The Final Interview
Max Schumann Executive Director of Printed Matter, by Justin Polera
JP- I heard a lot of things about how PM started and who was the first person who started it- at least with from what Martha Wilson was saying- there was a moment when it was in the fine arts building. Could you clarify a little bit of that story? How did it begin?
M-And I also just got an email from Pat Steir where she puts her stamp on it.
JP-I did and Mimi Wheeler apparently said that Pat Steir wasn’t part of the original, Pat Steir says that it was her entire idea. So I thought I would ask you.
M-People have different memories it was a long time ago. So we’ll see what we flush out. The thing is I think that it all attests to the need for an organization to be formed because of this identifiable activity of artist publishing and artist book publishing in making and the need to represent it. In the exhibition I don’t know if you saw there’s actually a letter of solicitation that predates the name where its dated 1975 and it says please send either both your existing artist books samples as well as artist books you would like to see published too. It says “Books” care of 529 Bleeker street and it’s signed by only a portion of ’s founders. I’m pretty sure that Sol, Lucy and Pat were all on that letter and Mimi but I’m not positive but it’s there at the show. So that was really interesting. Then likewise regarding the Hudson street there is then a press release there are several different Franklin Street letterheads documents from 1976 that and one of them is at 112 franklin street and then also. It was what would become Franklin Furnace and also Martha would need to clarify this for you. I think that building that franklin was bunch of artists residents in there and there was a different interest in what that got the boot and Franklin Furnace got the ok or something like that
JP-The land owner wasn’t ok with being.
M-There was also a letter announcing a move from Franklin Furnace to 105 Hudson Street. It might to been as brief as several weeks no one seems to remember the group and it was called “working group” and it was a cooperative was briefly at one point Franklin street and there’s a note book that I don’t think is in the show but its in the archives of the very earliest and its not even board meetings cause it didn’t exist it is from 1976 they were weekly meetings where other people who were in that group was definitely be Mimi Wheeler, Lucy Lippard, Pat Steir I think was in some of them. If even additional people like maybe Peter Downsbrough who would later work as an employee of but they were like super frequent they were happening every other day were people would hash out what this would be.
JP-What are some of the unrealized projects that you know of? What they wanted to do or that you’ve always wanted to make happen but remain unfinished?
M-The big unrealized project is the finishing of our new website which we want to turn into a much more versatile and informative resource for artist books so there’s different kind of stages of development we’ve been on the new website for a year.
JP-Will the books get digitalized?
M-There’s a lot of content work that needs to be done and so already as we are recording things going forward as we are doing multiple interior shots and stuff like that but it’s also like for example like what was started with AA which was commissioned thematic essays on various aspects of artist book and artist publishing activity is something we really want to continue as a educational resource.
JP-Will it be something a kin to Ubu.com?
M-It would just be to enrich the archive as an educational research both from our historical organizational history standpoint so more than actual archive like including say slides of all the window installations that we’ve done in the 1970s and 80s but also so past and present and then going forward so included in that would be community bulletin boards much more developed resources to help people in publishing projects and connect other institutions/organizations businesses that deal with different aspects of artist books as well as links to different digital projects so say internet publishing and other kind of things.
JP-Will the site also link to Franklin Furnace?
M-Yeah absolutely that’s the thing is just creating much more mature and diversified online resource
M-That stuff is slowly of in the works but we need to fix what we have and then there’s a lot of further development.
JP-The history of artist publishing is quite interesting in how it relates to ideas of resistance and the real center is publishing in the 60s and 70s were outside of mainstream cities like eastern Europe, Japan and South America. In some cases the very fact of publishing was radical and dangerous so what had happened with the ideas of political radically now from the days when south American artist could be imprisoned?
M- I mean that’s the thing what are the remaining independent economies Cuba is just about to turn over Iran, and Syria is on it’s way to be completely destroyed, maybe Russia and China.
JP-But in term in artist books?
M- We have to find out what the new publishing practices are. What are the possibilities of artist books as a tool of decent as a vehicle of decent? I think in a way that’s where we need to educate ourselves about different online practices of political artists who want to have as much distribution as possible. Printing is not the most economical way to reach larger numbers of people. When Ben Davis spoke to the reading library in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, I feel like again, this is a different hybrid form of publishing where the community-the real social physical community needed for artist books production and distribution is a really important other aspect of policialltly minded projects. On the one hand, digital is the way to get to a broader farther outreach but the exchange and interaction that is fostered in the production of artist books as collaborative projects and with a industrial aspect of production and then getting it out into the world between actual physical exchange of objects and stuff like creates more meaningful social bonds of communities. Physical books are not more or less important, rather they are a part of the bigger picture, virtual space and activism that it doesn’t displace or replace the need for physical communities as well.
JP- Along those lines what is the most widely distributed artist books which one has reached the most people of physically printed books
M– Yoko Ono Grapefruit maybe? that has been done in multiple commercial editions in the 10s of thousands. So that could be one of them.
JP-And you’ve printed it as well?
M- No but that’s an example of an artist book.
JP-But you do carry it?
M-We’ve carried it in the past. The largest circulation of the books we have published is two field guides, actually. Kim Beck’s A Field Guide to Weeds which is a really beautiful visual book that we’ve done in 3 editions now and as a beautiful aesthetic object has an appeal even beyond the art world. That has been very successful and reached audiences outside the art world. Mark Dion’s High Line: A Field Guide and Handbook we are running out of the first edition of 5000 sold out in little over a year. The book by Phil Aarons, Non Stop Poetry, The Zines of Mark Gonzales was probably the fastest selling book we’ve ever done an edition of 2000 is basically sold out in less than half of a year.
JP-And all through this store?
M- Yeah we distributed so those are some examples of widely distributed books but again relatively to commercial publishing is we’re still talking small numbers as commercial publishing goes in10s and 100s of thousands.
JP-Can you talk a little bit about Ray Johnson, not in particular, but mail art more broadly and the so called correspondence school and maybe General Idea’s File magazine how that has influenced the vision of the early founders.
M-I don’t know what influence it has, the thing is that mail art, the interest of mail art people are really similar to the interest of artist book publishing as an ephemeral form it has information to the circulated not intended for museum and institutional market or otherwise kind of consumption. It is meant to reach people outside of those institutions in the contexts of lived everyday lives- the ephemeral and ubiquitous nature of both books or mail lends itself to having your experience of the work via within you’re lived context. So they share in that. Whether it’s Ray Johnson’s book about death that was conceived as a book but it was never bond and done as a mail art project where different pages even though it had a distinct structure and sequence of 13-15 pages was a mail art a book that a conceptual book it was never actually existed as a book, it existed as various pages that then were dispersed to different people over a 3 year period in 1963-65 so there are these overlaps and interfaces with artist books.
JP- Can you talk about some iconic window installations exhibitions in the early days?
M-Well Lucy put together the window installations, the first ones were in 1979 and ran for a full decade from 1979 to 89 and that was before my time I actually did a window installation to the very end of that. Before I started working here at Lisbon Street. But that was such a fascinating thing it was a mix of mostly theme specific kind of activists or art that have engaged in public issues; political and social issues a broad range of topics: urban issues, gentrification, police brutality and violence.
JP-Who were some of the artists ?
M-Well that’s the interesting thing it included both early career exhibitions with people like Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer.
JP-Before they were stars?
M-Yeah 78, 79 and 80/81 Felix Gonzalez-Torres artist who would become so important as well as these other artists who people have never heard of San Francisco Poster Brigade did these agitprop political posters or Rachel Romero, I have no idea who she is she did an amazing window. Seth Tobocman who was a lower east side radical comic artist who was involved in the World War 3 collective its interesting to see some of these The Pictures Generation artists mixed in with these more activist kind of things and it kind of contextualizes them in a political light that there work was happening in this political and motivated.
JP-Unlike the window installations the store inventory wasn’t as tightly curated?
M-Well there’s different levels of selection policy in the beginning and as part of the application for the non-profit status there is a strong emphasis on the absolute inclusivity of anything that was identified as an artist book. In the exhibition you’ll see different internal debates about what the parameter should be or criteria should be for the selection of books eventually it became impossible to include everyone because there was too much out there it was also a process. In order to make room for the new publications, old publications would also have to be discontinued. So these were these agonizing internal debates and stuff like that and then there’s also do we include fine artist books and do we include limited editions and what about editions in multiplies and non-book publications.
JP-What was the role of the executive to make those kind of selections decisions?
I think it was something that was and there was memos too from directors to the board, the board was involved and some other discussions as well and there was like internal staff discussions as well regarding those things
JP- A more recent book you have published is Tauba Auerbach’s [2 , 3] there seems to be a return to early radical abstraction which makes me think of Helio Oiticica or Lygia Clark – do you see a return to abstraction or what does that mean in a movement in artist books?
M-I see there’s this new generation of minimalist and abstractionists that is one of many many different art communities happening. I think there’s some kind of market sanctioning of that phenomena; but there’s always been abstraction. So when we have the next return to figuration or figurative painting or something like that its not going to be return it’s just going to be a legitimation by market forces. The market makes these works more visible then it always goes on. But it’s interesting actually if you look at the scope of the books that published in 1976-1978 it actually is a really diverse group of styles and types there’s a purely graphic book by Ellen Lanyon of free hand drawings there’s found photography by Michelle Stuart which is Stereopticon photos of waterfalls and the western landscape and stuff like that there’s the Martha Rosler, Service, which is basically a mail art project put into a book form there’s John Gibson’s melody which is actually a musical score like a score, a score piece there’s snapshots which is a photo based book as well as Eve Sonneman’s book Real Time which is photo based and then there’s the Gruella Art Action Group GAAG, performance documentation so even though you look at the books at the covers of them oh those old 70s things you open then up and there’s actually this kind of diverse selection of stylistic content and other approaches.
JP-I know you’ve touched on this already especially you spoke on the early vision of Lucy and other founders being able to create an alternative economy to distribute artist books in airports, train stations, magazine stands and grocery stores did anything come of that vision? And what happened to it now?
M-I think it’s the dream idea (laughing) that still needs to be what our mission is about is striving for and we’re not there yet. Printed Matter is a non-profit because we can’t sustain ourselves through sales, I think when you look at the success of attendance of the New York and LA Art Book fairs that vision is almost probable because you see such a resurgence even in the context of struggling mainstream publishing in a state of crisis and yet you have this huge resurgence of activity on the part of artists and other creative makers and publishers coupled with this very heightened public interest as well. For the most part publishers in those scenarios is a labor of love and things are supporting peoples livelihood but there are some examples in there of people who are kind of figuring out sustainable economic models to produce their books.
JP-At least what they could self support.
M-Yeah, like the Art Fairs provide this kind of expanded audience which reaches outside of the art world and that’s very much keeping with Lucy’s vision of an art engagement that happens outside of the art world in an expanded audience and population I think we’re not there but it’s getting close, the fight still worth it.
JP-One of the most critical roles of could be said to be the executive director and some say the organization survives thanks to the vision of some directors can you talk about maybe a past director a couple of them and how you stack up?
M-How I stack up to the other directors? I’ve worked with John Goodwin, David Dean, David Platzker, AA Bronson and James Jenkin –so five directors and each one of them brought something very important to the organization so John engineered the relationship with Dia and the move from Tribeca.
JP-That was the move from Michael Govan?
M-No at that time who was the director at the time I think it was Charley Ray in 1989 s amazing space gallery large gallery size space in the middle of soho when that was indeed the center of the art world I mean coupled with that the other side of the story is that because our association with idea or as a publics misperception with idea even though they were supporting us via subsided reduced market rent under market rate and stuff like that is that public perception we were Dia’s book store which that became really difficult for fundraising and other kinds of basically fundraising. David Dean was there for 5 years and basically he put together some really some internal important strategies and business practice models and stuff that were probably never realized but identified. Basically our history is one of financial struggle and survival is we’ve been from going back to Lisbon Art days it has been an incredible challenge to keep the doors open and pay the bills and stuff like and that during the 1990s through the course of John Goodwin through AA Bronson’s and James Jenkins directorships is the financial struggle reached crisis proportions where we really keeping the doors open was a question mark entering big amounts of times and there were times especially under David Platzker they valiantly were able to bring us back into a balanced budget situation only to see it slip and slide away so it really is the ongoing core of our history and is the challenge of making it a sustainable organization
JP-Where you are in terms of expensive NYC real estate. AA Bronson said that file magazine was kind of a manifesto at least in the glamour issue based on Roland Barthes final essay on mythologies and it was based around utopias what are some of the manifestos that are left in artist books today and what happened to utopias?
M-Well the utopians have a saying is what still is keep the torch lit and keep the dream alive. But as far as the manifestos that’s a good question I know that Amanda Season Keeley installation project EXILE Books project which is a nomadic bookstore that is traveling around greater Miami and that Printed Matter is a partner in…
JP-So it’s a mobile home book store?
M-No. it’s a curated bookstore, artist books store that she has been taking to different venues. Its been in a commercial gallery it’s been in a non-profit alternative art space I think it’s slated to be in one of the museums it’s going to be in a community center so it’s really interesting the way it was in a commercial independent book store so she finds a host and then moves it from one spot to the next in one of them she did a little installation of manifestos and I was really curious cause I don’t know what the contemporary manifesto tradition is. When you were talking politically radical art and stuff like that I think that there’s a great need for contemporary manifesto making that a book is a perfect way to convey and transmit that so hopefully instructive or more or a good reference for that is the Gorilla Art Action Group book where the different communicates and letters they put out were and/or manifestos that I think should be revisited in our current time.
JP-For an alternative non profit space that’s so critical to you it’s also a nice irony that you also have one of the most exciting commercial fairs.
M-It’s actually not a commercial fair– it’s a project or program of Printed Matter and we are a non-profit. The fair we structured around it’s ability to economically be inclusive and provide a super-diverse range of publishers including completely independent individual artist publishers or artists collect the publishers, in the Zine Tent for example and we’re able to keep that those affordable to get that kind of inclusion and diversity. It’s also trying to find people who are really to find that diversity and fit curatorial thing but we are looking for its not just artist books its an expanded art book but