News | March 12, 2024

New Exhibition Focuses on American book artist and Poet Wally Depew

Printed Matter

Collection of 10 early experimental publications by Wally Depew, 1970–74

Poems and Permutations, a survey of artists’ books by American book artist and poet Wally Depew spanning nearly 40 years of the artist’s practice, is now on show at Printed Matter in New York.

The exhibition is on view at its Chelsea location through April 11, with Printed Matter offering many of Depew’s out-of-print publications for purchase, available in thematic collections and individually.

Wally Depew (1938–2007) was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and later moved to New York City where he began publishing Poetry Newsletter in 1964. Around this time he started to release small, minimalist-inspired flipbooks composed of geometric shapes and ordinary language, and over the years he expanded the medium of artists’ books through experiments in concrete poetry and graphic illustration. His synthesis of visual and typographical elements drew influence from Dada and conceptual artists like Kurt Schwitters and Sol LeWitt and his literary forebears include Gertrude Stein and the Oulipo author Raymond Queneau. While he was relatively unknown throughout his career, Depew worked steadily to produce a large number of experimental books spanning nearly 40 years.

Depew describes in the preface to his book Once, “I am not playing with letters or words to give them new meanings or for them to be seen in new ways. I am playing with communication and power.” Depew’s iterative technique is exemplified across the breadth of his output. His books often present variations on a theme. Some, for example, focus on a single letter that is altered in orientation and scale, while others track shifts in placement and syntax of geometrical objects. In many works he experimented with both mimeograph reproduction alongside tactile interventions, as he cut, perforated, burned, or spilled ink onto the cover and pages, rendering each copy unique. 

Almost all of Depew's publications contain a bibliography that provides insight into his sources of inspiration, with references to diverse poets and artists such as Guillaume Apollinaire, John Cage, and Alfred Jarry, in addition to mechanics manuals, novels, philosophical tracts, and musical compositions.