The Power of Printed Matter: An Interview with Michaela Unterdörfer

Following a recent collaboration with Printed Matter and Darling Green, the director of Hauser & Wirth Publishers speaks with Vanessa Peterson about the importance of artists' publishing 

BY Vanessa Peterson AND Michaela Unterdörfer in Interviews , Profiles | 02 NOV 22

Vanessa Peterson: Hauser & Wirth started producing books when the gallery first launched in 1992, and you have been their director of publishing since 2005. How has the landscape of art publishing changed in that time?

Michaela Unterdörfer: At Hauser & Wirth, books have always been understood as critical gateways to new ways of thinking and seeing. They provide vital, lasting records of artists’ works, ideas and the discourse they inspire. That is why publishing has been a cornerstone of the gallery’s activity since its inception. With the special access granted by artists to their writings and archives, we are in a unique position to bring new and overlooked aspects of an artist’s creative practice into focus. Our publishing programme has evolved over the years from almost-exclusively producing exhibition catalogues to biographies, artists’ books, writings by and about artists, and much more.

What drives our publishing projects is the fact that each book is a unique expression of an element of an artist’s practice. They are guided tours of an artist’s oeuvre, an invitation to look more closely at their work and to become a participant in the creative act. This links to our overall vision of building artists’ legacies and bringing their works to a wider audience – an ambition that has remained unchanged for the past 30 years.

Michaela Unterdörfer portrait
Michaela Unterdörfer at the Zurich headquarters of Hauser & Wirth Publishers. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth Publishers; photograph: Sim Canetty-Clarke

VP: On the Hauser & Wirth Publishers' homepage, the gallery’s co-founder, Iwan Wirth, describes the book-making process as similar to curating an exhibition. Would you agree?

MU: Our work is rooted in a commitment to encouraging a deeper understanding of modern and contemporary art, as well as to the relevance of books as cultural interventions. Since books tend to be mass-produced, they can grant more democratic access to unique artworks that might otherwise only be found in galleries or museums.

By commissioning original, insightful and scholarly writing for our publications, we aim to provide accessible, lasting records of artists’ works, ideas and exhibitions. This fits with the gallery’s emphasis on education, which has been a backbone of its activities from the outset.  With a special focus on artists’ archives and writings, we make sure to work very closely with artists and estates to shape their legacies in written form. Artists’ ideas live in the objects they create, so we approach the book as a physical artwork in itself.

For many artists, a catalogue acts as an extension of an exhibition. Some books may provide a basic introduction to or a new perspective on an artist’s practice; others are less explanatory and more illustrative. In contrast to an exhibition, however, publications document an artist’s work for posterity. And, while we’ve often published extensively researched biographies that offer real insight into an artist’s life and ideas, we’ve equally produced art books as beautiful objects crafted without explanation or interpretation.

To give you an idea of the range of artist books we produce, we have just published the first substantial monograph on Amy Sherald (Amy Sherald: The World We Make), the first full-length biography in English on Maria Lassnig (Maria Lassnig: The Biography), and Jack Whitten: Cosmic Soul, which sheds new light on the artist’s six decades of making and thinking about art. All three books were launched at the recent NY Art Book Fair in October.

Amy Sherald The World We Make Hauser & Wirth
Amy Sherald, The World We Make, 2022. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth Publishers

VP: Could you tell me more about Hauser & Wirth’s Book Labs?

MU: Book Labs are hybrid installations dedicated in some way to the life of a publication, whether the focus is on a book’s conception, an art-book collector’s passion or what triggers creativity related to printed matter in artists and collectors alike. The open format of the Book Labs offers visitors access to printed matter and objects that express how books enrich an artist’s vision. Sometimes, the materials on display can be touched and handled; at other times, they’re too delicate and must be exhibited in vitrines. The Labs provide a space where books can be ‘unpacked’ from their final bound form, where we provide a free platform that exposes our process and encourages a dialogue between audience and artist. We want to share the treasures that art and art books can unlock, and Book Labs help us achieve that goal.

VP: You recently collaborated with Printed Matter and Darling Green on the exhibition ‘An Incomplete History of Printed Matter’s Art Book Fairs’ at Hauser & Wirth 22nd Street, New York. The show looked at the history of the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, which bring together hundreds of publishers and exhibitors every year. Why was it important to highlight the work of Printed Matter?

MU: Books make communities. Publishing projects usually involve a group of people – writers, editors, designers – beyond which there are then those who sell the book around the world, buy it, read it, talk about it and use it as a springboard for new ideas. This collective engagement is unique to publishing – and art publishing, in particular – and allows for a vital diversity of perspectives. Printed Matter has been championing art publications since 1976, making it a fountainhead for these communities. The fairs, which launched in 2006, show how generative and, frankly, magical it can be when such communities have a space to gather.

Hauser & Wirth Publishers is grateful to participate in these communities, too, and we were in the unique position of being able to offer our support to the fair and to the exhibition, providing an opportunity for reflection on what can happen when you bring together zine publishers and rare-book dealers, small presses and galleries. Giving space to honour the fairs was a form of gratitude for everything they make possible.

Printed Matter Hauser & Wirth exhibition view
'An Incomplete History of Printed Matter’s Art Book Fairs', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Printed Matter 

VP: How do you see the future of art publishing panning out against the backdrop of an increasingly digital age and culture?

MU: We believe in physical books and in the importance of a physical bookshop, where publications can be felt and smelled, their colours seen. Bookshops are also important spaces in which communities can meet and different audiences can be engaged.

However, virtual platforms are essential, too. We live in an age when books are discoverable and accessible by an audience in various ways, and we are eager to explore all of them with and for our artists. Virtual offerings add value, especially in terms of exchanging and cross-pollinating ideas in international real-time forums with readers, artists, fellow bookmakers, students and teachers. I don’t think it needs to be one or the other – all physical or all online – it can be a healthy mix of both.

Main image: 'An Incomplete History of Printed Matter’s Art Book Fairs', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Printed Matter 

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK. 

Michaela Unterdörfer is the director of Hauser & Wirth Publishers and is based in Zurich, Switzerland