I have always wanted to be the kind of person who reads art books. Sadly, my attention span and general lack of tolerance for the art world’s esoteric pastimes typically permits only a brief leaf-through before I am inevitably put off by a rambling exhibition catalogue essay or a deliberately blank page described as a “radical intervention.” That’s what’s so wonderful about the NY Art Book Fair (NYABF) — it takes the category’s platonic ideal (glossy! “rare first edition”!) and turns it in on itself, leaving plenty of room for the zany and the offbeat.
Through this Sunday, October 16, Printed Matter’s beloved book fair is back in person at the historic venue where its first edition took place in 2006, right around the block from the bookstore’s Chelsea location. From a “Zine Zaddy” baseball cap to a recurring tote bag cryptically printed with the words “Books And,” the opening last night was a whole scene, or as one visitor who didn’t want me to use their name told me: “I’m just here to spy on people.”
I meandered through the crowds with the same thought I have every year, which is that I can’t believe this many people come to the art book fair. I also found myself wistful for the high ceilings and schoolhouse vibe of the fair’s longtime venue, MoMA PS1. Luckily, the general mood inside was less Chelsea and more “East Village house party” (particularly since the climate of the four floors alternated between swampy and freezing). Armed with a rapidly dying iPhone and a dripping umbrella, I set out on a hunt not for the nicest books, but the best stories.
Poet Jen Fisher, who shared a table with F Magazine, has been selling books on a sidewalk on Manhattan’s Avenue A, near the historically gritty St. Marks, for eight years. “The street is different because you don’t have walls, so anybody has the opportunity to come across it,” Fisher told me. “You become an open-air bookstore. Out there, you might be showing someone a book and they don’t even read.” She held up a copy of a Rene Ricard poetry collection. “Here, everybody is already interested.”
That’s a very different crowd from NYABF’s audience, who braved the unrelenting drizzle and a sweaty line down the block for the promise of titles such as Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, a book about a folk artist named Tressa Prisbrey who collected over 17,000 pencils and at age 60 created an immersive glass-bottle environment in Southern California. It’s uncanny, it’s lovable, it’s all I want in an art book!
In fact, many of my favorite objects at the fair strayed quite a bit from the genre. I was unsurprisingly drawn to a selection of $2 cat postcards made by the owners of Boekie Woekie, a Dutch artist-run bookstore. (The sale of these postcards alone apparently covers their entire rent each month, which is why I’m moving to the Netherlands.) Another high point of the night came in the form of Toilets A Go Go!, a collection of images of public restrooms in Japan by Hidefumi Nakamura presented by Handshake Books. And on the table of the Mexico and New York-based collective Los Sumergidos, I discovered the wit of Alejandro Cartagena, who amassed black-and-white photographs of workers forced to attend awkward company dinners and compiled them in the perfectly cynical title We love our employees (2019). Another gem by Cartagena, whom the table’s attendant described as a “rabid” collector of archival images, is a sealed box made to look like a package of old Kodak four-by-five negatives, which I was expressly prohibited from opening but was told contains records of the first nude scene in Mexican cinema.
At the stand of Corraini Edizioni, I perused children’s books by the Milanese artist Bruno Munari (whose work is also on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art in Soho right now). Frustrated with the literary world’s bland offerings for younger readers, Munari began making books for kids in 1945, bringing his artistic flair and penchant for materials into the process. Among these is the genius series known as Prelibri — tiny, text-less “pre-books” made of felt, wood, paper, and other mediums, conceived for toddlers as an early introduction to the act of reading.
“You can use them if you are really small and you cannot read,” Pietro Corraini told me with an extremely charming Italian accent. “They were designed just to get used to the book object.” As a childless 31-year-old with an alarmingly increasing number of friends who are becoming parents, I asked for the price: $200. I raised my eyebrows.
“It is because they are made in Italy,” Corraini explained, also charmingly.
At your average art fair, booth attendants are notoriously selective with whom they speak to, chatting up people who look like they’ll pick up a painting or two. But at NYABF, everyone I approached was warm and inviting and eager to tell me about their magazines, haiku compilations, artist-made t-shirts, and chunky art theory volumes long before I mentioned I was a journalist. Someone at Werkplaats Typografie offered me an apple “as a gesture” from their crafty stand, which was ingeniously fashioned to recreate the Kardeşler Groente & Fruit market in West Amsterdam.
On the fourth and last floor, I was drawn to a small hand-written poster announcing a “Celebration of the Demise of the NEA, Public Funding, and Art as We Know It.” It was part of the table of Allied Productions, featuring more than 40 years of activism and resistance ephemera highlighting LGBTQ+ and intergenerational voices.
“After the second Reagan administration, we realized that across the country organizations such as ours were being defunded,” co-founder Jack Waters explained. Waters and his collaborator Peter Cramer were directors of the ABC No Rio gallery space and zine library in 1980s Lower East Side. “They said it was that the quality of work we submitted had decreased, but when organizations say that, there’s often something deeper involved — like misogyny and racism. It was the beginning of what is known as the culture wars.”
Allied Productions’ primary focus now is Le Petit Versailles, a community garden and performance venue in a former auto body shop in Manhattan. Talking to Waters was a humbling reminder that many of the organizations and individuals exhibiting at this fair — from small artist presses to zine-makers to multidisciplinary spaces that seem to somehow do it all — have faced their fair share of hurdles in a fickle industry where the art and publishing worlds converge.
Whether you prefer decoding an enigmatically scribbled artist’s journal or simply stacking three or four monographs on your coffee table to intimidate your dinner guests, we can all agree that art books provide a special kind of comfort and joy. But what even is an art book, anyway? I’m not sure this fair helped me come closer to any kind of definition. And for that, I am grateful.
Editor’s Note, 10/17/22 5:30pm EDT: This article has been updated to reflect that Jack Waters and Peter Cramer were co-directors of ABC No Rio.
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