50 / Printed Matter

Favorite Things: An Exhibition of Artist Books in Memory of David Logan, 1918–2011

By Kara Q. Smith January 17, 2012

Image: Favorite Things: An Exhibition of Artist Books in Memory of David Logan, 1918–2011; installation view, Legion of Honor, 2011. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

The cornerstone of Favorite Things: An Exhibition of Artist Books in Memory of David Logan, 1918–2011 is Joan Miró’s À toute épreuve (Proof Against All) (1958), the first artist book philanthropists Reva and David Logan acquired and the one that launched their collection. Miró produced over two hundred original color woodcut prints for this collaboration with poet and surrealist pioneer Paul Éluard. Connected to Éluard through then prominent Swiss art dealer and publisher Gérald Cramer, Miró also worked with technical assistants and printers to produce each print. The level of collaboration and production that went into making each of the 130 editions is not lost on the viewer at the Legion of Honor, even through the museum glass. Textures in the paper and the inks, added embellishments and handset type evoke the visceral intention of Miró and his collaborators, qualities irrevocably lost in the glossy reproduction sold on Amazon.

À toute épreuve and a small selection of additional highlights from the hundreds of artist books the Logans donated to the Legion of Honor are located in a small room just across from the museum’s coat check. Precipitated by inherent conservation requirements, these objets d’art appear aloof in their dimly lit vitrines. With just one or two page spreads of each book represented, viewing engagement is limited.1 Despite the fact that one is not able to indulge in handling each book, the exhibition, which features mainly European artists, presents a remunerative glimpse into the contemporary trajectory of these distinguishing artist publications. Of À toute épreuve, Miró said, “The important thing is that a book must have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble.”2 While some of the books represented lean more toward the intentions of zines and others lean toward the sales-friendly gallery catalogue, the artist books in the exhibition share the quality of being limited in quantity and not easily reproducible due to intricate and varied printmaking processes. As a result, they more closely resemble sculptures than they do coffee table reading material.

Like Cramer and Miró, publishers and art dealers were often one and the same in early twentieth-century Europe. Though taking considerable time and effort, these books were great distribution tools for gallerists and dealers to promote each artist. Pablo Picasso’s relationship with French dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard was similar to Miró and Cramer’s. Vollard facilitated numerous publishing opportunities with the artist, such as Picasso: Eaux-Fortes originales pour des textes de Buffon (1942), highlighted in Favorite Things. For this book, Vollard asked Picasso to illustrate a volume in a series of natural history texts. The thirty-one etchings in this edition depict expressive black-and-white renderings of animals and nature, including frogs on lily pads, an ostrich in motion, and a gesturing ape. The Logans’ collection comprises roughly 135 texts illustrated or produced by Picasso, ranging from collaborations with Tristan Tzara and Paul Éluard to self-produced collections of images and text, though not every book was undertaken by a dealer for distribution.3 As with the

rest of the Logans’ collection, Picasso’s published works present a range of creativity and expression, experimenting with the role of publishing and fostering new dialogues.

La Fin du mond, filmee par l’ange N.-D. (1919), by Blaise Cendrars with illustrations by Fernand Léger, is one of the earlier books in the exhibition and encompasses the most blatant modernist aesthetic. 4 Cendrars’s text was originally intended to be a film featuring an American businessman playing the role of God who, out of boredom, organizes an apocalyptic war on earth. Never realized, the text ended up being published as a novel. An aspiring filmmaker himself, Léger created dynamic cubist designs for the book in his then recently termed “mechanical” style, bringing an emphatic spirit to the text’s progression of events. Using line-block reproductions of ink drawings, Léger noticeably integrated portions of text from the novel into his illustrations, creating new experimental forms of typography and lettering seen in the featured page spread of Favorite Things. In just these two pages, Léger’s bold work clearly emulates the chaotic visual experience of modern life, augmenting the story itself. As the museum placard notes, this text was produced in over one thousand editions and sold for only twenty francs when first published.5 Léger, like other artists in the Logans’ collection, enjoyed the use of printmaking and artist books as distribution tools for ideas, almost in the way a manifesto functions, and it was important that the work was accessible and more easily reproducible than other publishing techniques used in the early twentieth century.

A selection of lesser-known Emily Dickinson poems published by San Francisco’s Arion Press, Sampler (2007) particularly underscores the still extant impetus for artist collaboration and publishing. Arion Press partnered with Kiki Smith to illustrate the text, and the artist drew inspiration from her own work as well as from the content of Dickinson’s poems. Smith created an intricate printmaking technique involving photopolymer plates to produce delicate images that appear on the page almost as if they have been sewn into the paper’s fiber. Connecting a prominently known artist and a poet, Sampler offers new ways for audiences to experience the work of Smith and Dickinson. Viewing the book propped up behind glass at the Legion of Honor, noticing the texture of the paper and the embroidery of the cover through one’s own reflection, a viewer experiences the object as distinguished, special. These livres d’artiste possess an idiosyncratic quality that evokes the desire to interact with the work physically, a desire not satisfied by looking at computerized images. 

Favorite-Things-Installation-View-Legion-of-Honor

Favorite Things: An Exhibition of Artist Books in Memory of David Logan, 1918–2011  2011; installation view, Legion of Honor, 2011. Courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

Arguably each of the works in Favorite Things evidences the artists’ enjoyment of working with printmaking techniques to produce an object in collaboration with other creative minds, which is telling of the role of the creative process in our current landscape. While intentions may vary for each publication, the significance of the process of publishing artist books and their role in supplementing artistic practice still provides a unique alternative for experiencing artists’ work. Even though they remain hermetic, precious objects mediated by institutional collections and pricey auction houses, it is the “rareness” of the Logans’ collection that bestows it value and due place in this contemporary conversation.

 

Favorite Things: An Exhibition of Artist Books in Memory of David Logan, 1918–2011 is on view at the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco, through February 12, 2012. 

 

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NOTES: 

1. Providing further possibility to explore the artist content of each book, a computer in the room is available to allow viewers to navigate the exhibition. It features digital images of book covers and the artist prints contained in each text. Individuals may also make appointments with the print collections department to view any book from the collection in person.

2. Roberta Flynn Johnson. Artists’ Books in the Modern Era 1870-2000: The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, exhibition catalogue, 6 October 2011 - 6 January 2002, Legion of Honor. (San Francisco, CA: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2002), 223.

3. Not shown in this exhibition, La Rose et le chien, Poème perpetual (1958) with text by Tristan Tzara and engravings by Picasso, produced only in an edition of twenty-two, is in my opinion one of the most remarkable pieces in the whole collection.

4. Translation: The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame.

5. Johnson, Artists’ Books, 78.

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