I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who reads art books. Sadly, my attention span and general lack of tolerance for esoteric pastimes in the art world usually allow me only a brief glance before I inevitably get rammed into exhibition catalog articles or described as “radical interventions”. Deferred by intentionally blank pages. That’s the beauty of the New York Art Book Fair (NYABF) – it takes the platonic ideals of the category (glossy! “rare first edition”!) and opens it up on its own, leaving enough for the hilarious and the offbeat space.
Until this Sunday, October 16th, Printed Matter’s much-loved book fair is back in person at the historic venue where the first edition of 2006 was held, just down the block from the bookstore’s Chelsea location. From the “Zine Zaddy” baseball cap to the recurring “Books And” tote bag, last night’s opening was a complete scene, or as one visitor who didn’t want me to use their name told me: “I’m just here to spy on people.”
I meander through the crowd and every year have the same thought, which is I can’t believe so many people come to the Art Book Fair. I also found myself longing for the high ceilings and schoolhouse vibe of MoMA PS1, the show’s longtime venue. Fortunately, the general atmosphere inside is less of Chelsea and more of an “East Village family gathering” (especially since the climate on the four floors alternates between swampy and freezing). Armed with a dying iPhone and a dripping umbrella, I set out to find the best books, not the best stories.
For eight years, poet Jen Fisher, who sits at the same table with F Magazine, has been selling books on the sidewalks of Manhattan’s Avenue A, near historic St. Marks. “The street is different because you don’t have walls, so anyone has a chance to walk through it,” Fisher told me. “You become an open-air bookstore. There, you might be showing someone a book and they’re not even reading it.” She holds a collection of poems by Rene Ricard. “Here, everyone is already interested.”
It’s nothing like the NYABF audience, who braved the relentless drizzle and sweaty queues waiting to get access to things like Grandma Presbury’s Bottle Village, the book tells the story of a folk artist named Tressa Prisbrey who, at the age of 60, collected more than 17,000 pencils to create an immersive mason jar environment in Southern California. It’s incredible, it’s cute, and it’s just what I was looking for in an art book!
In fact, many of my favorite items at the show deviate from this genre. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to a $2 cat postcard made by the owner of the Dutch artist-run bookstore Boekie Woekie. (The sale of these postcards alone apparently covers their full monthly rent, which is why I moved to the Netherlands.) Another high point of the night was Toilet A Go Go!, a collection of Japanese public restroom images by Handshake Books, by Hideumi Nakamura.On the desks of the collective Los Sumergidos in Mexico and New York, I discovered the wit of Alejandro Cartagena, who collected black-and-white photos of workers forced to attend awkward company dinners and put them together Compiled into a totally cynical title We love our employees (2019). Another Cartagena treasure was a sealed box that looked like an old pack of Kodak four-by-five negatives, which I was expressly forbidden to open, but was told to contain the first nude scene in a Mexican film Record.
At Corraini Edizioni’s booth, I perused the children’s books of Milan-based artist Bruno Munari (whose work is also currently on display at the Italian Centre for Modern Art in Soho). Frustrated with the bland offerings the literary world offered young readers, Munari began making books for children in 1945, bringing his artistic flair and penchant for material into the process.One of the genius series is called rehearsal — Small, textless “prep books” made of felt, wood, paper and other mediums designed to provide young children with an early introduction to the act of reading.
“If you’re really small and you can’t read, you can use them,” Pietro Corraini told me in a stunningly charming Italian accent. “They’re designed just to get used to books.” As a childless 31-year-old with more and more friends becoming parents, my asking price: $200. I raised my eyebrows.
“It’s because they’re made in Italy,” explains Corraini, also charmingly.
At a typical art fair, booth attendants are notoriously fussy people they talk to, chatting with people who appear to be picking up a painting or two. But at NYABF, everyone I approached was hospitable, eager to tell me about their magazines, haiku compilations, artist-made T-shirts, and chunky art theory books, long before I mentioned I was a journalist. Someone at Werkplaats Typografie gave me an apple “as a gesture” from their dodgy stand, which was subtly shaped for the reconstruction of the Kardeşler Groente & Fruit market in the west of Amsterdam.
On the fourth and final floor, I was drawn to a small handwritten poster that said, “Celebrating the NEA, Public Funding, and the Death of Art as We Know It.” It is part of the Allied Productions table, featuring more than 40 years of activism and resistance blips, highlighting LGBTQ+ and intergenerational voices.
“After the second Reagan administration, we realized that national organizations like ours were being defunded,” explained co-founder Jack Waters. Waters and his collaborator Peter Cramer founded the ABC No Rio gallery space and magazine library on the Lower East Side in the 1980s. “They say it’s because the quality of the work we’re submitting has declined, but when organisations say that, it’s often something deeper — like misogyny and racism. It’s the start of what’s called a culture war.”
Allied Productions’ main focus now is Le Petit Versailles, a community garden and performance venue in a former auto repair shop in Manhattan. Conversing with Waters is a humbling reminder of the many organizations and individuals on display at the show—from small artist publishers to magazine makers to many who seem to have somehow managed to do it all. Disciplinary Spaces – Facing quite a few hurdles in a fickle industry where the worlds of art and publishing come together.
Whether you enjoy deciphering a mysteriously scribbled artist’s diary, or just pile three or four monographs on your coffee table to scare your dinner guests, we can all agree that art books offer a special kind of comfort and joy.but what is even Yes Or an art book? I’m not sure if this fairness helps me get closer to any type of definition. For that, I am grateful.