The Artist Book Foundation: Books that keep artists alive

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NORTH ADAMS — Artists can share their work in museums, galleries and private collections around the world, but without printed pages devoted to their exploits, even some masters run the risk of their creations being forgotten or never truly understood by the masses.

"It's amazing how many really highly collected artists in major museum collections across the country as well as private [collections] — there is no record. There's no document of their life and work," said Leslie Pell van Breen, the executive director of The Artist Book Foundation.

According to Pell van Breen, very few, if any, major publishing houses are committed to printing monographs, surveys or catalogue raisonn s now. Consequently, many artists' stories expire when they do.

Based out of Building 13 on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's campus, The Artist Book Foundation is trying to change that. Since its founding in 2012, the nonprofit has sought to produce art books that blend scholarship with visuals, preserving artists' or exhibits' legacies in the process. Over the last several years, the foundation has produced 12 books, including monographs, historical surveys, exhibition catalogs and a catalogue raisonn , which is a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known artworks by an artist.

"They're the highest quality. They're for the long term. They're archival. They put the artist in context culturally, artistically, historically," Pell van Breen said. "They're what historians and collectors, scholars [and] auction houses will use as a main reference in the future. Most of [the artists] don't have anything this authoritative that's ever been published on them before."

In some cases, she said, museums or galleries may have written about an artist's exhibits there, but those are merely elements of a larger narrative that needs to be told about the artist's career.

"We bring all of the parts together," she said.

The foundation's latest project, "Adolf Dehn: Midcentury Manhattan," focuses on a lithographer and watercolorist who worked for major magazines, such as Vogue, and had an affinity for New York City that inspired much of his work. The watercolor from 1941 that graces the book's cover, "Spring in Central Park," also appears on many materials disseminated by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"But nobody knows who the artist [is]," Pell van Breen said.

At a book launch gathering on Saturday, Oct. 28, scholars Philip Eliasoph and Henry Adams, both of whom contributed to the work, were scheduled to appear. A gallery in the foundation's office pays homage to the late artist, who lived from 1895 to 1968 and contributed to multiple artistic movements.

"This artist has never had a proper monograph, never had a record, a document done of his life and work," Pell van Breen said. "And it's pretty expansive as well as impressive."

The executive director is a veteran of the art book world. After studying art history in college and working for dealers in Europe and Asia, Pell van Breen returned to the U.S. and eventually landed at Hudson Hills Press, where she was involved with all aspects of fine art book publishing. For example, Pell van Breen helped painter Stephen Hannock produce a monograph. He had been working with others for months before meeting with Pell van Breen.

"In about 20 minutes, she changed it from a pretty good book to an amazing monograph," Hannock said during a recent telephone interview.

"He just presented me with a room full of boxes, and I was like, 'You're joking, right?' And then sketchbooks, photographs," Pell van Breen recalled. "I said, 'OK, let's get started.'"

One problem was that the book's initial sections supported the notion that Hannock's works were predominantly landscapes.

"They're more like set designs for stories that are about to happen," the Williamstown-based artist said.

Pell van Breen altered that structure, including adding a part about Hannock's work with jazz musicians.

"I wasn't even going to put it in," he said.

The two went through slides of Hannock's work, with Pell van Breen stressing that one or two paintings could represent an entire period or focus area.

"We want to mention [your works] in context, but we can't show them all," Pell van Breen recalled emphasizing.

Hannock, who also appears in a book ("River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home") that the foundation produced about a 2015 exhibit at the Olana State Historic Site and Thomas Cole National Historic Site, was thrilled with his monograph.

"Leslie nailed the whole thing," he said.

At The Artist Book Foundation, the process begins with Pell van Breen and her staff assessing inquiries from artists, artists' estates, curators or historians. The foundation needs to be convinced that the artist's work merits a book-length examination.

"You can't just walk in and say, 'I want a book. I'm an artist,'" she said.

Once the foundation agrees to do the project, it solicits manuscripts from relevant contributors. Visuals are interspersed with text throughout; the foundation meticulously checks their color, resolution and positioning on the page to ensure that it portrays the artists' works accurately.

This content makes up the bulk of the book; back matter (supporting information, such as the artist's exhibition and collections history and a bibliography) is also included.

While art books can be expensive (the Dehn book costs $75), the foundation aims to make them accessible to a broader audience. The foundation donates 10 percent of each print run to "underserved public, art, and university libraries in the United States and abroad," according to its website. The foundation will also begin a biennial award program in which artists under 50 can have their first monographs published.

"I think it's important to identify emerging artists who may not be able to support a publication on their own without contributions or donations from others," Pell van Breen said.

Additionally, The Artist Book Foundation has as many as 10 books in the pipeline at various stages of production.

"I feel like in some ways we're in kind of catch-up mode," Pell van Breen said. "This work needs to be done, and ideally we can do it in a perfect world while there's some people alive who still know the artist if the artist isn't alive."

There are certainly plenty of candidates; Hannock appreciates that the foundation is celebrating those who persist but might remain a bit below the radar, in the ultra-competitive art world.

"[It's] allowing more of these survivors to be recognized," he said.


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