On Summer Reading

by Susan Tallman

July 2019

Prints and books have been wed since the beginning. The oldest surviving printed book, the Chinese Diamond Sutra created in 868 and now in the British Library, is a scripture that opens with a printed picture. Centuries later, when papermaking and printing first hooked up in Europe, they found they still had special feelings for each other, and their early offspring included the blockbook, in which text and image were carved together. This issue—our first “Summer Reading” issue—is concerned not just with books and prints, but also with books aboutprints.

Assuming that our readers are, well, readers, we solicited several dozen contributors—artists, scholars, collectors, dealers—to recommend books about looking at, or thinking about, or making, or buying, prints. We imposed no limitations and offered no instructions beyond a request for “favorite books on prints.” The response was overwhelming and diverse: among the more than 200 titles suggested lie catalogues raisonnés and children’s books, autobiographies and novels, scholarly treatises and popular paperbacks. (The list of artists’ books and books-about-artists-books grew so long we decided to remove them to a subsequent issue.) Some contributors wrote lengthy passages about a single volume, others sent lists of multiple titles. While some books are foundational texts of print scholarship, others sent the editors of this journal scurrying to bookshops, libraries and websites on research runs. There is, we suspect, something new here for everyone.

When Ferdinand (or Hernando) Columbus, the explorer’s son, died in 1539 he left behind the world’s first encyclopedic library of printed books, ephemera, music and images—an undertaking so vast it necessitated, among other things, the development of a new form of furniture: the bookshelf. Working four centuries before Melvil Dewey and his decimals, Columbus had to invent new modes of arranging knowledge, or at least the containers it came in. His categories were inevitably leaky, and his organizational system was to our eyes quixotic—thousands of paper chits, each bearing a different pictographic symbol, which might be arrayed to form myriad pathways through the collected wisdom of the world.

We have grouped the books here by neither pictograph nor Dewey decimal, but by affinities that suggested themselves in nominator responses. Mark MacDonald’s remarkable recreation of Columbus’s collection of 3,204 prints appears under “Collectors and Collecting,” but it might as easily have found a home under “Renaissance” or “Prints in the World.”

Like history itself, the list is clumpy—the 15th century looms disproportionately large, as does the 20th, with a catenary dip between them; intaglio manuals occupy a populous corner, while Guido Langweiler’s book on screenprint sits alone. There are holes. So in addition to the delights of discovering the new and unknown, we anticipate that the list will produce a spate of slapped foreheads and dismay at the number of important works we have collectively missed. This is inevitable, and also an invitation—take it as the starting point of something better and broader.

Beyond this list, the current issue includes the new iteration of Prix de Print, for which juror Kit Basquin selected Mary-Ann Monforton’s lithograph E Cigarettes (2019), and three longer-form examinations of books. Anne Adriaens-Pannier shines a light on the curious addenda that Léon Spilliaert drew on the pages of previously published books of Belgian Symbolist writings. I review a new volume of writings by the Swedish artist Jan Svenungsson, Making Prints and Thinking About It. And Miguel de Baca examines Ed Ruscha’s early books in terms of roads, directionality and frontiers.

As a child Ferdinand Columbus accompanied his father on his fourth thwarted voyage to find a passage to the Indies. Squinting, one might see Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a 20th-century nod to the younger Columbus, who both documented his travels and then set out to articulate the hopeful and stealthy complexity of the universe through books.