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Kirsty Bell on the art book

Kirsty Bell is a British-American writer and art critic. Her essays have appeared in over 70 exhibition catalogues for major international institutions such as the Tate and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as in magazines including Art in AmericaLit Hub and Tate Etc. She was also a contributing editor of frieze from 2011–2021. Her first book, The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin, was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2022, and tells the story of the city and its inhabitants through a single site, a towering 19th-century house on Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. For TANK, Bell made a reading list of the most significant art books from her collection, and spoke to us in an expansive interview about the art book as a container of artistic practice, an instrument for illumination, and a record of thought.

TANK The provocative question for this section of the magazine is, “What are art books for?” Maybe we could start off by asking you that question.

KIRSTY BELL That’s a question that I had in the back of my head when I was putting this list together. So many art books are made, especially exhibition catalogues or other standard formats that are revisited time and again. What I am interested in, or the things that I have gravitated towards, are artist’s books. I’m interested in the question of how an exhibition catalogue or the form of a book can be a repository for a creative practice – one that is not just trying to be a one-to-one representation in flat form of an exhibition, but one that really shows the intricacies of the artist’s thought process. Art books can show the elements that feed into exhibition-making and artistic practice, and in that they are super valuable. There’s a real generosity to the way in which an artist’s book allows us to have an artist’s practice on our bookshelves, something widely distributed and widely available, or much more widely available than their work might be otherwise.

TANK It seems like there are two strands within art publishing then: the catalogue raisonné or monograph; and the artist’s book. The first have a more institutional and hierarchical framing, which lean towards completism, while the second feels more alive and integrated into the practice of a specific artist.

KB What I really like about some of these books is that they might ostensibly be exhibition catalogues but they came out two or more years after the exhibition had finished. To me, that seems so representative of what’s involved in making a book, and the specific longevity that the book form offers. When you believe as I do that you actually have to go and physically see an exhibition in order to experience it, rather than just seeing some sort of online iteration of it, and that an exhibition is an encounter that happens in a particular space at a particular time, the book or catalogue has another sort of longevity, and because it takes so much longer to produce, it can become a kind of distillation of the exhibition and have a sort of reflective aspect as well.

TANK What sort of books would you think of in that context?

KB One that springs immediately to mind is Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s World of Interiors, which was made by the artist in 2007, for an exhibition at the Migros Museum in Zurich, but isn’t exactly an exhibition catalogue. For the book Chaimowicz took an issue of World of Interiors magazine from 2006 – an issue which happened to include a feature about his own apartment in Camberwell – and redid the issue page by page, adding collage elements to the existing advertising and editorial content of the magazine. He did this by adding images that he’d found, or his own collages, or substituting installation pictures of his show, and just allowing some pages to remain as they were originally. It’s an amazing book because it rethinks this existing object, page by page, by pouring into it his own imagination, fantasy and desire. There’s so much desire associated with the magazine anyway, particularly in that era. The book itself has become a sort of mythical object because as soon as Condé Nast found out what he had done, they threw up their arms and demanded it be confiscated and pulped. So it was pulled from the shelves – but I happened to see it before this happened, and I have a copy from this tiny window of time when it was still available. Chaimowicz’s practice is a very circular one, because certain works and images and ideas, such as his furniture objects or interiors, reappear in different versions and iterations. He’s had a couple of big shows recently. One was a retrospective of sorts in Saint-Étienne that showed many pieces from different phases of his career; he began working actively in the 1970s, so it’s a long period. The show was delayed for a year or two due to the pandemic, and it became much richer, more elaborate and denser, as did the book, Reverie: Its Practice and Means of Display, that was produced for it. It shares many images with World of Interiors, and it’s accompanied by a fantastic text that runs throughout by a French writer called Marie Canet. Often in catalogues there are introductions by curators and essays by critics, but this text is one long, really deep dive into his work, a thoughtful and well-researched text, generously interspersed with images. It doesn’t feel heavy or academic, and it is balanced with a lot of quotes from other essays and from the artist himself. Chaimowicz loves the book form and he does something different with each of his books.

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Marc Camille Chaimowicz, The World of Interiors ed. Heike Munder (JRP / Ringier, Zurich, 2008)

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Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Reverie: Its Practice and Means of Display (les presses du réel, 2022)

TANK How does this compare to some of the other artists you have chosen?

KB It’s hard for me to pinpoint the thread that connects my sensibility; I can feel it but I don’t know exactly what it is. What is so fascinating with Chaimowicz is how he occupies the borderline between high art and applied art. In his work there’s a kind of androgyny of form; his work operates in this grey zone. The other recent show of his work was in Brussels, at WIELS, which featured an installation called Celebration? Realife, which he first showed in 1972. Every time you see it, and I’ve been lucky enough to see it a few times, it’s so alive because it doesn’t allow its meaning to be fixed. There’s so much going on in it that it continues to ask questions. I’ve always been interested in works like that – works that don’t offer answers but where a question spurs another question.

TANK Do you think that questioning impulse is what brings artists to use the book as a medium?

KB You can complicate things in a book. One example is Nick Mauss’s book, Transmissions, which was made for his exhibition at the Whitney in 2018, but was published in 2020. The exhibition was ostensibly a solo show, but it was very dense, rich and focused on the history of ballet in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s. This was a transgressive era in which critics, artists, dancers, choreographers, musicians, had many points of crossover. He looked into this period that has been something of a maligned territory, in some way considered to be cliché, and excavated a sensuousness and homoeroticism, a queer thinking, that hadn’t been discovered before. It was a very personal investigation for him. The book contains so much reference material and text, or long captions, that Nick Mauss wrote himself. It becomes a sort of repository; the exhibition was already very rich but the book became a sort of expanded version of it, including images from the exhibition itself, which had live performances of dancers, and interviews Mauss had done with the dancers. So the book expands and folds in together at the same time.

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Frances Stark, The Architect and the Housewife (BookWorks, 1999)

TANK Is it a similar interest in archival work that draws artists to book-making? Is there a kind of playfulness that you see in the books you have chosen?

KB Working in book form gives artists – and this is definitely something I’m very interested in – the possibility to write. Many artists have writing or text in their practice, but there is also a diaristic tendency in some artist books. One of my all-time favourites is Frances Stark, whose The Architect and the Housewife (Book Works, 1999), is a great example of this. She’s an incredible writer, and writing has always been, in one way or another, quite an important part of her practice. The book is a tiny thin little pamphlet made up of several short essays that she brought together in which she talks about the dilemma of working in LA at that moment in the 1990s and not having a “post-studio practice” – which was what you were supposed to have there at that time, when people were not making art by conventional means. She didn’t have a poststudio practice but she also didn’t have a studio, because she was working from home from a desk squeezed behind her sofa. She has this brilliant, self-deprecatory style in which she writes about the dilemmas of being a woman with this artistic practice, working from home, standing at the sink with a dishcloth in her hand – and how all this is part of being an artist, that it also belongs to the artwork, but is not often talked about in the narrative of post-studio practice in which you’re supposed to be out in the open building some sort of semi-architectural structure. It was a real revelation to me when I read it and it remains to me a really generous work. Likewise, the series of journals by Anne Truitt are very explicit about what it means to work as an artist.

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Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (reissue; Simon and Schuster, 2013)

I hadn’t quite realised that she began writing the first volume of these journals, called Daybook, in 1974, she was already 53. Although she died in 2014, the most recent journal, Yield, was published last year. There are many things I find compelling about these books, one being how they compare with her artwork, most often sculptures in very nuanced monochrome colours somewhere between minimalism and colourfield painting. They’re quite reticent and austere in a way, but very beautiful and moving. There’s nothing personal to them that you can feel, though. The diary offers another insight into her life and practice, and where it comes from. You get a sense of how these works emerge from all the mess and chaos of broken relationships, being a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, and a friend, and having to think about taking care of her house or paying her bills. There’s an interesting episode in, I think, the second book where she’s having a legal battle, because she’s discovered that in her professor job, she’s being paid much less than the male professors – this is in the mid-1980s. It’s not that you need to know this to understand the work – the work is the work – but it helps you to understand what it took to be an artist, indeed a female artist, at that time and the rigour involved in that.

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Nick Mauss, Transmissions, ed. Karen Kelly and Barbara Schroeder (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2020)

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Eileen Myles, New book length poem; Ariana Reins, New poems; Donika Kelly, Fourteen new bird poems; Noelle Kocot, Collected poems (Fivehundred places, 2012–2023); Andrea Büttner, Beggars (Koenig Books, 2018)

TANK How is your own work as a writer and critic influenced by these different practices?

KB The frankness is important. Perhaps if you’re not trying to be a writer – if it’s not your primary medium – then it feels like there is less at stake. Perhaps, although I’m sure that once Truitt realised she was going to publish these journals then that changed. There’s a freedom but also an anxiety that comes in engaging with a medium that is not your own medium. My education is completely in art rather than writing. The writing only began because it was a response to art, to looking at art and trying to put that into words. I feel like that’s what I’ve always been trying to do in my art criticism and my writing in general. For instance, the last book I published, The Undercurrents, wasn’t to do with art, rather it was a response to the city that I live in – Berlin – where I’ve been for over 20 years now.

 

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Kirsty Bell, The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin (Fitzcarraldo, 2022)

That felt like a close reading of the city and what is visible, what you can see, particularly from the window of the apartment that I live in: all the things that I can see from the window that tell me something about the different stages of the city’s history and evolution, but also the things that you can’t see. That is also true for art. Maybe that has something to do with the relationship between Anne Truitt’s sculpture and her diaries, all of that stuff that you can’t see in the art, but which makes it great. It’s what makes it sensuous and lively, and thrilling and perplexing. Looking at art has trained me, that’s been my education, more than learning how to write actually. I feel like every time I write a sentence I’m learning how to write for the first time. You never really know before you start what it’s going to be, unfortunately.

TANK Artists are people who are more often written about than who write. Perhaps this makes their writing particularly interesting.

KB Are you thinking about Andrea Büttner? She wrote a brilliant book about shame that I think originated in her PhD thesis. It’s such a difficult subject to write about. She was interested in shame in artworks and the relationship of shame to being an artist, and how much shame was involved for an artist to show their work. It’s a fascinating book. The other book of hers that I was thinking about was Beggars, which is another book that came out of – but much later than – a series of exhibitions. The book deals with depictions of poverty in art and features a series of her own woodcuts that are incredibly reduced. These are pictures of beggars, with this sense of supplication, for example. When you see them in real life they’re very big, but they are extremely pared down. Honestly, I don’t know how to talk about this work yet, but in its lack of sophistication there’s an alignment to poverty or begging. The book has this great introduction written by Büttner that starts: “This book is about art and poverty, art history, and beggars, shepherds and kings.” It’s so succinct, simple and direct, and that directness is something that is clear in her work and echoes in her writing.

TANK Can I ask you about the relationship of poetry to the art book?

KB I know very, very little about poetry. One of the reasons I know anything at all about it is because of Jason Dodge, who is an artist whose work I follow very closely. He’s a phenomenal and complex and brilliant and perplexing artist. He also makes fantastic artist’s books that he produces himself. He loves books as a format. Through his imprint, Fivehundred places, which he began in 2012, I was introduced to contemporary poetry. He has a long-running, deep interest in and fascination with poetry and poets. He began this imprint as a way of actually bringing more poetry into the context of visual art. He produces the books himself; the name comes from the fact that he makes only 500 of each of them, and each small chapbook is sized to fit in your pocket. The idea is that they are distributed and end up then in 500 different places. The way Jason describes it is as a way of infiltrating the contemporary art world through distribution in a very analogue sense. Each book just has one poem or a small selection of poems, and they are often works that the poets haven’t published elsewhere, maybe things that didn’t quite fit into a collection. There does seem to be a lot more poetry within contemporary art scenes than there was 10 years ago, or I’m much more aware of it. To me, it makes total sense. There’s a lot of overlap in ways of thinking between certain kinds of artists who maybe don’t take up so much space within the marketoriented view. Jason Dodge introduced me to Eileen Myles and so many others, like Ishion Hutchinson and Dorothea Lasky. It’s interesting that I needed a visual artist to introduce me to poetry, you know, rather than coming to it directly from the writer’s perspective.

TANK Do you think there’s more of an impulse at the moment to engage in the book as a form on the part of contemporary artists than there has been in the past?

KB There are so many intriguing smaller imprints and presses at the moment. I’m not really inside the publishing world, so I can only tell you so much, but there are certainly many new interesting bookshops, like Zabriskie here in Berlin. It offers this weird intersection of intermeshed areas of interest that have something in common. There are a lot of small presses reissuing texts and essays that had slipped out of visibility. I wonder if for artists it’s even more important to have a book or something marking their exhibitions now that it seems, anecdotally, fewer people go to see shows in person, and instead look at images online?

TANK It brings you into a different form of contact with the artist or author. It seems like there’s an almost conversational element to some of these books.

KB James Richards, for example, works mostly with moving image and sometimes with sound as well, but the book he made is a conversation, and one that became more elaborate through the extenuated time of the pandemic. It originally started as a document of an exhibition that he made in collaboration with the American filmmaker Leslie Thornton. They had collaborated on moving-image pieces together, and curated an exhibition in Stuttgart, which travelled to Malmö. The curator of that show, Fatima Hellberg, then moved to the Kunstverein in Bonn and curated another exhibition involving Richards. All of this formed a kind of conversation that continued through the different iterations. The book itself is a documentation of this snowball effect, with different elements brought in, growing and changing as they adapted to the form. The book becomes a container that holds all these different parts – because it’s flat it can only represent these ideas in a certain way, but if it has time to evolve, then it can become as dense as the exhibition experience. It’s not telling you a story; it’s throwing out propositions or intersections, affinities. The reader can dive in and emerge with some sense of the thought processes, the cosmology of artists and curators working together. It’s exciting when a book gives you a sense of thoughts and ideas through real time and presence.

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James Richards, Divine Drudgery (Lenz Press, 2021)

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Michael Schmidt, Waffenruhe (Dirk Nishen Verlag, 1987)

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Elvia Wilk, Death by Landscape (Soft Skull Press, 2022)

TANK Which takes us neatly to the work of Elvia Wilk.

KB Yes, her writing is thrilling for me to read because that’s exactly what happens. When you’re reading her book of collected essays, Death by Landscape, you feel like you’re reading along with her as she guides you through these other writers who she’s reading. You follow her thought processes and make connections as she makes them. It’s very, very difficult to write in that way that feels so alive. She also leaves room for questions and doubt and not knowing. There’s a vulnerability to it, and an exposure that I really appreciate – and then these incredible moments of illumination. I came to her work primarily through her art criticism, but she has a way of understanding and articulating the present moment that is so hard to do. She does it through close reading, making connections and being open to the connections that manifest. She talks a lot about science fiction or “New Weird” writing, which is something I know nothing about. She sees that as one way of thinking about the future, but argues that reading the current moment in a speculative way also says so much about the future. It’s really a matter of perspective. I got a vivid sense of that through reading this book, which is incredibly optimistic at a time when it is difficult to find optimism. It’s great for me to see someone younger, who has a different perspective to me, find this optimism that I sometimes can’t put my finger on.

TANK I wanted to ask about Renee Gladman.

KB Her work is important because she is both a poet and an artist. She makes these extraordinary drawings that are almost like words – it’s almost as if the process of writing veers off into drawing, and then becomes a kind of typography or architecture. It’s weird and fascinating, this idea of what language can be and where it can go in this spectrum between writing – whether fiction, poetry, or prose – and drawing.

TANK Why did you choose the work of Michael Schmidt?

KB Michael Schmidt was a German photographer, born in 1945, who lived in Berlin his whole life. When I was researching my book about Berlin, he was very important to me because his images are an incredible repository of the period of divided Germany. His book Waffenruhe, which means “ceasefire”, came out in 1987, and represents the Berlin of the 1980s. Even 40 years after the end of the Second World War, there’s still this sense of the war not being over, of a ceasefire rather than a peace. This book, and some of his other books from that period, gave me insight into what that time actually felt like, not from a central perspective, but more from the sidelines, through a detail. Every time I look at the book I get goose pimples; it’s so full of evidence beyond the clichéd ideas of Berlin at that period. Schmidt was also a very important figure in German art history, because of a workshop for photography he founded that created a bridge between the US photographic scene and photographers in Germany.

TANK Some of the books that you’ve chosen are reissues – is that a sign of a thriving art book economy?

KB It depends on the artist. For example, the Mary Heilmann book, The All Night Movie, which was first published in 1999, has been reissued. She’s someone whose late career has become more robust than it was in the earliest stage, as is the case for many female artists of her generation. In her case, there’s perhaps more demand for the book now than there was when it was first issued, 20, 30 years ago. Artists like her have a new audience. I also included Isa Genzken because she’s such a magnificent artist. It’s her 75th birthday this year and there’s going to be an exhibition of her work at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Whenever I teach I always end up talking about her work because she seems to me – also perhaps from a German perspective – to have been able to articulate the complicated history of this place in an oblique but devastating and fantastic way. She works primarily in sculpture, and it’s difficult to reproduce that in book form. But there’s one book of her outdoor projects that I find particularly brilliant because of the insight it gives you into her thinking. The book, Projects for Outside, is effectively a catalogue of her projects for outside spaces, many of which were unrealised. There are a lot of drawings and models, and statements, but taken together it gives you a sense of the vast scale of her mind and thought process. She has these signature works called World Receiver in which she will put antenna onto a block of concrete. Many of her public projects connect to this idea of being a receiver of the world. The function of an artist is interpretive; it’s primarily to receive, and for me this book gives a really clear insight into that aspect of her work. There are many great pieces in there, such as the series where she installs a giant steel frame in a place – her intervention is simply a reframing of what is there. That seems to me to be so profound.

TANK Maybe a throughline for your selections is this idea that an art book gives you access to a suggestion of this vast space that is perception. There’s nothing here that makes an attempt for or a claim on totality. It’s perhaps about knowledge that is transmitted through sensual understanding.

KB Yes exactly, it’s not just visual. That’s a great way of putting it. That’s also an important distinction when thinking about artists’ books, because many, many books are just about imparting information. Those aren’t the books that I’m interested in. There are so many other levels of perception and apprehension and understanding in the end. If you can open a book and get that sense of something that you can’t quite put your finger on, a mystery, that’s what keeps you looking at it and brings you back to the books again and again. ◉

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Isa Genzken, Projects for Outside (Koenig Books, 2020)