The first time I came to New York everybody told me I had to visit Printed Matter. It’s an amazing little shop packed floor to ceiling with artist’s books, zines, prints, posters, and art. For me personally, it was one of those places that I’d always hoped would exist but never found anything quite like in all my travels.
Not only do they have new things all the time, but you can find punk-rock personal zines sitting right next to books made by Max Ernst or Sam Taylor-Wood or Marcel Duchamp. You can just browse, or you can buy stuff. There are amazing things for $2 or extremely rare books for thousands of dollars. The beauty of it is that it’s all laid out for people to look through and nobody comes up to you trying to get you to buy anything. Also — it doesn’t have that fake feeling of those hipster stores that carry things that allude to art but never quite get there. I’m thinking of places like the Wall Art section at Target, the art section at Ikea, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters.
While it’s fun to look around, there’s way too much stuff to see in one visit. Another nice thing is that it’s not the hoarder’s paradise one might expect. Unlike a typical used bookstore, everything is cataloged and orderly and easy to find. They even have a cash register. The best thing of all is that you can send them a copy of your own book project, and if they like it, they will carry it in their store. And yes, here I am, years later, telling people that if they are in New York they should come here.
Since it was started in 1976 by Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt, the store has gone on to do many interesting things. Most recently, it’s carved out its own niche in the art world by starting the very popular New York Art Book Fair. Each year it invites small publishers, individual artists, and other book shops to participate in its three-day event. One of the things I have always liked is that the fair favors small organizations that could be called holes-in-the-wall, or ma-and-pa stores. They seem to know where the real energy is, and it’s not in the big galleries. In that way, Printed Matter favors the underdog.
In regards to art, though, it could be said that we are in the moment of the light touch, and it almost goes without saying that books, small-run records, and zines fit well into that art equation. What’s more minimal that neominimalism? What’s more abstract than paintings about abstraction? And to get even more reductive, what’s more sublime than a book or a zine about the sublime!
With the current popularity of the ephemeral and the illusory, everyone is now a conceptual artist (even painters, although many would deny it), and in the age of Google, everybody is an instant expert on everything. Good ideas are back in style. Oh, and if you have to ask, the answer is yes — the light touch is for sale, and nowhere will you find more of it than at Printed Matter. But unlike the Wall Art section at Target, this is the real thing. That said, try as I might, I still can’t figure out how they pay their rent.
Nevertheless, championing the underdog has caught on — so much so that this year they have expanded to Los Angeles and have created the L.A. Art Book Fair, which starts tomorrow. The Bay Area is represented in true entrepreneurial spirit by Hamburger Eyes, [2nd Floor Projects], Little Paper Planes, and The Thing Quarterly.
Last week I went to take a look in the Chelsea location and asked if I could see a few books. They were very friendly and let me look at even the rare ones I asked to see. One big discovery was the giant pop-up book that Tauba Auerbach created with them. I’d always wanted to see it. It’s a group of individual paper sculptures between thick book covers. Each folds out to reveal a complex geometrical shape. Another book I always wanted to see was the Bruce Nauman book from the late 1960s called LA Air, which is just color photographs of the smoggy air in L.A. It’s funny but also compelling. The colors are luminous and so very beautiful, but the truth is, that air was deadly. It’s an amazing little book and is definitely worth seeing for yourself in person. The bad news, of course, is that you have to come all the way to New York to see it.