If you love indie books — especially those focused on the visual rather than the written — and you ever find yourself in New York City, one must-visit shop is Printed Matter. The Printed Matter storefront is the physical presence of Printed Matter, Inc, a non-profit dedicated to promoting artists’ books and educating the general public about what these books are and why they’re important.
What is an Artists’ Book?
The definition of “artists’ book” can change depending on whom you ask. Good old Wikipedia says artists’ books are “works of art realized in the form of a book,” while the renowned Victoria and Albert Museum defines them as “books made or conceived by artists,” both very open definitions that show in their very simplicity how difficult this thing is to define. In fact, the Book_Arts-L discussion list — one of the oldest books arts communities online — had an entire lengthy thread where members tried to pin down what exactly the term covers. It’s an interesting record of the many different ways of approaching the subject, and you can read the whole thing on the Book Arts Web website.
One could therefore expect to find a very large range of items in the Printed Matter store, which is exactly the case. The definition that Printed Matter itself uses is, “publications that have been conceived as artworks in their own right.” So browsing the shelves of this shop turns up everything from small photocopied zines, to one of a kind art objects, to books that look like they might have come off the presses at a large multi-national publisher (though they probably have not).
This shop is important to readers and creators of indie-published books because every volume on the shelves, from coffee-table books to photocopied pamphlets, is there because it was made by an artist. These are not books about art; they are art. Self-published works, as long as they are visual expressions of the creator’s work, are not only welcome, but sought after. Photography, illustration, design, and other art can all be found at Printed Matter.
A statement on the Printed Matter website shows best how much their philosophy is in line with indie publishing:
The simplicity of a book that is small in scale, costs relatively little to produce, and is easily replicable allows the work to flow outside of mainstream channels and reach an audience without institutional or commercial consent. The artists’ book offers a criticism of and alternative to these systems by circumventing them.
If that isn’t exactly what a lot of independent writers and artists are doing, then I don’t know what is.
Best of all, you can still see what Printed Matter has available, even if you can’t make it to New York City. They maintain an extensive online catalog on their website, allowing people to browse and buy right from the web. And if you’re an artist interested in getting your work out to a wider audience, you can also find information on how to submit your own artists’ books.