Interview with Minsky
This is also the perfect opportunity to announce that Richard has agreed to be our new book arts columnist, beginning in our fall issue. We're thrilled to have him join our esteemed group of columnists!
FB&C: The earliest piece in the exhibit is a sample book you used when you started tinkering with letterpress at the age of 13. How did you become interested in printing and book arts at such an early age?
RM: I was fortunate to have Mr. (Joseph) Caputo as Graphic Arts Shop teacher at Russell Sage Jr. High in Forest Hills, Queens in 1959. He was of the generation of inspirational teachers who came into the public school system during the Depression. That was where I learned hand type composition, lockup, makeready, and platen press operation, on both Pilot (hand) presses and the motorized 10x15 Chandler & Price.
The following year my mother died of cancer. My father had died two years earlier of a heart attack. Living with my grandmother on Social Security did not provide enough income, and I realized then, at age 13, that I'd best do what I love with my life, and that was printing. So I bought a 5x8 Kelsey hand press and 6 cases of used foundry type. With that I started a job printing business, and hired my homeroom class as a 15%-commission sales team.
FB&C: Your Self-Portrait is also included. This is an oil-on-canvas self-portrait, but the painting itself then became the subject of a limited edition book you printed about the evolution of a piece of art. Which idea came first, or did you always think of it as one large project?
RM: Richard Roth was curating an exhibition titled Local Self Portraits for the Hudson Opera House, here in Hudson, NY, and asked me for one. At first I thought of providing one of my autobiographical books, Minsky in London or Minsky in Bed, but that would involve either borrowing an existing copy from a collection, making one for the show, or framing a page or chapter to hang on the wall. I had not been drawing or painting recently, but had been thinking about getting back to it, so instead I bought a pre-stretched 16 x 20 canvas and started drawing in pencil. The first sketch was nice, and had a good feeling, but didn't really look enough like me, so I took a snapshot, erased much of it and re-drew. After doing that several times the likeness was close enough and I switched to oils. About then I started seeing it as a book. In the end, it is the book that is the work of art, and that is what is in the exhibition.
FB&C: The 50 years covered in this exhibit (1960-2010) witnessed substantial change in printing technologies. You have embraced this in your work -- using letterpress on some projects, inkjet on others -- while others tend to 'choose a side' in this debate. Tell me about that.
RM: Sometimes I use several processes on the same surface. Whatever works best. The cover of my second volume on American Decorated Publishers' Bindings 1872-1929 has an inkjet print on canvas done on an Epson R1800 that is then die-stamped in 22K gold on a 10-ton Kensol hot press. There's more. I've worked with mimeograph, Rexograph (spirit duplicator), Xerox, laser printers, and offset presses. In the 1970s I taught printmaking at The School of Visual Arts, which involved etching, screenprinting, and stone lithography. This fall I'll be teaching a course at SUNY's Purchase College titled Experimental Book. Here's the description:
VDE 4600 / 4 credits / Fall
Students are encouraged to reconsider what a book is and expand the boundaries of the traditional codex book through workshops in experimental formats, integration of word and image, form and content, sequencing, and physical structure. This may include a variety of projects and the study of video and film structure, historical and contemporary artists' books, and innovative trade books.
FB&C: Yale acquired the Minsky archive in 2004. Is this the first major exhibition of the material since then?
RM: Yes, they have just finished cataloging it.
FB&C: Is it possible, as an artist, to have a favorite piece of one's own work? (If so, what it is?)
RM: I love them all. Doing it is what excites me--seeing a metaphor materialize in my hands. That said, right now the most captivating is Freedom of Choice: Three Poems of Love and Death by Lucie Brock-Broido. Two poems are about shotgun suicide and one is about an electrocution. The printing is inkjet on handmade paper, in a goatskin binding chained to an oak electric chair. On the back of the chair is a cabinet containing a 20 gauge shotgun, a Manila hangman's noose, a wakizashi sword, razor blades, poison, and a hypodermic syringe. An MP3 player on the head restraint plays my reading of the poems. You can see how it was constructed at http://minsky.com/choice-details.htm.
Images, top to bottom: Minsky's binding of Nineteen Eighty-Four (2003) on exhibit at Yale; the limited edition of Minsky's Self-Portrait (2010); Minsky's Freedom of Choice (2009). Courtesy of Richard Minsky.