I first met collector Philip Aarons thanks to a mutual interest in the artist Wallace Berman. I was studying the work of Berman and had received a grant to pursue my interest further; Aarons read about my project in a newsletter and reached out. Entering his apartment it turned out he had an (extensive, and generous) interest not just in Berman, artist-publications, or the West-Coast avant-garde, but all things rambunctious and contemporary in art. I subsequently worked with him on an exhibition and catalogue of queer artist-made publications primarily the Aarons' collection, both called Queer Zines, which launched at the 2008 New York Art Book Fair.
I mention the earlier project to note that Aarons coordinated it contemporaneous with this present project, In Numbers (JRP-RINGIER), a history of all serial artist publications—and his day job, as an international real estate developer. It's also to suggest that chief among Aarons' interests is the creative and political potency of the artist-made publication, and communicating that energy to a wider audience. (LEFT: COVER OF IN NUMBERS. DESIGN BY GARRICK GOTT)
In Numbers is co-edited with dealer Andrew Roth, with whom Aarons has frequently collaborated on books (and from whom he's purchased innumberable artist books). Aarons' projects also involve a revolving network of collaborating experts: AA Bronson, the director of Printer Matter (where Aarons is chairman), figures here as a co-editor of the seminal publication FILE. The Getty and the MoMA Library (of which Aarons is Council Chair) each contributed materials to this volume outside his collection. And Wallace Berman is back, this time as the first chronological entry and lynchpin for successive generations of artists working secretly outside the traditional confines of the art world and the art market.
An exhibition of the contents of In Numbers opens tonight at the X-Initiative.
GARTENFELD: How do you define the subject of this book—beyond the terminology "serial artist publication"?
AARONS: The criteria can't be exactly defined. The materials needed to be intended as serial, meaning that the artist either had to number them-which, by definition, means there's intent, so that there's a number one; more likely than not there'll be a number two; and three and four, although some don't get very much further than that. Or the books have to be dated, so that you can tell that they were intended to be a series that evolved over time. Within those criteria, we tried to identify those works where the "hand" of the artist was clearly responsible for the production itself. It should not be an assemblage of things that other people sent in, it wasn't meant to be a magazine which an artist looked for others to do essays or reviews. It was really meant to be a group of publications where an artist felt as though the product was itself a work of art.
GARTENFELD: When you started on the book, was it at the scope that it is now?
AARONS: Not at all. I became excited as the material mounted, but the critical decision for me was that as a collector, I thought it would be most useful to publish a recognizable photograph of the cover of each issue of each periodical we've included. That was a monumental task.
GARTENFELD: Chronologically, Wallace Berman's Semina (1957–1965) is the first title you've included. It's notably a post-war project, and very few people have seen it—until a late and very recent re-discovery. Why was it such a crucial work for you?
AARONS: As the name suggests, Semina was seminal for artists everywhere. As Berman retreated from the artistic scene in Los Angeles, he spent his time hand crafting letter-pressed periodicals, which were only mailed to friends. You couldn't subscribe, you just had to get them, and that to me represents an interesting extreme of an artists' activities. He's not sitting worried about his next gallery show; he's not waiting for a curator to come in and give him a museum show.
GARTENFELD: You've also included materials that are less visual, among them Martha Rosler's Food Novels, which are very rarely seen, particularly for a work by a noted artist. When dealing with books from a conceptual a tradition, where images are less important or pronounced, how do you differentiate between an artist periodical and, say, a poetry journal?
AARONS: In many periodicals, there here is this wonderful division between writing and pictures, and unfortunately, the art world tends to maintain a higher degree of separation than I think is necessary. The best example is Vito Acconci's 0 to 9, which started probably in most people's view as a literary magazine. My view is that 0 to 9 at the cusp of when he started to be interested in the visual arts and architecture more dramatically, and therefore, it makes that transition.
GARTENFELD: How much of the work came from your personal library? Material also came from the Getty, and from the MoMA Library.
AARONS: Many if not most of the material comes from my collection but work on the book led to some major discoveries for me. Culture Hero is a great example of our process. I had one issue of the five. It was just fortunate that we were able to find other copies. Some people told me about other periodicals that I'd never heard of, some of which I was then able to buy.
GARTENFELD: So part of the project was acquisition?
AARONS: I'm always buying.
GARTENFELD: Who's the intended reader? Are collectors in mind? (LEFT: REPRODUCTION OF LTTR FROM IN NUMBERS)
AARONS: If I had my wish, I'd like it to be in every art library, because I think young art students would be really interested in this as an alternative to more traditional methods of distributing art. And I obviously think that there's a market among people interested in the arts and contemporary art generally, as I am.
GARTENFELD: In Nancy Princenthal's essay ["Special Delivery: Mail as Metaphor"] she discusses the politics of Berman's Semina and the magazine format as a counter-cultural medium. Taking that position for granted for a minute, in your historical studies, do artist periodicals represent the same type of transgressive position they once did?
AARONS: I think we've worked from the idea that the serial publication is, as Nancy suggests, democratic and radical, and fundamentally not commercial. There are a lot of publications today that operate along these lines. North Drive Press is a great example. LTTR [stands for Lesbians to the Rescue, among other things] in particular has a sort of political sense of context and identity at stake.
GARTENFELD: You just mentioned North Drive Press and LTTR, which are both examples of contemporary collectives responsible for publication. Authorship plays a huge role in your criteria for selection, yet it seems in many of the titles you've chosen to dissipate.
AARONS: It's surprising how many of the serial periodicals we chose are collectives, in the loosest sense. Whether it's FILE, which is by General Idea, or The Limericks and the Boxers, which is by Gilbert and George, or North Drive Press or LTTR, the published format clearly allows groups of artists to move in and out easily. They're not worried about exactly who's doing what or how the collective process is affecting each artist's individual work.
GARTENFELD: You mentioned FILE, which is a very famous intervention into the magazine format by General Idea. You'v'e also included VILE...
AARONS: VILE came out of San Francisco from the fabulous Anna Banana, and Bill Gaglioni. They were San Francisco Bay Area Dadaists and worked from the early 70s until the early 80s.
GARTENFELD: What's remarkable is that VILE treats FILE and Life Magazine with a certain type of parity, as if the former had become so institutionalized as to warrant its own kind of protest. What was the relationship between FILE and VILE?
AARONS: The editors were friends, and they all came out of the Correspondence School, itself an underappreciated movement. Mail art is in many ways an expanded quasi-published form. Obviously, none of these had wide circulation, but at the same time, they had a significant involvement in the general artistic discourse. Certainly, General Idea, Anna Banana, Cosey Fani Tutti, Genesis P-Orridge were in regular exchange-and all these people were involved in putting together a magazine like VILE, although the artistic content was ultimately determined by Anna and Bill.
GARTENFELD: So many of the artists and collectives you've mentioned come from a queer background. And certainly Printed Matter and its Director, AA Bronson, are sympathetic and representative of queer materials. In speaking with AA or working on this book, what have you learned about book media's hospitability to queer artists?
AARONS: I think, again, it probably represents the fact that these are activities that could be done off the main grid of the then-current artistic activities, and therefore would have encouraged or allowed for all kinds of different perspectives. The fact that there was a significant input from queer artists, to me, just makes a greater case for the nature of these periodicals as being the work of artists who want to produce art outside of the established structure.
GARTENFELD: How has the availability of serial artists' books changed since you started collecting them?
AARONS: Well, there are a lot more of them. There's more knowledge and understanding as well. I'm hoping that this book will allow other people looking at serial publications to come in and say, "Here are some serial publications that no one knows about; here are some that were overlooked."
GARTENFELD: What's the craziest place you've ever gone to find a book?
AARONS: [LAUGHS] I've never told you this, or anyone... Someone once suggested to me they had an amazing collection of old, museum catalogues. They had all this material—I don't know how they got it-in a big old apartment way uptown. And the material was in a bathtub. I was there looking at all this extraordinary material-and it was extraordinary. But as I'm sitting there, all of a sudden, someone comes over and starts banging on the door and threatening to kill them because their toilet was leaking on the tenants below. I bought a few things and got out of there.
GARTENFELD: Is there anything you've brought into the house where in reaction your wife, Shelley Fox Aarons, has said to you, "That's repulsive... get that out of my house!"
AARONS: Shelley and I are committed collectors of contemporary art and it is something we do together and will great passion. Books are something that I collect more on my own—she has an interest, but I have an even greater interest. She's happy to encourage my obsession with books and has always enthusiastically welcomed them into our home.
IN NUMBERS OPENS DECEMBER 10, 6–9 PM. X-INITIATIVE IS LOCATED AT 548 WEST 22ND STREET, NEW YORK.