Printed Matter is the world's largest nonprofit distribution hub of artist-made books, zines, newspapers, records, and art objects. Since its inception, they have endeavoured to ensure that art publications are made available to anyone and everyone. Its densely packed New York storefront is the almost home to Adam O'Reilly and Keith Gray, the space's respective development coordinator and programming assistant.
Do you feel that in some way Printed Matter is a catalyst for young people visiting the many smaller galleries around your store? Like, "If Printed Matter has an opening, then maybe it's worth it to check out the openings down the street"?
Adam O'Reilly: I think it is. There are artists who show around here that we deal with on a regular basis. I generally get really excited when younger artists have shows in Chelsea, like the Ben Schumacher and Ryan Forester one at Martos—I really liked that exhibition. We've carried Forester's zines for a few years now. That sort of thing, however, doesn't happen too often because a lot of the galleries are at a tier where they show only mid-range artists; we don't deal with a lot of the artists that show in Chelsea anymore.
It is also exciting when I see friends come to the openings at Printed Matter because it'll be some of the only times I see them in the area. There's been a little bit of talk of Printed Matter finding another home someplace else or opening up a second spot. We've only been toying with the idea, as the same question comes up, “Why are we in Chelsea?” I think we want to stay here because we want it to remain a part of the nonprofits already in Chelsea, like The Kitchen and EAI. It's nice to be in that little crew.
Keith Gray: I'm sure it goes both ways too. Certainly for the younger crowd, our events draw people to Chelsea who don't normally visit, and then it becomes a jumping-off point for seeing shows. But certainly other shows in Chelsea and the opening of The High Line have drawn foot traffic that we wouldn't normally see here. It's actually part of Printed Matter's mission to remain at our location. As the area grows more mainstream and attractive to tourists, people from all over the world are always peering in and then enter this barrage of publications that they've never experienced before. There's nothing like Printed Matter on their gallery walk. And when they come in, they instantly understand what the difference is.
So, you think everyone who comes in immediately senses your mission statement?
Adam: Well, no. People are accustomed to going to galleries and then buying monographs about an artist. They come to Printed Matter, and they expect to see monographs, but instead they find self-published artist books instead, which to them can seem poorly made because they're not all sleek and hard covered. It can be a difficult to explain the difference to them. But when they realise that the book they're holding is the art, and that they're actually seeing 300 shows at once—instead of just one show—that is when they get excited.
With thousands of books available to you, is there a publication in Printed Matter you identify with? Something that mirrors your own personal aesthetic?
Keith: One thing I picked up recently was a book done by Stuart Bailey, along with Ryan Gander, called Appendix Appendix. It's the second iteration of a project they did collaboratively, and it sort of jumped off of Ryan's own sculptural and installation work. Using some of the themes that are in his work, they started to imagine this outrageous, experimental TV program. It is really exciting text, where they're pulling quotes from all over the place, and sampling films, like Mike Leigh's Naked as well as Godard films, in a really crude appropriation. For all its clunkiness, it fits really well in this book and shows the ridiculousness of a creation that could never get made, which is conceptually really interesting. Later in the book, there's a meta-moment where they bring it around and try to shop it to the BBC. It's very much an artist project—with a conceptual element that's highly visual.
Adam: We see so much! I think the longer I'm at Printed Matter, the more I gain an appreciation for the subtlety of all the different books. I think when I first started there, I would be attracted to one type of book—I'd think, This is what I'm interested in, this is what my work looks like. But I've grown accustomed to getting excited about every book I'm seeing. We have a submission process for accepting the books, and usually the books that end up coming in are very exciting, so there's hardly any book that I don't get enthusiastic about. I always appreciate them for what they are, and I'm really happy that people dropped them off. There are some serial publications, wherein I get to see the artist's work evolve. Recently, I've seen a lot of work by Sam Falls; he's been making really interesting books. Falls's work have been getting more complex and experimental, dealing in textiles and the medium itself; it's nice to watch an artist figure it out and become better at it.
Speaking of self-identity, Adam, I had a look at your site and have gathered that you are yourself quite the abstract writer. The design of your website is similarly interesting and conceptual. How would you say something like that, for example, could translate to print?
Adam: I've done some choose-your-own-adventure style books in the past, using that as a main premise. My website, when you go into it, is also kind of like that. But I don't know, that's not really what I look for in books. I'm attracted to more literary, abstract books, especially at Printed Matter. The longer I'm there, the less I'm impressed by the flashy and more impressed by the complexity of the book, the arrangement of images and texts.
And, Keith, looking into your work and reading some of the articles you've published online, including a literary column for Impose Magazine, what are hoping to achieve with this venture?
Keith: I'm attempting to find new ways to write about the publications that are exciting. I'd like to identify works that are structurally very interesting and attentive to language. Occasionally, the work that I encounter has a higher focus on a visual component.
Okay, as you are now print connoisseurs, can either of you offer me a factoid about the early years of the printing press?
Keith: Like Gutenberg?
Adam: That's funny because we were actually talking about this at work with other day, because we were thinking about the historical significance of artist books and how the artist book is generally associated with the invention of the mimeograph. That's when cheap printing started really happening, especially with Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha; that's the first real artist book. I guess it could go back further, but before the mimeograph, printing was too expensive to truly have self-published artist books.
Keith: It's the Moby Dick of artist books. It was originally like $3.50, but now a copy goes for $9,000.
[The guys google the book. An original signed copy is now worth $35,000.]
Keith: And we have a second-edition copy at Printed Matter.