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Re: Art or Design.../Michael Joseph
- To: BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU
- Subject: Re: Art or Design.../Michael Joseph
- From: Jules Siegel <siegel@PRODIGY.NET.MX>
- Date: Thu, 14 Jun 2001 10:04:40 -0500
- In-Reply-To: <0GEV008D6WK23H@SMTP.Prodigy.Net.mx>
- Message-Id: <200106141507.IAA21468@palimpsest.Stanford.EDU>
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> From: Michael Joseph <mjoseph@RCI.RUTGERS.EDU>
> Reply-To: "Book_Arts-L: READ THE FAQ at
> Date: Wed, 13 Jun 2001 15:50:00 -0400
> To: BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU
> Subject: Re: Art or Design
> Speaking as someone who curates exhibitions of artists' books, I am wholl=
> preoccupied with how the artist wants her/his book/bookwork to be perceiv=
> and not at all concerned with contemporary discourses about art.
I am a graphic designer and, I suppose, a book artist, since three of my
works are in the Artists' Books Collection at the Museum of Modern Art, New
York, and others were exhibited at Franklin Furnace in 1978. Although I am
known (if I am known at all any more) as a writer (Playboy, Rolling Stone,
Best American Short Stories, among many others), my trade is graphic design=
I create advertisements and other print material for commercial clients. I
also use the same techniques and skills in the creation of my books.
Graphic design is a term describing a set of techniques for producing visua=
objects. Although these objects usually fall under the category of ephemera=
they often survive their initial mundane uses and are recognized as art.
What is art? Art is what the artist does. It's a process, not a definition.
Art is characterized by love, the love that the artist puts into it when
creating it, and the love that people feel when they see it.
In the early '70s I became dissatisfied with the lack of visual excitement
of the standard trade book and I became interested in the way Time-Life
Books was using magazine techniques to create books that made full sensual
contact with the reader. I was also frustrated by the restraints imposed by
publishers and editors on what I wrote.
Since I was deeply involved in magazine design, I saw many ways in which th=
literary book -- novel, memoir, poetry -- could be enhanced by adding visua=
elements. When I tried to get publishers to understand this they smiled and
asked me what I had written lately. Following the lead of Whole Earth
Catalog, I began using an IBM Composer (a fairly primitive impact typesette=
based on the Selectric typewriter) to create literary objects.
I was kind of a pioneer in the field of book art, but I didn't know it unti=
a friend brought my work to Martha Wilson's attention and she gave me a sho=
in 1978 at the original Franklin Furnace Archive on Franklin Street. At the
time, I was making one-of-a-kind books that I wrote out in my own
handwriting (a rough-and-ready formal handwriting that sometimes approaches
At first, these were just notes for a book now called Our Times: A Personal
History of the 20th Century. Then I realized that they could be
illustrations, which is how I used them in my first collection, Record,
published by Straight Arrow in 1972.
Record was put together at my instructions by the Straight Arrow art
director, so it did not quite fit the definition of book art. In 1973, I di=
my own complete production called The Chinese House, which was set in type
by the late Chester Anderson, with mechanicals made by the personnel at
Mendocino Lithographers, so it still wasn't really absolutely my work and m=
work alone, but pretty close. But Claes Oldenburg did have assistants who
sewed his soft sculptures and much of the greatest art of all time was
designed by master painters, but executed with the help of many assistants.
From 1974 to 1975, while living in Yelapa, Jalisco, a tgown reachable only
by boat from Puerto Vallarta, I wrote Memoir, which is in the Franklin
Furnace Archive at the Museum of Modern Art. This book was the first
calligraphic novel that I wrote specifically for publication.
I produced 350 copies at Mendocino Lithographers in 1975. These were done
entirely under my personal supervision. Only the photomechanical work
(making and assembling the negatives) and the printing and binding were don=
by other craftsmen. Even so, the book is much more my own work than, say,
the prints of Escher were his own work, as his drawings were interpreted
under his close supervision by end-grain wood engravers. The negatives of
Memoir were merely photographs of my pages, made by the cameraman to my
In 1981 I walked away from what most people consider the real world to writ=
a book called The Real Mexico. Before long, I found myself living and
working in remote locations in which the written word was superfluous. I
survived because of my commercial skills as a graphic designer and
photographer. I am very proud to have used these skills to create works of
art with enduring value despite the commercial context in which they were
produced. I'm confident that this body of work will someday find its
audience, hopefully before I die.
With the advent of the laser printer, I began making my own books in
one-of-a-kind editions that I sold to friends and relatives. I bound them b=
hand using various primitive but very sturdy techniques that I adapted to
the capabilities of the equipment I had available at the time, after
examining conventional books and improvising as necessary.
Two of my books in the MoMA collection -- Lineland and Cancun User's Guide
-- may puzzle curators. They are conventionally designed and printed and
even have a fairly conventional text. They look like an ordinary trade
paperback, which is exactly what they are designed to look like. The
difference is that, except for the printing and binding, they are entirely
my own work. I created them in every detail on my computer and gave them to
the printer in the form of PostScript digital files.
I am firmly convinced, however, that these books represent the most recent
evolution of book art -- the exact imitation of the conventional trade
paperback down to the fact that they are sold in conventional bookstores.
It's as if Andy Warhol made and sold his own line of canned soup, beginning
with cooking the soup and constructing the can and making the labels and so
on. Since books are works of art in themselves, whether or not made by book
artists, the analogy is even more compelling.
I am now 65 years old. I've worked entirely outside the world of
professional art and academic studies all my life. With the exception of my
1977 show at Franklin Furnace, any recognition I've received has been
decidedly commercial. I realize that one institution is not much of a
recommendation but book art is a very young genre. I haven't had the luxury
of showing my work. I'm not Gauguin but I would like to point out that he
didn't have many shows either after moving to Tahiti.
Despite this, I consider myself an artist in every sense of the word. I
leave it to others and history to resolve the conflict between fine art and
commercial art. D=FCrer worked for printers and Toulouse-Lautrec created
posters for the Moulin-Rouge dance hall. These works are today among the
most valued objects in museum and personal collections lucky enough to have
them. My own position (as one might expect) is that the anonymous graphic
designers who created the original Campbell's soup can were as worthy of
serious attention as Andy Warhol, and I think, in fact, that was his point.
A. J. Liebling said, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.=
A laser printer is a desktop printing press. The digital book press is the
laser printer to the next power. It hooks up the individual author/artist t=
the world book distribution system in a way that has never before existed.
Lineland and Cancun User's Guide are examples of this process at work -- on=
individual in a small city on the edge of a vast jungle, working with a
piece of equipment you can now buy in a supermarket in Cancun, communicatin=
directly with the entire world without any form of editorial control or
censorship, using a medium that was at the beginning of the 20th Century
almost absolutely dominated by the industrial corporation.
JULES SIEGEL Apdo 1764 Cancun Q. Roo 77501
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