4.10 / Review

From Los Angeles: L.A. Art Book Fair

By Anna Martine Whitehead February 26, 2013

From January 31 to February 3, the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) hosted the L.A. Art Book Fair (LAABF). Since 2005, Printed Matter, Inc. has organized New York’s strongest argument for arts publishing: the New York Art Book Fair. Founded by AA Bronson while he was president of Printed Matter, the fair began as a response to the disintegration of art-book outlets in New York City. In an October 2008 article in Artforum, Bronson lamented New York’s loss of “the great bookstores of the world . . . We have the shop at MoMA, where the number of titles has decreased; the shop at the Whitney, which is pretty sad; and the shop at the New Museum, which is very pretty, but it has nowhere near as many titles as it used to.” At the time of the New York Art Book Fair’s founding, independent brick-and-mortar sources for art books had all but vanished—and in 2013, that is also true in Los Angeles.

Positioned at the intersection of alternative and traditional publishing, in-house studio imprints, artists’ media experiments, and the contemporary art fair, the LAABF was an undeniably overwhelming affair. The clearest curatorial through-line of the LAABF seemed to be that contemporary arts publishing is infinitely diverse. Major publishers like the Hammer Museum sold catalogues while Last Gasp hawked graphic novels. Higher-priced alternative publishers like the San Francisco–based The Thing (which has recently raised its subscription price to $240 for quarterly installments of artist objects) was present, as were experiential projects like Werkplaats Typografie—a masters program for designers in the Netherlands that broadcasted live performances of student publications throughout the fair—and KChung Radio, an independent Chinatown station on the AM dial.

As with the New York Art Book Fair, there were also live performances and events at the L.A. fair. These were focused on Mike Kelley, including a lecture from John C. Welchman and a library installation curated by contributors with associations to Kelley. Ancillary events were presented outside the fair by vendors; among the strongest was Rituals and Congregations” organized by the L.A.-based journal Native Strategies at Human Resources. But for all of these thematic moments of cohesion, there was also a decided turn away from any obvious organizational patterns. At the LAABF, all manner of publishers were clustered, as Bronson explained, “so that no one publishing type was ghettoized.” This gave the fair a particular all-comers feel—despite the fact that tables were available by invite only—which imbued the event with a certain energy that could be either exciting or exhausting, depending on one’s personal taste.

Regardless, the sense that Los Angeles has been waiting for this moment was pervasive throughout the weekend. We really have nothing else like it in the state of California, as evidenced by the number of sellers and visitors I spoke with who expressed relief at not having to go all the way to New York for this year’s fair. Why it took seven years for the Art Book Fair to make its way to Los Angeles may have something to do with the recognition that California—like the rest of the country, and in tandem with the global publishing industry—is struggling with a dearth of high-end or otherwise traditional art-book sellers.

L.A. Art Book Fair, 2013. Courtesy of AA Bronson and the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Zine World at the L.A. Art Book Fair, 2013. Courtesy of Ted Vadakan and Poketo, the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The LAABF is a welcome addition in California, where there has been an explosion in artist zines, artist publishing projects, and specialized printed-matter boutiques since the 1970s. This interest in independent and DIY publishing was on display in the LAABF’s Zine World, an entire gallery dedicated to mostly Southern California zine-makers, including several dozen display cases of Raymond Pettibon and Ari Marcopoulos zines under the title “Zine Masters of the Universe.” Zine World was located in the annexed gallery on the south side of the Geffen, a massive concrete hall without the pretension of the rest of the museum. In the context of the sprawling publishers’ fair filling the rest of the Geffen—with equal representation from international organizations like Aperture to L.A.-focused vendors like Otherwild, which sold embroidered lesbian-themed throw pillows—one is provoked to wonder what distinguishes a zine from an independently published artist’s book. This question is echoed in Bronson’s lamentation above, as bookstores become reminiscent of galleries even while gift shops take up ever more real estate within museums.

Comparing the works presented at Zine World with those selling at this month’s L.A. Zine Fest, for instance (think Maximum Rocknroll and East Village Inky), further complicates the location of zines within art publishing. The zine-sters at LAABF presented a noticeable self-awareness in terms of their medium’s historical relationship to punk rock (in the form of CrimethInc.), underground queer culture (Anal), and amateurism (Otherwild), while also engaging with the LAABF impulse to situate the zine as an art work and the publishing process as an art practice. While perhaps less affiliated with some other alt-press lineages—fandom, anarchism, feminist-librarianism, and the perzine, ever-present at the Zine Fest—the presence of Zine World at LAABF may point to an increasing awareness of the zine as a seminal document in the chronology of art publishing.

That being said, it was LAABF zones like Zine World and the KChung gallery that made the book fair feel like something special, something peculiar to Los Angeles—indeed, something dynamic—and not just a New York art-book trade fair shipped in for the weekend. And, criticism of the MOCA’s new management aside, it wasn’t until Jeffrey Deitch took the helm that the Art Book Fair finally put down roots in Southern California. With more than sixteen thousand visitors to the Geffen in a single weekend, it is also unlikely Los Angeles has seen the end of the Art Book Fair. This is thankful news, as the Art Book Fair, and the interrogations it makes around both the past and future of art publishing, may be uniquely positioned to document the shifts in our contemporary media zeitgeist.


The L. A. Art Book Fair was held at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from January 31 to February 3, 2013. 

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