I always wanted to be the kind of person who reads art books. Unfortunately, my short attention span and general lack of tolerance for the esoteric pastimes of the art world usually only allow for a brief leafing through before I’m inevitably put off by a rambling exhibition catalog essay or a deliberately blank page described as a “radical intervention”. That’s what’s so wonderful about the New York Art Book Fair (NYABF) — it takes the platonic ideal of the category (on glossy paper! “rare first edition”!) and folds it in on itself, leaving plenty of room for the wacky and offbeat.
Until this Sunday, October 16, Printed Matter’s beloved book fair is back in person at the historic venue where its first edition took place in 2006, right next to the bookstore’s location in Chelsea. From a “Zine Zaddy” baseball cap to a recurring tote bag cryptically printed with the words “Books And,” last night’s opening was quite the scene, or like a visitor who didn’t want that I use his name said, “I’m just here to spy on people.
I wandered through the crowd with the same thought that I have every year, which is that I can’t believe so many people come to the art book fair. I also found myself wistful for the high ceilings and schoolhouse vibe of the fair’s longtime venue, MoMA PS1. Luckily, the general vibe inside was less Chelsea and more “East Village house party” (especially as the climate on all four floors alternated between swampy and freezing). Armed with a fast-dying iPhone and a dripping umbrella, I set out to find not the best books, but the best stories.
Poet Jen Fisher, who shared a table with F Magazine, was sell books on a sidewalk on Manhattan’s Avenue A near historic St. Mark’s for eight years. “The street is different because there are no walls, so anyone can walk through it,” Fisher told me. “You become an open-air bookstore. There, you maybe show someone a book and they don’t even read it. She holds up a copy of a collection of poems by René Ricard. “Here, everyone is already interested.”
It’s a very different crowd to the NYABF crowd, who braved relentless drizzle and a sweaty line in the block for the promise of headlines such as Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, a book about a folk artist named Tressa Prisbrey who collected over 17,000 crayons and at age 60 created an immersive glass bottle environment in Southern California. It’s weird, it’s adorable, it’s all I want in an art book!
In fact, many of my favorite items at the fair deviated a bit from gender. Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to a selection of $2 cat postcards made by the owners of Boekie Woekie, a Dutch artist-run bookstore. (The sale of these postcards alone apparently covers their entire rent every month, which is why I’m moving to the Netherlands.) Another highlight of the night came in the form of Toilets A Go Go!, a collection of images of public toilets in Japan by Hidefumi Nakamura presented by Handshake Books. And on the table of the Los Sumergidos collective based in Mexico City and New York, I discovered the mind of Alejandro Cartagena, who amassed black and white photographs of workers forced to attend awkward company dinners and compiled them into the perfectly cynical title We love our employees (2019). Another one gem of cartagenawhich the attendant at the table described as a “rabid” collector of stock footage, is a sealed box made to look like a bundle of old four-by-five Kodak negatives, which I was expressly forbidden from open, but I was told that it contained recordings of the first nude scene in Mexican cinema.
At the Corraini Edizioni stand, I browsed the children’s books of the Milanese artist Bruno Munari (whose work is also exhibited at the Italian Modern Art Center in Soho right now). Frustrated with the literary world’s bland offerings for young readers, Munari began creating children’s books in 1945, bringing his artistic flair and fondness for materials into the process. Among these is the awesome series known as Prelibri — tiny textless “pre-books” made of felt, wood, paper and other media, designed for toddlers as an early introduction to the act of reading.
“You can use them if you’re really small and can’t read,” Pietro Corraini told me in an extremely charming Italian accent. “They were designed just to get used to the book object.” As a 31-year-old childless man with an alarming number of friends becoming parents, I asked for the price: $200. I raised my eyebrows.
“That’s because they’re made in Italy,” Corraini explained, also charmingly.
At your average art fair, booth attendants are notoriously selective with whom they speak, chatting up people who look like they’ll pick up a painting or two. But at NYABF, everyone I approached was warm and inviting and eager to tell me about their magazines, haiku compilations, artist-made t-shirts, and big volumes of art theory long before I mentioned that I was a journalist. Someone from Werkplaats Typografie offered me an apple “as a gesture” from their nifty stand, which was ingeniously designed to recreate the Kardeşler Groente & Fruit market in West Amsterdam.
On the fourth and top floor, I was drawn to a small handwritten poster announcing a “celebration of the demise of the NEA, public funding and art as we know it”. It was part of Allied Productions’ chart, showcasing over 40 years of ephemera of activism and resistance highlighting LGBTQ+ and cross-generational voices.
“After the second Reagan administration, we realized that across the country, organizations like ours were being suppressed,” explained co-founder Jack Waters. Waters and collaborator Peter Cramer established the ABC No Rio zine gallery and library in the 1980s on the Lower East Side. “They said the quality of the work we submitted had gone down, but when organizations say that there’s often something deeper involved – like misogyny and racism. That was the start of what we call the culture wars.
Allied Productions main focus now is The Little Versailles, a community garden and performance hall in a former auto body shop in Manhattan. Talking to Waters was a humble reminder that many organizations and people exhibiting at this fair — from small artist presses to zine makers to multidisciplinary spaces that somehow seem to do it all — have faced their fair share of obstacles in an unstable industry where the worlds of art and publishing converge.
Whether you prefer to decode an enigmatically scribbled artist’s journal or simply pile three or four monographs on your coffee table to intimidate your dinner guests, we can all agree that art books provide a particular comfort and joy. But what even is an art book, anyway? I’m not sure that this show helped me get closer to any definition. And for that, I am grateful.