Kim Berman with contributions by Rosalind Cleaver and David Paton
A Conversation with Jack Ginsberg
Jack Ginsberg lights up when he speaks of his passion for collecting artists’ books, citing his love of books that started as a child in his parent’s home.
I came from a very bookish family, and I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by books. So bibliomania was kind of rampant in my youth and has continued. The advent of artists’ books was much, much later. I was almost 30 when I started collecting artists’ books perhaps around 25-30. I think I left my parental home when I was 26 when I had to leave because I had just too many books.
Jack has not only amassed one of the greatest collections of artists’ books in the world, but he also has a unique archive of books about artists’ books, making South Africa a destination for many ardent book researchers who cannot access the depth, breadth and quantity of such resources in any other library in the world. Jack explains:
In large libraries, one has to fill in a form and then the librarian has to fetch the books (only a few at a time) and then bring them to your desk. The Library of Congress keeps many of its books which aren’t often used in a secure location offsite, so they have a truck that goes backwards and forwards to collect the books twice a day and readers have to come back later to examine the books.
One Saturday in May 2016, seated around the table in the inspiring library at Jack’s house, I was privileged to be part of a four-way conversation between Jack, David Paton and Ros Cleaver who know much of the collection from the inside. Extracts from this fascinating conversation have been transcribed and included below with an intimacy and familiarity of a family conversation, with Jack sharing many of the fascinating and familiar stories with his characteristic humour and generosity.
These three have become the custodians of an extraordinary resource, a legacy of artistic treasures of immeasurable value. The collection (of artists’ books), archive (of material on artists’ books) and the various databases, both off- and online, have become a valued “lighthouse” or beacon of knowledge for the book-arts community in South Africa and indeed around the word.
Jack, through his passion for collecting, is a familiar and valued patron of the arts. There are very few exhibitions that he does not attend. He is usually the first person through the doors at openings; briskly walking around having spotted exactly what he likes in minutes and securing his red “sold” sticker before others arrive. If, for some reason, the work is not available, he will pursue the artist or gallery until he establishes if another edition or version might have been secured away “in a bottom draw somewhere”. His philosophy about collecting is captured in his familiar mantra explained in the interview: “Every artist, I have discovered, has a bottom drawer for the grandchildren, and if you are sufficiently persuasive, they will often sell it to you”.
Jack’s passion for collecting is an institution and his support for local artists and artists making books is unmatched in the South African art community. This passion for books is infectious and it has inspired a surge of teaching and book-making by South African artists.1 He has also awarded an Ampersand Foundation fellowship to up to eight artists or historians almost every year since 1997. When asked how he thought this opportunity (which includes free passes to many museums) might be experienced, he says:
Well, in some cases it has been absolutely transformative. I think in all cases it was something which they could not have done on their own. I mean, who the hell can spend two months in New York these days? I can’t. We were just incredibly lucky to find this place; it was virtually bought off the plan and we were helped by a socially-minded realtor … who even put down the deposit for us! Ampersand has branched out a little in that we have now published two books and we’re hoping to be able to expand into other things.
In his book Collecting: An Unruly Passion (2014) Werner Muensterberger looks from a psychological perspective on the “motivational forces to collect”. He describes collectors as “quite perplexing and not easily understood”.
“Collectors themselves – dedicated, serious, infatuated, beset – cannot explain or understand this often all-consuming drive, nor can they call a halt to their habit”. Observing collectors, “one soon discovers an unrelenting need, even hunger for acquisitions … a detached observer often finds it difficult to understand the immense passion and overriding concern a collector can exhibit” (Muensterberger 2014:3).
In his essay Unpacking My Library (1968) Walter Benjamin understood that collecting is highly personal and the force of passion: “Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. … Not that they come alive in him: it is he who lives in them.” Benjamin (1968:67) continues: “Objects in the collector’s experience, real or imagined, allow for a magical escape into a remote and private world”.
Benjamin (1968:61) could be describing Jack Ginsberg when he says: “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. … One only has to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired”. Benjamin (1968:64) concludes that, “to a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves”.
Jean Baudrillard in The System of Collecting (1994:8) has a similar experience of collecting books or art objects as a sublime experience stating:
the collection offers us a paradigm of perfection, for this is where the passionate enterprise of possession can achieve its ambitions, within a space where the everyday prose of the object world modulates into poetry, to institute an unconscious and triumphant discourse.
Baudrillard (1994:23) states: “What makes a collection transcend mere accumulation is not only the fact of it being culturally complex, but the fact of its incompleteness, the fact that it lacks something … one needs such and such absent object…”. As Jack exclaims in the interview, “… one regrets the books that one can’t get; sometimes it’s impossible”.
By way of introducing the conversation, I invited David and Ros to share their personal experience of Jack and his influences on their lives as artists, researchers and custodians of the book arts field.
I first met Jack in the early 1990s soon after which I began my postgraduate studies into the artist’s book and book-object in South Africa. Jack and I curated the first exhibition of artists’ books in South Africa: Artists’ Books in the Ginsberg Collection, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1996 after which I was a recipient of the Ampersand Foundation Fellowship Award to New York. This afforded me an opportunity to produce my artist’s book Re: A Negotiated Truth at the Lower East Side Print Shop in Manhattan in 1999. Over the years Jack, Ros and I have curated artist’s book exhibitions from the Ginsberg Collection at the Aardklop Arts Festival (2006) and at the University of Johannesburg (2006 and 2014). Jack and I have, in collaboration with Peter Dennis of Logos Flow, made two unique databases available on the website www.theartistsbook.org.za. The first documents South African artist’s book production, and the other documents Jack’s remarkable collection of books on artists’ books. Jack’s collection and his generous support of my research sits at the heart of all my endeavours, with this exhibition being our largest collaborative project to date.
Ros, who has become Jack’s trusted assistant, relates:
Sometimes one gets lucky. Twelve years ago I was assigned, as an intern during my studies at the University of Johannesburg, to assist Jack in updating his database and photographing his collection of South African artists’ books. This was for incorporation into a website that David was planning and for which Jack’s collection would form the basis. Some years later I joined up again with Jack, this time assisting with the organisation of his ever-expanding collections. To be fair, managing such a large number of diverse items within a domestic residence is, to put it mildly, logistically challenging. We do our best – moving things around, shelving and re-shelving, installing more storage space, rearranging spaces. In spite of this, Jack is still able to locate, within a shelf or two, where each book is: his intimate knowledge of the collection ensures that he is usually right!
Regarding the organisation of Jack’s collections, Ros continues:
Jack’s collection is organised into three distinct sections. First there is his art collection … which is primarily South African art … and that is divided into sculpture (he started out collecting sculpture), Walter Battiss, paintings, prints and works on paper etcetera. Secondly there are the book collections – organised within categories according to spine height to save space. These collections consist of books on South African and International art, first edition books, fine press books, monographs, children’s books, pop-up books etcetera. But while his primary focus is the collection of artists’ books, there is also his archive containing books about artists’ books, ephemera, exhibition catalogues, press cuttings essays, dissertations and more. Thirdly there are the databases. Sometimes there is a real conundrum in cataloguing … where does this book go? So many genres overlap, such as an image in a catalogue that speaks to a specific artist’s book.
Ros describes the “sublime experience” she witnesses when a new book arrives into the collection:
It starts when the pink slip from the post office arrives: I find it sitting on top of the pile of letters. If it’s not too late [in the day], Jack will rush to the post office and bring home the parcel. I can only describe the ritual that follows as an artistic act. He reaches for his scissors and carefully opens the parcel. Without fail, he will exclaim: “Look at all this space, what will we do with all this wasted paper?”
Then, with such care and delicacy he lifts out the book. He opens it like a fragile treasure and recounts the moment of its discovery. What I most admire about Jack is his deep respect for the artist and their making of the book. The book then waits on the pile in the study for cataloguing. When he sits down, he enters his own creative space. He turns each page, examining the nuances of colour or texture changes, he looks for the finest detail, the weight of the paper, notices the minutiae in the making. Cataloguing his books into his extensive database requires him to follow the trail in cuttings, art catalogues, or correspondence – like a detective. The way I see it, for him to capture the essence of the book, is an act of love and deep appreciation.
Jack is modest about the importance of the legacy of his extraordinary collection, generously stating during the interview:
Well, you can’t take it with you, so something has to happen to a collection. Altruism is weird because families don’t like altruistic parents, and most children aren’t interested in their parents’ collections. It’s much easier to be altruistic if you have no children. It’s the truth of the matter; that’s the end of it. So the legacy is that I would like the collection to be kept together because you know once it goes on auction, it’s split up and it doesn’t have that coherent aspect which is a collection. So I’m very pleased that the plans for the library at Wits2 are well advanced and they’re also excited about it.
Such thinking is reminiscent of Benjamin’s comment (1968:66): “Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”
The conversation with Jack explored some of his anecdotes about collecting books, key pieces in his collection, the importance of his archive on the literature about artists’ books, his databases as well as his views on the book arts and artists in South Africa.
Tell us something of how you started collecting.
I don’t remember a time in my life I wasn’t surrounded by books. My parents’ home was full of books. My father was really very unusual in that he really liked reading aloud, and I don’t remember when I was sent to bed without being read a bedtime story. … He used to read at the dinner table or after dinner as there was no TV in South Africa when I was young, so one would either read alone or aloud as a kind of family thing.
By the time I left my parental home, I had assembled a number of so-called collections which included limerick books, children’s books, pop-up books and I’m trying to think what else. Oh, and of course, during the late 1970s and 1980s, I started collecting books about freedom of speech and censorship, which was quite transgressive at the time and fairly dangerous. So let’s just say, I started collecting artists’ books from the early 1970s.
The genre of artists’ books started in the mid-1960s – at least the modern expression of artists’ books which were then democratic multiples. So I think I acquired my first book by Ed Ruscha in the early 1970s which was already too late.3 I remember having to pay $100 for Every Building on the Sunset Strip [Plate 22/Catalogue image 0181] in the very late 1970s. I was horrified because I knew very well that Ed Ruscha was unable to sell many of his books and used to give them away. And I got that one from Tony Zwicker, an exceptional artist’s book dealer in New York. And I said “Tony how on earth can you sell this for $100?”
And she said “That’s my price.”
Plate 22/ 0181. Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. 1966. Artist’s Book. Los Angeles, CA, USA. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.
And of course now it sells for what, two, three thousand dollars or some ridiculous price. This has always been [Ruscha’s] most expensive book, but I did get cheaper ones before that. I think there were a number of famous artists who were starting to experiment with the artist’s book and I believe that I had bought an artist’s book before I got to Ed Ruscha.
One of the first books that I ever acquired was during a trip to London in the late 1970s where I discovered the Basilisk Press and Book Shop which was run by Charlene Garry. It was a most extraordinary experience in my life because I’d previously collected art monographs. The book at Basilisk Press was by Claire Van Vliet and it was called From a Housewife’s Diary and it was bound in a dish cloth – you know the typical dish cloth? – and it was illustrated with what the Americans call “eraser stamps”. For obvious reasons, they couldn’t call them rubber stamps, and it came in multiple colours so it was utterly fascinating and I looked at it and thought, what is this exactly?
And then I looked around the shop and saw that all the books were strange. They were all artists’ books and I had not yet been introduced to that genre. It wasn’t the first artist’s book I bought, but it was the first kind of auratic book, I think. This was in the late 1970s. I had lots of nice art monographs which were kind of auratic but they weren’t artists’ books. I remember coming out of that shop with a huge parcel of books, thinking “What the hell am I going to do with these and how am I going to get them back to South Africa?!”
Do you still have that book?
Oh yes, I certainly do. And in fact it was quite extraordinary because I was so taken with it that I immediately wrote to Claire Van Vliet and said that I found a book of hers in a bookshop in London and I asked if she had made any other books and she said “I’ve been making books for years”.
And eventually some years later I actually went to visit her and immediately I subscribed to her press called the Janus Press, which meant that I got every book from then onwards. When I went to visit her in Vermont – in the early 1980s – she brought out all her old books and I prevailed on her very forcibly that I wanted a copy of each and she said, “No, they’re for the family etcetera”.
But, if one is sufficiently forceful, an artist will sometimes sell it to you and I wanted to collect her books backwards as well as forwards! We became very good friends – everything in those days was done by snail mail, a tradition which Claire has never abandoned and her beautifully calligraphed letters are still a delight to receive.
Do you still have all those letters?
Oh yes, collectors never throw anything away. … Collectors are a different species: they keep things, they archive things … the polite term is to be a bibliophile but it’s actually really bibliomania.
What was it about the books you collected as a child?
I collected mostly children’s books as a child, but then I became interested in all sorts of other things. Some children’s books in those days were already in colour but they were bad colour, you know, pixellated colour, but they were still fascinating. One of the great avenues for graphic artists has always been children’s [book] illustration. Children’s book illustrators are exceptional and have always been. In fact, one of my favourite children’s illustrators was an illustrator called Tony Ungerer, and he did dozens of children’s books, all of which I collected. I continued to buy children’s books simply because of the illustrations; long beyond reading children’s books.
How do you choose an artist’s book for your collection? Do you have a method?
Well, it’s very difficult to explain. It’s a personal aesthetic, but all I can say is that having seen perhaps many thousands of artists’ books over the years, I can decide almost instantly if it’s a book I want or don’t. Especially at a book fair where you can really handle the book and in five seconds, decide whether you want it or not. So eventually it comes down to budget. I prefer tAt the first Codex show4 I went to, I saw an artist’s book that I just took one look at and thought, “God, this is the most fabulous book I’ve ever seen”, and immediately found out the name of the artist, phoned her and said, “I want the book.”
And she said, “No. Sold out”.
So I said, “Put me down for all future books, because if you can make a book like that, obviously …”.
It turned out to be Claudia Cohen who is one of the greatest bookbinders in the world. But the book was an edition of 25 and there are at least 25 academic libraries in North America alone who collect artists’ books in a big way. So if each one of them bought it, there wouldn’t be one available for individuals. But of course they don’t all buy everything. And eventually, she said, “Oh well we don’t have a copy of the ordinary edition but there is a special edition and there’s one left. It’s much more expensive.”
So I thought about it for a while .... [he laughs].
Which Claudia Cohen book was that?
The collaboration about The WunderCabinet [Plate 23/0139] by Barbara Hodgson and Claudia. All the Wunderkamers in the world they researched and exquisitely produced with many artefacts included in the elaborate box.o have 10 books at $500 than one at $5 000, because at $5 000 it’s more of an investment. But one still falls for these special books, especially if [they’re] long out of print.
Plate 23/ 0139. Claudia Cohen and Barbara Hodgson, WunderCabinet. The Curious Worlds of Barbara Hodgson & Claudia Cohen. 2011. Artist’s book and 44 accompanying items which are housed in a box with compartments under and at the side of the book on the top level and in two drawers on the second level. Heavenly Monkey Editions; Vancouver, Canada. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.
Are you personally drawn to any particular format, material or theme?
I’m looking for iconic books. I have always liked shaped books, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a triangular or round book which I haven’t bought. You used to be able to go into Basilisk Press in London and without being ridiculed or feeling ashamed, you could say to them, “Do you have any new triangular books since I was here last year?”
They wouldn’t bat an eyelid: they’d take you to the triangular books’ shelf! [he laughs].
But also material appeals to me very much. I love books which are made of different materials, you know, bark, or glass or metal or lead or cloth. But also paper, and paper comes in amazing varieties of shapes and forms and especially from artists who are also papermakers. I particularly like Abaca paper.
And then of course polemical books are great. I have lots of books on social issues. A lot of book artists are women, so there are lots of books about gender, gay and sexual issues. One of the most extraordinary such artists is Jane Goswell, who’s done the Bush books. She has two interests in life: a) She hates George Bush and b) she loves horses. I’ve got many of her books, one is called The 3rd George Book and the other is called Another George Book [Plate 24/081] both about George Bush and are made with rubber stamps and potato prints and stencils – pochoir – and they are amazing books. So polemical books are really of interest especially if they’re good; and then there is structure, of course.
Plate 24/ 081. Joan Iversen Goswell, Another George Book. 2004. Artist’s unique book. With rubber stamps and collaged elements. Self-published. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.
You have described formats, materials and themes in artists’ books that interest you. As your collection grows and the gaps (both figuratively and literally) get smaller, are there specific qualities or genres that are now more desirable when purchasing a new addition for your collection?
The quality of production is important but the polemic content can be the deciding factor. Recently I’ve been trying to get artists’ books by famous artists who were not primarily book artists. You know, people like perhaps Picasso, Bonnard, Warhol, Johns, Dine, all those kind of people who made fabulous artists’ books but are not primarily known as book artists. Now the one exception of course is Ed Ruscha who is an artist in his own right but is really famous for being a book artist, so he managed to bridge the divide there.
And I’m really interested in conceptual books: [by] people like Man Ray, Max Ernst and Herman De Vries from Holland – definitely conceptual – and of course, people like Willem Boshoff who, being so interested in language, considers many of his sculptures to be books.
But how do you choose? It’s personal preference. In my case, it’s definitely quality, production values. It doesn’t mean that I don’t buy democratic multiples and that I don’t buy zines. But I don’t buy democratic multiples unless they have some conceptual component. It can’t be just a bunch of illustrations.
Going back to Ed Ruscha’s Gasoline Stations and looking at where books are now, there’s been quite a shift. Are there some new trends in the industry?
Well, people are using new-fangled materials to a greater extent, like rubber, metal and stuff. That’s a trend, I’d say. It’s difficult to say, the biggest trend and change has been in the development of the digital book and digital printing. Not so much digital [screen-based] books but digital printing. And of course democratic multiples and zines are flourishing.
Where and what are the gaps in your collection?
The gaps in the collection are things which I would like [but] which are out of print, which I would always keep a lookout for at auctions, and the things that I can’t afford. I mean Bonnard’s Parallèlement which is turn of the century, published in 1900. I don’t know what it costs today, it must be millions of Rand. So you know there are lots of books one might like which have become really iconic which would be foolish to buy, even if one could afford it.
Has the Bonnard ever come up?
Oh yes. Often. I’d love to have it, it’s a beautiful, beautiful book.
Then also, if they have won the big awards like the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts annual award. That would also be a book that you’d be interested in?
Yes, yes I’d certainly try look for it but quite often it’s sold out. For instance I’ve met an artist at Codex and I’ve said “Oh, I do wish I had bought that book, what else have you got?”
And they’ve got other books and I’ve bought the other books and they’ve said: “Well, as you’re so interested and you’ve bought others, maybe I’ll sell you that one as well”.
But as soon as they win the award, they’re inclined to sort of consign a few to the bottom drawer.
What’s the purchase you wanted so badly for which you were prepared to go out on a limb?
One of Veronika Schäpers books: her Squid Book [Plate 25/0217]. It’s quite an expensive book but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It won every book artist award in the world. As soon as I got it, I decided that I wanted to get all her books. This has happened often!
Plate 25/ 0217. Veronika Schäpers, 26°57,3’N, 142°16,8’E. The Squid Book. 2007. Artist’s book. Letterpress-print in German and Japanese by polymer cliches and vinyl mats in blue, grey and black on 50-year-old Toshaban-Genshi-paper. Self-published. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.
Oh and Tony Zwicker. She specialised in European books, non-American books and she had a whole collection of books of her own which were not for sale. I used to say to her “Tony, are you a dealer, are you collecting or are you selling? You can’t have it both ways”.
She had some fabulous books. When she died [in 2000], her assistant Michael von Uchtrup phoned me and he said: “You know those books that you always admired of Tony’s ....?”
He happened to phone me in September and I was going to New York in October and I managed to get probably 10 books, unobtainable, including The String Book [Book 91] of Keith Smith [Plate 26/0105] which he priced depending on the number sold. Every time he sold one he increased the price. But, one regrets books that one can’t get; sometimes it’s impossible to get books, even inexpensive or ephemeral items.
Plate 26/ 0105. Keith A. Smith, Book 91. Untitled (A String Book). 1982. Artist’s book. Words are blind embossed on the paper page, the strings move through the pages of the book producing sounds when turning. Space Heater Multiples; Barrytown, NY, USA. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.
Is it Tony Zwicker who got you the Russian and Eastern European artists’ books?
No, I met Mikhail [Karasik] at an artist’s book symposium and he was instrumental in that he got me a lot of books for the archive about Russia, where there’s a huge history of artist’s book-making: you know [Vladimir] Mayakovsky and others going back, but I’ve got very few contemporary Russian artists’ books except for his.
You say that binding is not a primary focus of the collection, but you do have some of the most extraordinary bindings. Are they something that you just can’t walk away from, or is it something you’ve commissioned?
There must be something unusual about a binding, making it what I would call a subgenre of the artist’s book. So I don’t primarily collect typical book bindings: but I will, if I see any kind of structure which I haven’t seen before, or a structure I love such as accordion fold books. People have been incredibly innovative in the structures that they’ve used in books. To give an example [Les] Six Voies: it looks to all intents and purposes like a normally bound book with inlays and onlays in leather. But it has certain structural qualities which are utterly different, you might call it an adult pop-up book; this is a very exceptional book [Plate 27]. It’s a collaboration by six artists who did a chapter each and who each got one book to bind. Then Louise Genest interpreted her two-dimensional illustrations into three-dimensions. It is the most beautiful book: the onlays and inlays are so extraordinary, apart from everything else. So structure in binding is most important.
Plate 27. Louise Genest (bookbinder), Les Six Voies. Les Mots. 1991. Red leather onlay binding with two leather pop-up inlays concealed within the cover board structure. These are revealed by removing four brass rods, two each on the front and back covers. The artists whose works are included in the book are: Simone Benoît-Roy, Lise Dubois, Denise Bellemare, Christine Chartrand and Nicole Billard. Self-published and bound in Montreal, Canada. Photography: David Paton.
Who are your favourite book artists and tell us why?
I wish people like Veronika Schäpers would produce more. They don’t – they’re ... such astonishing objects that they must be hugely time consuming. I was introduced to Schäpers by Booklyn in Brooklyn and I still get her books through them although I’ve been to visit her in Germany; we’ve became good friends and I’ve managed to get a few unique books through her directly.
But I would never have known about her had it not been for that bookseller. Walter Hamady I think in one year [he] made about eight or more books and I wouldn’t have missed any of his books for the world. Claire Van Vliet and Hamady and much later on in my collecting life, Veronika Schäpers. I actually subscribed and got everything that they made. Although maybe some people would call Claire’s books more press books, certainly the earlier ones which were less innovative. She started off with conventional, though beautiful letter press then morphed into a far more innovative artist usually using her own paper. Hamaday was always pretty innovative and one of those extraordinary people who didn’t often collaborate on production as he could do everything. In fact it’s extraordinary that Hamaday’s and Van Vliet’s were true artists’ books in that they could do everything, because there were paper makers and binders much like Robbin Silverberg. If you’re not a papermaker, you’ve at least got to buy your paper and probably employ a book binder, but those people knew how to make paper, how to write, illustrate and bind so they could actually do the thing from beginning to end on their own, which I always felt was extraordinary.
What are some of the linking threads in your art and book collections?
These would be mostly South African artists, as I collect only South African art. There’s always been Willem Boshoff, that’s been a big link. Stephan Erasmus is slightly different although he’s also making prints now. Giulio Tambellini in the early days – he was a printmaker. Many of the people making artists’ books are printmakers – starting with Egon Guenther, one of the very few letterpress typographers we have ever had in this country. Gerhard Marx I like as an artist very much and he collaborated with [William] Kentridge on Firewalker which is interesting. To my detriment [I didn’t collect much of] Kentridge’s ... two-dimensional work. But instead it appears that I am the only person he knows who has all of his artists’ books. But how can he know – there might be other people out there. We can also mention Pippa Skotnes who has made wonderful books and people who specialised like Tambellini who unfortunately has stopped. Keith Dietrich is of course now a major person in the field making mostly digital books which are utterly spectacular.
Ros speaks animatedly about Jack’s passion, and feels quite moved by his love of sharing his books with visitors who have the privilege of being invited into his library. She recounts:
With all six to eight guests seated around the library table, Jack takes out one book after another. He has his firm favourites and demonstrates something about each – its construction or its material – or he just opens each page to their absolute wonder and delight! What a treat! He knows exactly where to find each book … although he will tell you he has no idea. … He knows each book so intimately, the detail is locked in his memory. He also chooses very particular and iconic books with his guests’ interests in mind.
The first time I saw an artist’s book, being a collector, I wanted to know what on earth this was about and I started collecting books about artists’ books, I would say, almost when I started collecting artists’ books. I thought at the time how many books can there be on the subject – say 20, 30, how many can there be? And there weren’t a huge number – but over the years the archive has grown to almost 3 000 items – books about artists’ books, or catalogues, anything to do with artists’ books.
Tell us about your archive of books about or on artists’ books.
Your archive is distinct from your collection. What is the difference between the two in terms of what to choose to collect?
The difference between a collection and an archive is that, in an archive, you try to buy everything in the subject area even if it doesn’t particularly appeal to you because it’s like a history of the subject. In a collection you have to apply your aesthetic expertise and decide what you want to buy and what you don’t, what you can and what you can’t afford.
So how does your archive rank in relation to others in the world?
Probably unique. All those books or pamphlets or catalogues exist elsewhere but not, to my knowledge, in one place. I had someone visit from Minnesota and I said, “What on earth are you doing in South Africa looking at these things. Why don’t you go to the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale or Berkeley? You can get any of this stuff there”.
They said, “Well first of all, you can’t get it all, and secondly at many of the big libraries you really can’t see more than perhaps 12 – 20 books in a day and only a few at a time”. So I’ve had people here who’ve looked at hundreds of items in a day.
Why is the archive important?
Because it’s unique and particularly important for academics and scholars, which is one of the reasons for starting the Ampersand Library at WAM. The archive particularly is an academic collection. And also it’ll be hugely helpful if there’s an academic head and librarians to cope with people who come visiting. In a library the books can be protected and cared for properly. I’ve had about 15 international academics who have visited.
In 2006 David partnered with Jack and the software developer Peter Dennis of Logos Flow on linking two of Jack’s unique databases to the artist’s book website www.theartistsbook.org.za. David describes the databases as the heart of Jack’s collections:
This is the connective tissue of all the collections. There is nothing Jack loves more than to find a book, or a detail of the book through the search engine. He loves the detective work in discovering a missing link. Peter created software for museum art collections but Jack’s cataloguing needs were particular, diverse as well as broad. The innovations that Jack brought to Peter’s software in conflating the needs of an art collection with that of the artists’ books collections has made Jack’s databases unique and innovative.
Your artist’s book collection and your archive are catalogued and the information is stored in a distinctive database. How did this database evolve and how important is it?
My cataloguing system is somewhat different from most. I’ve got some books where there’s a collaboration of up to 20 different people and I include every one of them in the catalogue where you can then find wonderful cross-references and subtle interchanges. And I catalogue typographers, binders, illustrators and so on; especially in some American books. For instance, The Kaldewey Press where Gunnar Kaldewey is like a producer of a film: he finds the best typographer, best binder, best papermaker and best illustrator and brings them all together and they make a book. Now you need to catalogue every input by every one of those people. Of course it’s more fun to catalogue an artist’s book than to catalogue a novel. A novel is author, title, date and place – it’s a simple thing, but for artists’ books you have to describe the physicality of the book, which is somewhat different.
You and David run a website with the data from your archive and the South African artists’ books in your collection which have been made available to the wider public. How was this developed?
When I met with Peter Dennis, I said it would be great if he could incorporate [selected fields from] the archive database into the website. In other words, producers [i.e. including all contributors] of a book [listed in the archive] instead of just having an author or authors. This is particularly important as far as artists’ books are concerned. He actually got a lot of the development ideas from me, because I explained to him exactly how I’d been doing it and what I would like. One of the major innovations was that the database can deal with subsections of a book, such as essays, in the same way.
What is your dream for the book arts field in South Africa?
In recent years, many art departments at universities have book art courses where they teach the components of the book arts, such as papermaking, printmaking, typography, marbling and binding, which is really important for the connoisseur, and important for artists to master. Because if you’ve never made an etching or a print or never done marbling, I honestly don’t think you can appreciate what you’re looking at. People think these things just happen.
I once made an etching and had ink on my hands for a year; I couldn’t get it off! I numbered my etching “1 of 60” but there never was a number 2. Marbling, I always say, is the easiest thing in the world to do badly but incredibly difficult to do well. But if you haven’t done it you wouldn’t know that. You might think the best marbling in the world just happens, but it doesn’t. My dream is that the universities would incorporate the books arts into their academic syllabus, or components of the book arts, or at least the study of the book arts, and the history of the book arts. That would be my dream.
I don’t know how many people would adopt it as a primary interest but I think it’s important that everyone, and particularly art students, knows something about it. Like some people have actually studied Latin and there are others who say “What’s that?” If you ask “What is book art?” they should at least be able to say they know what it is. They don’t necessarily have to have done it but there’s got to be at least some sort of comprehension about the subject.
What would you personally like to see coming out of the book conference, exhibitions and workshops in March 2017?
It’s certainly going be the first colloquium with an exhibition and workshops, of a kind not seen in South Africa before. It will really give exposure to the book arts which it has not had before. We had the JAG5 exhibition 20-something years ago but this really should give extensive new coverage to an underexposed genre in South Africa. I hope that more artists will make it their vocation.
We have been talking about this for a long time. It seems now to be “the right time for the book arts in South Africa”.
Oh yes, I think so.
1 I used to offer an evening book arts course in the mid-90s attended by Liz Vels, Carol Hofmeyr, Sheila Flynn and many other artists who still continue to make artists’ books.
2 Jack has donated his entire collection of artists’ books to the Wits Art Museum (WAM) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) which will be permanently rehoused there from 2017.
3 In this respect, Jack means that Ruscha’s books were already available ten years earlier and that, when he finally got to them, he was ten years too late to acquire the first edition printing.
4 The Codex Fairs in 2007, 2009 and 2011 took place on the campus of University of California in Berkeley, and in 2013 and 2015 at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California.
5 Johannesburg Art Gallery.