On artist publications, books, collecting and production

Having recently seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it’s impossible not to muse on the romanticized relationship between Gertrude Stein, a well-respected patron of the arts, and Picasso. Many artists regularly visited and received feedback from Stein—an avid collector, deeply engaged with the artists and their works, both finished and in development. Stein, to the contemporary art professional, unfortunately, seems to be a personage of the past. As an emerging (i.e. not-selling-well artist) I frequently wonder about the contemporary mega-collector, their relationship with the market, institutions, galleries, and most importantly, the artist. It was with these thoughts that I interviewed Mr. Philip Aarons. He is a collector and devoted supporter of contemporary art, with a particular interest in artist publications. This interview was conducted at Mr. Aarons’s library in his home in Manhattan on behalf of Istanbul Contemporary etc.

Merve Ünsal: You collect artists’ books and contemporary work in other media. What is the relationship between your books and the rest of your collection? Do you separate your books from the other works?

Philip Aarons: I started collecting books and materials about art and artists in college as an art history major. For me, books about artists and catalogues of exhibitions, were accessible entry points to understanding artists and to be able to have a piece of an artists’s production in a cost-efficient way.  I believe that the fundamental point of artist books is that they need to be understood as an alternative means for the artists to engage in their practice outside of the somewhat rigid formats of gallery, wall space, art fairs and potential museum shows. An artist’s book is something that the artist produces on their own at a small expense and is a means  of getting their work before a public. In my opinion, many young artists first define themselves as artists through the publication of a book or something of the sort, which gives them an opportunity to see themselves as an artist, before they see themselves within the gallery system or with representation.

I was always engaged in assembling materials about art in its broadest sense. My wife and I would always look art. We would buy catalogues from exhibitions that we visited and over time, as I became more successful in business and got more engaged in art, we were able to buy the work of living artists. We see ourselves as being involved with artists and supporting artists through the purchase of works of art and this is an activity for us. We do not consider ourselves to be building a collection of contemporary art.

The artist books and my books generally are more of a disciplined collection at this point than our art collecting. There isn’t a genuine purpose behind it, but I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about its organization and what belongs and what doesn’t belong. We buy art that we love and that we enjoy looking at; there is not the same discipline. Is my book collection a collection? The answer is yes. Is our works of contemporary art a collection? The answer is: we don’t think of it that way.

M.Ü.: An important part of collections are how the collectors think about what they collect.

P.A.: Correct. Other people might say that what we have is a great collection of contemporary art, but we don’t see it that way.

M.Ü.: Do you exhibit your collection? Do you lend to exhibitions?

P.A.: We lend constantly. There is a work of art we bought years ago, which has never been anywhere other than public display. We not only lend works of art, but we also support exhibitions of artists who we are engaged with. It’s a collection of contemporary art that participates in the lives and activities of artists.

M.Ü.: At this point in time, when public funding is so limited, it’s particularly important that private collectors step up to the plate.

P.A.: We try to. Obviously, we don’t have enormous resources, but we’re interested in supporting the structure that exists that enables shows in museums.

M.Ü.: Was there something about the printed material that drew you to artists books?

P.A.: That’s not an unimportant question. My wife who is a psychiatrist says that my interest in books stems from my mother having been a librarian. There may be something in that. I’ve always been fascinated by books. I love the personal experience of enjoying a book in solitude; it’s a one-on-one experience. The tactile quality and the back and forth, the ability to handle the object draw me to books.

I’m not a big believer in preserving things at all cost. I think most of the great artist books were done to be simple objects and they were made to get out into the world so people could enjoy them. This becomes obvious when you look back at the great early proponents of artists’ books. Ed Ruscha is just a great example of someone who produced books as a democratic way of getting his photographs and artistic practice into the world and selling them when he could for five dollars. And that was important to him. We should always respect the artist’s intent. Some artist’s books can be hugely expensive. I have gloves, but I don’t use them much. I don’t want them to be rarified. In France, for example, in the teens, twenties and thirties, artists made technically beautiful books, but these books were essentially designed to be expensive objects.

I’m interested in artists’ books that are designed to be ephemeral. I’m not interested in a book, published in an edition of a hundred, because the limitation would make it more valuable, but I’m interested in an edition of a hundred, because the artist thought not more than fifty people would want it. That’s a very big and important distinction to me that makes my collection different than many other people who are collecting artists’ books. I don’t strive to get the rarest of Picasso illustrated books or Matisse books. I’m interested in the books that are handed out for free. Sometimes they are very playful, sometimes they are not at all playful.

M.Ü.: How were you first attracted to the books of Banu Cennetoğlu?

P.A.: I found her earlier publications, Bent, for 5 or 10 dollars at Printed Matter. To me they suggested an energy and sort of visual inventiveness that I hadn’t really seen before. I love the idea of artists doing serial publications. Bent came out in three or four editions, to my knowledge. To me, that was a very interesting sort of publication that was inexpensive but challenging. The materials she used in Venice were the same. Nothing lavish, in fact, the opposite, sort of a simple, printed catalogue of lots of different things. I only met her a few times, but I admire her greatly as she encourages artists to explore the printed medium as an expression of their artistic practice.

M.Ü.: What is your perspective on the PS1 Art Book Fair as an insider?

P.A.: The NY Art book fair is consistent with my whole philosophy and that’s why it was so important to me as chair of Printed Matter to promote it. The fair has gone tremendously well, most of the credit belonging to AA Bronson to do it as well as he did. To me, it’s an opportunity to get the artists’ work out to a broader public without the expense and the intervention of curators and galleries. We went from seventy participants last year to two hundred sixty one this year. There was everything ranging from people making zines to large institutional schools who are involved in bookmaking in the Netherlands to publishers to e-flux to all kinds of other things. I like that very broad forum including those who are involved in printed matter and the printed form. The book fair is kind of a one-time convocation of all these interested people. It is also consistent with Printed Matter’s mission. And nothing is more fun for me than finding something that I haven’t seen before.

M.Ü.: What are your other engagements in the art world?

I’m the vice chair of PS1. I’m also on Creative Time’s executive committee. My wife is on the board of the New Museum. As a couple, we have a lot of engagements.

M.Ü.: What drew you to these specific institutions?

P.A.: I’m only interested in alternatives. Creative Time, as a public art presenter is interested in giving artists another forum. It is a place for artists interested in different kinds of projects that they couldn’t normally do, whether this is skywriting or doing things in the park or art on the beach thirty years ago. There is a broad range of activities that meets artists’ need to be encouraged and sponsored to do works that are important to the artists, but not necessarily suitable to a traditional gallery production process.

PS1 has a long history of being an alternative space and representing artists that nobody else would represent. To us, what’s interesting is what’s around the margin.

M.Ü.: Last year, the New Museum exhibited “Skin Fruit,” curated by Jeff Koons from Dakis Joannou’s collection and the museum was heavily criticized. How do you feel about private collections being exhibited in public institutions?

P.A.: I think the notion that a museum show enhances a collection’s value at this point is completely irrelevant. If you can get the best possible art in an institution and if that happens to be in a private collection, I see no problem with that. I would say the New Museum’s stature was enhanced by the ability to show Joannou’s collection. I don’t think the relationship between the market and the museum is there any more. I don’t sell art so it’s not an issue for me. I don’t know how the market values fancy works of art. Interestingly, I think, it’s not because something has been shown in a museum. It doesn’t seem to affect anything. I think this is an old-fashioned notion.

M.Ü.: What’s your relationship with living artists?

I’m very involved with living artists. We support the work that they do. I first got to know Terence Koh, whose work was reviewed today in the New York Times by Roberta Smith, through his work as a zine publisher, well before he was even identified as a visual artist himself and so, I was interested in his work. I found him through the Internet, e-mailed him, bought his work, encouraged him to come to New York. We have very strong personal relationships with lots of artists. My view is, if you spend as much time as we do with artists, you’re going to become friendly with them. It’s nice to support them in what they do, but their practices are going to be their own and you’re not going to like everything they do.