Galleries

What Is an Artist Book, Really?

by Kate Wadkins on January 30, 2012

Video projection at Boo-Hooray (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

One of my biggest art regrets of 2011 was missing Boo-Hooray’s exhibition In All Our Decadence People Die, a show of zines and ephemera culled from anarcho-punk band Crass and their affiliates. So, when I heard about Artists’ Book Not Artists’ Book, I made sure to check out this publication house and gallery space on Canal Street.

Sue Williams, "They Eat Shit."
Artists’ Book… is
 presented by Boo-Hooray and their neighbors 6 Decades Books. The show’s mission, as the title suggests, is to explore the fine line between whether a book is an artists’ book or not. I particularly enjoy the sarcastic and half-serious tone of Artists’ Book… Co-curator Johan Kugelberg poses an absurd question in the press release, “‘How does one tell the difference?’ the curator asks the curator.” Kugelberg specializes in the “not-artists’ books” while his cohort, 6 Decades’ Jeremy Sanders, is the artists’ books expert.

Aram Saroyan, "Coffee Coffee."

The artists’ books (or not) up at Boo-Hooray are varied in material and mission. With quite the gamut of artists — from Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Templeton and Raymond Pettibon — Artists’ Book… displays a small history of postmodern book-based art. Punk’s influence on ephemeral art is nonstop and Boo-Hooray exemplifies this connection.

Some US President Richard Nixon-related covers from the "Artists' Book…" show (via boo-hooray.com)

Atop the gallery’s online store are the words “Quis Nos Operor Est Specialis” which loosely Google translates to “What We Do is Special,” sounding like a play on the American punk song “What We Do is Secret” by the Germs. Of course, punk and artists’ books have a long history of commingling, one just has to look at the work of Raymond Pettibon and Ed Templeton for proof.

Ed Templeton, "Teenage Smokers" and "Teenage Kissers."

Glass cases of books — open and closed — line the room at Boo-Hooray. As viewers are prohibited from getting hands-on with the items, their graphic qualities have to suffice. On one bare wall a video is projected, depicting a hand turning the pages of each book in the show. Looking much like an instructional video, this projection adds to the almost mocking tone of the exhibit. An “expert” on artists’ books dressed in a gorilla costume surveyed the room during the opening party. The pricelist for the show includes two columns in which the viewer can check whether the piece is an artists’ book or not.

"Art Cash" by Warhol, et. al.

While the curators pretend to have answers the whole point is that the viewer can never really tell whether an object is an artists’ book or not. What if the piece is commercially bound? Well, aren’t some artists’ books meant to be editioned? We even enter the realm of Duchampian irony (or just general tomfoolery) with Richard Prince’s “Catcher in the Rye,” which is simply a tampered copy of JD Salinger’s first edition with the artists’ name in place of Salinger’s. Still, some pieces, like “Art Cash” (pictured above) by Andy Warhol, Robert Whitman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Gormley, Red Grooms and Marisol fall blatantly on the not side.

"Artists' Book Not Artists' Book" publication (image courtesy Boo-Hooray)

Of course, the exhibition has an accompanying publication by the same name, whether it’s an artists’ book or not, you decide. Artists’ Book… is an opportunity to see many generations and iterations of book art in conversation with one another. It’s also a lesson in not taking art too seriously.

Artists’ Book Not Artists’ Book runs through February 12 at Boo-Hooray (265 Canal Street, 6th Floor, Chinatown, Manhattan).

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