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Jack Ginsberg, Artists’ Book Collector Par Excellence
South African Jack Ginsberg has assembled a world class collection of artists’ books over the last 40 years and has created an online archive of South African artists’ books http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/ He was interview by Christine Mullen Kreamer in Johannesburg on March 21, 2013.
Christine Mullen Kreamer: You’ve been collecting artists’ books for many years. How did you start and what led to your interest in this genre?
Jack Ginsberg: I started collecting artists’ books more than forty years ago. The genre only started in the mid-1960s with people like [American] Ed Ruscha and [German-Swiss] Dieter Roth. So I was really in there right at the beginning. I was brought up in a home surrounded by books, but not artists’ books, obviously. I had the collecting gene in my blood, no doubt about it. Before I started collecting artists’ books, I collected many other types, such as pop-ups, limericks, books about freedom of speech and censorship—the latter were during the dark years—which were eventually lodged at the university, and art monographs. I was particularly interested in African sculpture.
When I saw the first artist’s book, it was a kind of fusion of the art monograph (art) and the physical object (sculpture) as it was a three-dimensional thing. I knew I was hooked. Artists’ books certainly encompass all the graphic techniques, such as etching, silkscreen, lithography, and monotypes. They even encompass the non-graphic techniques like watercolor and pencil drawing, which are unique books—although there are people who have done watercolor books in editions, if you can believe such a thing. If the artists are sufficiently competent, they can reproduce a watercolor twenty times in a small edition.
I was always interested in art history and bibliography, too. The whole thing fell together. It was much more interesting to catalogue an artist’s book than a book. It’s not just title, author, publisher, and dates. It has as much to do with the structure, the means of making the book, the techniques, the binding, the stitching, the marbling, and the paper. Sometimes in a book you can have twenty collaborators. In my digital bibliography I name all twenty of them. One can search a name and might come up with the person who made the paper in a book and only that. But possibly more. That’s how I got started on artists’ books, but certainly before I came to artists’ books, I was already a bibliomaniac. A bibliophile is the polite term.
CMK: Tell us about the evolution of artists’ books—how they began and how they have changed over the years?
JG: When I say the genre of artists’ books started in the 1960s that’s basically when I started collecting such artists as Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha. Of course there are precursors such as livres d’artistes from the 1900s: Bonnard, Joan Miró, all the contemporary artists of that time, including Picasso. They all made books which in some way are artists’ books, but usually what differentiates them is that they were commissioned by a publisher. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer, would commission Picasso to provide the plates for some existing text like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The Limited Editions Club commissioned Matisse to illustrate Joyce’s Ulysses as late as 1935.
But an artist’s book is really an artwork in the book format by an artist. Although it can be a collaboration, usually it is made by the artist; they are seldom produced by an outside publisher. Then there are people who make artists’ books by finding a paper-maker here, a typographer there, an illustrator here, a poet there, and put them all together; that could still be an artist’s book. Kaldewey Press in the U.S. is a good example of this collaboration. But the editions are usually small—seldom over fifty and quite often less than twenty. Because the graphic techniques are so time-consuming, if you’ve got original etchings, screenprints, lithographs, or drawings, it is going to take a long time. But there are thousands of people now making a living producing artists’ books.
In the 1960s when the genre started, setting aside the precursors, people like Ed Ruscha in America and Dieter Roth in Germany began by making what today might be called photo books: cheap and nasty almost. They were simply a collection of photographs. These works were distributed by the artist without an intermediary, thus challenging the gallery system. They were giving their books away. Ed Ruscha used to charge less than a dollar and even then he couldn’t sell them. Those 25¢ books are now selling for $2,000 and more! But they were conceptual artists working in the book format. In many cases they wanted people to follow their sequence. They did not want a curator to hang their pictures in the curator’s sequence.
One of the definitions of a book, I think, is its sequentiality rather than a portfolio where you can shuffle the deck. Of course there have always been people making beautiful and expensive books rather than the 25¢ democratic multiple. Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books (1994), one of the major academic writings on the subject, calls them auratic books, that is, books of distinctive quality or presence.
Top artists like Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and others made expensive auratic books, but these were most often distributed by publishers rather than through their gallery, and collectors thereby got a better bargain. There are very few people who are handling every aspect of their books—doing the printing, binding, illustrating, papermaking, and even writing their own text for a book. There are exceptions such as Walter Hamady and Robbin Silverberg, but then they are papermakers.
When you get to the likes of Picasso, Johns, or Miró, all they are really doing is the illustration, and they are finding craftspeople to make the physical book object, including the substrate, the paper, the marbling, the book binding, all that technical stuff. Although the artists’ books developed from the livres d’artistes, it became much more democratic before finding its way back to the beautiful object. At the recent Codex International Book Fair in San Francisco in 2013, there were plenty of all these types of books priced from $100 to $10,000 and more. But for democratic multiples under $100, rather try Printed Matter Inc. in New York.
I think the reason why artists’ books have taken off in the last thirty years and particularly in the last ten years is because many of the art schools are now teaching what they call the book arts. They teach papermaking and basic binding, typography, and printmaking. Keith A. Smith has written a dozen textbooks on the book arts, which circulate widely. I keep a stock here in Johannesburg, because everybody who visits wants to own them. And I say “Well, okay, I’ve got a set.” I usually order about ten at a time. And because this is now taught in the schools, people are more interested in artists’ books. I think that it has just mushroomed and there are dozens of books on the subject, both practical and academic. I get people here—fine artists, graphic artists, architectural students, advertising people, binders, and people interested in typography and design.
The art schools are beginning to teach marbling, which is the easiest thing in the world to do badly. So there is terrible marbling all over the place which students have done. But at least they know how it’s done! If you’ve never seen marbling done, you’ll never have any idea how unbelievably complicated and messy it is. Likewise, if you’ve never made an etching, you’re never really going to appreciate an etching. You need to get your hands full of ink and actually see how it works to really appreciate it and to look at the thing and not just think “Well, that happened somehow.”
CMK: You mentioned the livres d’artistes, the illustrated book. Do you think for example Pippa Skotnes’ Sounds from the Thinking Strings is an example of that? The artist illustrated book versus an artist’s book?
JG: Not really. I think hers is an artist’s book; she was the publisher and it is really made largely by her in a very small edition. She used some of the old presses and letterpress housed at the Katrine Harries Print Cabinet at the University of Cape Town. But I would certainly consider that an artist’s book.
If you want to get into the definition, there is the website PhiloBiblon where there must be more than 40,000 pages of controversy about what an artist’s book is and what an artist’s book isn’t. What it really comes down to is the Duchampian definition of art. Art is what an artist says is art. It is almost the same for the artist’s book: An artist’s book is an artist’s book if a book artist considers it to be an artist’s book. It’s crazy, but it’s so sweeping that there’s no easy definition.
CMK: What type of artists’ books appeal to you the most? Or are your tastes ecumenical?
JG: Very eclectic. Most people who collect artists’ books are collecting in one genre or the other. Not many people who are collecting top-end expensive books are also interested in democratic multiples from the 1960s. I am particularly interested in conceptual books. I consider some of the very earliest conceptual books are those by Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha. There are lots of artists who are still making conceptual books, and those are often not the auratic type whereby you look at them and think “Oh, beautiful.” You’re more likely to look at them and think “Oh, how interesting! How is their mind working? How out of the box are they working?” I’m very eclectic in collecting just about everything. Maybe that’s part of my bibliomania.
As soon as I started collecting artists’ books, I started collecting books about artist’s books as well. At the time I thought, “How many books can there be? Thirty? I had never really seen a book about artist’s books. As soon as you start collecting in any subject, it doesn’t matter what it is or how peculiar or eccentric, you discover how much there is. Forty years later, I’ve now got 2,500 books about artists’ books, particularly in the history of how the genre developed. I became interested in finding the books which were mentioned in these histories and that’s how I started, not only going forwards but also backwards.
CMK: But for your personal taste, you prefer the more conceptual, outside-of-the-box approach?
JG: I like conceptual books very much, yes. I like the very beautiful books too, but if it comes to a decision to get ten books at $500 or one $5,000 book, I’d probably go for the former. Occasionally I fall for the latter, but you have to have a budget.
CMK: Have you noticed any particular themes or approaches that strike you as particularly appropriate for artists’ books? Or, put another way, have you noticed any trends in artists’ books over the years that you’ve been collecting?
JG: That’s difficult to say because you can talk about artists’ books for hours and never mention the content as such. The original press books, private press books, which I don’t consider artists’ books, are usually letterpress and beautifully printed; they are often collections of poetry or short stories. Here the content is quite important but often just reproduced. With artists’ books the content is less important or it can be significant. For instance, William Kentridge has done a wonderful book Receiver by Wislawa Szymborska. When Anne Kentridge comes here to look at artists’ books, and as she’s very interested in poetry, I say to her, “Anne, you cannot read these poems here. If you want to read the poems, buy the Penguin paperback. We are now looking at an object, a sculpture, a work of art. We can look at the binding, the paper, and especially the illustrations. The text is important, but there is not enough time today to read the book.” So content is less important in an artist’s book, especially if it has also been published elsewhere.
Structure is incredibly important. Materials and the media are really important. I’ve got books made of glass, aluminum, cork, plastic, and everything you can imagine. People are using incredible materials to make artists’ books these days. And they are using every kind of print technique that you can imagine, including polymer plates to replicate letterpress. As to trends in artists’ books, there are many people making books which attempt to show some kind of illustrative technique in a particular sequence. With photo books, the people are graphic artists who want to get their books out into the world in a different way.
It is seldom that print collectors also collect artist’s books. There seem to be two totally different mind frames. Even though graphic artists can certainly earn more by selling a single print than they can by selling an artist’s book full of prints, they are very much more interested in the genre of artists’ books than they used to be.
CMK: Is there something about the technology, materiality, or the look of the artists’ book that has evolved over the years? Or has it been a part of the universe of possibilities?
JG: The codex and possibly leather-bound codex used to be the definition of the livres d’artistes. There wasn’t much else. Now, I would say, a large number of people are using accordion fold, so they can display the book in its entirety when it’s unfolded. There are people using pop-ups, gate folds, double-gate folds, flaps or flags, books which unwrap, uncircle, hang, the possibilities are infinite, and people are trying everything with new innovation all the time. So much so that you may even end up with a sculpture, what they call a BSO—book sculpted object—which is basically a sculpture which looks like a book, and it might not even have any pages.
CMK: That’s like Abdoulaye Ndoye from Dakar, who has created accordion folds with images on both sides, but he’s strung them in such a way that they become wonderful sculptural forms.
JG: Yes. A book is a three-dimensional object just in itself. In fact I’ve gotten a little code in my bibliography which says 2D or 3D. 2D turns out to be art and 3D turns out to be mostly books (or sculpture).
CMK: Are there particular countries or regions of the world that are especially strong with respect to the production and reception of artists’ books?
JG: It’s hugely wide these days. Originally when I started collecting artists’ books, I decided to stick to English-speaking countries, because although the text was perhaps secondary, it was useful to read it. Even if only to read the colophon. But I soon just abused myself of that. There are fantastic centers of artists’ books in South America, and such organizations as Codex on the West coast of the U.S. are collaborating with the Mexicans, the Columbians, and others. The largest centers are still America and the United Kingdom, but there’s not a single European country that doesn’t have a huge artists’ book industry.
At the Codex International Book Fair, for instance, I was really fascinated to see Italian books, German books, and French books. And then in the East, of course, there’s the long bookmaking tradition in Japan, but the country in Asia which has really taken to artists’ books is Korea. They have one of the world’s biggest artists’ book fairs every year; they invite people from all over the world to come and exhibit. It’s quite extraordinary when you meet artists’ book people, and they’ve all been to Korea!
So it’s really universal now, even in South Africa where there is not an artists’ book industry. Going back to letterpress is very complicated, because there is very little letterpress in this country. Most of the monotype and letterpress fonts, which used to exist and from which people used to print books in the early twentieth century and prior to that, are now in the hands of book artists. Nobody prints letterpress today except book artists. There are many letterpresses in Europe and America that have found their way into the hands of book artists, including the small presses on which most artists print their books.
In South Africa one of the few people who used letterpress was Egon Guenther, who was very influential in the art world and had his own gallery in Johannesburg. He did some of the most spectacular South African artists’ books which have ever been made. When I show them to people overseas or to visitors here, they actually can’t believe it. They say, “How was this done in South Africa?” And I say, “Well, a German immigrant, although he had been here 50-60 years and is now in his eighties, just had the patience and the skills to do it in South Africa. Now of course the book arts have sort of proliferated in South Africa. There are now hundreds of people making artists’ books, but it’s still very small compared to other countries. But nevertheless probably the largest in Africa. My collection of artists’ books is really the only one that I know of in Africa apart from perhaps the Alexandria Library in Egypt, which collects artists’ books in quite a big way and has had many artist book exhibitions and puts out some wonderful catalogues. But between Egypt and Johannesburg, it is barren. There are people making artists’ books, but I don’t know anyone collecting them, so that is quite interesting.
CMK: How would you describe the evolution of artists’ books in South Africa?
JG: I think starting off with the universities—in Cape Town the Michaelis Art School at the University of Cape Town has the Katrine Harries Print Cabinet. They printed Pippa Skotnes’ books and have the wherewithal to do letterpress printing and the binding, etc. That was followed by Keith Dietrich at Stellenbosch University where they have facilities for making artists’ books although these days they are largely digital like everything else.
Ross Kreamer: Does a digital book qualify as an artist’s book?
JG: Oh, it can. I was skeptical at first about digital books. And I didn’t approve of the whole idea of just printing out something from your computer, but it has taken off in such a way that you can’t ignore it anymore. There are incredibly beautiful artists’ books being made digitally. Keith Smith, the big guru of artists’ books instruction who has written more about artists’ books than anybody else, is now making spectacular digital books, although he used to make letterpress books. You can’t ignore the digital book anymore. It’s at least as important as other graphic techniques.
CMK: Would you say digital is the new direction in artist’s books?
JG: I would say so. Although people are making wonderful digital books, there are huge numbers of incredibly hideous photo books which have no reason to be books. No sequential logic. There’s a picture of somebody’s cat, then their mother-in-law, and then a landscape. It’s like just sending all those snaps to Lulu (an online self-publishing resource) or one of those book-binding services, and coming back with a book. That is not an artist’s book. Maybe it is an artist’s book, but just an incredibly bad artist’s book. But somebody will say it is an artist’s book, and I’m not going to quarrel with them on that. It’s just an artist’s book which you don’t want to own.
CMK: Many South African artists’ books belong to the fine art press tradition that employs high-quality paper, typography, and beautiful bindings. Axeage Private Press, Artist Proof Studio, and The Artist Press come to mind. Why do these types of work predominate in South African artist book production?
JG: I think because South Africans think of artists’ books in that way rather than democratic multiples, although zines, which are certainly democratic and often free, are certainly democratic! So they are not all private presses from the universities, and there are lots of artists working on their own, like Stephan Erasmus, who is not connected to a university. They are simply working in their own studios and turning out books. A top artist like William Kentridge is doing collaborations which he does with everybody. He finds the top presses in the world to make the paper and to collaborate with him to turn out expensive, beautiful things.
CMK: What do you think is the appeal for some of these people who are just doing these simple folded books and practically giving them away?
JG: Quite often they are propagandistic in some way. They’ve got a drum to beat, either political or artistic in one way or the other. They simply want to spread their ideas rather than make something incredibly beautiful. It is simply a means of getting the word out there.
CMK: Do you think the democratic multiples have taken off very much here in South Africa? We are under the impression that they have not.
JG: I guess you’re right. Although I’m sure we can come up with a few.
CMK: Why do you think that is?
JG: The democratic multiple started off in the middle to late 1960s. People are still making them. If you go to PS1 during the New York Art Book Fair there are thousands of these things, mostly lying in piles in corridors and you can just pick them up. They are usually gay, feminist, green, republican, democrat; they’ve got some kind of political issue to sell. Some of them I certainly would call artists’ books. You can go to Printed Matter in New York and find thousands of these things. Out of the thousands they have on their shelves, I usually manage to find a dozen conceptually of interest with more than just a text of some sort.
South Africans weren’t interested in artists’ books in the 1960s. By the late 1980s when they started making artist books, democratic multiples were no longer in vogue. Although they still existed, artists became really interested in providing an object for which they could charge more than a pittance and make a living and which had some kind of integral beauty or concept that they were selling. You can’t charge much for democratic multiples. Ed Ruscha never made more than a dollar or so, and the fact that some dealer is now selling it for $2,000 doesn’t help the Ed Ruscha of the 1960s.
CMK: What’s the impact of digital on artist book production in South Africa?
JG: Like everywhere else people are using their computers to make books, often using PhotoShop. The problem is: are they any good? If they are really talented like Keith Smith and a few others, they can be fabulous digital books. But the majority of digital books that people are making are really awful.
CMK: How has scholarship on artists’ books changed?
JG: Are you talking about the content and the text or are you talking about the people who are studying the subject?
CMK: I meant the latter, but I’d be interested in your thoughts also on the content, too.
JG: Certainly content is less important, but there are wonderful collaborations in artists’ books when somebody who is not an artist but a writer interested in a subject, collaborates with an artist who’s looking for a fabulous text. Maybe the subject is too esoteric to get a publisher to take it on. But if the text is really important, it may be quite difficult for somebody who’s interested in that text to obtain a copy of the book. For instance, Walter Hamady printed one of the major books about printing, but unfortunately the book costs $2,000 and there are only forty-eight in the world. So that may become problematic. If it’s a success, they could go to Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and they’ll put out a trade edition for $25.
There are lots of people researching in the field of artists’ books. The whole academic interest in artists’ books has taken off. And that’s what I have to deal with: these mad academics that make their way to this house and want to pull out every book in the library! Now I’ve got an assistant, Rosalind Cleaver, helping me because I just couldn’t cope. Sometimes after a visit by somebody of that ilk, it would take me a week to put the books back in the right place. A public library such as the Library of Congress may bring you twelve books and when you’re finished, you give them back; they return them to the depths of the inner stacks where they store these things. Then they’ll give you another twelve. But they’re not going to give you 2,000 to look at and allow you to mix them all up and leave somebody to sort through them again.
CMK: So scholarship has really taken off. You’re seeing a lot more people researching.
JG: Right, go on the web and you see how many people are writing theses on the subject. It is extraordinary.
CMK: Are there artists who do not currently make artists’ books but who you would encourage to do so. Someone you think, “Wow, why doesn’t he or she try artists’ books?”
JG: Yes, I’d love to have artists’ books by wonderful contemporary South African artists. Maybe they’re not interested. Some of them have made conceptual books, but they’re often what are called altered books, which are a subgenre of artists’ book. They take a bound book and then manipulate that book, somebody else’s book, by either drawing on the pages or sculpting the pages into something else. So that’s definitely an artist’s book and could easily be by a sculptor rather than a printmaker.
Most artists are not making artist’s books. Although the definition has become so wide that, as I’ve said, even some sculptural things can be considered artists’ books. People who are interested in printmaking are not necessarily interested in artists’ books because of the binding difficulties. It takes something more than being a printmaker to make an artist’s book, and artists often need some help. For instance, if you take a bundle of prints to a binder and ask him to bind them into an artist’s book, he is going to refuse. A binder needs a fold through which to stitch. If you have pieces of paper like that which are printed with images across an A4 sheet, there is no way of making that into an artist’s book. A bunch of illustrations is not an artist’s book. An artist’s book is a sequential construct which means something as a whole. It’s not just a collection of bits. You need to have images printed in such a way that they cater for the fold necessary for binding. You’ve got the recto and the verso with a stitch gutter in between to make it into a book. Most artists don’t realize that. They think they can just make a whole lot of images and call it an artist book, but that’s not what an artist book is. That is a collection of images which have been put into a folder.
CMK: Some of the books I saw at your friends Joshua and Phyllis Heller in Washington, DC, had this wonderful sense of empty space on a page, which complimented the choice of colors of the type font, which in turn complimented the image on the opposite page Or even putting the text very close to the fold, deliberately so. Almost like creating a tension in a way, beautifully composed.
JG: The amalgamation of the typography and the image and the structure is all important. Not all artists, however good a graphic artist they may be, can make an artist’s book. They might employ somebody who does collaborative artists’ books to make one aspect of an artist’s book, maybe to do the illustrations while someone else is employed to do the typography, the binding, and the papermaking. There are many of those kinds of presses in America which will simply find great people to collaborate on an artist’s book, but I don’t really know of any in South Africa.
RK: Which book is of the higher order? The single artist doing all of the functions? Or the collaborative?
JG: Oh, both. It doesn’t really matter. The single artist is always more interesting because they really need to be multi-talented and are doing everything.
 Pippa Skotnes had to fight a legal case as to whether Sounds from the Thinking Strings was legally required to be deposited at the South African National Library. The Library claimed that as a book, the author was required to deposit a copy in the SANL. Skotnes argued that it was a work of art and therefore was not subject to the legal deposit law. She won her case: the book was indeed a work of art.