The artist book, an object of the future

To what extent is it now possible in the context of contemporary art to approach museums with specific projects, directing autonomously the course of the work and up to what point does proposing in certain cases the creation of an artist book in place of a catalogue turn out to be a decision that goes against the grain with established practice?

by Federico Nicolao

To what extent is it now possible in the context of contemporary art to approach museums with specific projects, directing autonomously the course of the work and up to what point does proposing in certain cases the creation of an artist book in place of a catalogue turn out to be a decision that goes against the grain with established practice? In some circumstances it is precisely to break with the logic of tight programmes that institutions concede to a publication that succeeds in achieving the greatest satisfaction.

It is very stimulating after having worked in shared solitude for a number of years with individual artists on projects for books to come forward and show the works and follow them up with an exhibition. It is a rather anomalous way of being a curator but it is definitely the one that reserves by far the best surprises as far as I am concerned. It is very pleasant for the number of hours that one has the good fortune to spend with the artists, addressing themes that the artist dreams of taking on but that only the book allows, with a rhythm that bears no resemblance to those required for straightforward exhibition decisions in museums and major institutions.

An exhibition by Raphaël Thierry “Visioni in polvere” (Visions in dust) that I curated in the evocative setting of the Villa Medici in Roma has recently drawn to a close. It offered the visitor an unusual exploration into the world of charcoal, with the display of drawings taken from two art books, one already published La medesima ombra, (Io éditions,, the other about to be published Etudes, volume I.

A new exhibition by the same artist entitled “Fra i tuoi colori le ombre”, opens on 2 September at the Royaumont Goüin-Lang foundation just outside Paris that will show the preparatory works for the book of the same name that we worked on together: it brings together new images by Raphaël Thierry and a number of poetic writings by the undersigned. Books conceived to create a lasting impression on the reader, volumes that require meticulous preparation and exhibitions conceived in tune with the creative process that mysteriously precedes them: I would like this also to be the overriding impression given by the projects conceived in these two years spent at the Accademia di Francia in Roma with the strange mission of relaunching the idea of the artist book, making the book into a place in which the arts encounter writing, encompassing a continuity with tradition as much as a definitive break with the concept of illustration, together with Thierry or other fellow adventurers (Laur Erber and Koo Jeong-a for example), embracing the incredible progress that today’s methods have allowed in this field to me seems to have become obligatory for those who humbly approach the contemporary context.

This Italian author, now adopted by France where before arriving at the Villa Medici had already carried out the role of programme director at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris and the Picasso Museum in Antibes, does not stop and with a number of new projects in fact relaunches the idea that the artist book, a concept that for a certain part seemed out of date or appeared to have worn out over time also for its prohibitive costs, can become in the coming era something else with respect to what it has always been, something profoundly different to an affectation linked to a cultural context, rather a territory to explore, able to newly enclose something essential and profoundly contemporary for the strategies of creation of contemporary artists.

Since this experience is somewhat unusual in the world of contemporary art and Federico Nicolao seems instead to want to pursue it with a number of authors – with the musician Combier he is preparing for example the book Pages in which he pushes the musician to become translator, with the young Brazilian filmmaker Laura Erner he is developing I limoni, a multimedia book that mixes writing, video clips and photography and with the brilliant Korean installation artist Koo Jeong-a A noïte intera –we asked the writer to tell us something about these great works in progress and this curious revindication of the artist book as a new possible space for contemporary creation starting exactly with the projects he has curated, both those already carried out with the young French artist Raphaël Thierry as well as those under preparation with his new allies.

There exists an enigmatic liberation from time – the expression is one of Malraux who uses it in relation to his imaginary museum – for those who today seek to work with artists even before the space of the museum or exhibition in that more welcoming more simple one that is the book. As long as one can work with those rare artists who know how to follow all the phases of creation, from the hand drawn sketch that imagines the shape, to the printing and typography phase, the book today makes possible an approach to the work of art that rediscovers that intimacy that no longer exists in the wild and fast production of the museum. Let’s make things clear right away, it is not a case of putting up barriers and I am the first in other occasions to boast of the scientific and documentary merits of the catalogue, or to incite artists to be deciphered by unusual and unexpected pens but I am aware that there does exist in the artist book an unexplored possibility that revives precisely that autonomy and pleasure in work that some artists have lost in the commercial dimension of the museum. It is technology that today guarantees the artist that learns to follow from the start every stage of their creative process a different impact from that which could exist in the past.

Trusting only himself or personally delegating some phases to the finest graphic designers and publishers, knowing however how to direct the work with authority, the artist today achieves a result, in the age of reproduction predicted by Benjamin, that was absolutely not imaginable before. It becomes possible therefore to make artist books of great quality and accessibility and this radically changes the rules because it allows the author who has time to dedicate to this game a better control of the reproduction. Such control as to make tangible in just a few pages (or a few thousand), the universe of an artist.

Distinction is no longer offered amidst luxury catalogues that marked the arrival point for the quality of reproductions in the career of an artist and art books destined to a few elite for their prohibitive costs and the purely production difficulties that preceded them, the field instead opens up to a large scale production of artist books. I became aware of this aspect observing above all the books of someone who has been the great master of artist books conceived as such, Bruno Munari, and following that more recently savouring as a reader two books by a very young Korean artist who I particularly admire Koo Jeong-A: The land of Ouss [the smallhours of love], made for the Douglas Hyde gallery in Dublin and R [Do soul’s wander?] made for the Publisher Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.

The first is a mysterious and very small volume with a yellow cloth cover and few pages, the second an immense tome of drawings, similar to a dictionary, published with great sacrifice. In both these examples of artist books, as much as they may differ, the world of the artist emerges with all the necessary delicacy and profoundness. Perhaps it is also for jealousy before such successful examples that one seeks to become much earlier than curators, co-authors of an artist book that can take just this route today. There is still also the sense of the pioneer in exploring paths that are rarely trodden.

I asked Raphaël Thierry, with whom I have been working for nine years on a project that is yet to be concluded on the theme of the woman landscape “Du bleu de ceruleum”, but with whom I have also other books on the go that we have been working for less time on – the two for which you decided to consult me, for example – what attracts him to the artist book. This author is amongst other things somewhat suited to the subject because in France achieved a certain amount of recognition as an illustrator for children before as a painter, with books that were very different to those to which his painting was destined but of considerable success (Les aventures de Superchien, Magnard éditions).

“The book is a medium to be interpreted and discovered in the future by all young artists as well as by the world of publishing who still neglect it too much. It is an object in itself of inexhaustible research for an artist. It is an ideal space in contemporary times in which to consider art; it allows an exhibition to move out of physical space. The ramifications that a book permits are infinite, the book lends worth to a creative rhythm that the simple exhibition cannot make accessible today except to a limited number of people. If one considers that the book resists, also in its digital formats, over time. This makes the artist book an object of the future that dialogues however with many precious cues from the past. From the idea of a portable exhibition to the idea of a form of documentation that before was entrusted only to the catalogue, in the book there is something new and constantly in progress. And art today finds in this medium a freedom that it doesn’t have elsewhere. Even when publication comes to nothing, thanks to the circulation made possible by PDF formats, websites and so on”.

The idea itself that the character, the rhythm, the genesis of a project find in the contemporary artist book an ideal surface leaves one to hope that within a short time an increase in freedom will be seen conceded to artists and curators in developing this field. The route is laid out. From Paris to London, New York and Shanghai, first for economic reasons, then fortunately in terms of thought, one becomes aware of how much further with respect to the past one could go in developing this vein of research as an author. “There is then, on the other hand, if one prefers, in the art of juxtaposition to which an artist compels you who works together with you the possibility of subtracting for all time the image from the function of illustrating a text or viceversa. To generate this dialogue it is obviously necessary that there is a complete trust in the other and a complicity that is not created artificially by some Solon for some one off exhibition. Beautiful results are achieved because seeing another voice burst in one observes one’s own differently”.

It is not by chance perhaps that anyone who uses the artist book as a medium has in mind amongst the volumes that have dictated, Matisse’s jazz series, where in the name of this musical art he mixed (unfortunately in times with prohibitive costs) images and words. In superimposing images and words in an artist book there is something analogous to what actually happens in this kind of music. Each word taken does not cancel out the other, instead amplifies it or makes the reflex audible. Enrico Rava revealed to me one day to know no other art that resembles an idea of realised democracy more than jazz does. So when the relationship with the graphic designer, the potential publisher and the reader is successful (and unfortunately this is not always the case) I think that the artist book today can come close to this same exercise in freedom.

No discrimination of fate then with regards to the format: the book is to be understood exactly in all its new openings and possibilities, in all its facets, also and in particular with respect to those multimedia realisations that make costs increasingly affordable in terms of the time and patience that each volume requires. There is nothing worse that having to work with an artist who presumptuously attributes to himself skills that have nothing to do with him (one who for example improvises at being a graphic designer when he doesn’t know the rules of this art or a poet if his task is that of making an image come alive), there is nothing more like torture than having to endure the arrogance of collaborators who place their power or their role before the desires of an artist and in terms of this there are still giant steps to be taken to ensure the success of a good artist book. There is however something of the order of realising the ancient idea of an open and private museum or of bringing those looking to share emotions and intuitions, that only artists possess, that in those editing these kind of works today lives again. And we could actually say that when at the origin of an exhibition and a book there is a dialogue to excessively open up possibilities for the images and the words, he who then enjoys the fruits is he who reads and observes.

Laura Erber, a protagonist in Europe at the beginning of her career for a question of her years that did not seem to give her the authority to fight the sinister outcome with talented graphic designers and parsimonious publishers as well as the forms to give to her books said to me one day: “The artist book is not so different from an exhibition, but has or has to find as a point of strength that is of not being aimed at an imaginary client, that the last comma, the last full stop, the last picture have been placed in an irreversible manner a long way from he who in art engages himself in promoting a name or a thought”. In effect, there lies at the origin, when one is seized by the idea of imagining a book and an exhibition that bring two voices into collision and at the same time collaboration, something that cannot shine unless in an attempt to escape any form that we could call advertising for profit instead of a public and shared feeling that emerges from the possibility today of reaching directly an interlocutor.

It is basically what each artist has always thought about their work but for some reason it is the book that today seems to restore this form of absolute freedom. In the name of this utopia someone who interests themselves philosophically and as an author to the artists cannot but think at the service of those artists that cultivate the dream of a book.

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