There is a very special section of artworks known as artists’ books. These are artworks in the form of books rather than books about art. South African art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg began collecting in this field in the early 1970s. He recently donated this world-renowned collection – and the biggest in the southern hemisphere – to Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg. Part of the collection, which includes more than 3 000 artworks plus thousands of additional items related to the field of book arts, is on exhibition. The Conversation Africa’s Charles Leonard spoke to David Paton, co-curator of the exhibition.
How would you describe artists’ books?
Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books that explore and unpack their own material being; their bookness. In other words, artists’ books are self-conscious about their function, drawing attention to, as book artist and scholar Johanna Drucker states in The Century of Artists’ Books, the very conventions by which books normally efface their identity.
This reflexive awareness includes a book’s material, shape, structure and navigability. Thus, artists’ books are not sketchbooks, journals or portfolios and certainly not books about, or on, artists. Conventional notions of artists’ books usually include only objects that function as books and exclude sculptural objects, book-like objects, digital books and ephemera.
Give us a brief history of artists’ books.
The rise of artists’ books is a phenomenon of the 1960s and ‘70s in the US. It began with the democratic photographic multiples of Ed Ruscha such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).
Another maker of artists’ books at this time in Europe was German-Swiss conceptual artist Dieter Roth.
Before this, however, is a rich history of book arts which includes Livres d'Artistes which are fine, limited-edition books incorporating illustrations of famous texts or poems. An example is Henri Matisse’s etchings which accompany Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé and published in 1932.
Before this are the Futurist and Russian Constructivist books by, for example, El Lissitzky and Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd). Perhaps the most famous early artists’ book is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars’s Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) considered by many to be the first example of simultaneity in art.
Who is Jack Ginsberg?
Jack is an accountant by profession but is known for his philanthropic work and support of the arts in South Africa. His collection of artworks by Walter Battiss formed the majority of the 700 pieces on the exhibition “Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself” held at the Wits Art Museum in 2016.
Jack then donated the works to Wits Art Museum’s permanent holdings which now forms the nucleus of a major Battiss Archive. In 2017, a small portion of Jack’s internationally renowned collection of artists’ books was showcased at the “Booknesses: Artists’ Books from the Jack Ginsberg Collection” exhibition at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Despite this being only a small proportion of his collection, they constituted one of the largest exhibitions of artists’ books held globally. Jack is the director of The Ampersand Foundation a non-profit charitable trust. It supports residencies by South African artists and others working in the arts at the foundation’s apartment in New York.
The Foundation also supports local artists by buying their artworks and donating them to museums and galleries.
Describe the works he donated to Wits Art Museum?
Jack has been collecting artists’ books as well as books on the field, what he calls “the archive on artists’ books” since the 1970s. In 2014 he was one of 10 international collectors of artists’ books (and one of only three from outside of the US) invited to participate in Behind the Personal Library: Collectors Creating the Canon at the Centre for Book Art, New York.
The Wits Art Museum collection is the envy of private collectors, scholars, museums and academic collections globally. It consists of some of the cannon of international exemplars as well as contemporary work from North and South America, Europe, Russia and Asia, Australasia and Africa.
It is also the only collection of South African artists’ books anywhere in the world as Jack has, single-handedly, promoted and supported the book arts in this country. Books that Jack has donated to the Wits Art Museum include most of those mentioned in the “history of artists’ books”. It includes Kara Walker’s remarkable paper engineered Freedom, a Fable as well as books by African artists such as Atta Kwami and Marc Wonga Mancoba.
Jack’s extensive collection also comprises fascinating categories such as popular culture; fine bindings; presses and publishers; ephemera, theses and catalogues along with books with unusual materials (such as glass, cork and metal) and structures (such as pop-up and down and tunnel books).
What’s the significance of the donation?
Jack’s collection of artists’ books and, importantly, his archive, is considered by many to be one of the most comprehensive and accessible collections of materials devoted to the field of the book arts anywhere in the world. Together they constitute some 8 500 items donated to the university.
Making these items publicly available at Wits Art Museum as well as the opportunities for artists, designers and scholars to view and access these bookworks, objects and archival materials is an exciting, unique and timely gift to the South African art world.