When Christopher Williams’s retrospective, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, was first proposed, the artist says he was uncomfortable with the idea of a survey. Citing the famous Ed Ruscha line, “I don’t want no retrospective,” he worried, “Am I one of these artists who made good work for like five years and the other 30 has been wasted?” Admittedly, the root of his discomfort was not really about the quality of his work, but more the work’s role in the exhibition. “I felt myself and my practice becoming the subject of the show, rather than the work and the ideas in the work,” Williams explained, seated at a round table in the center of 192 Books in Chelsea, closely encircled by an audience on folding chairs and standing along the windows of the storefront. Highlighting the range of themes evident in his photographs, he continued: “Normally when I do a show it’s about the cold war and soap and photography and automobiles and chickens. It’s never, in my mind, about me in a way.”
As plans developed further for the retrospective, Williams found a way to fit in his voice and shift the focus away from him and back to his work: the catalogue. At his suggestion, “the catalogue became a primary tool for me to address the problems I was seeing in the upcoming show. And the production of the catalogue also really helped with the development of the installation and with the new work. So the new photographs and the installation and the new books were all growing at the same time.”
It was these hybrid exhibition catalogue/artist books, The Production Line of Happiness (also the title of the exhibition) and Printed in Germany, that Williams and the audience had gathered at 192 Books to discuss. Unlike a traditional retrospective catalogue — which is typically lengthy, featuring scholarly texts by art historians and other artists discussing the work alongside beautiful color reproductions of said work — Williams’s catalogue runs only 189 pages (including the supplement) and includes zero full-page reproductions of his work, few color images of any artwork at all, and few texts directly about his photographs.
“The first thing I did was bring in other artists and other practitioners talking about their ideas about the production of art,” Williams explained, before listing several of the texts he appropriated for the book, most of which were recycled rather than commissioned, including a lecture he’d previously given about John Chamberlain’s foam sculptures, Claes Oldenburg’s description of The Store, and a piece by Barbara Kruger. He also brought in the liner notes for Scritti Politti’s 1978 album Skank Bloc Bologna, which “tells you how to make a 45 record, outlines the production and invoices for the production of a record. It shows you how cheap and easy it is to make a rock n’ roll record if you want.” Picking up the catalogue, Williams looked around guiltily as he pulled off the plastic wrapping to show the liner notes printed on the inside cover of the book. “I promised I wouldn’t unwrap this … ” he said, as the audience laughed. “I thought what we would do is put the financial specs for this catalogue on the front of the catalogue. But there are legal reasons why we couldn’t do that. So I put Scritti Politti on the cover instead.” The small space at 192 books felt apt for such intimacy. As Williams recounted and joked about the difficulties and rules involved in making an exhibition catalogue, he let us in on all the secrets of production that are otherwise hidden from the general public.
Apparently there aren’t as many unbreakable rules as one might think. “The catalogue had to have all three logos” — for two of the show’s venues, the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA, as well as Yale University Press. “It had to have a barcode. And it was a strong request that we have a smiling face on the cover,” Williams remembered. “Books with smiling faces on the cover are more successful,” he said candidly. “Finally, I got down to asking them what I had to do fulfill the museums’ contract with the distributor. What it came down to was the barcode, the three logos, and that’s it, actually. I asked if it was important that it have the artist’s name on the cover, and they said no. And I thought that was great! But they said, what artist wouldn’t want to have their name on the cover?” Williams paused, building suspense. “Well, you just asked the wrong guy.” Instead of his name on the cover, Williams settled on the required barcode with a description of a barcode printed above it. “I decided to make it a little more educational. There is an essay on the cover about the history and the function of the barcode.” On the back, “the guidelines for the application of the logos for each institution” appear printed next to each logo. The one unessential element Williams decided to add was the title, The Production Line of Happiness, in bold across the top of the front cover. “It was just too perfect.”
By the end of its production, Williams’s selection of texts and images had become a “site-specific work or a system-specific book,” he said. “Because any bookstore that this sits in, if you didn’t know it was my book, you would think it was a book about books, talking about a paper object moving through space, a discursive object moving through a commercial system.” It’s also useful, a how-to of exhibition catalogues and art production. “The important thing,” he clarified, “was that it was all artists, architects, musicians, people talking about production. A lot of different voices that were not addressing my work in a direct way, but run parallel to it and stand as things that have been useful for me. Because I wanted to make a book that was both discursive and useful for other people, and not simply a representation of my work.
“This really becomes a model of a book, rather than a survey catalogue,” Williams concluded.
As for Printed in Germany, it became “more similar to the book everybody wanted, which was a big picture book.” But, always turning systems inside-out, Williams did not simply make a “big picture book”; rather, he created “a book with no language, no colophon, no date, no artist’s name, no title. I used the visual and material and procedural elements of book making and publishing to make an essay that stands as a model for maybe every book, using my photographs. It uses cropping, repetition, scale, ordering, sequencing, binding … We took a standard survey catalogue idea, dropped out the language and played with form internally.”
Ultimately, Williams offers two publications, neither of which is fully exhibition catalogue or artist book, both of which are bound to reinvigorate the reader’s notion of what an art publication can be.
Christopher Williams spoke at 192 Books (192 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 19, 7pm.