Interview with Richard Minsky, Book Artist

Posted in: General Art

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Book Art

Richard Minsky has been described as a “pioneer” in the field of book arts whose work has “revolutionized the way we see books.” He founded the Center for Book Arts in 1974 and has worked for more than 25 years to gain recognition for the book arts and encourage artists in the field. The Center has produced over 140 exhibitions, while his work has been shown all over the country and remains in many public collections, including at the National Gallery of Art and The White House.

Mr. Minsky has received many fellowships, grants and awards of recognition, including from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1978, he was named US/UK Bicentennial Fellow by NEA and The British Council. In 1994, HarperCollins Publishers hosted the exhibition Richard Minsky: A 25 Year Retrospective.

A cum laude graduate in 1968 from Brooklyn College with Economics Honors, he was awarded a fellowship for graduate study at Brown University, where he received his Master’s degree in Economics. Mr. Minsky studied at the PhD level for two years with The Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research, and left academia to pursue his interests in bookbinding, art and music.

Dr. Minsky & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks

Mr. Minsky & His Career

Tell us about your career. Where did your professional work in the arts begin? How did you discover your talent for book arts?

I bought my first printing press in 1960, when I was 13, after taking Graphic Arts Shop. My homeroom class was a 15 percent commission sales team. I don’t believe in talent. If you have an affinity for something and keep doing it, you get better at it.

While in graduate school at Brown University (Providence, RI, 1968-9), I found Daniel Gibson Knowlton, the University Bookbinder, in the basement of the library. The second semester, I registered for an entire program of independent study and research and spent all day in the bindery. After graduating (MA Economics), I enrolled in a PhD program at The New School for Social Research in New York City.

The Hirshhorn Museum was then in storage in NYC, and I got the contract to do their binding (1969-70). I read all the art books. That was my art education. Then they needed a photographer, so I took that job and photographed 2,000 paintings and sculptures. Handling all that art, it started to rub off on me. I realized that there were no books in the museum that were art. So, I started making books that were art. In 1971, I made my first sale of a work I created as art.

You’ve been in the field of book arts now for more than 30 years. What are some of your proudest accomplishments and favorite projects and why?

In 1974, I had a one-man show at the Zabriskie Gallery. It was the first time a bookbinder had a 57th Street show, and that established that bookbinding could be art. Of course, the Center for Book Arts will rate as a major achievement. I started that in 1974, and now it owns a 5,000 sq. ft. space in Manhattan.

Many similar organizations have started in other cities based on this model, and now Book Art is recognized by millions of people as a significant art form. In 1976, Henry Geldzahler, Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commissioned a binding for their permanent collection. Two years later, I was named US/UK Bicentennial Fellow in Visual Art, and became the first book artist to represent the USA in an international cultural exchange.

Who or what have been the biggest inspirations and influences for your career?

Joseph Caputo was the Graphic Arts teacher at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills, Queens, who inspired me to become a printer. Daniel Gibson Knowlton was the University Bookbinder at Brown who inspired me to be a binder. My sister, Astra Wolf, inspired me to be an artist.

Your work has been shown all over the country and remains in many public collections, including at the National Gallery of Art and The White House. How important is this recognition to you, personally and professionally?

I keep some clippings up on the wall so that, when I forget who I am, they remind me that there are people out there that think what I do is important.

You founded The Center for Book Arts in 1974 and served as its president from ’74-’78 and again from 1990-98. What is the mission/vision of The Center?

To advance the art of the book in all its forms and expand the public awareness of book art. This includes presentation of historical and contemporary exhibitions, workshops, publications, classes, conferences, and the maintenance of a public workspace.

Has the organization accomplished what you originally envisioned?

No, not yet, but it is on schedule. Next, we are organizing a K-12 Curriculum Development Conference and Exhibition for 2002. If book art is to achieve what other art disciplines have – in terms of the number of artists, collectors, exhibitions, and general recognition – then we have to reach kids at the same age that they learn about painting, sculpture, and ceramics.

What are you doing now? Is there still more that you want to accomplish?

Now, I am working on an edition of bookworks about The Bill of Rights. You can see what is done so far at http://www.minsky.com/billofrights-edition.htm.

The Actual Work

What exactly do artists in the field of book arts do? Can you describe a typical day for a professional in the field?

There is no typical day. The field is diverse. It includes typographers, hand papermakers, printers, sculptors, conceptual artists, bookbinders, those that do all of this, and those that invent projects and have collaborators who do all the practical work.

Can you describe the actual process of creating book art? What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

It all depends on the kind of book art you are making. I use a lot of thread to tie pages together – although these days, I tie a lot of pages together with HTML. Some artists make cast resin books, others print them letterpress on handmade paper. Some use computers and inkjet or laser printers. Some artists create pages as reproduction art and photocopy them or have them printed offset and commercially bound. Others work directly on offset presses, and use them the way 19th century printmakers used stone lithography. There really is no limit.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Book artists are, for the most part, collaborators. Unlike garret artists, book people are usually dependent on working with a team to make a book. For example, one book can involve a writer, illustrator, papermaker, typographer, printer and binder. You meet many wonderful people in this field, and they tend not to be as egomaniacal as artists who don’t involve others in the creative process.

Other than The Center for Book Arts, are there professional organizations for the book arts? How important is the role that professional organizations play in the industry?

There are several: The Guild of BookWorkers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Typophiles, and lots of regional groups like the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the San Francisco Center for the Book, etc. There are professional and amateur organizations, and they play an important role in bringing people together, providing instruction and exhibitions, and creating a forum for the exchange of ideas.

Education Information & Advice

Your informal education in the book arts obviously did not hold back your career. If you could do it over again, would you pursue a formal education in book arts? Why or why not?

Yes, today I would pursue a formal education in Book Art. My training was over 30 years ago, when there was no such thing as a college Book Art curriculum. Now you can get your MFA in Book Arts from several institutions.

Why did you go after an MA in Economics? How has it benefited your career?

I love economics, and still write about it occasionally. As far as benefits, it has influenced the selection of books I’ve bound and exhibited, enabled me to organize a movement, and made my work more efficient.

You’ve already stated that you don’t believe in talent – but certainly one’s natural ability plays an important role in choosing a career. If you can, explain a little more about your point of view.

I wasn’t being glib. I had no natural ability that made bookbinding easy. I was just looking at some of my first bindings from 1968, and they are awful. The boards are all different sizes and shapes, with no square corners, and they fall over if you try to stand them up. But I loved it and persisted until I got better at it. I still love it 30+ years later and am still getting better at it

.

If someone has the artistic talent already, should they go to school for book arts and why?

Either a school or an apprenticeship is necessary, and, these days, I doubt that any master would take an apprentice who didn’t have several years of training. There are a lot of skills to learn, and thousands of years of book art history.

History may be the most important part-learning the forms that the book has taken over the course of history so the artist can create new works that build or comment on what has gone before, and don’t repeat it. There are many things to learn on your own, and reading books like Keith Smith‘s is a big help.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an art school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in book arts?

If the school does not have a book arts program, you won’t learn it. Look at the work the instructors do. Make sure the facilities have all the equipment you want to learn.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for book arts in the US?

The University of Alabama has an excellent MFA program in Book Arts, including bookbinding and letterpress printing. The Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester is great for Artist’s Books.

The teachers move, so a teacher you may want to study with could be at a different school next year. Peter Verheyen maintains a list of programs at http://www.philobiblon.com/links.htm. Cor Knops also has a great set of links: http://www.xs4all.nl/~knops/index3.htm.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

When you want to learn what that school has to teach, or when you need it to get a job.

Job Information & Advice

What are the best ways to get a job in the field?

Do very good work.

Are internships and apprenticeships the best place to start? How helpful are professional organizations and the Internet? What other resources or ideas could you suggest?

Internships and apprenticeships help you get immersed in the daily doing of it, so you find out if you really do like the environment and lifestyle of the field, or at least of certain practitioners. Listserves like Book_Arts-l have related job postings.

But I’m not really that interested in jobs and careers in art. Actually, I hate the concept. I come from a time when art came from passion and was a crazy thing to do. Now it’s a profession. I think if someone wants to be a professional, they should become a lawyer, not an artist. If you want to be an artist, then you’re probably in the wrong field. You become an artist because you have no choice; you are driven to perform acts of art. Maybe in book art you will never make enough money to live on, or even to buy your materials. So what?

Who are three of the most renowned artists in the world in the field of book arts right now? How did they get to the top of the profession?

Hedi Kyle is the conservator at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and is a renowned book artist who has created many new book forms that are used by thousands of artists. Keith Smith has created hundreds of artist’s books and bookworks, and has written several books on book structures for artists. Walter Hamady has published many books under the imprint “The Perishable Press” and taught a generation of students at The University of Wisconsin.

Take a look at The Center for Book Arts and look at some of the artists’ works. That will give a pretty good idea of what book art is about. Note that I’m just mentioning Americans here – there are book artists all over the world.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

The most important thing isn’t where you study – it’s how good your work is. I don’t hire anybody based on their schooling – I look at what they can do.

How is the job market now in the book arts industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

Like I said before-the great thing about this field is that you can create your own market. When I started the Center for Book Arts in 1974, there was no field called Book Arts. It’s a new and growing art movement, so there will be more in five years than now.

One of the things our K-12 conference will do is expand the number of job openings by encouraging administrators to institute a book arts curriculum. This should result in thousands of new jobs nationwide.

Industry Trends

You’ve alluded to some of the differences between book arts and the more mainstream artistic fields, like painting or sculpture. What are the challenges of being involved in a lesser-known art form like book arts? How can young artists overcome these difficulties?

The main challenge is that there is not a large sophisticated audience for the work. As a young artist this was my problem, so I founded The Center for Book Arts to create the audience. A young artist will find ways of overcoming whatever difficulties are there. And if there are no difficulties, the young artist better create some new ones!

What are some of the recent trends that you see in the field of book arts that could help students plan for the future?

Get certified as a K-12 teacher, if a job is what you want. If you want to make cutting-edge art, the field is wide open.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Yes. I get commissions and make sales through my website. Online discussion groups like Book_arts-l provide a forum for exchange of information and ideas.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in book arts?

Don’t expect to get rich. This is not a socially upward field like painting. It’s unlikely you’ll make the Biennale. Everyone doing book art is in it for love.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you have any questions for Mr. Minsky related to book art and/or this interview, please click here. Also, be sure to visit his personal website “The Book Art of Richard Minsky.”