Printed Matter: A Breath of Democratic Air In the Art World

by Jessica Caplan

In Brooklyn author Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, which paints a bleak yet believable not-so-distant dystopian future set in New York, books have been all but eradicated from society, to the point that owning them is considered not just uncool but totally backwards. For someone like me, who has never touched a Kindle, and collects books because I like the way they look and feel, walking into Printed Matter was a comforting reminder that book publishing is not dead. So much so that a store dedicated to not just books, but the niche category of ‘art books,’ is alive and kicking.

Much more than just a bookstore based in Chelsea for the past six years, Printed Matter has been around as a non-profit since 1976, dedicated to supporting the production and dissemination of independent art books. Despite the recent devastating loss of 9,000 books in flooding from Hurricane Sandy, the organization — a staff of about 11 people — is still going strong. They’re a leader in the art book world, having founded the ever-expanding annual New York Art Book Fair in 2006, and more recently, its L.A counterpart. Its shelves, stacked high and wide with books of all shapes, sizes and subject matter from roughly 8,000 artists, beg to be perused. There are counter-culture zines with a DIY vibe that go for as low as $1 and conceptual books with higher production value, the priciest of which runs at about $6,000. Titles like Love is Everywhere sit alongside ones like They Eat Shit; books by obscure artists share space with the likes of art luminaries like Ed Rausch, Larry Clark, Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, among others. There’s a cornucopia of choice, which reflects Printed Matter’s guiding mission.

“At the core is a democratic spirit,” says executive director James Jenkin, an Aussie who left the corporate world two years ago to pursue his personal passion for art books. The open submission policy brings hundreds of art books from around the world in front of a rotating committee, and the goal is to take as many as possible. “We’re about diversity, about showcasing what’s going on in the field as a whole,” explains James. “We try not to put too much of a curatorial stamp on it.”

It’s refreshing to hear, and it’s what makes Printed Matter’s shelves fascinating, quirky and at times downright bizarre. James gives me a tour of some of his favorite tomes: one of them, a spiral bound notebook from the ‘70’s, documents train crashes around the world with photos and stats; another, In Almost Every Picture shows the artist’s wife over the course of many years fully dressed and semi-submerged in water. He also points out Tauba Auerbach’s set of six huge pop-up books as an example of an up-and-coming artist successfully making use of a low-cost medium to garner attention.

As a non-profit, Printed Matter has the luxury of being able to carry diverse art books (a broad category that includes anything conceived as an art project in book form), and return a higher percentage of the profits to the artists than a commercial bookstore would be able to. Unlike traditional print, which is going more the way of Shteyngart’s dark prediction, James sees a recent renaissance in artist book publishing. “People are not prepared to let go of books as art objects,” he says. “And there’s a growing younger generation, who didn’t necessarily carry books in their backpacks, which sees books totally differently: they see them as creative objects.”

With cheaper and more accessible printing available, print projects have also become a more viable way for artists to reach their audience outside of the highly priced formal art markets. The books themselves are getting more interesting too,” says James. “Younger artists are more cross-disciplinary, less defined by discipline,” he says. “Artist books are an extension of their practice – and a democratic way of getting their works out.”

During our interview, James calls the store “the heart and soul” of the organization, and after a few hours spent getting lost in its books, some of which read like personal journals, others comic books and still others totally random explorations of thoughts or images, I get it. I leave Printed Matter marinating with ideas for my own DIY book projects. Thank you, Printed Matter, for maintaining this little haven of creativity. Go for a visit, and get inspired.

 

 

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