Records By Artists 1958-1990, Giorgio Maffei (2014)
After a little spending spree at Mast Books (NYC), my girlfriend and I were riding the train home. I quickly pulled this book from the bag. I’d been wanting it for a while, but the $50 price tag held me off. I was happy to finally have it in my hands. As I flipped through the pages, and carefully studied its contents, Jenny looked over my shoulder and said, “I don’t get it, why do you buy books like that? It’s just pictures of records!?!?” It’s a fair question, and a good place to start, particularly as I’ve noticed a spike in the publication of books focusing on just that- books of pictures of records.
Generally speaking, the market holds two categories of books with “pictures of records”. The first tend to be glossy “coffee table” publications that celebrate the design and output of certain movements, scenes, and associated record labels. Don’t get me wrong, these are cool, and I’ve always been an advocate for the great design of record covers, but these books rarely attempt to be exhaustive. I always flip through them, but it’s not often that they clue me to new records, or offer a fresh insight. Why would I want a book on my shelf, with pictures of records I already have on my shelf? The second category is relatively slim, and far from perfect. It tends to be the dry, and academic. I categorize them as resource books. In other words, books I find useful for classification and research of records and other recordings. Records By Artists 1958-1990 falls into this category, and in so being, is definitely not for everyone. It’s not so much a book of pictures, as it is a study of a field.
Despite appealing to a limited audience, I believe in the importance of books like this and advocate buying them, particularly when they do their job well. This belief often stands in jarring opposition to our contemporary context. We live in a world in which the internet has brought us an unprecedented resource for reference and learning, but I became a collector and lover of the arts in a different time; one where knowledge was passed word of mouth, through research, extensive reading, and often through the chance brought by rigorous digging. Discovery was slow and laborious. The search for a book or record could take years. This could be a blessing as much as it was a curse. You suffered the inevitable frustration of a long wait, but what was discovered along the way, was often greater than the object of your desire. The act of looking brought discovery. Nothing was available at the click of a mouse. There was no Google. There was no eBay or Discogs. You wrote down references and off-handed comments and pursued them until you were exhausted. I’ve read countless biographies of writers and musicians, pen in hand, just for a citation of a favorite book or record. For me this process is invaluable and central to who I am as a collector. Though the desire to own and listen drives me forward, the true goal is learning, building context, historical understanding, insight into how these wonderful works of art came to be, and their creators. What I have come to understand in recent years, is that the internet is great for scratching the surface of a subject. It does well at offering indicators, but it rarely possesses a depth of knowledge on a subject. It can only lead you so far, and it’s ability to satiate often quells the process of circumstantial learning I have come to value. It’s also important to acknowledge that like books and records, which go out of print and become unobtainable, things disappear every day from the internet; blogs shut down, downloads disappear and inroads are erased. If you have books, like the one before us, on your shelf, not only are they more exhaustive than anything on the internet, but the information they possess will always be available to you, and those you share it with.
To give a little background, the bulk of my adult life (until a few years ago) was spent as a practicing and exhibiting artist. Since finishing graduate school in 2002, I have worked in commercial art galleries in New York and London, and in various museums around the world, to supplement my income. In other words, I’ve been on both sides of the fence in the world of Fine Art. I few years back, I came to the realization that my politics and beliefs about what Art was, were incompatible with the capitalist drive of the Art World. I knew I couldn’t beat it, and I didn’t want to join, so I stopped answering the calls from curators and galleries looking for paintings, and slowly shut down my studio. I love Art, and I still believe in its potential, but I have largely lost faith in the contexts that it enters today, and its ability to resist corruption by these. My love for Art and its ideas, and the glut of time freed up by the loss of my practice, drove me to look for some balance and reconciliation; to look for things that were Art, but managed to find a context free of influence. This search lead to me the wonderful worlds of Artist Books and Artist Records, which are both subcategories in the larger field of Artist Multiples.
Fine-artists have been making records for a significant proportion of the format’s history. Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubbuffet, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Tinguley and a number of other artists made early strides in defining the field of “Artist Records” in the first half of the 20th century. Over the ensuing decades, their efforts encouraged countless Fine-Artists to bring sound into their respective practices. Though the number of “Artist Records” is reasonably vast, there has been a relatively small amount of energy dedicated to the field, particularly when compared to other categories of artist multiples or sound recording. Including this book, there are only three publications, that I know of, dedicated to a historical understanding of the medium. There is Germano Celant’s The Record As Artwork from Futurism to Conceptual Art (1978), which is generally acknowledged as the first attempt to document and define the field, Vinyl – Records and Covers by Artists (2005) by Guy Schraenen, and again- the book we have before us. What is important to acknowledge about each of these books, is that they respectively present very different sets of terms for defining the field, and that this is partially the result of the fact that all three are exhibition catalogs. This means that they are the result of the modus and tastes of their curators, and the individuals from whose collections these objects were drawn. Chance and taste are far from credible academic research perimeters, but given the few resources we have, in this case we have to take what we’ve got!
From my point of view, the parameters for defining an “Artist Record”, as I have encountered them, are very loose and arguably thin. Some collectors are interested in collecting records with covers designed by or featuring images by artists. Andy Warhol’s cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico might sit in a collection with the 1962 Time Records release of Morton Feldman / Earle Brown with its Franz Kline cover, with no concern for their content. Some collectors are only interested in records featuring sound generated by artists known for making work in other mediums- painting, sculpture, etc; Dieter Roth, Martin Kippenberger, or Joseph Beuys for example. Some open their collecting to include “Art-Music”, and works involving various forms of poetics and sound text: Le Monte Young, Henri Chopin, or John Giorno. Some collectors embrace all of the above and more. My feeling is that if you want to capture the broadest stroke of what can be included in this field, Guy Schraenen’s Vinyl, offers the best summation and bang for your buck. It is vast, and comes close to establishing a catalog-raisonne of the field. But I also what to emphasize the quality and important differences of the book we have before us.
Records By Artists 1958-1990, is great and a valuable addition to an under discussed category of recordings. It is hands down the best introduction to this field out there. It’s perimeters are broad, but is largely focused on the content of the records, which is to say they are recordings of artists performing, v.s. covers designed by them. It includes some “Art-Music” and poetic/ text work. It’s concise without risking gross omissions, and beautifully designed, illustrated and laid out. When something is not included, it tries to point you in its direction. It will give any reader a good sense of what defines the field without overwhelming them, and tip them off to some incredible things in the process. From my point of view, this is an incredibly valuable resource, and were the reader to not explore beyond its contents, and please don’t be mistaken- there’s a hell of a lot more, they would still have been given a wonderful understanding and awareness of this field of recordings.
All that said, I do have small concerns with this book, which have more to do with the field of study than the book itself. Giorgio Maffei has clearly adopted the questionable and ambiguous set of perimeters for inclusion that have defined this field since inception. As I might expect of anyone in a progressive study, I hoped that he would attempt to establish a greater degree of clarity. Instead he is documenting a field as he has encountered it.
My concerns surrounding the classification of the “Artist Record”, are not based on what is omitted, but the determinants for inclusion. There are plenty of records for which there is no ambiguity, which is to say recordings by fine-artists, who in addition to their central practices, make sound. These always take up the central body of the field. I take some issue with the inclusion of avant-garde poetic/ text based recordings, not because I question the value, lack interest, or deny the contextual or historical associations of interdisciplinary fields, but because these works deserve their own dedicated study and not to be pegged onto a more convenient armature, particularly one which is not always sympathetic. It might be an act of semantics to question whether Henri Chopin was an artist or a poet, but to acknowledge the character of his recorded ventures (and practice at large) as operating in a different world than Joseph Beuys, is something I think is worth defining, particularly when the terms for classification are so loose. It risks stratification and omission. This is how histories are poorly written. That said, with a general lack of material relating to and studying sound/text work, I can be persuaded and sympathetic with its classification as a subset of the “Artist Record”, for fear of it being lost all together. What I deeply question is the presence of what is sometimes called “Art-Music”. Within the category of “Artist Record”, we almost always find the inclusion of an amorphous, scattered selection of records from 20c. avant-garde musicians and composers. Here the terms of inclusion are extremely vague. For example La Monte Young’s records are almost always present. Young is a composer and musician who had a loose connection to Fluxus and one of the founders of Minimalism. He has never made “Fine-Art”. Beyond the construction of The Dream House, which is a sonic enviroment, his output is clearly defined as music. I don’t have a fundamental issue with the inclusion of avant-garde music, particularly if I am willing to make allowances for sound/text work, in fact I would normally applaud it. The issue I have is based on how broad the field of avant-garde music is, and thus how the terms for inclusion are defined. If we are going to include composers and musicians associated with Fluxus (or Minimalism) as an extension of perimeters, then the omission of Tony Conrad and Henry Flynt from this book/ collection seems odd. It begs questions. Is it that Conrad only had one album released before 1990, and it was on a major label? If so, why are Yoko Ono records on Apple included? Is Flynt’s omission the result of the fact that his sole release prior to 1990 was on cassette? That seems picky. When looking further we find Charlemegne Palestine and Steve Reich have been chosen for inclusion, but not Phillip Glass or Terry Riley. This throws up more questions. Glass, Palestine, Reich, Riley and Young all had records released on Shandar (which was run out of an art gallery in Paris) around the same time. During this period, they were all very much part of the same avant-garde scene and assertions, yet here we find Young and Palestine’s Shandar releases included, Reich’s omitted (which notably has a cover image by Michael Snow, who has a number of entries in the book) and no sign of Glass or Riley at all. There is no rhyme or reason.
The kinds of questions I illustrate above, run rife through the field of study surrounding the “Artist-Record”, particularly with regard to the inclusion of 20c. avant-garde music. I’m aware that the time I have spent illustrating what I have, has bogged down this review with what might be seen as nit-picking, but if the people writing books don’t call these things out, and I don’t, who will? I am far from an academic in this subject, but I do know a great deal. I also happen to own a fairly high number of the rarest records included in this book, as well as owning a good number which have not been included. This gives me some context and insight. What I can tell you, is that this book is largely made up of the creme of what (for better or worse) is included in the field of the “Artist Records”. The rarest and the most expensive. I am not entirely convinced that this is by accident. Secretly I wonder if, of the five records mentioned on Shandar, the two that are included being the rarest and most expensive, is not part of the determining parameters for inclusion. If this is the case, this means that some of the worst aspects of record collector culture and the Art World are lying beneath the surface of the study of the “Artist Record”, these being elitism and the fetish of the rarefied object. None of this should be allowed to pass unchallenged.
All in all, as I said before, I think this is a fantastic and worthy book. If anyone is interested in the field of the “Artist-Record” this is simply the best place to start. It’s a wonderful reference and resource. The problems I site are problems with the field that the author adopts, rather than a problem with this book or his efforts. I just feel on a personal level, it’s important to call these into question and make a potential reader aware of them. Nothing is perfect; creating definitions and perimeters takes multiple sources and a high level of critical thought. For that reason alone, I can’t recommend this one enough. Let it be the beginning of a long sprawling puzzle.