Selects from The Jack Ginsberg Artists’ Books Collection

SOUTH AFRICAN ARTISTS  |  AFRICAN ARTISTS  |  ART BOOKS  |  OBJETS D’ART  |  COLLECTIONS

BY NATHALIE VIRULY

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Peter Clarke | ‘Hoe Lyk ‘it’ | 
Friday 20 March 2010 | Artist’s book, mixed media on paper, cloth and paper binding, paper-covered box

Over the last 50 years, Jack Ginsberg has collected artists’ books of every kind. His collection comprises of artists’ books themselves, books about artists’ books; books made of glass, metal, cork, wood and bone. Some pop up while others invert. Some are compact and others fold out into meter-long concertinas of folded ideas. An artists’ book has no exact definition, however Ginsberg uses the Duchampian notion whereby “Art is what an artist says is art” or “An artist’s book is an artist’s book if a book artist considers it to be an artist’s book.”

'When I saw the first artist’s book, it was a kind of fusion of the art monograph (art) and the physical object (sculpture) as it was a three-dimensional thing. I knew I was hooked.' - Jack Ginsberg

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Pippa Skotnes | ‘Sound from the Thinking Strings:
A Visual, Literary, Archaeological and Historical Interpretation of the Final Years of /Xam Life’ | Cape Town: Axeage Private Press, 1991

Ginsberg, an accountant by trade, began collecting in the mid-1960s, an innocent obsession with a particular interest in African sculpture. Around that same time, the artist’s book began to change. They diverged from the livres d’artistes that Joan Miró and Picasso published in the 1900s, given a conceptual subversion. Acts of self-publishing or self-exhibiting . Artists such as Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha proposed the book as an independent entity; not as a historical accompaniment to an exhibition or curatorial gimmick. The book became the work itself; often something to be democratically shared, a sequence and somewhat romantic in its cheap and almost nasty assemblage.

Beyond perfect timing, and a sensitivity for these objects, Ginsburg’s collection is impeccable for the detail of its catalogue. There is a sense of order in and amongst all the chaos – chaos of definition, material, makers and oddly shaped things – that is perhaps something to do with his day job. The system goes beyond title, author, publisher, and dates. For him, “it has as much to do with the structure, the means of making the book, the techniques, the binding, the stitching, the marbling, and the paper. Sometimes in a book you can have twenty collaborators. In my digital bibliography, I name all twenty of them. One can search a name and might come up with the person who made the paper in a book and only that”.

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Abdoulaye Ndoye | ‘Poetry’ | 2009 | Artist’s book, paper, pigment, leather

At present the collection resides at the Wits Art Museum at the Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts. It holds about 3500 artist’s books and is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Roughly 400 of these books are made by South African artists. The works of William Kentridge, Pippa Skotnes, Peter Clarke and Stephan Erasmus are but a few that feature and narrate something of the national landscape. There are also lesser known artists and a few zines. Each says something in its materiality and content; however for Ginsberg the former still takes preference. In an interview with the Smithsonian Library’s Christine Mullen Kreamer, Ginsberg alludes to Receiver – an artist’s book featuring poems by Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska and images by William Kentridge – and a  conversation between Anne Kentridge and himself. He quotes, Anne, you cannot read these poems here. If you want to read the poems, buy the Penguin paperback. We are now looking at an object, a sculpture, a work of art. We can look at the binding, the paper, and especially the illustrations. The text is important, but there is not enough time today to read the book”. 

I like Ginsberg’s honesty; the note that in a competition of literacies or perhaps time, the visual tends to win. And so a library of sculpture or maybe “picture books” feels all too relevant in our optic modernity. These works are dimensional and intriguing; and thanks to Ginsberg’s meticulous obsession, they find new meaning between text and image; what it means to read and to be read. The Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts is an archive worth exploring for its variance and local imaginings. You can access these books online at South African Artists’ Books ( www. theartistsbook.org.za)

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