Even in the digital age, big institutions like the Getty in Los Angeles and more regional institutions like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis continue to produce new printed art books at an impressive rate.
This might seem logical, given that museums are committed to preserving the best of the past, even if it becomes obsolete. But today’s printed art books are no odes to the past. Instead, they offer a sense of tactile immediacy.
“I like to joke that we have started to buy detective stories and romance novels as e-books, but we still have coffee tables where we want to put our precious possessions,” said Kara Kirk, editor. by Getty Publications. “It’s almost the fetishization of the object.
And what better kind of collectible books than art books, especially exhibition catalogs? All those stunning color boards, clever essays on the consumer viewer, and meticulously compiled backgrounds.
As large-format newspapers grow leaner and page turners become digital files, it’s easy to forget how advancements in technology have made printing stronger while undermining it. But as art books become more and more physically impressive, they remind us that the sword of technology is double-edged.
Take “Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern,” an accompanying catalog to an exhibit on the social history of tropical plants hosted last year by the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum in Miami Beach. Through a printing process that uses a soft-touch coating and multiple levels of embossing, the foil depicted on the book cover functions as an attractive tactile trompe-l’oeil: it has the same subtle, velvety feel and white veins. raised from a true philodendron.
“Printing technologies have become so advanced,” said Elisa Leshowitz, director of publishing services at DAP / Distributed Art Publishers, the world’s largest distributor of art books and museum exhibition catalogs. “You take a book from 1980, something that was considered an important art book at the time. And you compare the quality of its print to it today, and you basically see that we’ve come a really long way. The amount of colors that can be used to reproduce an original illustration. The wide selection of papers available. Things got very exciting.
Much like the founder of the Wolfsonian-FIU included a library in his building, with the idea that a book is an object of art, the museum focuses on the physicality of books in its own publishing efforts. “We want to create books that are beautifully produced material objects,” said Timothy Rodgers, director of Wolfsonian-FIU.
In 2015, this relatively small museum – it employs 38 full-time people and an annual budget of just over $ 5 million – released four new titles, all in print.
While budget constraints certainly affect the efforts of museum publishers, their intentions generally transcend results. “Their idea of investing is really different from that of traditional publishers,” said Kimberly Varella, a Los Angeles-based book designer. “One is monetary and the other is intellectual or educational.”
As a result, suggests Varella, museum publishers have the latitude to capitalize on today’s printing capabilities in ways that many other publishers cannot.
“The catalog I did for the Hammer Museum Biennale, ‘Made in LA 2014’, would have killed any traditional publishing house, basically,” Ms. Varella said.
It was, in other words, expensive to produce. “The price of the cover may have only reflected the cost of printing,” Ms. Varella said. “But the goal was not to score. The objective was to create this time capsule which will last after the end of the exhibition.
Indeed, no one who owns a copy of “Made in LA 2014” or “Philodendron” is likely to get rid of it soon. Visually stunning, beautifully made, they are themselves works of art that perfectly sum up a curious cultural moment, in which supposedly obsolete technology feels alive and immediate.