Earlier this month, I worked with artist and educator Mark Joshua Epstein to bring a group of workshop participants to view objects in the MoMA Library that are not typically associated with modern art: artist-made flip books. This visit was part of Making the Moving Image: Past to Present, a studio workshop about experimentation with animation techniques that predate the invention of cinema. I watched participants hold and manipulate the books and was struck by how the direct physical contact with an artist’s work makes visiting the library’s collection of artist books so unique. The hands-on access is particularly important for studying artists’ flip books because they are made to be animated by the viewer’s own hands. Feeling the size and weight of the books, flipping through them quickly and then slowly, counting the number of images and considering how they are paced gave participants insight into the strategies artists use to create an illusion of movement from still images.
The workshop piqued my interest, so I reached out to librarian Jennifer Tobias to learn more about the MoMA Library’s holdings of over 10,000 artist’s books. In our conversation she echoed that what is so special about teaching with this collection is that “you’re essentially touching art,” and “if you touch something, it’s just different than looking at it in the gallery.”
I learned from Jenny that artists began experimenting widely with the publication format in the 1960s and in her words, “because it’s MoMA, these things started coming through the door.” At the time, there was no structure for collecting artists’ books but curators including Barbara London and Kynaston McShine recognized this was a new creative platform and made sure to hold on to them. According to Jenny, when Clive Phillpot became director of the Library in 1977, “the intersection of Clive and this stuff that had accumulated resulted in an explosion of love and attention to cultivate a strong collection of artists’ books.” The core of the collection then came in 1994 when Phillpot acquired the artists’ books amassed by the Franklin Furnace Archive, a New York organization founded in 1974 as an exhibition and performance space as well as a public repository for artists’ books. Collecting artists’ books continues to be an important part of the Library’s mission and classes from high schools and universities are regularly invited to visit them.
Like others in her field, Jenny identifies a revival of artists’ books today with “a born-digital crowd that is rediscovering print.” For the increasing number of young artists experimenting with print and publications, MoMA’s Library collection allows them hands-on access to the history of the form. What we found with bringing workshop participants to visit the artists’ books is that the collection can be a source of creative inspiration for artists and non-artists alike. In Jenny’s words, handling the books “gives you the opportunity to demystify them and be empowered by all your creative options.”
The Library collection is searchable online and open to the public by appointment. Click here for more information.
To learn more about upcoming artist-led programs at MoMA visit our classes page.