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SAN FRANCISCO — In an increasingly digital world, paper and ink art books are flourishing. Witness the popularity of art book fairs. Printed Matter’s 2019 New York Art Book Fair featured over 350 exhibitors and saw some 40,000 visitors. The annual San Francisco Art Book Fair at Minnesota Street Project — a not terribly large venue — includes over 100 exhibitors and reliably draws packed crowds.
The art book presses populating these fairs offer the possibility for almost anyone to own creative, crafted objects that are also sometimes handmade and limited, art objects in their own right. On the West Coast, California has a rich history of artful book making. Here’s a small sampling of presses old and new. All are producing fascinating work, though some are more affordable than others, with prices ranging from $30 to sometimes over $3,000 for the extra-special handbound, handset titles.
The oldest press in this roundup, Arion is singular in its living connection to history.
Founded in 1974, Arion’s roots in the city extend from publishing the Beats, to how and where their editions are made. Visiting Arion — and seeing their books made — is to step back in time. The press is housed in the former laundry facility of a now-defunct military hospital, a light-filled wonder of an old industrial building tucked beneath a big smokestack in San Francisco’s leafy Presidio National Park. But it’s in making the books themselves where Arion really keeps history alive: each handbound letterpress book is printed on century-old machines that are sculptural treasures in themselves, with fonts cast on site in the M & H Type foundry in the basement. You can’t get closer to stepping into a time machine than seeing melted lead turned into type. Or closer to a kind of alchemical magic.
Arion publishes just a few limited-edition titles a year, pairing handset letterpress text with original artwork. Its most recent title, The Odes of Horace Book II, is a new verse translation by Michael Taylor with 21 duotone photographs by Dennis Letbetter. Some Arion editions also feature stand-alone editions of original prints.
One history leads to another. The founder of Brighton Press, Bill Kelly, encountered his first art books in Arion Press editions at the San Diego library. So, when San Diego State University was auctioning off their letterpress equipment for $200 in the 1980s, Kelly jumped at the opportunity. In 1985 he founded Brighton Press, creating limited-edition artists’ books and broadsides.
Its most recent edition, The Color System: Schemes for Life Enhancement (or Because I Love You I Can Come Apart), is an evocative collaboration. California artist Jenny Yoshida Park’s invented color swatches, with names like “TERROR BIRD” and “BLOOD OF PATRIOTS,” are shown alongside historic photos. Interspersed throughout is a typewritten poem by Vermont poet Bianca Stone, “Because I Love You I Can Come Apart,” complete with draft cross-outs and corrections. It’s an off-beat, nostalgic brew of art and poetry and book.
This press was founded in 1993 by artist Griff Williams, after he moved from Montana to San Francisco to attend grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. In Williams’s final year of grad school, he helped start Gallery 16 (at 1616 16th Street) and Urban Digital Color, an early business combining computer methods and print. Gallery 16 Editions came about when creating special gallery editions proved too specialized and costly. “We were making beautiful things,” Williams told Hyperallergic, “but we found that printmaking editions were out of reach of our peers. So books became a way to make things that could get into the hands of our peers.”
The most recent book from Gallery 16 Editions, Hal Fischer: The Gay Seventies, is street photography married to a “gay semiotics of the Castro.” Fischer’s photographs of gay life, complete with explanatory texts, were originally packaged and hand sold as popular paperbacks in the 1970s. Gallery 16 Editions has repackaged those now collectors’ items paperbacks into one fun and celebratory volume, a time capsule of a mostly lost local way of life.
In an Artforum review of Hat & Beard Press’s 2016 book Slash: A Punk Magazine from Los Angeles, 1977-80, critic Greil Marcus opens by describing the book as a compendium “of people having fun.” Co-edited by Hat & Beard publisher, J. C. Gabel, it’s an apt description of Gabel and the press as a whole, which began because, as he told Hyperallergic, he “wanted to start something with my friends who I’m good at making stuff with.”
Hat & Beard is both innovative and smart about “finding stuff with already existing cult audiences” — such as a short-lived, defunct West Coast punk magazine — while unearthing and producing gems like last fall’s one-two punch of Moby Dick: Illustrated by Gilbert Wilson and a biography of same, Unfinished and Unbroken: The Life of Artist Gilbert Wilson. The now mostly forgotten Wilson was a mid-century openly gay communist from Terre Haute, Indiana, and though Gabel says he “wasn’t thrilled with typesetting the longest book that I’ve ever read,” the story behind the work was hard to resist. Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, the books are an ideal expression of Hat & Beard’s focus on cult audiences, California, and the Midwest, a surprising and winning trifecta.
The newest press in this bunch, X Artists’ Books, founded in 2017, is also the most widely written about, thanks to the name of one of its co-founders: artist Alexandra Grant and actor Keanu Reeves. X Artists’ Books are rich visually, verbally, and conceptually, works that often exist both in book form and as works off the page. One of their early titles, High Winds, is a meditation on sleeplessness by trans artist and playwright Sylvan Oswald, with images by artist and designer Jessica Fleischmann. It led to performances of the book by Oswald that included Fleishmann’s designs and a live score by Jerome Ellis.
Similarly complex, their upcoming title, Oracular Transmissions, combines work by artists Etel Adnan and Lynn Kirby, and poetry by Denise Newman in a single volume that embraces “video, performance, photography, email and other texts.”
X Artists’ Books has found more mainstream coverage than your average art book press, including pieces in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, but it faces the same hurdles all the presses here do: How to find the people who want art books and are willing to pay a fair price. In other words, how to do it without succumbing to the slash-and-burn economics of Amazon. The solutions are mostly all direct ones, whether art book fairs, car trunks, or subscription models. “You have to sell these books like fine art,” says Gabel of Hat & Beard. “You can’t reduce them to the cost of a widget.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jessica Fleischmann was a co-founder of X Artists’ Books. This is incorrect and has been amended.