5:05 pm Oct. 2, 2012
"Are they old books or were they made to look like that?" the woman asked. "Golden Hussy didn't exist… it just didn't."
The shopper was trying to determine the provenance of the smutty paperback being proffered by Fulton Ryder, one of the more than 200 local and international art-book sellers that set up shop at the seventh annual NY Art Book Fair at MoMA P.S. 1 this past weekend. She finally reversed herself, satisfied she was looking at genuine smut.
"No, these are legitimate," she said. "Golden Hussy did exist." She read a tagline on another title. "'A research study for sex addicts turned on to crass…,'" she read, before stopping. "There is actually a book that might have been the same publisher that I'm dying to find, which was by a negro Playboy bunny. To complete my random African-Americana."
Such were the sorts of interactions at the hundreds of booths set up inside and outside the Queens museum from Thursday to Sunday, representing independent publishers, booksellers, artists, antiquarian dealers, and more. The somewhat overwhelming collection of material is actually a step back from years past, where even more vendors were represented. But there was no shortage of printed matter for whatever taste, ranging from standard artists' catalogues to screen-printed booklets, hand-dyed comics, rare art artifacts, records, chapbooks, posters, and tote bags. Lots of tote bags.
Organized by Printed Matter, the fair also included special projects rooms, screenings, talks, musical performances, and book signings. All in all, vendors took up three floors of P.S. 1 with dozens more set up in a tent in one of the museum's outer courtyards (the latter had a more fair-like atmosphere, and generally more boundary-pushing material, than the meticulously curated tables inside the museum).
Up on the second floor of the museum space, Parasitic Ventures Press, a Canadian-based micropublisher of "uncommon texts," had a room of its own. There, a set of 483 magazines were printed in red and black along the spine and placed side by side inside wooden bookshelves. Together, the series looked like a long bar graph, rising and falling in a staggered arc. The magazines are abstracted reprints of every issue of Artforum, dating back to 1962. Inside the pages are rendered in black (advertising) or red (editorial). The book project was researched and executed by Parasitic Ventures founder Michael Miranda and would only be sold as a set.
Back on the first floor, in the warmest part of the fair (some rooms were downright tropical), The Thing Quarterly, featured in Capital New York earlier this year for its James Franco collaboration on a switchblade, publishes four objects a year (the James Franco knife was an unplanned addition). A prerequisite is for their objects to incorporate text. Issue 16 was a shower curtain with "a monologue told to David Eggers by his shower curtain." The most recent issue, 21, was a collaboration with author Ben Marcus.
The antiquarians at the Art Books Fair were easy to spot, as they were typically surrounded by glass cases. In the room just adjacent to The Thing Quarterly, Tim Byers of Sims Reed rare books, based in London, was trying to entice the top of the fine art food chain.
"I sell historical material from the ‘60s and ‘70s," he told me. "So it's mostly for museum curators from the United States who I wouldn't see. They all have holes in their collection that they want to fill."
In his cases, hole-fillers included a monochrome silkscreen by Jean Dubuffet, from an edition of 90 copies, priced at $28,500.
The first NY Art Book Fair was held in 2006, when the Kindle had yet to be released and the fate of independent publishing had yet to be determined. The fair was initiated "in an effort to re-establish New York City as a global center for artists' books."
That mission would seem to be a success, given the ocean of visitors. Fans of bookmaking—or any kind of visual ephemera that can be touched or leafed through—snaked through the maze of booths. Despite the independent publishing bent, the fair attracted its fair share of mainstream presses like MIT and Yale, notable book dealers like Harper's and gallery mainstays like White Columns, Marlborough and Paula Cooper. Gagosian had an area in the basement where they set-up a mock library in tribute to artist Mike Kelley, amassing books, C.D.s, and other knickknacks meant to evoke the reading life of the late artist—kooky selections like a coffee table book by Robert Crumb accompanied Foucault's Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.
Desert Island, an independent bookshop in Williamsburg, featuring illustrated books, comics, and limited-edition printed works, bought two tables in "The Schoolyard," as the outside tent was named.
"$125 a pop," owner Gabe Fowler told me, an amount he made back within the first three hours of the fair on Thursday. He gave me a copy of Smoke Signals, a comic newspaper he printed, one of the many free items that can be collected through the aisles.
Alexis Boehmler of Bomb magazine (pictured at left), whose booth was set up across the hall from the fragrant digs of M. Wells Dinette in the museum's café, thinks the attraction of this fair is rather simple—to drum up sales. Aside from that, it also helps small booksellers stay relevant in a media-soaked art world.
"A lot of the people here are our target audience in that they are interested in art. And we want more people to know about Bomb. We've been around for a long time. There is so much out there, especially online, it's good for us to be in front of people's eyes," she said, "What happens when you're not here is people wonder if you're still around."
What's somewhat unexpected in this age of techno-utopians loudly announcing the end of books is to find so very many book sellers, buyers, creators, and enthusiasts giddily congregating. For Adam Davis (pictured at right), representing his Portland-based Division Leap Gallery—offering new and old books, zines, and art posters; the gamut of printed miscellany—for the fourth straight year at the festival, technological advances and book appreciation go hand in hand.
"I think that the changes in technology—lifting the burden of having it be a purely informational transfer—will lead to people paying attention to what is really important about books and what it is you can't get from [ebooks]," he said. "The aura, the presence of it, the feeling that you're actually holding a work from an artist. That's really apparent with handmade books or books that the artist made themselves. You pick it up, you get a shock, you feel what's going on here in a way that you don't reading about on a website. I'm incredibly optimistic about the future of independent publishing. I'm a cheerleader in the face of gloom and doom."
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