Fighting Fire with Fire: Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha
Bruce Nauman made the artist book Burning Small Fires in 1968 as a response to another artist book, Ed Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk (first published in 1964). Nauman documented himself tearing apart and burning a copy of Ruscha's Various Small Fires, and then printed the series of images as a single-sheet poster that folded into a book.
“While Ruscha's static images treat burning as “absolutely neutral”—an “introverted” and “meaningless” subject—Nauman restores the sense of ritual power that fire then held in the culture of protest.”
—Taylor Walsh, Small Fires Burning: Bruce Nauman and the Activation of Conceptual Art
The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.
“Artists' books began to proliferate in the sixties and seventies in the prevailing climate of social and political activism. Inexpensive, disposable editions were one manifestation of the dematerialization of the art object and the new emphasis on process.... It was at this time too that a number of artist-controlled alternatives began to develop to provide a forum and venue for many artists denied access to the traditional gallery and museum structure. Independent art publishing was one of these alternatives, and artists' books became part of the ferment of experimental forms.”
The Artist's Printed Extension
Cover to Cover: Artists' Books & Ephemera
Artists who publish books of documentation are, in a sense, using the artform to its simplest degree. —Tim Guest, 1981
Sharing an artwork through the very public method of printing and reproduction is the epitome of democratic dissemination. In their seminal 1981 publication Books By Artists, Tim Guest and Germano Celant begin by addressing their audience’s predictable desire to define a book. They suggest that it is not really possible – or necessary – to define what an artist book is, because any given work becomes a conceptual extension of the artist and is therefore an object of infinite incarnations.
There is too frequently a misinterpretation of printed works and editions as lesser commodities in the market. With artist’s books, the goal was often to distance an artist’s idea from the proverbial canvas, to use words and non-dimensional media as a means to engender and distribute a creative philosophy. Such efforts often led to the creation of superbly idiosyncratic editioned works that succinctly communicate an artist’s entire conceptual foundation, however ineffable. In this way, the artist’s book and the development of conceptual art are inextricably linked. Take, for example, Seth Siegelaub’s July, August, September 1969 exhibition catalogue in which the book is the exhibition. On its pages, it brings together eleven works from eleven artists working in separate locations, works that never physically shared premises themselves.
For artists like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha, whose broad outputs often hinged on the collision of word and image, the book became a quintessential medium. One of my favorites from this selection is Baldessari’s rare Brutus Killed Caesar, in which two unknown antagonists face each other with a randomized household object between them. It is understood that these objects are murder weapons, but nothing violent takes place outside of the viewer’s imagination, likely shaped by earlier historical texts like Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Brilliant. Another scarce title herewith is Ruscha’s Dutch Details. Comprised of multiple images taken by the artist showing bridges in The Netherlands, it plays off of his Every Building on the Sunset Strip from five years earlier. Oblong as well, with large fold-outs, this book was very difficult to produce and the publisher did not fulfill the edition, therefore making this the rarest of Ruscha’s coveted artist books.
The book’s potential for comprehensively documenting an ephemeral work or performance was critical for many artists, including Gordon Matta-Clark and Bruce Nauman, the latter whom made an artist’s book (Burning Small Fires) about burning another artist’s book (Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk).
The pursuit to collect such a wide and comprehensive library of these titles is a passionate endeavor, and it is my view that no collection could be complete without the artist’s book. A personal library needs this texture to augment the rigid monographs and academic surveys that equate the bulk of most collections. Whether a single rarity catches your eye or you’re drawn to group lots from the likes of Christian Boltanski, Gilbert & George, Richard Prince, and Sol LeWitt, Cover to Cover is a fantastic opportunity to bolster an existing reading room or to plant the seed of a collection to cherish for years to come.
—Peter Jefferson, Senior Specialist