February 14, 2011  |  Library and Archives
Books About Books

Working in a library, it is amazing how consistently one is asked, “Which is your favorite book?” I generally stutter and give a muddled reply about how I like the idea of an accumulation of books, or something along those lines. If really pressed, I have recently started mentioning that I like books about books. In my case, given the nature of the MoMA Library’s collection, our books about books generally focus on the small and merry niche of modern and contemporary art publications and publications by artists. These books often document or expand a genre of publications—see highlights from 2009, In Numbers or Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s. They are bibliophilic contrivances and often explore a particular artist’s body of work, catalog a collection of books, and/or trace a phenomenon within certain genres. Perhaps it is easiest to discuss aspects of this definition of “book about books” by taking a quick browse through three great examples published in 2010.

Tidebook comes in a Tide box. Paul McCarthy. Paul McCarthy's lowlife slowlife: tidebox tidebook. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2010.

Tidebox Tidebook was produced by CCA Wattis after a two-part exhibition, Paul McCarthy’s Low Life Slow Life. It is a fairly remarkable entry into the genre of books about books. The contents of the “catalogue” are a little disorienting at first glance. The large volume is jammed with reproduced ephemera, articles from periodicals, and sections of monographs and exhibition catalogs spanning from the 1960s to the 2000s. This space is too short to describe the full contents, but some of the reproduced publications include Assemblage, Environments & Happenings, by Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, the Whitney Museum’s 1969 catalogue Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, Gustav Metzger’s Auto-destructive art manifesto, and reproduced images and articles from periodicals like Avalanche, High Performance, Tom Marioni’s Vision, and Parkett. After a second or third perusal, the assembled printed materials start to “read” more clearly and form a compelling tableau of influences that approximates an artist’s autobiography. In sum, this catalog becomes an impressive book about books, a quick and dirty bibliography of work that influenced an individual artist’s oeuvre, but it also sprawls out into an edgy tour of 50 years of experimental art practices.

Archigram 8 (1968) featured in Clip/Stamp/Fold

Clip/Stamp/Fold: the radical architecture of little magazines 196X–197X constitutes a broad survey/catalog that was published after a series of exhibitions over the past four years. Clip Stamp Fold explores not only the contents of the show, but also the critical conversations that accompanied its various iterations. The authors present a precise timeline of experimental architecture publications, and manage facsimile reproductions of several of the huge list of titles incorporated into the show. The reproductions and commentary capture the spirit and format of the genre and the accumulated documentation immediately becomes an essential reference work for researchers and admirers of the big boom of little architecture magazines.

Lee Lozano: notebooks 1967-1970 adds to publisher Primary Information’s growing catalog of recirculated materials. Reproduced in one volume, facsimile photocopies of the notebook pages allow for a privileged access to the ideas, processes, and impasses that the artist documented over this period of time. Lozano’s annotations of her own drawings encapsulate the performance of an artist’s process. They make explicit an interior dialogue where the artist talks back to her ideas. It almost feels too voyeuristic, too intimate, like reading a diary or peeking through a crack in the studio door.

Follow the links to find our catalog and more information on all these publications, and visit our library, where one can find more books about books; maybe even a book about books about books. This would indeed be my favorite book.