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An Artistic Indulgence

 “I enjoy the experience of handling and reading a book that is superbly printed on great paper with the text …

 “I enjoy the experience of handling and reading a book that is superbly printed on great paper with the text beautifully illustrated-important literature conjoined with important art,” says David R. Beatty, president of Toronto-based Weston Foods Ltd.

The CEO savors fine books, calling them “an indulgence.” He isn’t alone. The patronage of such collectors as former Ford CEO Donald E. Petersen and Oregon Senator Bob Packwood is helping to keep alive the traditional arts of hand printing and binding, and the idea of books themselves as art. So-called artists books form a bridge between the creators of fine art and the craftsmen of fine printing. They are collectibles that came of age in this century, works of literature illustrated with original lithographs, etchings, or other graphic processes, and signed by the artist.

As traditional, printed material cedes ground to electronic information, the book as a work of art has begun to attract more collectors. “Nobody cared at all, until about ten years ago,” says a leading artists book dealer, Peter Kraus of New York’s

Ursus Books Ltd. “Then people realized what bargains they were for original art at a relatively modest sum. In the last ten years, many books have gone up tenfold in value.” Prominent businessmen have long collected illustrated books. In fact, J.P. Morgan, Corning’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. and Sears’ Lessing Rosenwald each made donations of books to various collections: Morgan to New York’s Morgan Library, Houghton to Harvard University, and Rosenwald to Washington’s National Gallery.

But today, patronage can be corporate as well as individual. For instance, Ronald J. Naples, CEO at Hunt Manufacturing, regularly endows the Philadelphia Museum of Art with works including limited editions of artists books.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas, in Austin, also has a major holding of artists books. According to its director, Thomas F. Staley, “It is appropriate that a major institution devoted to the study of 20th century literature should contain the best-made books illustrated by the finest artists.”

Though illustrated texts date prior even to the invention of the printing press, the French Impressionists strengthened the link between important artists and books. Edward Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec both illustrated notable books in limited editions.

Even so, it was a Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who initiated the modern era of the artists book, or edition de luxe, as it is called in French. A law school student much more interested in art than law, Vollard left his studies in 1893 to open a small gallery in Paris on the Rue Lafitte. In this gallery the young dealer presented the first exhibition of an aging and neglected painter named Paul Cezanne in 1895. The exhibition had been recommended by artist friends of Vollard, including Renoir and Pissarro.

Vollard was soon publishing print portfolios and illustrated books, as well as selling paintings. Over the next 45 years, he reigned as the foremost publisher of such contemporaries as Braque, Chagall, Dufy, Picasso, Rouault and Vuillard.

The modern era of artists books can be said to have begun with Vollard’s publication of Parallelement” in 1900, featuring poems by Paul Verlaine joined with lithographs by Pierre Bonnard. The book is still a striking work to look at, read and feel. Its quality and design are much closer to that of today’s best books than to most volumes produced at the turn of the century.

Just as the Paris school dominated modern art in the first half of this century, so Vollard and others in France dominated the publishing of artists books. In the U.S. and Britain during the period, great advances were made in the arts of fine printing and graphic design. But there was no significant publisher of artists books in those countries, save one: George Macy and his Limited Editions Club.

Macy, who has been called “America’s Vollard,” was 29 years old when he issued the club’s first book in October of 1929, the month of the great stock market crash. Before his death in 1956, he had published almost 300 illustrated books.

Though the great majority of the LEC’s books had pictures by talented commercial artists, Macy also commissioned work from some of the leading painters of his day: Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Laurencin and others of the Paris school, along with such American masters as Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Reginald Marsh. Also, important American photographers such as Edward Weston and Edward Steichen illustrated books for the LEC.

After Macy’s death, the LEC continued, but eventually languished under less-inspired owners. By the time Sidney Shiff purchased the club in 1979, it was close to folding. But through trial and error, Shiff brought the club to its present status by reducing its membership to 200 and the frequency of publication to four books a year. Most important, he raised the quality (and price) of LEC books by commissioning only leading fine artists and photographers.

While George Macy usually chose a text he asked an illustrator to adorn, Shiff asks artists such as de Kooning, Motherwell, Kelly and Clemente to select texts themselves. For example, the young American painter Sean Scully picked Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and will illustrate it with eight abstract color etchings.

Coordinating the efforts of artists and craftsmen in the production of such books is demanding and time-consuming. “The pace is glacial,” comments Sid Shiff. “The whole key to the thing is quality-without that, it’s nothing.”

But the results are beautiful-and expensive. Current prices run $1,250 apiece. In keeping with tradition, each volume is numbered and signed by the artist.

As investments, artists books are generally long-term. Such early classics as “Parallelement” and Matisse’s “Jazz” now sell for over $100,000. Most recent publications will command a modest premium over their original cost, but some books-like the LEC’s 1986 edition of Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell,” with photogravures by Robert Mapplethorpecan multiply in value rather quickly.

Worldwide, the costs of producing artists books mean there will likely be few publishers. Sid Shiff’s LEC in New York is the only company with a regular program, though Andrew Hoyem’s Anion Press in San Francisco recently won acclaim for “Apocalypse,” illustrated by Jim Dine, and “Poems” by W.B. Yeats with etchings by Richard Diebenkorn.

For decades, Parisian publisher Pierre Lecuire has produced only one notable book a year. But Tamie Swett’s New York-based Petersburg Press, which issued notable volumes with original works by Jasper Johns and David Hockney, among others, has not published a book since 1986.

The payback for producing artists books may be love, not great profits. But for some CEOs, collecting is an indulgence that supports a great tradition.

About peter lacey