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The Best Books by Artists

recommended by Michaela Unterdörfer

Why should we read what visual artists have written? Michaela Unterdörfer, head of publishing for the art gallery Hauser & Wirth, argues that the visual and artistic language of artists makes archival material more immediate and compelling. Artists' testimonies refer not only to physical archives but above all to the mental archives of artists, their cultural and historic inheritance, which books like these bring to life.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Before we begin talking about books by artists, tell me about Hauser & Wirth’s publishing arm.

Our flagship bookstore and publishing headquarters is in Zurich. Hauser & Wirth has always sought out historic spaces in which to show art, and that is no less true of our publishing efforts as well. In Zurich, we actually occupy the former home of an historic publishing and bookstore, Oprecht & Hedling, founded in 1925. It was also the home of the legendary Europa Verlag imprint, established by the couple in 1933. Specialising in the publication of political writings of emigrant authors living in exile, Europa Verlag collaborated with titans of literature, philosophy, critical theory, and design—many of whom regularly gathered at the publishing house. So the space where I’m sitting now, my office, was the Publisher’s office once upon a time. Writers like Ernst Bloch and Thomas Mann, Golo Mann and Else Lasker-Schüler, a lot of really prominent thinkers and writers from Germany came by. It’s a great honour to have this space now and being able to reactivate it with books again. I’m a German art historian, so this is very meaningful to me, though it’s worth mentioning that we now publish everything in English.

“This is the age of social media and quick attention spans. Still, I think the desire for the tangible is lasting.”

I think the passion for books from the very beginning started with the owners and the founder of the gallery Iwan Wirth himself. Hauser & Wirth was founded in 1992 in Zurich as a family business with a global outlook. Iwan Wirth is a collector of books, and close friends with another art lover passionate about books, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. They have been close friends since their early youth, having met in the eastern part of Switzerland where they grew up.

Early on, from the age of 17 or 18, the two of them were constantly engaged in discussing books. Iwan supported some of Hans Ulrich’s early editorial projects. If the initial impetus was the result of this pair’s bookish enthusiasm, the mission today is really to spotlight our artists and their voices and bring them together with new reflections through scholarship. The gallery represents over 80 artists and estates who have been instrumental in shaping its identity over the past quarter century, and who are the inspiration for Hauser & Wirth’s diverse range of activities that engage with art, education, conservation and sustainability.

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One of our most important aims is to make the book both an essential tool and something that people like to have in hand. The tactile element is critical. We see this as a key part of what we can do as publishers, to really develop the highest quality content, not merely in writing but also in form, in the physical book as object.

Although it has subsided recently, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the death of print in the last decade or so. Interestingly, throughout the early period of e-books and online reading, one segment of the book market that has continued to flourish is the art segment, including books by artists, books about art and editions of art collections. I think this simply illustrates the importance of the physical format for readers, and perhaps particularly readers of art and architecture books.

We all are very conscious of the fact that we live in digital times, reflected in the way we interact with each other, our appetite for information and our desire to share it and share it fast. This is the age of social media and quick attention spans. Still, I think the desire for the tangible is lasting. Ultimately I really think people always want to be tactile. I see this particularly in our bookstores and book shops in New York, LA or now in Zurich. It’s striking to see how people interact with the physical—the space as well as the books. There is a need.

Let’s talk about your book selection, which presents a very eclectic array of artists and books they have written. I felt an affinity in all of the artists that you’ve selected. Aside from their written work, to a great extent all had artistic practices that were at the interstices between sculpture, architecture, performance, painting and draughtsmanship. Shall we start with the godfather of contemporary art, Marcel Duchamp, and his co-author Robert Lebel? 

I have been always very fascinated by understanding how other people live. Curiosity is a great motivator. And for me this is curiosity about the personal but also the public life of artists, creatives and intellectuals. These tend to be individuals highly sensitive to what’s happening in society and in the world. Artists’ writings, conversations, diaries and other records are something which have always intrigued me.

The first title I’ve selected is The Artist and His Critics Stripped Bare, which represents the correspondence of the artist Marcel Duchamp and Robert Lebel, who was a poet, novelist, essayist, and art historian who championed Surrealism. These are the letters of a seminal artist, Marcel Duchamp, who I think it’s no exaggeration to say is a legend. The title is a play on the name of an artwork by Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), which Duchamp considered his most important single work. For years, Duchamp and Lebel carried on a conversation in letters, a collection which is now in the Getty Research Institute archives. This correspondence has been very thoroughly edited and insightfully translated by Paul Franklin, whose annotated rendering of this conversation is masterfully presented.

“There are many contemporary artists who take Duchamp as a sort of role model. With the help of original source material, we can really approach the artist directly, unmediated by secondary sources.”

The exchange happened during a period where both the artist and the author of his first monograph, Lebel, were working on that very book. For me as a publisher it’s absolutely fascinating to witness the process firsthand via this correspondence. The two of them give shape to the concept, they discuss in intricate detail how to approach publishers—they eventually found one who would make it possible. Duchamp was very much involved in the whole concept of the book and in the layout, right down to the typeface, the placement of illustrations, the sequencing of the text.

Correspondence in the Getty archives shows just how very closely the two of them worked on this. At Hauser & Wirth we are currently working on a reedition of the out-of-print English version of the monograph that Duchamp and Lebel collaborated on, originally published in 1959. So it’s a bit like seeing through the lens of this correspondence how our new edition of the book might once again take shape, published as a facsimile that is accompanied with a coda publication that contextualises the monograph and the artist. It’s exciting really to get so close to Marcel Duchamp. We know him best through some of his ground-breaking art, and indeed anti-art gestures. It’s time we believe to reposition and show once again what his work was really about.

Postcards, telegrams, ephemera and other material from the artist’s archive all went into this collaborative effort and which can now be reprised as a facsimile. That strikes me as very Duchampian in spirit! Duchamp was an artist that for many years publicised himself and his achievements through the media of printed reproductions, certified copies. There’s a debate around the extent to which copies of his work are effective substitutes for the work itself. His entire career seemed to be a pranksterish meditation on the role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Which of course in publishing terms takes on yet another additional dimension entirely, in speaking about books by artists.

Absolutely. This book is not only a unique document—the ‘making of’ a monograph—but it is also very transparent about the challenges of approaching such a landmark artist, who was always playing with meanings and playing with his audience. Already in the language this comes across clearly. Duchamp and Lebel corresponded in French, and the text is replete with puns and wordplay. It’s not an easy task to translate these into English and I think Franklin did a fantastic job with it, capturing Duchamp’s very distinctive creative voice.

I do hope that this book will gain another audience, even beyond Getty’s distribution channels through the facsimile edition of Marcel Duchamp that we are working on. The facsimile is a work of great passion, encompassing also contributions by Lebel’s son Jean-Jacques, who edited several of the component texts, and whose essay from the Getty’s book is reprinted in the facsimile’s coda. The primary source material featured in The Artist and His Critic Stripped Bare is of the highest quality, and I wanted this in my selection of books to make this visible to more people.

He’s arguably the most important artist of the 20th century, and entirely relevant for artistic questions that we’ve carried into the 21st century as well.

Although if you ask people why, they hardly know! We really want to continue this conversation. What is the role of Duchamp for contemporary art? There are many contemporary artists who take him as a sort of role model. With the help of original source material, we can really approach the artist directly, unmediated by secondary sources.

To move beyond the urinal, as it were. Tell us about your second of your books by artists.

My second selection is another example of an artist who is remembered for a single defining work, but whose thought is much more extensive and interesting that she is often credited for. In this case, we are talking about Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea cup, designed in 1936. She has also been somewhat limited to this unique gesture, perhaps the single most notorious Surrealist object. It’s in the very important collection of the MoMA, and seen by so many people in New York, but there is a whole life beyond this work that cannot be taken for granted.

What comes across in her correspondence is something that perhaps isn’t so readily recognised in discussions around Surrealism. She really manage to stand out in what was a very male-dominated circle of extroverts and self-promoters. She herself was something of a phenomenon in her lifetime.

I’m glad you mentioned this. She came to Paris when she was only 18 years old, a beautiful young woman who went on to have love affairs with famous Surrealists like Max Ernst—and also with Marcel Duchamp, which we only learned about after her death. It was important for me to include this book in the list, even though it’s in German and has not yet been translated.

“This is at the very top of my wish list of books crying out for an English translation”

This is at the very top of my wish list of books crying out for an English translation. It really opens up to us the fascinating world of Paris in the first part of the twentieth century, and gives us a wholly new perspective on it. In Paris she was an integral part of artist communities that included Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray and others. This book is the first substantial collection of personal letters that she sent and received. It also includes a beautiful facsimile of an autobiographical album she created depicting her life from her childhood until the late 40s.

This book has won awards for its design, realised by Swiss design team Bonbon, and it really is a most beautiful ‘coffee-table’ book. They found a wonderful balance between a strong visual language that guides the reader to understand the different voices represented here. All the letters have been generously annotated by the editors, one of whom is the artist’s niece Lisa Wenger, together with art historian Martina Corgnati. Both did a truly amazing job, sorting and annotating all the letters with great intelligence and care. The idea of altering the background of each page of the album in the facsimile section with multi-coloured pastel shades has been gorgeously realised. The change of paper underlines the precious nature of the original documents, and the different levels of footnotes and comments from the editors is clearly distinguished from the original compelling visual language. It’s a great success.

An English translation feels like it would be very timely. There appears to be something of a reappraisal of women’s role in the Surrealist movement, highlighting artists like Dorothea Tanning or Leonora Carrington, among other books by artists of the time.

The important element here is not to focus on women artists to the exclusion of their (often white) male counterparts, but to show a more complete picture of the history of modern art. This is why we are so curious about these women’s visions and voices. We are motivated to learn more about these lives. And this is also why I have chosen the Diaries of Eva Hesse. The Diaries represent just one book among a number of hers that we might have spoken about. Her work was a pivotal moment in 20th-century art, and I cannot overstate the importance of the Diaries in understanding this.

It’s worth noting the huge interest we received when we first published this book, which is now to be released as a second edition. The interest in her art, her life and her words is very strong, and I would situate these Diaries in a larger context of other artists’ writings from the 1960s and 70s—think of Donald Judd’s landmark writing about art between 1959 to 1975. This has also been recently reprinted, as have the studio log notes—Notes from the Woodshed by Jack Witten. I see all these titles having a massive impact and finding an amazing audience for their different perspectives on understanding the social and artistic environment of the time.

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Now this commentary is being complemented finally by the perspectives of women artists working at the time, and other hitherto underrepresented artists such as African American artists, Latinos and others. Taking all of this together clearly gives us such a close reading of these times, such a nuanced view of how art was shaped and how communities interacted. The legacy of this period is still very much present in work being made by contemporary artists today, so this context is incredibly important. That’s just a part of this artistic, intellectual and social economic milieu, in this case the United States and in particular, New York.

I took Hesse’s Diaries as one example also for the work we are doing, since I am happy to see that our own program of artists’ writings is growing. We are currently working on a book bringing together interviews and lectures and writings of Phyllida Barlow, for example. Aside from her art, she taught for many years, and her lecture notes are so clear and smart and eloquent, discussing her own work, the process of making it and her influences. But she also has an unusual generosity and breadth of interest, which shows in her texts. Her thinking and talking and writing showcases to a great degree the work of other artists. It’s not that an artist has to circulate words about their own creativity necessarily, but we learn so much through the eyes of artists about what surrounds them, the social and creative context in which they’re working, and the very process of being an artist, the challenges that are involved in leading a creative life.

We’ve asked elsewhere on the site to what extent it’s important for artists to be self-reflective—in writing or in other media. A hallmark of some of the more interesting artistic biographies is this element of self-critique or self-analysis that comes with keeping a journal. Hesse kept journals throughout her life, conveying her anxieties or feelings. There’s some very interesting passages about family and friends from the artist’s archives, and critically about other artists who were working at the time. Once again, incredibly valuable primary source material in these books by artists. 

It’s also worth noting that these Diaries were not originally intended for publication. Reading them is a very intimate experience. The self-analysis from childhood onwards, the drama of her life is very much found in her texts. It was an integral part of elaborating and working through considerable self-doubt. She succeeded in contributing to the discussion of material and the performative process of material in 20th century sculpture in a way that paved the road for subsequent generations of artists to explore. We now recognise her importance, although she was in fact very unsure, driven by a strong ambition but constantly questioning the meaning of her work and methods. She created artworks that are masterpieces, which changed the understanding of what sculpture is, and she did so in a male-dominated context, again. There were few opportunities at the time for someone like Hesse to show work and she really succeeded. Hers was a very big step in the history of 20th century culture.

Let’s move on to Robert Voit. The Alphabet of New Plants at first appears to be a photo album of botany, a catalogue of beautiful flowers. In fact that what we observe isn’t necessarily what it seems. 

This book is at once a sort of archive and index of flowers, but one understands quite quickly in looking at them that there is something wrong about them. The flowers don’t appear to be completely right. Once you look closely you understand that the contours of a stem, for example, are clearly made of plastic, or that the structure is man-made fabric and not really the product of nature. One is prompted immediately to reflect on the dynamics of real and fake in cultural production. The reason I chose this book however is because here again we have an artistic reflection on another book. Voit makes direct reference to an artist book by Karl Blossfeldt, whose original Alphabet of Plants (or Urformen der Kunst in German) published in 1929. Blossfeldt was one of the pioneers of the ‘new objectivity’ movement. This book became a best-seller the time and it’s still a sort of Bible for photographers. Robert Voit studied as a master class student of the renowned photographer Thomas Ruff at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and dedicated himself to recurring questions of authenticity and artificiality.

“We live in a world in which ‘fake’ has become an important term, surrounded by fakes and imitations of all varieties.”

Represented in this book is an entire history of contemporary photography, though Voit is a conceptual photographer who really develops his projects, often to the extent of producing an artist book, which in this case is a close study of these themes which also becomes an historical project. I chose this book because I wanted to include an esteemed contemporary artist, and consider how his work reflects on art. He’s using his inheritance of the new objectivity of the photography from the 20s and considering many of the same themes, only with fake flowers. Where Blossfeldt had done this with naturally occurring plants, an index of natural plants, Voit translates it into a contemporary document with manufactured objects, plastic flowers that may appear rare or precious but which are available to buy just about anywhere. These decorative objects, made in China more often than not, under his lens as represented in these photographs, become something really fascinating and alluring and beautiful, but not straightforwardly so. It’s interesting to reflect that after all that it’s not only the history of art, but the future itself is built out of fragments of the past that we inherit. Artists like Voit recapture the spirit of previous artistic movements and then transform them into something contemporary.

And highly relevant meditations about the tension between nature and mass-produced imitations of nature—something that we confront almost on a daily basis in our consumer-driven societies.

We live in a world in which ‘fake’ has become an important term, surrounded by fakes and imitations of all varieties. I chose this book also as an exemplary artist’s book, whereby the bound object becomes a prized cultural artefact in its own right. His is a really careful evaluation of each detail and component of making a book, and how these elements come together so really carefully chosen—from the foreword of the book which references the historic foreword that appeared in Blossfeldt’s original Alphabet of Plants to the tipped-in image on the cover, the beautiful fabric binding and embossing. This really is a beautiful book. It’s exemplary for me how content and form come together in this object.

The final book in your selection of books by artists was a wonderful discovery for me. My parents visited Tehran on their honeymoon in the late 60s. I grew up to tales of this remarkably cosmopolitan city with fascinating people from all over the world, almost as if they were episodes of the Arabian Nights. I was reminded of them in reading about Monir, who came from exactly that kind of setting, but then later went on to hang out in New York with artists like De Kooning, Pollock, Larry Rivers and others. Another very intriguing art historical figure, and arguably overlooked. 

It has taken her a long while to begin getting the recognition she so deserves. Monir was born in 1924, and spent much of her life in exile, though more recently she had moved back to Tehran to work there. In her long life she was a key part of New York based artist circles, but what I find so interesting in her work is how she revisits the visual archive of the Islamic culture she was born and grew up with, and how she translates this into a contemporary artistic language. In a way not dissimilar to Robert Voit, her work poses the question: what is the legacy and the heritage an artist starts with? How do these become important elements in an artistic practice? In Monir’s case, this is the craftsmanship and artisanal artistic practice of mirror mosaics and painted glass that have featured in the patterning of Islamic Art. She then translates these historic visual references into artwork that relates to modern Western geometric abstraction. She’s really part of a wide discussion on pattern, on decoration and abstraction. So I chose to include her because I think hers is certainly an extremely interesting life, but her work really captures ideas of cultural inheritance that are really critical for understanding the art historical context of artworks. Here again I really like the way the book was produced. It’s inspiring to read about a life and art that goes beyond our standardised, Western-focused art history.

“It’s not that an artist has to circulate words about their own creativity necessarily, but we learn so much through the eyes of artists about what surrounds them, the social and creative context in which they’re working, and the very process of being an artist, the challenges that are involved in leading a creative life.”

There is a global dialogue to explore here. At Hauser & Wirth we recently started work on a book about the Los Angeles-based painter Luchita Hurtado, a Venezuelan-born American artist. Shifting our focus momentarily from the Middle East of Monir to the Americas, it’s interesting to note that Hurtado is one of these extraordinarily long-lived artists—she celebrates her 100th birthday this year—whose life is a kind of artistic testament. Late in life she is finally receiving attention as we increasingly come to the realisation that it’s important to speak with individuals and record their history. Although associated with a vast network of internationally renowned artists and intellectuals throughout the decades, including Mexican muralists, Surrealists, and members of Dynaton (and having lived in New York, Mexico City and San Francisco), Hurtado’s practice always remained an independent—and until recent years, largely private—pursuit.

Oral history is becoming something that is seeing increasing interest and understanding, and relates very closely to the sort of projects that somebody like Hans Ulrich Obrist is driving forward. It is absolutely critical in my view to make sure we don’t lose these stories. Artists who have lived an entire century have so much they can tell us about their artistic circles, their practice and the society in which they lived. This element of testimony is for me very interesting and very important. It runs through all of the books in my selection. Being witness to an extraordinary century, expanding our understanding of what actually transpired during that century helps us to enter the 21st century with our eyes wide open. We are realising that often we’ve had a somewhat blinkered view of what’s happened in the last hundred years.

Hans Ulrich Obrist has described Monir as “a role model for the artists of the 21st century”, which I take to mean someone that, as you mentioned, reintroduces us to the contemporary relevance of an ancient craft, for example, one that was traditionally handed down from generation to generation, but then merging it with in her case modernist forms, a contemporary idiom or style that links what happened in the distant past with what’s happening currently.

It’s about languages. Visual and artistic languages. It’s not that these languages become uniform over time or in contact with other cultures. They keep their local identity. If we open our minds to the work of an artist like Monir we see how rich and relevant it is today. This book was published to coincide with a show of hers at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015. The rationale for my selection was really to make archives more accessible to a wider audience. Each of these books makes archival material immediate and compelling. And by that I meant not only the physical documents and actual physical archives that exist, but above all the mental archive of artists. These are all books that give individual artists—living and long gone—a voice.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

April 16, 2020

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Michaela Unterdörfer

Michaela Unterdörfer

Michaela Unterdörfer is an art historian and philologist. From 1997 to 2000, she was the curator at Kunsthalle Nürnberg and director of the Hauser & Wirth Collection from 2000 to 2005. She is the author and editor of numerous publications on contemporary art. She is the director of Hauser & Wirth Publishers and lives with her family in Zurich. Upcoming titles from Hauser & Wirth Publishers include: Richard Jackson, a career-spanning monograph on the work of the ground-breaking artist, authored by art historian John C. Welchman; Rita Ackermann: Mama, featuring the artist's complete body of ‘Mama’ paintings; and a reprint of Eva Hesse: Diaries.

Michaela Unterdörfer

Michaela Unterdörfer

Michaela Unterdörfer is an art historian and philologist. From 1997 to 2000, she was the curator at Kunsthalle Nürnberg and director of the Hauser & Wirth Collection from 2000 to 2005. She is the author and editor of numerous publications on contemporary art. She is the director of Hauser & Wirth Publishers and lives with her family in Zurich. Upcoming titles from Hauser & Wirth Publishers include: Richard Jackson, a career-spanning monograph on the work of the ground-breaking artist, authored by art historian John C. Welchman; Rita Ackermann: Mama, featuring the artist's complete body of ‘Mama’ paintings; and a reprint of Eva Hesse: Diaries.