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Frieze New York 2023

Five Essential Artist’s Books from Printed Matter Inc.

Artist and educator Mary Lum makes a selection from the venerable book store, whose pop-up returns to Frieze New York 2023

BY Mary Lum in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 21 MAY 23

Since its founding in 1976 by a group of individuals including Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt and Pat Steir, New York’s Printed Matter, Inc. has built a reputation as the world’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to artists’ books. Its main location just a 10-minute walk from the fair, Printed Matter Inc. will also host a pop-up on the ground floor of The Shed throughout the duration of Frieze New York.

For 18 years, artist Mary Lum served on the Printed Matter board of directors, and in 2012 joined its advisory council. Herself a maker of artist books, her multidisciplinary practice is rooted in urban living, drawing influence from Cubism, the Russian Constructivists and the psychogeography of the Situationist International. Wandering through cities to mentally collect images of overlooked details of the cityscape, in her collages Lum reconfigures these fragments into new abstract forms with fresh meanings. Professor Emerita of painting and drawing at Bennington College, Lum is the 2023 recipient of the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award.

Volcano Manifesto (2022), Cauleen Smith

volcano manifesto
Cauleen Smith, Volcano Manifesto, 2022, book cover. Courtesy: Printed Matter


Describing a manifesto as equal parts invitation, pronouncement, rant and dare, Cauleen Smith puts the words out there and then tests herself against them. Volcano Manifesto begins, 'Your rock, my volcano.' A tale unfolds of a personified volcano (she) destroying our present world and dismantling capitalism—pro- posing to remake the world where Man is not at its center. 'The volcano obliterates all boundaries and collapses all orders. If the lava oozes over your dotted line, do we share?' A Weather Channel image of moving lava about to overtake a municipal fence sets up the inevitable and welcome destruction. Interspersed with Smith’s sharply rendered thoughts are quotes from Fred Moten, Trinh T. Minh-ha, W.E.B. Dubois and others, all of which drive forward and add to the story. The book ends with a refrain from Édouard Glissant, 'our boats are open and we sail them for everyone.' The stakes are high, and Smith’s voice proves them out once again.

Tree Identification for Beginners (2018), Yto Barrada

Tree Identification for Beginners is a rich, rewarding book that can scarcely contain the enormity of what is documented within. It’s a lovely thing to handle, with its newsprint pages in green, grey and pink sections that collect typewritten texts, interviews, historic photos, maps and charts, performance notes and film stills. A way to reinvest in Yto Barrada’s contribution to Performa in 2017—a stop motion animation with recorded sound, accompanied by a live performance—the book functions as both a catalog, as well as a stand-alone work of art. The performance and book tell the story of the artist’s mother, Mounira Bouzid, who made her first visit to the US in 1966 as part of a group of African students participating in the Operation Crossroads Africa program. Barrada uses archival materials, including invitations, publicity, press clippings, photos and her rebel mother’s unreliable narrative, in order to illuminate the political and social undertones of this trip. The story is important, and made even more so by Barrada’s compelling, original telling.

Sixteen Drawings (2017), Laylah Ali

sixteen drawing
Laylah Ali, Sixteen Drawings, 2017, book cover. Courtesy: Printed Matter

The people portrayed in Laylah Ali’s book of mixed media drawings seem to barely tolerate our gaze. Their expressions hover between dissatisfaction and resignation, no wide smiles nor faces contorted by anger. The elaborate hairstyles and head coverings, wildly patterned clothing and some boldly shadowed eyes, announce people we must contend with, rather than hope to understand. Still, it’s a conversation. They stare just over our shoulders or off into space, inviting us to ask questions about what is actually below the surface. Two of the figures wear t-shirts with words that give us a clue: 'comfort with rage' and 'Lies'. As we page through these beautifully drawn portraits we ask, but not out loud, 'Is this someone I know?'

A Better Life For The Workers (I) (2021), Jen Liu

The pink, shiny, blank outside of Jen Liu’s A Better Life For The Workers (I) is perfectly calibrated to cover the incredible document found inside. Originally a 2013 training manual for Worker Empowerment, a Hong Kong based NGO education program for workers in Shenzhen, the text 'provides a framework for understanding the psychological, political and legal issues shaping industrial work life in modern China.' The original Chinese version appears under one cover and on turning the book over the reader finds the text translated (by Liu and her family) into English. In undertaking this translation, Liu is not asking us to indulge in the 'spectacle of suffering', but rather to recognize likeness and experience solidarity with Chinese workers, and perhaps all workers who are caught up in the globalized industrial system. Overlaid on both the original and the translation is a flip-book picturing a hand that at first seems to hold the volume open, and then is gradually overtaken, x-rayed, attacked, changed and obscured by mysterious pink orbs. The book is designed to reflect themes of hiding in plain sight and dissolving visibility, and in turn speaks to the shared fate of workers, labor activists and NGOs since 2013, and since 2020 in particular.

Loom Book (2022), Chang Yuchen

loom book
Chang Yuchen, Loom Book, 2022, book cover. Courtesy: Printed Matter

Chang Yuchen’s Loom Book is an invitation to a handmade world where everyone knows that readers are makers. It invites the reader to participate in the act of weaving, as the pages of two independent but intertwined sections are revealed through direct interaction. By repeatedly lifting the pages of one section and turning those of the other, the reader recognizes the warp and weft of loom weaving and the process of creating patterns. In 2018, Chang discovered The Book of Looms (first published in 1979), a historical survey of weaving devices, and was inspired to interpret the development of looms and the origins of weaving by making simple, descriptive drawings as a form of notetaking. One section of Loom Book contains these clearly articulated drawings, one loom per page, while the other section describes the drawings with concise, vertically written captions, placing each loom in a time period, culture and geographical location. Through the reader’s manipulation of the interlaced sections, a history of the loom is rewoven, and a new story about language is told.

Bonus Pick: Any zine from BlackMass Publishing

Founded by Yusef Hassan in 2019, BlackMass Publishing is a New York based collective and independent press that publishes the work of Black artists, often through improvisatory processes of research, looking, listening and making.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘Read the Room’

Main image: Jen Liu, A Better Life For The Workers (I), 2021. Courtesy: Printed Matter

Thumbnail Image: Tim Schutsky


Visit the Printed Matter, Inc. pop-up store in the Lobby of The Shed throughout Frieze New York. www.printedmatter.org

Mary Lum is an artist and educator. She lives in Massachusetts, US.