Tuesday, August 31, 2021

James Lee Byars | I’m collecting questions

James Lee Byars
I’m collecting questions
Croton, USA: Hudson Institute, 1969
43.2 x 28 cm.
Edition size unknown

A questionnaire from the artist's brilliant World Question Centre (see earlier post, here) that states "I’m collecting questions. Please list yours and send to Byars (Temp. Art. in Res.) Hud. Inst. Croton, N.Y. 10520".

"So running the World Question Center I tried many things. I tried as I said street-tests, I went to schools. My biggest amazement was Columbia where I managed to hand out probably 1000 of the questionnaires which said, were regular size paper simply saying at the top “I’m collecting Questions. List yours.” And the return address of the Hudson Institute and so forth and then the numbers one to one-hundred down the side. On the reverse side there was a small ‘?’ in the middle of the page. It is interesting that I got only one return from Columbia. One questionnaire. But people dislike paper, I expect a lot of prejudice for that. So I don’t know if that’s a reasonable statistic or not."

- James Lee Byars, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, April 21, 1970

Monday, August 30, 2021

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Richard Artschwager | Untitled [Box With Drawers]

Richard Artschwager
Untitled [Box With Drawers]
New York City, USA: Multiples, Inc., 1971
34.6 x 37.5 x 29.5 cm
Edition of 50 signed, dated and numbered copies

Produced by Marian Goodman's Multiples Inc. in an edition of fifty copies, this work consists of a white oak box with a white formica top and five drawers of equal size and shape. Each drawer has a brass handle similar to the kind found on library card catalogue drawers. The drawers contain formica (mimicking the top of the cabinet), a bottomless drawer, glass, mirror, and rubberized horsehair - one of the artist's signature materials. 

"In the fall of 1970, I showed up at Richard Artschwager’s shop on Canal Street in New York City for my first day of work. I was joining a team of artists, including John Torreano, who had been hired to complete a limited-edition object. Upon my arrival Richard gave me a broom and asked me to sweep up. I was glad to do it and glad to have the job. I swept sawdust and shavings into a pile, got a dustpan, and put the bulk of the refuse into a trash barrel. I had started to gather the small amount left on the floor when Richard said, “No, leave it. That will tell us where to put the next batch.”

In the late 1960s Richard was making art alongside furniture in the shop on Canal Street. He had fully equipped his workshop with a crosscut saw, table saw, router, drill press, power sander, planer, and worktables. My job, in addition to sweeping the floor, was to use the router to cut dovetails for the assembly of dressers, end tables, and chests of drawers.

The last art project Richard completed before moving his studio upstate was “Untitled” (1971), a box with five drawers designed and manufactured by the artist and published in an edition of 50 by Castelli Graphics and MultiplesInc. By the time I joined the shop, “Untitled”had been designed, a prototype had been made, and the cutting and assembly process had begun. One of my tasks was to cut dovetail pieces for these drawers. While doing so, I considered some aesthetic questions surrounding Artschwager’s work and recorded my reflections in journal entries. This essay is based upon my notes.

Artschwager’s art is genre bending and paradoxical. Throughout his career he has created enigmatic objects, objects questioning the very genres they inhabit; he has navigated drawing, painting, and sculpture, crossing over and stretching the customary boundaries defining art. His years as a furniture designer/maker informed his sculpture. He used the materials and methods from furniture production and assembly, as well as all the iterations (perceptual, real, and faux) these materials and methods suggested to his imagination. He cut and assembled rational, angular, minimal objects; covered three-dimensional objects with Formica in elegant camouflage; manufactured non-utilitarian objects that looked utilitarian; and created illusionistic and literal mirror images, visual riddles that played with the viewer’s expectations.


Human beings are inhabiting creatures and we want to know what’s inside. But first encounters with unfamiliar chests of drawers are usually cautious. We never know what we will find. This is one of the suspense principles, the balanced relationship between expectation and the unforeseen. The first encounter with“Untitled”can be unsettling. Is it a storage unit for materials; or is it minimal sculpture, or furniture, or a model of some sort? How does one experience this work? If we open its drawers, are we moving away from or towards the center?

To answer these questions the box locates the viewer, much like the painter locates the viewer by using perspective. In order to truly “see” the piecethe viewer must be in proximity to the piece, closer than arm’s length, and able to open and examine the insides of the drawers. 
Upon doing so, viewers discover that “Untitled”encompasses a series of polarities: open and closed, inside and outside, top and bottom, full and empty, light and dark. These polarities are built into the geometry of the box, conferring coherence. Examining them, followingcontingent steps from one place to the next, the viewer proceeds logically, like Ariadne’s thread, and gains insight into the ordering system at the heart of “Untitled”and at the core of Richard Artschwager’s artistic project.


The abrupt physical sensation upon seeing the overflowing container of the bottom drawer can be traced to the physiology of visual perception. The drawers preceding the fifth have created an illusionistic experience. The eye has adjusted to distance, to illusions of space and reflection, and to focusing alternately on the field around and through the drawers. The final drawer abruptly pushes the viewer back to the physical, measurable, non-illusionistic, tactile space within arm’s reach. The narcissism of the mirrored surface’s visual expansion is thus thwarted with two strokes of a hand. Closing drawer four and opening drawer five erases distance and illusion, reclaiming the physical presence of material and surface.

“Untitled”provides an insight into Artschwager’s materials and methods, and his exploration of perception, illusion, and tactile and sculptural space—and it does so using an oak box with five drawers. The five drawers are like a five-step visual scale. Each step moves the observer from one polarity to another, from light to dark, open and closed, outside and inside. Composed of ordinary materials—oak, brass handles, Formica, glass, mirror, and rubberized horsehair—“Untitled” invites viewers to construct meaning using their own temporal experience.

Once the viewer examines “Untitled,” the content is carried around in his or her memory. Just as with all remembered experience, memory is never wholly apart from, never wholly inclusive of, always someplace in between. “Untitled”exists someplace in between the container and the contained, someplace in between furniture and sculpture, someplace in between the utilitarian and the esthetic, someplace in between the static and the interactive.

“Untitled”is a hermetic system of thought, deciphered by following a series of steps, much like Ariadne’s thread. As simple and straightforward as were Richard’s floor sweeping instructions to me on my first day at his shop, they gave me an insight into his mind and his complex art. When he asked me to leave a small pile of sawdust on the floor of his shop to indicate where the next pile of sawdust should go, he was telling me that, for him, actions always pose questions about further actions. It can be said that all of Artschwager’s work—in any of its formats—serves as a set of instructions for the viewer, a tool for seeing.

At the Whitney Museum’s recent opening of the retrospective RichardArtschwager!, I spoke with the artist about “Untitled.” I suggested that the multiple could be considered a pivotal work in Artschwager’s career because it contained the material and conceptual seeds of that which interested him. He added, “And what mystified me.”"

- Michael Torlen, Brooklyn Rail

Friday, August 27, 2021

Mike Kelley | Paddle for Artist's Space

Mike Kelley
Untitled [Paddle for Artist's Space]
New York City, USA: Artist's Space, 1992
59 x 15.2 x 1.9 cm.
Edition of 50 numbered copies

A Beech wood paddle with leather strap screen printed on the front with the opening line of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) on the verso. 
The artist's initials are incised on the handle, as is the edition number. 

Produced as a benefit for Artist's Space in New York. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Jenny Holzer | Fingers slide where the brain is close

Jenny Holzer
Selection from the SURVIVAL SERIES (Fingers slide where the brain is close...), 1983-1985
New York City, USA: Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 1985
15.2 x 21.8 cm.
Edition of 10 signed and numbered copies

"Fingers slide where the brain is close to the surface and pursue the intentions lying there" is a lesser-known Truism from the Survival series produced as a painted aluminium work, mounted on board. The plaque is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Tracey Emin | Temporary Tattoo

Tracey Emin
Temporary Tattoo
Venice, Italy: The British Council, 2007
8 x 6 cm.
Edition of 1500

A temporary tattoo with an image of a bird riding a penis, distributed at the artist’s exhibition as the British official entrant for the 2007 Venice Biennale. 

Monday, August 23, 2021

General Idea | Bondage

General Idea
Toronto, Canada: Self-published, 1987
1.5 cm wide; 2286 cm per roll
Prototype for an edition 

According to AA Bronson’s comprehensive list of Editions & Publications 1967 - 1995, only two prototypes of this planned edition were ever produced. The work consists of black satin ribbon with the word Bondage hot-stamped in silver. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Christian Marclay | Tape Fall

Christian Marclay
Tape Fall
New York City, USA: The New Museum, 1990
32 × 11 cm.
Edition of 150 

The installation Tape Fall debuted as part of the 1989 New Museum exhibition “Strange Attractors: Signs of Chaos,” alongside works by Glenn Branca, John Cage, Zoe Leonard, Ann Hamilton, David Hammons, Cary Noland, and many others. The work features a reel-to-reel tape deck continuously playing a track of dripping water sounds. Suspended nine feet above the gallery floor, the deck is not fitted with a take-up reel, so the tape unspools onto the floor. The resulting pile of audio tape becomes a sculptural form that mirrors the aural experience. A total of 187 reels of tape were used.

Much the way that Footsteps began as an installation of vinyl LPs that were then torn up and sold as editions, here the magnetic tape is collected and bottled. The temptation for Marclay - a fan of puns and wordplay - to call it Bottled Water must've been strong, but was wisely avoided. 

The work is valued at approximately $1500 US. 

"Christian Marclay's installation Tape Fall (1989) is a grower. Not just in the sense that it takes a while for the work's impact to sink in - although it's certainly true that, unlike many apparent one-liners, Tape Fall keeps suggesting interpretations with repeated interaction. No, the installation quite literally grows, slowly but surely, and each visit presents a new version of the art work. Startlingly simple, the piece consists of a reel-to-reel tape player perched high atop an industrial stepladder; magnetic tape plays back a recording of dripping water and, in the absence of a take-up reel, falls the 20 or so feet to the gallery floor, where it accumulates in a messy pile. When the tape runs out a new one is loaded into the machine, and the debris beneath is left in place. Despite the tangle around the base of the ladder, a subtle order prevails: positioned to fall directly on top of a horizontal metal bar, the slowly spilling tape gradually flips and flops over the rod, creating a symmetrical mound as it amasses, ever so slowly. Returning to the gallery is a bit like making repeat visits to Pride Superette, a convenience store only a mile or so from San Francisco MOMA, where the owner, Nabil Kishek, is in the slow process of assembling a ball of rubber bands worthy of the Guinness Book of Records. Despite the gentle pace of both projects, experiencing the mutation at first hand never fails to delight, resulting in an odd collision of simple surprise and Sisyphean sublimity."
- Philip Sherburne, Frieze, 2002

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Johanna Drucker | As No Storm or The Any Port Party

Johanna Drucker
As No Storm or The Any Port Party
Oakland, USA: Rebis Press, 1975
[unpaginated], Square 8vo., hand-sewn
Edition of 300 [+ 26 AP]

As No Storm (or A Snow Storm) is the first editioned bookwork by artist (and Artist Book historian) Johanna Drucker. The book is hand-sewn with heavy limp canvas covers, with white cord through brass grommets. 

"The nautical motif in images and binding combine with the stippled ink drawings to produce an effect that suggests a children's book, at first glance. The text is dense, rhymed, complex, almost unreadable in any straightforward sense. Thick with double entendres, allusions, puns, it is the story of a failed New Year's party I attended with my parents in what must have been the winter 1974-75. Betsy Davids had applied for and received funds from the NEA for a series of book projects, and she had invited me to be one of the artists. That invitation literally changed my life, since I moved back to the Bay Area from Santa Cruz, where I'd been living since 1973, in order to print the book with her in summer 1975. The result was that I got to know the emerging, vital book arts community, found my way to the West Coast Print Center, became part of a literary publishing and poetry scene, and in a very formative period of my life, was able to be in contact with a group of peers whose work and ideas pushed my own. As for this book, it remains one of the best produced of my works, particularly in that early period, thanks to Betsy's expertise, patience, and experience. The is somewhat baffling, impenetrable, an opaque textual object. The writing is shifted into a more fantastic register by the images than it might have been on its own, but unrelieved, the text would have been unreadable. Still, it was quite typical of the writing I did at the time, heavily knotted and turned inward on itself, but tightly structured, highly rhythmical, intricate. Likewise, the drawings have that obsessive naivete that was characteristic of my ink drawings in the early 1970s."
- Johanna Drucker

Monday, August 9, 2021

N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1), Part 2

N.E. Thing Company
N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1)
Vancouver, Canada: Brick Press, 2020
362 pp, 21.3 x 27.5 cm., softcover
Edition of 500

Between the proliferation of Artist Book Fairs (pre-pandemic) and the ease of online distribution, the market for artists' publications continues to grow, and once unsaleable books that languished in storage for years are now only available on the secondary market, often prohibitively priced. 

To counter the scarcity of the originals, many publishers have undertaken the difficult work of producing reprints of these rare titles, in order to make them available again at affordable prices. 

Five years ago four Marcel Broodthaers titles were reprinted in the span of a few months, by Siglio Press, Granary Books and the Museum of Modern Art. Siglio has also produced reprints of long-unavailable titles by Sophie Calle, Ray Johnson, John Cage, Bernadette Mayer and others, alongside their schedule of new publications. Similarly, Primary Information produces both new artists’ books and facsimile reprints (Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, Constance DeJong, Tony Conrad, etc.). Other publishers who take this approach include The Everyday Press (Yves Klein), Zédélé Editions (Jan Dibbets, Peter Downsbrough, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, Herman de Vries), Dancing Foxes Press (Fred Sandback), JRP Ringer (Dorothy Ianonne, FILE Megazine) and Boabooks (a series of great Ulises Carrión titles).  

I have no compunction about this practice. If there is renewed interest in a band, their recordings are re-issued, without concern for the collector who owned the "first editions". The authors of novels and non-fiction often see their books returned to print when the market suggests there may be a demand. These titles might feature a new cover design, an added preface or other extras that would be complicated with an artist’s book. Unlike an author’s book1, an artists’ book is typically designed as a cohesive work. Short of re-engaging the artist to reimagine the original title, a facsimile seems the most practical route. Most are pretty faithful to the original, with occasional concessions to available paper stocks, and sometimes scale. 

The Brick Press version of N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1) is perhaps the first instance I am aware of that constitutes a reinterpreted facsimile

Inspired by the ambiguous copyright of the original (“The Material in the N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. Book Can Be Used By Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. Please Let Us Know When You Do This.”), Ryan Smith  set out to produce a version of the book that is both loyal to the original and also acknowledges the time that has passed in the forty-plus years since publication.  

This includes the physical properties of the book, but also the shifting political and social mores. 

Rather than work from the original files, or clean up the scans in Photoshop, Smith maintains the scuffs, cracks and creases of the copy he found in a second hand store a few years prior. Most surviving copies of the book are pretty beat up (see previous post).2

This choice helps distinguish the reprint from the original but also serves as a reminder that cultural artifacts accrue meaning over the years, particularly if they are in circulation.3 

The original book looked like a series of photocopies, a stylistic choice that was revisited in the exhibition catalogue for Art Metropole's 1992 retrospective Media Works, on the works of Iain Baxter and NETCO. This lends itself well to the Brick Press approach of not tidying up the scans. The price Smith paid for the original book, seventy-five dollars, is also included as if written in pencil on the upper right hand corner of the title page. This is bound to cause some confusion, as the reprint retails for around fifty dollars.

The reinterpreted facsimile also seeks to correct offensive language used in the press at the time. Several of the clippings have a distinct tone of misogyny when discussing Ingrid. She is referred to as "Iain's pretty blonde wife", for example. Rather than let these instances go unchecked, Smith runs a thumbtack scratch through these lines. There's a bit of a righteous FTFY4 feel to the intervention, but it does serve to highlight the passage of time and draw further attention to Ingrid Baxter's erasure. 

The history of Canadian collectives is littered with founding members reduced to footnotes after parting ways, particularly if they no longer pursue a career in the arts. But it's especially egregious in the case of the N.E. Thing Company. Both Baxters were listed as Co-Presidents of the Corporation - and it's only employees - yet the duo's works are often misattributed to Iain Baxter as solo creations, even in the Vancouver Art Gallery, the city in which they worked. 

Baxter is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and he has been awarded the Order of Ontario, the the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. His solo career has far-outlasted his time in the N.E.Thing. Co., but it is also clear that the international success of the couple's collaborative work are the primary impetus for these awards. 

After their divorce - the year of the original publication - Ingrid Baxter stopped producing art.  

"I went back to school for my master’s degree," she told Art in America in 2014, "I bought the canoe and boat rental business in 1981, and it has since grown way beyond whatever I imagined it could be." This business - the Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre, in North Vancouver - now employs more than sixty people.

Approaching an art practice as a corporation was a wildly influential venture (see the work of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc., Xavier Veilhan, Fabrice Hyber la, Dana Wyse, etc., etc.), as was opening a restaurant or store as an artwork (Michael Rakowitz' Enemy Kitchen, Damian Hirst's Pharmacy, Jonathan Berger's The Store, Keith Haring's Pop Shop, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin's The Shop, and so on).Ingrid Baxter's role in the legacy of posing prescient questions about the relationship between art and commerce deserves more than being referred to as "Iain Baxters then-wife". 

And this is gradually happening, as the art world continues its reckoning with the marginalization of women that it has perpetuated for years. Ingrid Baxter's contributions are slowly being reinstated into the canon, including at the VAG, who recently adjusted the attributions in their collection. 

For me, this Brick Press publication is still first and foremost a facsimile reprint of an important book that I wasn't able to own previously, but these discreet gestures introduce compelling ideas about what future collaborative publishing might begin to look like. 

The title is available from the publisher, here, for $50.00 CDN. 

1. The very fact that we do not call them "author's books" makes the term "artists' book" suspicious, but until a good alternative is agreed upon...

2. There is only one copy listed on ABE, by Gordon Simpson's ANARTIST store. It is being offered for $750 US and the condition is listed as "very good, except covers are good with lots of creases": https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&cm_sp=SearchF-_-home-_-Results&an=n.e.thing&tn=companies+act&kn=

4. FTFY is urban slang for "Fixed that for you", which originated in Reddit memes. The acronym encompasses both copy-editing (corrected spelling or grammar in a post) and also sarcasm (a Democrat editing a Trump tweet to subvert it’s meaning, for example). 

5. Restaurants by artists that predate Eye Scream include FOOD by Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark in 1971, Allen Ruppersberg's Al's Cafe in 1969, projects by Les Levine and others.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1)

N.E. Thing Company / Jean-Christophe Ammann
N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1)
Vancouver, Canada: Self-published, 1978
362 pp, 21.3 x 27.5 cm., softcover
Edition of 500

In 1978, the curator at the Kunsthalle Basel, Jean-Christophe Ammann, curated an exhibition of Canadian Art in Switzerland. The show included work by Ian Carr-Harris, Robin Collyer, Greg Curnoe, Paterson Ewen, Eric Fischl, Genral Idea, Vincent Tangredi, Shirley Wiitasalo, Susan Briton, Colin Campbell, General Idea, Noel Harding. Lisa Steele, Vincent Trasov, Rodney Werden and the N.E.Thing Company Ltd.1

While researching the exhibition, Ammann visited the N.E. Thing Co. headquarters in Vancouver (which doubled as the home of Co-Presidents Iain and Ingrid Baxter) to discuss how best to present their work. A single piece would "not be representative of the total sum of work produced" and displaying everything would have dominated the exhibition. It was decided that a large volume, resembling a phonebook, might be the best way to present the full scope of the duo's output. 

The resulting artists' book/monograph is a compendium of ideas, activities, press clippings, and ephemera befitting an artistic collaboration operated as a corporate entity. 

Art Collectives in Canada often played with the trappings of business (Image Bank issued Annual Reports, General Idea operated as Art Official, running Art Metropole and FILE megazine, etc.) but N.E. Thing Company made this approach central to their activities.2

In 1969, the Baxters annexed the first floor of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, as a new centre for their administrative work. They erected oak-panelled partitioned walls, rented desks, chairs, telephones and potted plants. Eleven departments - Research, Thing, Photography, Printing, Consulting, ART (“aesthetically rejected things”), ACT (“aesthetically claimed things”), COP, Movie, Project and Accounting - were set up, and secretaries hired to work them. The month-long exhibition was often confused for a new enterprise in town, particularly as the gallery then occupied a building that formerly housed government offices. 

In 1972, N.E.Thing Company Ltd did what any respectable corporate entity does to illustrate that they are a responsible community member - they sponsored a Little League Hockey team. The Downsview Ontario Pee-Wee team wore jersey's emblazoned with the company name and the team portrait (complete with cardboard frame) was editioned and sold as an artwork (see below, bottom). 

Five years later, they opened Eye Scream3, a commercial ice cream restaurant, on West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver. Designed by NETCO, the dishware was produced in an edition of 500. Not unlike the grocery store items in the 1984 film Repo Man (or PIL's album Album, a few years later), each item was labelled in the store's distinctive block font: Plate, Saucer, Dish, Bowl, Cup (see below). 

These projects, and countless others, are documented in Companies Act, and arranged chronologically. Rather than beginning with the founding of the company in 1966, or the incorporation three years later via the Companies Act that provides the book its title, the volume begins with the artists' birth certificates. Each new year is represented by a photograph of the shoreline, with the year written in the sand. In the final image, the water encroaches and washes it all away. 

The book is both the first major volume published on the partnership, and also one of their last efforts. The Baxter's divorced shortly afterwards and the company was dissolved. 

Now exceedingly rare, Companies Act was republished by Brick Press last year (see next post). 

“THE N.E. THING COMPANY has developed itself as a factory of ideas, which is far too preoccupied with the production and realization of new ideas to pay much attention to the archival end.”
— Jean-Christophe Ammann (N.E. Thing Co. Companies Act 4)

1. Kanadische Kunstler ran from June 10th to July 16th, 1978. See catalogue cover, below. 

2. Artist Ryan Suter recently suggested that the failure of Artist Run Centres in Canada to resist the bureaucracy of corporate structures could be a residual outcome of the impact of these various enterprises. 

3. The full incorporated name was I Scream You Scream We All Scream for Eye Scream Parlour. See below. Next door is a photo lab that the couple also operated as a functioning business.