Contemporary galleries introduce the catalogue as art
By Calvin Reid

In an age characterized by an explosion of printed matter, the contemporary gallery's newfound role as publisher and disseminator of books and catalogues should come as no surprise. If in making the rounds of New York galleries you have ever browsed the shelves just inside the entrance to the Robert Miller Gallery, lingered over the glass case at the Mary Boone Gallery, or perhaps picked up a catalogue from Exit Art's large collection, then you are probably aware of the importance to galleries and their artists of in-house publications, and of the high levels of quality and imagination found in them.

Commercial and alternative galleries fill a small but growing niche in the art world. Without gallery publishing most of these works would never be produced; their expense and limited audience would send any curious trade publisher very quickly in the opposite direction. Black-and-white or color photographs, a short essay and brief descriptions of the artworks make up the generic exhibition catalogue. But the more ambitious galleries have become specialty publishers, producing scholarly writings, inventive curatorial projects and artist/gallery collaborations that function as both object and documentary.

To Penny Pilkington, co-director of P·P·O·W in New York, working with the artist is essential. "It seems to me," she says, "that if in ten years' time you have a shelf full of catalogues, the ones that are interesting will be those in which the artist has had more input." P·P·O·W has published, in collaboration with the artists, catalogues of works by David Wojnarowicz and Thomas Woodruff. The Wojnarowicz catalogue, entitled In the Shadow of Forward Motion, with notes by Felix Guattari, combines Wojnarowicz's drawings with his own powerful commentary. Pilkington describes it this way: "David does drawings and he writes about the paintings, which in turn refer back to drawings." You couldn't ask for a better guide to the artist's thundering social indictments or his visual memorials. The gallery photocopied the commentaries and images of his work to make a limited edition of catalogues, which it sold for $5 each. "He compiled this material and we photocopied it. It wasn't anything of glorified value, but it was done by the artist to broaden the understanding of his works," Pilkington explains. "We printed twenty, fifty, then another fifty. I don't know whether we did one hundred and fifty or two hundred, but it was almost like an art piece."

In the Woodruff book, P·P·O·W reproduced paintings that it was unable to show at the time. "We were documenting his work, not exhibiting it in the gallery, but actually exhibiting it in book form," says Pilkington. The 21-page catalogue alternates excellent reproductions of Woodruff's works-his cryptic floral paintings are dreamy, almost symbolist-with texts adapted from a description of a 17th-century alchemy technique.

Of course when it comes to lavish production, Mary Boone's catalogues are things of wonder. She has published over 60 since 1982, including her eye-opening Francis Picabia catalogue of 1983, which seemed to set off a small wave of Picabia publications. It includes the artist's Transparences as well as some of his lesser-known works of the 1940s and '50s. Boone says one of her gallery's roles is "the dissemination of ideas," and the books serve that end. "The catalogues are not used as a means to sell a painting," she notes with emphasis, although the striking embossed cover of Philip Taaffe's 1989 catalogue could certainly be used effectively for that purpose. "I try to get serious essays from serious writers. I think the catalogue should provoke discussion." She brings together artists and what might be called celebrity essayists: Gore Vidal writes on Philip Taaffe, Philip Roth on Eric Fischl, Angela Carter on Barbara Kruger-usually with unexpected results. Says Boone, "Since many of the essayists are not art critics, I might ask them not to write about the artist's work but rather to write about some related scenario inside their own vocabulary. It makes for an interesting collaboration, more a parallel relationship than a didactic one."

The books are designed by Boone and the artist, with help from design agency Anthony McCall Associates. All are bound by hand and printed on cover stock in runs of 1,000 with a phenomenal eight-color printing process. They are collected widely and, by all accounts, distributed to a broad range of people, from students, to artists, to collectors, to librarians.

Over the past four years, New York's Kent Fine Art has compiled a smaller list of publications than Mary Boone's, but one that illustrates just as well a progression from the traditional formula to more inventive variations. Kent's first publication, Of Absence and Presence, 1986, is a standard documentation of a comparative exhibition of Suprematist drawings by Malevich and Chashnik and works by American abstractionists Ellsworth Kelly, David Smith, Tony Smith and Ad Reinhardt. The book's clean design and excellent reproductions (23 color plates) are supported by John Bowlt's short essay investigating connections between the two schools of artists. Useful and professional, it fills the bill, serving as an unambiguous record of the exhibit that also inoffensively supports the works' sale.

But what a difference between that effort and Fictions, which Kent, in collaboration with New York's Curt Marcus Gallery, produced just a year later. Fictions is an odd duck of a book, wallowing in post modernist pictorial eclecticism. The catalogue combines 103 pictures from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including painting and photography of virtually every type. There are movie stills, history paintings, landscapes and advertising photographs, all carefully arranged to form an implicit narration, complicated and undermined by their disparate sources. Capping it off is an essay by the show's curator, Douglas Blau, itself another fiction, a bogus narration of the life of an obscure essayist and her own elusive and multiple identities. Excepting two or three pictures, all the works are beautifully reproduced in a quietly mesmerizing blue duotone. Catalogue or art? Beauty and information. According to Eileen Costello, who directs the publishing program at Kent, "It was important for [gallery owner) Douglas Walla to put together not only these beautiful exhibitions but also beautiful books." The books, Costello says, are not produced to make money. Book dealers and distributors can order them at a 40-percent discount; many are given away to clients. And while catalogues very often support sales, they sometimes document a large body of work not available for purchase. "Our exhibitions parallel our publications in that some of the works are not for sale, and we have included works from both public and private collections," Costello explains. "They are like museum projects. We don't just get together the work of an artist and do a book to sell the show."

Accommodations of Desire, the catalogue for Kent's Picabia show, illustrates the gallery's commitment to accessible scholarship and fine bookmaking. The book-calling it a catalogue just won't do-is printed on heavy parchment in a distinctive serifed typeface. The essay, by Sarah Wilson of London's Courtauld Institute, discusses the years 1924-32 and the creation of the artist's Transparences, his haunting series of paintings layered with classical iconography and Dadaist radicalism. The 18 color plates complement an elegant and erudite text that manages to cover succinctly Picabia's personal life, his diverse influences and the aesthetic tensions and cross-pollination within his extraordinary circle of friends and colleagues.

Print runs for all Kent's books are around 3,000, of which, Costello says, "one thousand to fifteen hundred are given away, especially to libraries." The books can be ordered from the gallery, but distribution is handled in the U.S. by Untitled II, Inc., and internationally by Idea Books of Amsterdam. Kent's list of publications also includes, among others, INSIDE WORLD, an artist's book by Richard Prince; Impressions in Wax and Bronze, 1882-1906, a work on 19th-century sculptor Medardo Rosso; and Artschwager, Shapiro, Byars, a miniature boxed set of three catalogues documenting an exhibition of the same name.

Two projects at Exit Art combine a cheerful inventiveness with a utilitarian survey of a body of work exhibited at the gallery. Papo Colo, cofounder of Exit Art, designed the catalogues for both "The Green Show," displaying works by Soviet artists, and his own project, "Photogenics." Essays and photographs are compiled in a die-cut cardboard box, secured by either a large rubber band or an outsize nut and bolt.

Sculptor Sara Garden Armstrong's Airplayers, done in collaboration with New York's Souyun Yi Gallery and New York publisher Willis, Locker & Owens, is an ambitious project whose limited edition of 65 combines four components: a book, a videotape, a sculptural installation and a handcrafted housing for the whole lot. Like a Duchampian exhibition-in-a-suitcase, Airplayers is a portable museum. The book contains two silkscreened vinyl envelopes, grommeted inside a cover of optical plastic, with an optical lens and an ultrabright battery-powered LED. On the book's pages, transparent images alternate with transparent computer printouts and text. No ordinary catalogue, this is a vital component of a complex work. Produced in an edition of 1,000, the book alone goes for $30. Self-contained, critical, wildly creative and exhaustively researched, it manages, in its many forms, to appropriate the elements of the generic catalogue while signaling its impending decline. We have entered the era of the interactive exhibition catalogue.
Calvin Reid

© 2021 Sara Garden Armstrong