John Cheim Interview
By DAVID AARON GREENBERG, MAY, 2015
Although primarily recognized these days as one half of Cheim & Read Gallery, John Cheim has had a long and distinguished career as a book designer. For over thirty years he has produced more than fifty books for artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, Louise Bourgeois, Jack Pierson, Ed Ruscha and Jean-Michel Basquiat. After graduating from RISD in 1977 with a painting BFA, he interned for six months at New York’s Drawing Center and was soon hired at the Robert Miller Gallery where he would work for the next 20 years. Cheim left Robert Miller to open Cheim & Read in 1997, where he continues to design limited edition exhibition catalogues. His work has been consistently elegant and uncluttered. While many of his layouts echoed classic looks from mid-20th Century sources, they also simultaneously offered a subtle guidebook for much of today’s minimalist approach in the most successful online designs. By allowing reproductions of the artwork to be the star of his publications, Cheim has provided a bridge between generations of aesthetic choices. His seminal work on Andy Warhol’s Photographs and Bruce Weber’s Bear Pond can be seen as having a sort of subconscious sway over an entire generation of graphic designers. An exhibition examining his design work which traveled from London’s ICA to New York’s White Columns in late 2013 shed a bit of light and additional notoriety on the usually shy and reserved art world figure. After a few interviews and articles which focused directly on him, Cheim was more than happy to quietly return to his behind-the-scenes role. I recently spent an afternoon with him at his Manhattan loft discussing some of my favorite books that he designed and the future of catalogues in the age of Instagram.
DAG: What’s the genesis of your work as a book designer?
JC: I’ve always loved books. My grandfather had a very large library in his home in San Jose, California. As I child I just loved to look at books and magazines. I loved Life and Fortune magazines - I didn’t study graphic design. It was a sort of homemade learn-it-as-I-go thing. I was a painter at RISD. When I came to New York and started working at Robert Miller Gallery I became more excited about working with artists that I thought were really great as opposed to making things to add to the stuff that’s already there. I still have an urge to paint sometimes, but I feel like I’d just be adding to a pile of stuff on the planet. I feel like I get my creative energies out in different ways—working with artists, working on catalogues and installations. I also think you can be an artist and not make anything. I think being an artist is just a way of processing life and the way you look at things. It’s like a philosophy. In terms of photography, there are avalanches of imagery out there because of cell phone cameras. A lot people are really good photographers who never thought they were or even considered it. The idea of taking those images and blowing them up, printing them and putting a big frame around them…I don’t think it’s necessary, unless you are Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans or William Eggleston. There’s just a tide of imagery that keeps flowing. So I just take photographs all the time with my cell phone and I post some on Instagram.
DAG: For me growing up, a book like Andy Warhol Photographs was so important to have in my physical possession. How did that book evolve?
JC: It was a big thrill for me to be able to work with Andy Warhol and do a catalogue for him, but he never saw it or looked at it or asked a question about it until it was put in his hands. That was one of the incredible things about Warhol. He would use people who he felt confident in for a particular talent they had. He didn’t interfere with the catalogue at all.
DAG: What lead you to use the high school yearbook as a template for the Warhol catalogue?
JC: There was something very Americana about the yearbook. So I used some company up in Connecticut that made yearbooks. And they were cheap back then. The typeface is Gill Sans which is very classic. And I wanted that cinematic three dimensional black and white quality on the cover. I wanted to emphasize a very black and white nature of the images. I had the plates varnished so they were even harder looking. They aren’t soft, pretty pictures. The photos were stitched together and I think he had a seamstress do that with a machine. The idea of using a sewing machine just like in a factory was so Warhol.
DAG: How did you approach the layout?
JC: I wanted it to be very straight-forward and continuous. No breaks. I put things together that I thought complimented each other. The Warhol catalogue that I loved the most was from the Moderna Museet which was on newsprint. I think it’s the most beautiful of his catalogues. The images were just one after the other. I was looking at that catalogue when designing Photographs. When I did the installation of these photographs he just arrived when it was all done. He had copies of Interview Magazine under his arm and walked around the gallery and said: “Oh, great…it looks great.” That was it. The exhibition was really a salon style wall-to-wall hanging of these stitched photographs.
DAG: How was working with Mapplethorpe on his X & Y Portfolios compared to Warhol?
JC: Well, we worked together but I did not select the imagery. I helped select the fabric and the colors and the typeface, but he had all the images picked out. He was very precise. As much as he loved and admired Warhol and wanted to emulate him, he was really quite different.
DAG: What was your approach to designing books with Bruce Weber?
JC: Bruce takes millions of photographs and he has them printed in stacks. He’s very luxurious in the way he has tons of beautiful prints made. He asked me to edit, to go through the photographs and see what I responded to. He asked me to essentially be another set of eyes for him. I would take them home and sequence them into what I would see as some sort of storyline. It would have to flow and be punctuated by a single image or a double image with some kind of rhythm. For his first book I was very excited about having a cover with no type. At the time it was kind of radical. I came up with idea of doing a reversal of one of his pictures, a negative that is kind of like a Man Ray. There is a section of this model named Jeff that Bruce had photographed for the SoHo Weekly News. It was a sensation when he first published these pictures because no one had seen pictures like this in a mainstream publication. Now it looks very commonplace. But at the time it was a complete breakthrough.
DAG: Was this before the famous Calvin Klein billboard?
JC: Yes. A couple years before. Calvin had not gotten that far yet, but when he did, it was really a cultural historical moment. When I grew up you couldn’t see a man unclothed anywhere. American culture was so repressed. Even though the Fifties was rampant with homosexual culture, everything was undercover. Bruce was also rediscovering things from the past in this book. Many of these images could’ve been from the Forties and Fifties.
DAG: Bear Pond seems to have more focused design.
JC: The thing that distinguishes that book in my mind was getting Bruce to agree to show full frontal nudity, to get him to just relax with it. He would say: “Oh my God John, do you really think we can do that?” And I would say: “yeah, I think it’s okay to show full male nudity.” And that’s what is really different about Bear Pond from his first two books. He relaxed. And the images are natural and playful.
DAG: The photos are all reproduced with thin boarders.
JC: Well, that was to make sure it didn’t look like a bleed in a magazine. It makes them look like real works of art. You’re putting a frame on them. I really spent a long time editing that book. I had to constantly cut things out—which was difficult because Bruce had made so many beautiful pictures.
DAG: You designed the first book of Basquiat’s drawings. How did that come about?
JC: When Robert Miller Gallery started representing the Basquiat Estate we had to come up with what should be the first show. And I had the idea of doing his drawings because there had not been an exhibition of just his drawings. I went through all the drawings in the estate and I selected the works which were used for the show and the catalogue. There was a salon wall of just heads in the main gallery. About ten years ago I had an idea of doing an exhibition at Cheim & Read of just Basquiat’s word-based works, without imagery, which I think are so beautiful. There’s a show up now at the Brooklyn Museum based on this theme.
DAG: I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of catalogues in the age of the Internet. Does this concern you?
JC: I think a lot about that too. And I think artists like catalogues, but that their usefulness is dissipating. It is an online thing. Young people don’t read the newspaper. They don’t care about the tactile quality of holding something. It’s a completely different way of processing information. At first I thought it was unfortunate and kind of disturbing, but you can’t stop things from evolving. There might be something positive about the lack of materialism involved is transferring from a real catalogue or book to the Internet. There might be positive things that come out of that.
DAG: Are you happy with how your recent catalogues look online?
JC: They look okay. I oversee the look of the gallery website a little bit but I don’t have the same passion for it that I do for books and catalogues. We’re still publishing catalogues because artists like the catalogues. We do it as much for the artist as anybody. They feel that their exhibition has been documented somehow if they have a catalogue. But I don’t know how twenty year-olds feel about that. You can basically do a catalogue that is a photographic representation online.
DAG: Doesn’t it seem like that’s a place holder until someone figures out something else, another form online?
JC: Well, it has to come from someone from a generation who grew up with computers, someone who would love it more than I would, even though I’m learning pretty quickly. It has to has come from love. WM
David Aaron Greenberg is a poet, songwriter, visual artist and art critic. He is the author of Feeling Gravity’s Pull (Soft Skull Press) and co-author of Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith (Andy Warhol Museum). His critical writing has appeared in Parkett, The Fader and Art in America. He is the co-founder with producer David Sisko of the New York City songwriting and production team Disco Pusher. His visual work has been exhibited in various galleries and is in the permanent collection at Stanford University. Greenberg graduated from Rutgers University, Phi Beta Kappa. He lives in New Jersey and New York City.
Photo by Nikki Johnson.