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Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter

 Printed Matter pop-up book store at the front of the exhibition, Learn to Read Art.  


Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter
80WSE Gallery, New York
Through February 14, 2015


Books began mutating in the art context in the late 1950s with the Fluxists—they were redefined as art-objects; or documented performance, media, sound, environmental, and conceptual art. Forefathers of the genre like Dieter Roth and Edward Ruscha originally self-published their books; they were mass-produced cheaply and sold at-cost. Galleries, dealers, and small presses began funding books as printing methods and practitioners surged in the 1970s. This is when Printed Matter enters the scene. Founded in New York City in 1976 by a group of artists, curators, and critics, it remains a unique distributor of artists' books. The history of the institution is told in Learn to Read Art: A Surviving History of Printed Matter. The exhibition's four galleries—organized by decade and lined with mission statements, lists of ideas, scribbled inventories, financial records, and board meeting minutes—document the metamorphosis of the genre and Printed Matter's relentless support of it.

Originally designed as a for-profit "in hopes that artist book production could be self-sustaining," Printed Matter maintained an in-house publishing arm for three years. In 1979 president Amy Baker, an art historian who would become the publisher of Artforum in 1980, dissolved it to file as a non-profit. In the IRS application on display, Baker clarifies Printed Matter's foundations—bibliographic completeness, educational initiatives, and books as "direct communication between artist and audience [that] make it possible for the ideas in art to exist in the hands of all people." Printed Matter also worked directly with institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (New York); The Tate (London); the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles); and the Banff Centre for the Arts (Canada), among many others, to build their collections of artists' books. Lucy Lippard, one of the founders, noted in 1979 that Printed Matter was "trying to get people to think rather than buy."

Installation view, Learn to Read Art.

Printed Matter's requirements for artists' books morphed as their stock increased. A Printed Matter advertisement from 1976 notes: "What artists are producing is what is showcased, with no holds barred. What is barred are critical works, monographs, and art history publications." Accessibility trumped preciousness—from the beginning, 100 or more copies of each book had to be available with the option to reprint. The relentless edits of submission policies on view show an active evolution of terms. Policies from the early 1990s accept periodicals, computer publications, ephemera, video works, audio works, and exhibition catalogues, pending they provide context for artists’ books or “[stretch] our notion of the 'book' and [point] toward new possibilities."  

The artists' book is a mode of communication, one that makes its own market and fosters an intimate connection. Printed Matter takes their mantra a step further with the exhibition program in their storefront windows, which was initiated by Lippard in 1979 and hosted artists such as Barbara Kruger and G.A.A.G (Guerilla Art Action Group). It continues to engage passersby with the artists housed inside and provides "a site for politically provocative artists' projects" each month. Events, chronicled by framed ephemera, are another opportunity to unite the community over shared concerns including the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and World Aids Day. 

Printed Matter's labor is supported by an extensive editions program started in 1986—among one of the first after PARKETT, which began their program in the early 1980s. A number of examples are on view. This fundraising initiative, which creates multiples for events including Printed Matter's Art Book Fairs and for regular maintenance of their storefront, has accommodated artists including Jeff Koons and Rachel Harrison. Although numbered editions seem to contradict directives laid out by the founders, Printed Matter's support of affordable work for all grounds the operation. Their grassroots canon diverts attention from the art market's high prices and toward the quality of content.

The deluge of paperwork is a bittersweet, time-consuming reveal of Printed Matter's love affair with books. Leaning over glass vitrines, the visitor learns many secrets via lodged employee complaints and loan forms. The challenges underscore the somewhat paradoxical nature of artists' books—affordable art that relies on content rather than investment potential. The archive contributes a morsel of clarity to a genre that thwarts definition. Although the books accompanying the paperwork in the galleries, cluttered with "Not for Sale" signage, fall victim to the gallery's sterilization, the pop-up bookstore at front is the redeeming centerpiece. It revives the documents, providing a reminder that Printed Matter is more than a collection of ideas—it's a safe haven for art. WM 

Notes from Lucy Lippard's storefront windows exhibition program. Clockwise from top left: a floor plan for Peter Downsbrough's 1979 installation in the windows of 7 Lispendard Street; Lucy Lippard's notes on artists to show each month in the windows; "Printed Matter Windows Guidelines;" map for unknown installation; a flier for Donna Henes's 1979 window exhibition at 7 Lispenard Street.  

A listing of books for museums and institutions from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The most expensive book is Giovanni Anselmo's 116 Particolari visibili e misurabili di INFINTO (1975, 220 pp, $15); the least expensive books are Ida Applebroog's I Can Do Anything (1977, 20 pp, $3) and Carl Andre's Quincy Book (1973, 48 pp, $3). Other artists offered include Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, and Harry Anderson. 

Two photographs from the window's exhibition program. Top: Barbara Ess, June 1981. Bottom: Antonio Muntadas, January 1981.
Both photographs by Nancy Linn.


Lynn Maliszewski

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer and aspiring curator/collector residing in New York City. She can be reached at l.malizoo@gmail.com

PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Norman (

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