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New York Art Book Fair: Freedom of the (Small) Press

A scene from the “Artists’ Photography Books” display at the 2011 New York Art Book Fair / photo David Balzer

While the sixth annual New York Art Book Fair was doing a booming business over the weekend at MoMA PS1, there was—it behooves one to mention—a different kind of hubbub on Wall Street and, on Saturday, on the Brooklyn Bridge, where protesters stood off against police in what has become a loud, if not entirely discernible, public action. The two events have only circumstance in common, though the fair (sponsored by the artist-run Chelsea art-book store and publisher Printed Matter, and initiated by Canadian artist AA Bronson, who formerly helmed that organization) was full of handmade paper ephemera that might well be counted as evidence of America’s continued investment in grassroots culture and radical politics.

Well, half-counted—the book fair is indeed curious for representing three distinct, if overlapping, markets: first, the trade and academic publishers; second, the antiquarian booksellers and art-object purveyors; third, the zine-makers. The last two groups proved an amusingly ironic pair, with the zine-makers selling their wares for next to nothing (sometimes giving them away), and the antiquarians charging dearly for things that were initially created under similarly humble conditions. (Funny how, in the art world, a seller can be termed “antiquarian” if she or he stocks artist books and multiples from a mere 35 years ago.)

Outside PS1, in the courtyard, lay the upstarts. A tent, dubbed “The Schoolyard,” sheltered numerous international zinesters and illustrators, including Torontonians Fantasy Camp and Ryan Dodgson. Beside this was digital art network e-flux’s “Book Co-op,” housed, delightfully, in a vintage aluminum Airstream trailer, and offering around 600 titles from artist-run centres and independent publishers around the world.

Inside PS1, things got a bit more refined, with a good portion of the first floor devoted to historical artist projects. Aside from the publishers’ displays, which were art in and of themselves (Badlands Unlimited’s Paul Chan installation was a standout), there were the fair’s own initiatives, among them “Loose Leaf”—an exhibition of Semina, Wallace Berman’s 1950s and 1960s journal, alongside other landmark artist magazines—and “Artists’ Photography Books,” vitrines full of classic image-based bookworks.

Some attendees trotted out with armfuls of finds; others emerged with nothing. All seemed exhausted, but happy: like any bazaar, the fair is as much about looking as getting. Plus, admission—unlike so much in America these days—is free.


This is the first in a series of postings by assistant editor David Balzer, who is in New York for the fall season.

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