In 1968, Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler published the first edition of the so-called “Xerox Book.” The untitled publication, which was conceived as an exhibition in itself — and is currently the subject of a show at Paula Cooper Gallery — is now considered a seminal artist book. Siegelaub invited seven artists — Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Lawrence Weiner — to contribute 25 pages each. The book is fascinating, not only because it embodies the ethos and aims of the Conceptual art movement, but because it also reflects the movement’s paradoxes and limitations.
Although Siegelaub’s participation in the “art world” is considered to have been brief, his influence on curating and publishing was immense. Those who aren’t familiar with his curatorial projects may know Siegelaub as the co-author of the “The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement” (1971), a legal contract that continues to inspire debate among those who advocate for artist resale royalties. Born in the Bronx in 1941, Siegelaub initially worked as a plumber before taking on a part-time position as a gallery assistant at the SculptureCenter. In 1964, he opened his own gallery, Seth Siegelaub Contemporary Art. Frustrated by the overhead costs, Siegelaub closed shop in 1966. As a “curator-at-large” Siegelaub went on to organize 21 projects and exhibitions between 1966 and 1971. A regular collaborator with artists including Kosuth, Weiner, Jan Dibbets, and Daniel Buren, Siegelaub was fascinated with processes of dematerialization and communication, both of which were central concerns of what later became known as the Conceptual art movement. Why for instance, prioritize physical exhibitions at a time when artists were experimenting with pure thought? “You don’t need a gallery to show ideas,” Siegelaub stated in a 1969 interview with Patricia Norvell.
Siegelaub sought to make the Xerox Book as democratic and accessible as possible by standardizing its format. The artists’ names were listed alphabetically on the book’s cover, thereby avoiding any perceptible hierarchy. Like many of the artists that he represented, Siegelaub also sought to broaden the work’s audience. “It’s my concern to make [art] known to the multitudes,” he wrote in 1969, “[the most suitable means are] books and catalogues.”
Most of the Xerox Book contributions are mathematical in nature. Andre’s piece consists of proliferating squares. Barry’s project is a collection of one million dots spread equally over 25 pages. Kosuth’s project is characteristically meta-textual. Each of his pages includes a short sentence describing a document related to the book’s construction, for instance, “PHOTOGRAPH OF XEROX MACHINE USED,” or “OFFSET MACHINE SPECIFICATIONS.” Together, they read like descriptions for an unrealized project.
The book’s title is a misnomer, since the Xerox Book was never actually Xerox printed. Printing the first 1,000 copies would have cost over $20,000. After a bid for sponsorship from the Xerox Corporation proved unsuccessful, Siegelaub turned to gallerist John Wendler (who also goes by Jack Wendler) for assistance. “I was sort of paying the bills,” Wendler said in a video interview with the Kadist Art Foundation, “and Seth had the ideas.” In the end, the book was produced using offset lithography. Regardless, artists and art historians continue to refer to the book by its working title. The publication inspired artist Eric Doeringer to produce The Xeroxed Book, his own photocopied edition of the book. In 2013, art critic Greg Allen transformed the book’s pages into a set of animated GIFs.
The Xerox Book, an exhibition “inspired” by the publication at Paula Cooper Gallery’s 521 West 21st Street location, is a frustrating affair. Very little space is devoted to the book itself. The smaller section of the gallery includes a selection of pages from the project, but the two larger rooms are filled with works by artists who contributed to the book (Cooper represents Andre, as well as the estates of LeWitt and Huebler). The display, which includes a Kosuth dictionary definition painting, a LeWitt wall drawing, and a Weiner wall text piece, reads like a greatest hits collection of Conceptual art. It’s an excellent collection of work, it’s just unfortunate that the show’s title is so misleading. Only a handful of the works relate to or recall the Xerox Book project, the most explicit being a scattering of small wooden squares by Andre.
The key issue, however, is the display of the Xerox Book itself, which only serves to compound the viewer’s disappointment. The first few pages by each of the book’s contributors are hermetically displayed in glass-topped cabinets. The effect is both museological and reverential — qualities that the proponents of Conceptual art actively sought to avoid. The entire display runs contrary to the ethos of the book, particularly ease of access. The fragmentation of sequential works is particularly incongruous. Why not display all the pages? The project could have been deconstructed and displayed in a variety of engaging ways. Instead, the book has been used as a pretext to display other work by the same artists.
To be fair, any exhibition of the book is bound to be problematic. The Xerox Book was, after all, conceived as an alternative to a conventional exhibition. Had the gallery sought to mitigate its reverential display of the book, the disappointment might not have been as severe. Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect anything more from a commercial gallery, given that fetishization and reverence are the necessary life blood of art sales.
The Conceptual art movement had a particularly uneasy relationship with commerce. As careers progressed, artists struggled to reconcile the movement’s implicit social ideals with the reality of the art trade. The Xerox Book, which had a first edition run, has since become a coveted collector’s item. The same fate befell first editions of Lucy Lippard’s indispensable guide to the movement, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966–1972. In an essay included in later editions of the book, Lippard interrogated the very movement that she was a major part of:
Communication (but not community) and distribution (but not accessibility) were inherent in conceptual art. Although the forms pointed toward democratic outreach, the content did not. However rebellious the escape attempts, most of the work remained art referential, and neither economic nor aesthetic ties to the art world were fully severed (though at times we liked to think they were hanging by a thread).
Many of the movement’s artists were soon selling cheaply produced and ephemeral works for hefty sums. As early as 1969, Lippard predicted that the art world would “probably … absorb Conceptual art as another ‘movement.'” The rapid commodification of the movement is particularly fascinating given that its proponents initially sought to create unmarketable objects. In the introductory essay for Six Years, Lippard stated:
It seemed in 1969 … that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded.
Despite the market’s eventual assimilation of the movement, many of the additional works included in The Xerox Book serve as a reminder of Conceptual art’s radicality. In a show of work largely comprised of text, four pieces by Morris stand out. Each piece consists of a front page of a newspaper covered in gray acrylic paint. Two of the works were created in 1962, the others in 1990. Interestingly, the latter works are untitled, whereas the earlier pieces are titled using words from the paper’s headlines, for instance, “Crisis (Act of War: Cuba)” (1962). The power of the work derives from the viewer’s inability to read the text. Some words are legible, others are not. Phrases such as “losses from Iraq” and “no foreign hostages freed” instill a sense of dread. The effect is heightened by the frustrating lack of accessibility. With a single formal gesture, Morris pries open the viewer’s fears and anxieties. The simplicity of the series is marvelous.
Elsewhere, there are reminders that, though a work of art can be commodified, an idea can be owned by anyone. Kosuth’s “Twenty-five works in the Context as One Work” (1969) consists of 26 typewritten instructions. Each sheet of paper relays instructions for a specific activity that can be carried out in Los Angeles. Anyone can participate. One such piece reads:
A. Go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
B. Go to the La Brea Tar pits
C. Go to Disneyland.
Relate the three and consider that information.
Another label instructs the viewer to take a specific bus tour and mail their notes to Jan Dibbets. The address is printed as Hasebrouk Straat 20, Amsterdam, Holland. I left the show wondering whether the artist still receives any feedback about the tour. The bus company may no longer exist, but the spirit of Kosuth’s piece — its incitement of curiosity and participation — endures. The Xerox Book doesn’t tell us a great deal about the legacy of Sieglaub’s publication, but it does occasionally succeed in capturing the essence and contradictions of the Conceptual art movement.
The Xerox Book continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.