ books were collected as part of archives, such as Ben Patterson’s, or her collections of printed works from artists’ small presses: such as Coracle (Simon Cutts, and now Erica van Horn), Wild Hawthorn (Ian Hamilton Finlay), and Something Else Press (Dick Higgins and sometimes Alison Knowles).
For me, the challenge was to make sense of these new kinds of books in the context of the Research Institute’s collection of documents for art history. These books, prints, and related objects surely were significant to the history of the avant-garde. They demonstrated how artists and writers worked together to design distinctive reading matter, and how artists deployed letters, single words, and full texts in their own publications.
In the trove of alternative approaches to books that Jean Brown collected, my attention was caught by the differences between art and books, but also how they came together. These works were made by artists to circulate, to promote their ideas and to share their art; their ambit was set apart from the world of trade publishing. Often artists returned to other traditions of works on paper: pop-ups and cut-outs, scrapbooks, hand-written journals, albums of photographs, creatively presenting new subjects in old formats.
Indeed, Southern California was a fertile ground for artists who made these new kinds of publication combining art and books. I was well aware that there were already great collections of artists’ books on the East Coast, and didn’t want to just replicate their holdings. In fact, Jean Brown did collect books by West Coast artists: Ed Ruscha, Allan Ruppersberg, John Baldessari.
For my own fast-tracked education in the genre, it was great that the collection of the scrappy champion of artists’ books and founder of the journal Umbrella, Judy Hoffberg, was at UCLA. But in the late eighties and nineties, artists’ books seemed to get no respect. They were dismissed as secondary, not really art. For libraries, they were quite problematic as books, although art libraries collected and championed them. And for the Research Institute, based in Los Angeles, it seemed obvious to collect artists’ books by SoCal artists. Interestingly, although she felt that women artists should receive their due, Jean Brown had not picked up the notable books made here by women artists, so doing that was kind of a no-brainer too.
This reasoning is why the present collections lean to the Left Coast; and now that the Research Institute’s collections seek diversity and international depth, we’re also interested in artists’ books from the entire Pacific Rim. The collections look south to Latin America, including superb, characteristic examples by artists from Mexico to Argentina. Some came with Jean Brown’s collection, such as books by Clemente Padin and Felipe Ehrenberg; the collections now cross the Pacific to include works by Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Japanese makers.
It’s an understatement to say that my own ideas of what a book can be have changed a lot. Moving away from conservative training in the history of the book, I’ve slowly realized the obvious: that books are not just printed works made after Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century, but encompass many types of compact and portable devices for written and visual communications, both highly personal and for public circulation: scrapbooks, albums, portfolios, book-objects.
As shown in our new book and exhibition Artists and Their Books / Books and Their Artists, the artist’s book is far from a new form. The long history of artists and their engagement with books reaches back centuries: from engraved tablets with sculptural presentations of texts and sometime images, to papyri and scrolls, and finally, to today’s familiar rectangular volume, the codex—books written or printed on animal skins such as parchment or vellum, or on paper.
Artists have been engaged in making books for centuries. Thus, artists’ books are part of the foundations of the literature of art history, including Dürer’s treatises and prints, books on perspective and geometry that present their arguments in visual form, Piranesi’s radical illustrated books and his maps and prints loaded with texts.
All of these formats were designed deliberately to support their functions, whether to preserve information, to promulgate ideas, or to validate the wealth of their owners. Books’ shapes, lettering, images, and packaging tell about their cultural values and the societies from which they came. It’s surprising that today, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still think of books and art as completely separate media, although their histories have been intertwined for centuries and our daily experience offers so many variants of both reading and viewing. I hope that both the Research Institute’s collections on art history and book history, as well as the installations of books in the exhibition, demonstrate their deep roots and inextricably entwined histories.