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Quotes & Comments

Neither Here nor There, or, What About Book Arts?

As I see more and more people using electronic devices for reading and entertainment, as well as for home office work, teleconferencing, etc., I realize that accessibility and personal convenience are becoming increasingly important in everything we do. As a result, viewing art may no longer mean a weekly or monthly trip to a museum. Those profoundly wealthy who want to view art on their own schedule in their own homes have always had that option. Since the Renaissance, patrons have supported artists and received paintings, sculpture, precious objects, etc., in return. “Collectible” has taken on many meanings over the years, but the fact remains that people who want to own what they consider art can still do so—for a price. I don’t see that changing. What has changed is that a collector no longer needs to be a Medici or a Pierpont Morgan to own art. It is something that can be done at all levels.

While the question of craft versus art in the book arts still exists, contemporary American book arts has done much to integrate the two. One has only to look at a Donald Glaister binding to know that a master finisher—a craftsman—is at work, while the design reveals the presence of an artist the equal of Leroux, Martin, or even Bonet. None of these last three designers mentioned, by the way, did their own finishing.

There are many reasons to collect book arts, and I believe that there will continue to be collectors in the future, as more and more people come to want art of their own, to study and appreciate at their convenience. Words and images are now being integrated as never before. As the epitome of understatement, let me observe that Pablo Picasso and George Braque were really on to something when they started putting letters and words in their paintings! That was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and here we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with words still appearing in art: consider Richard Prince, Robert Indiana, and Barbara Kruger, to name a few. Books have played their part in the advance: they have incorporated image and text on the same page in a coherent design where the words are elements equal to the art. What was once considered a daring juxtaposition, as in the DeChirico/Apollinaire Calligrammes or the Bonnard/Verlaine Parallelement, has become commonplace. The 500-year-old formula, by now surely a bit fatigued, of page after page after page of text/ image, text/image, text/image, has given way to books where a degree of viewer participation is necessary to properly experience the book. Whether the participation consists in the opening up and unfolding of pages as required in some of Vincent FitzGerald’s books such as his masterpiece Epiphanies, or pulling down appendages as in the new book from Julie Chen’s Flying Fish Press, or unmaking one of Tamar Stone’s beds so the embroidered text can be revealed and read on each piece of linen, or unlacing one of her corsets to read the text, it is impossible not to notice that contemporary book arts have altered our very perception of what a book is. In fact, in the very best of contemporary book arts, the book as “vehicle” is the idea embodied in the text. The craftsmanship, along with the art and the text, must be first- rate, and in a surprisingly large number of books made each year, it is.

The contemporary book arts market is dependent on collectors, but unlike the antiquarian book market, it is also dependent on artists and writers living today. I see no shortage of these. At the Philadelphia Hybrid Book Arts Fair sponsored by the University of the Arts last June, over a hundred artists signed up to show their books and learn from some of the “masters” in the field over a three-day period. Of course, not all the books were of the same quality, but there were enough very good new books on show to make it worthwhile.

Just as everyone here has some interest in words put on paper, there seems to be no shortage of artists who want to put words on paper, or cloth, or aluminum or plastic or—well, you get the idea. Ideas catch people up; the most creative and skilled artists want to communicate with the rest of us by making ideas tangible. A truly great artist’s book lets us see something in ways we could never have imagined before. They are irresistible.

The 33rd Annual Boston Antiquarian Book Fair will be held November 13-15 at the Hynes Convention Center this year. It has, to date, about the same number of exhibitors as last year. I’ll predict that the number of attendees will be about the same as last year as well. The variable in all of this is sales at the fair. That I will not even try to predict. The one thing that contemporary book arts do have in common with the rest of the rare book market is that sales depend on what you have to sell.

Three years ago I had the newly-created William T. Vollmann masterpiece, The Book of Candles, to offer for the first time at the Boston Book Fair. Needless to say it was a very good fair for me. Unless I have something new of this magnitude, I don’t have the same success at the fair.

To date, 190 booths have been taken by exhibitors for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair to be held April 8-11, 2010 at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street. Booth rentals cost more this year than they did last year, and yet the fair is nearly sold out. Clearly my colleagues have determined that they will continue to exhibit at the ABAA fairs—as have I. Buying and selling amongst the trade will continue, although maybe not at the same pace as in years past. Collectors will come and will buy—maybe not as readily or as heavily as in years past—but there will be business transacted. This is in real contrast to what happened during the Great Depression in this country. John Fleming marveled, on more than one occasion, that the famous Dr. Rosenbach, considered by many the most successful rare book dealer of all time, did not sell a book between 1931 and 1933—and he had thirty-eight perfect Caxtons on his shelves to offer customers. So: hard times, yes; the Great Depression, no. Let’s all be grateful for that, and try to recognize today’s “perfect Caxton” when we see it.

If you would like to read more about the Grolier Club’s “Books In Hard Times” conference, all of the papers are currently available at the Grolier Club website.

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