text and color

What We Talk About When We Talk About Artist Publishing:

A Nod to the LA Art Book Fair

by Chelsea Rooney

(M)ost people would agree to a common sense definition of what is or is not a book. But in the work of artists this obvious definition soon loses its clarity. Is a book restricted to the codex form? Does it include scrolls? Tablets? Decks of cards? A block of wood with one end painted with a title, like a conventional spine? A walk-in space of oversized panels hinged together? A metaphysical concept, disembodied, but invoked in performance or ritual?  – Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists Books

Too often when we talk about artist publishing, we overlook its multifarious forms. There’s more to publication than the traditional book, and when we forget this we miss out on the wild variety artist publishing has to offer.

The same sentiment could be aimed toward the Los Angeles art world, which many critics interpret by its history of supposed false starts. The LA Times thinks that because the city is “(f)orever re-creating its art scene with new galleries, updated museums, unconventional outposts and the latest crop of graduates from Southern California schools, L.A. seems to be a place where the only way to look at the arts is forward.”

Similarly, in Frieze’s review of The Getty’s mega-exhibition Pacific Standard Time, writers Thorne and Allen lament, “(m)ore than any other city, art from LA is remarkably still often understood as a primarily localized phenomenon.” The same sentiment could be aimed at artist publishing, whose recent popularity belies what was once considered its (at best) insular and (at worst) extraneous value.

When I asked Angeleno artist and critic Andrew Berardini from LA’s The Art Book Review what he thinks about unconventional artist publishing, he had this to say: “Artist books in Los Angeles follow the same story as much of the rest of the art in Los Angeles: diverse, strange and free, not without a sense of pleasure, leisure or humour, unstuck from the old guard with a lot of space left still for freaks to be broke. …We’re having our own idiosyncratic kind of fun.”

Artist books don’t happen in a vacuum. They are genetically, haphazardly and joyously interconnected with capital-A Art of the visual, literary and performance order. And, as with any discourse, the relationships between genres are there whether we notice them or not.

So, in the spirit of inclusivity and transcending labels—very California, yes? —let’s honour the LA Art Book Fair by looking at an earlier incident of unorthodox artist publishing: a John Baldessari film.

John Baldessari towers over California’s modern art world as the Godfather of Conceptual Art. Two years ago, Tom Waits narrated a sleek and cheeky video set to Rossini’s frenetic William Tell overture, A Brief History of John Baldessari. It summarizes Baldessari’s most idiosyncratic maneuvers since 1970, the year he burned his every painting and vowed to never make boring art again. The joke being that “boring” is a meaningless adjective, a subjective one in 1970 and, in 2014, appropriative enough to make it almost politically incorrect.

Depending on whom you ask, Baldessari’s thirty-three minute film Six Colorful Inside Jobs is either a vibrant, live-action artist book come to life, or as tedious as watching paint dry.

For Baldessari himself, it’s a lifelong thought experiment, an artist’s answer to the scientist’s Double Slit. “I used to occupy my mind as I was painting a wall just by saying to myself, ‘Now I’m painting a wall; now I’m making a painting.’ It would just be a conceptual exercise. The physical activity was the same; I was just calling it differently each time.”

Whatever the conceptual infrastructure of Baldessari’s project, the visual result is simple beauty. Unornamented, sans serif text work as title and chapter headings, and the unidentified figure (a student of Baldessari’s) paints one room over and over the colours of the rainbow. Baldessari says the six colours represent the six days of the week, with the seventh being, of course, a day of rest.

Contextually, Six Colorful Inside Jobs occupies a few moments in the history of multimedia art, such as the advent of widely-accessible film and video technology, and, more candidly, the ever-expanding definition of artist publishing. The film incorporates bits of conceptual, performance, visual, electronic and, now on the internet, digital art as well.

These elements conspire to create an experience that is undeniably book-like: a title page, chapter headings, and a beginning, middle and end. It tells the story of a figure painting one room again and again and, like any book worth its spine, engages the reader/viewer by asking a question no single answer could appease: is the figure painting a wall, or is the figure making a painting?

And what happened to the remains of all those formative Baldessari abstracts, the ones he painted between 1953 and 1966, the ones he burned in a crematorium for his conceptual piece called The Cremation Project? He placed them into a bronze urn forged in the shape of a book. And though the book doesn’t have pages to turn, it certainly tells a redemptive story of art: a story where destruction does not mean loss. A story where humility triumphs.