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Interview with Steven Leiber

At year's end, KQED partner Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions, republished some of its best interviews from 2010. This article was originally published December 27, 2010.

The following excerpted conversation is from an interview that took place on October 9, 2010, at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions in conjunction with Chris Duncan's Eye Against I exhibition there.

Brian Andrews: Welcome to Bad at Sports! I'm Brian Andrews, here with Patricia Maloney and Duncan MacKenzie.This time, we're with Steven Leiber, who runs Steven Leiber Basement and deals in art books, editions, collectables, and art-related emphemera.

Steven Leiber: I'm a private art dealer, but in addition to selling art, I sell art books, artists' books, and documents concerning contemporary art. I also publish editions under the imprint Right Editions. I do appraisals and archive appraisals. I consult with two collections, and spend some time working at the California College of the Arts as well.

Patricia Maloney: Here in the Bay Area, you are most strongly associated with the ephemera that you work with. So I want to start by asking about how you found yourself dealing in artists' books and ephemera.

SL: I initially started in the art world just selling regular works, photographs, and prints at a gallery here that no longer exists. At the same time, or soon thereafter, I was also going to law school. Then I had a small gallery of my own for a short period of time selling paintings, drawings, prints, and things like this.

I bought a collection in the late '80s that came from an artist, Jeff Berner, who was associated with Fluxus. He had a Flux shop; I'm not sure how functional it was. What I mean is, I'm not sure it was a shop. It wasn't clear to me that he sold very many editions. Granted, not that many Fluxus editions were sold between 1961 and 1978, so this guy had multiple copies of this or that edition. In addition, this collection also had a great deal of material concerning visual poetry, concrete poetry, and a certain amount of Beat and countercultural material from the '60s. In the process of making sense of what this collection was -- I mean it's a bit of an exaggeration to call it a collection. It was twenty-one boxes of material without an index in no order, just twenty-one boxes of crap.

And I think I spent approximately a year with a colleague making sense of it. In the process, it became clear to me that what was most exciting was not the most obvious material, not the things that I actually went to buy, which was primarily the Fluxus material; it was the other things. For Fluxus events or festivals, there wasn't necessarily a thing that would have come out of the exhibition. You didn't buy a painting; you showed up, saw what went on, and in time, what becomes the collectable aspect of it is the flyer, the poster, the relic, the printed material that was generated from these events.

So I guess my interest in artist ephemera specifically, and art ephemera in general, grows out of that inquiry.

(In 2001), I curated a show, Extra Art: Survey of Artists' Ephemera, at the Wattis, along with a publication published by the Wattis and Smart Art Press. I essentially went deeper into that territory. I've stayed more or less constant with an interest in that kind of material, both as a collector and a dealer. I have an archive of the material that I deal in. In fact, at a certain moment in time, especially within the areas of artists' books, artists' ephemera, and Fluxus, I was selling only duplicates. I wanted to retain copies of these things.

PM: When you're looking at ephemera, what are the particular things that you focus on for your own collection? Because it encompasses everything, including announcements, postcards, and posters.

SL: I distinguish art ephemera from artist ephemera. In artist ephemera, the artist specifically informs the design of the thing itself, or they've come up with the idea of it. The rest of the ephemera I just refer to as art ephemera. And I collect both -- I keep it because I have artist files on maybe a thousand artists -- but my primary interest is in the artist ephemera.

In the process of doing the Extra Art show, there was a very specific way I went about determining what material fell into this category. I contacted the included artists when they were alive and were contactable. In other cases, I worked from books that already included this type of material, such as their monographs.

PM: And is it through the artists that you primarily acquire this material, or do you also go through galleries?

SL: I specialize in mostly material from the '60s and '70s for my collection. The material from the '80s, '90s, and present, I get when I go to gallery shows in Western Europe and America. I also receive the mail of three different collectors who either forward the mail to me or give it to me in bags every so often. I buy this type of material wherever you can imagine buying it. There have been collectors that I've bought hundreds of invitations, posters, and bits like this from.

There was a collection in Los Angeles that was put together by Charles Goodstein and his wife. They were consistent collectors; they were in the art world in L.A. from the '60s until now, and somebody told the wife to call me because there aren't that many people interested in this type of material.

They offered it to me. Basically the woman had various cabinets full of this material, and she just wanted to get rid of it. I purchased a large group of things at that point. Over the years, there have been many other collections that I found such material in. Big blocks of material coming from art historians and dealers. I bought duplicates from various museums. So anywhere you think you could buy such material, I've bought it.

PM: I understand that impulse to hold on to the announcements. When I started going to galleries as an undergraduate, I collected the cards from every single show. Initially it was for a class, and we had to show that we attended the exhibition, but it became almost a compulsion. I wanted to remember every exhibition that I went to by holding on to the postcard or the announcement. There was a moment when we were moving from New York to San Francisco that I had something like seven banker boxes full of these announcements. My husband was like, "Really? These have to come? Why do these have to come? What do you do with these?" But it feels like it's part of my history as someone engaged in the art world. Now many galleries create just an email or a Facebook announcement.

SL: I think that's why some people have held on to such material. But I wouldn't say that that's my interest. Although I collect possibly far too much material, I wouldn't say that I'm looking to get every document that's been published. In terms of the material that goes into these artist files, I'm even more focused on getting things like press releases, because they have more use value, or how I use it.

For example, with students, I'm often pulling out artist file material for them to review for, say, an essay on a particular artwork. I provide the students with the research material to write their essay. There's basic information in these artist files. I keep clippings, photographs of works that I've sold or that were offered to me, price lists, as much documentation as I can or that I have access to, or that comes to me on the artist that I'm covering. I would say that for the type of material, I'm using it.

In terms of the artist ephemera, it's another thing. I view those things as essentially being artwork-like production. If I had another kind of place, a different kind of housing for the material that I have, these things would be relegated to a different position than they are in my present archive. They're primarily in flat files or file folders.

PM: What are the parameters that you set around whose work you're collecting? Because you're covering a pretty broad range of forty to fifty years at this point.

SL: In terms of the material from the '60s and '70s, it's pretty simple. In terms of the artwork that I have in my collection -- not artist ephemera, but the artworks that I have in my collection -- it's mostly multiples, works on paper, drawings, and prints. I've collected Fluxus, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and Conceptual Art in some depth. It's not a huge collection, but I've got about 125 works. Obviously there's a certain number of players that are associated with Fluxus, with Minimalism, Conceptual Art, etc. The names are known. And that is the list I'm working off of essentially.

With regards to how I even got involved with documentation at all, I was using exhibition catalogues and monographs to find works that I was selling in the secondary market. And in the process of going to all the galleries that might have what I'm looking for, I was also going to all the bookstores. That's when I was picking up these catalogues that we never saw in America. They had different types of information. At the same time, I became more involved with or aware of artists' books.That's how it built and how the expanse of artists that I'm collecting became identified.

SL : From the '80s to what's going on now, I would say it's based on my understanding of what's going on in the various cities that I know. I feel like I have a clue as to the galleries that are maybe more germane in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, and the same thing in many of the European capitals. So while I don't know each one of the artists' works, if I'm getting a card or a poster from Greengrassi, in London, or Peter Pakesch, in Austria, I have a sense of the lineage of these galleries, and some of the artists they show. If I get a document from one of these places, I'm more likely to archive it in some way.

Duncan MacKenzie: As a secondary dealer, I imagine that some of the stuff you have comes and goes, depending on your activity, but this large artist collection seems to have some other life on its own that you draw from. What sort of future or use do you see this collection that you're so carefully building having? Or has in the world?

SL: If you're speaking directly to the documentation -- the art ephemera files -- I would say that I don't have a specific plan for it at the moment. I'm still using it. For the moment I can still house it. I don't feel I spend enough time maintaining it, but to catalogue it, I'd have to hire somebody for some years to do it. And I couldn't afford to maintain it in that way, and I don't have the time at present to catalogue it. I think if it ever does reach a catalogue state, then I think it has different access points. I think it could be useful to others if it was an online archive.

For my '90s collection of multiples -- that's another collection that I have -- I was very conscious about collecting all the documents that tied to the artists in that collection, because I always conceived of doing an exhibition that combined all of it. I'm not sure how often you have seen exhibitions lately that incorporate both works and documentation of historical shows. Certainly in Europe, it's become much more prevalent that institutions are showing both types of material simultaneously.

I'm going a little bit away from the question, but there seems to be a move toward this material. I think that newer museums don't have this artist file material, and certain institutions that did have this material jettisoned it at some point for various reasons. It does require a lot of maintenance, and I could see how it doesn't happen these days with budgets. It's not clear to me that all researchers use this type of material. So I could see how it would be relegated to a less important position.

PM: It operates as this alternative but concurrent history to the majority of what one sees in the museums and institutions. Have there been things that you've teased out from your material that present an alternate view on the prevailing sensibility around an artist's work, what they're doing, or what their intentions are?

SL: Certainly the stories. What was so fascinating from the get-go in doing the Extra Art exhibition was the fact that a lot of these bits and pieces of paper have very particular stories. And when one was in contact with these artists and when you heard these stories, all of a sudden you viewed their practice in a very different way.

There aren't that many artists that see these as other spaces -- the exhibition card space, the poster that they could have, or anything else they dream up that, as spaces that could be used to present work, which is what essentially they did, just not the kind of work that is for sale. Often these things were the key to the exhibition, where the fascinating aspect of the project was -- not always the design of the works, but the stories.

PM: This is material that's supposed to exist outside and beyond the exhibition itself. It's described as ephemera, but essentially it's the exhibition that is ephemeral, and this is what survives. And when you organize exhibitions of this material you're bringing it back into that exhibition space. What is your thought process on presenting it so it doesn't just get swallowed up by that overriding sense of the exhibition?

SL: I guess it completely depends on the specific kind of exhibition. My thought in doing a survey exhibition that's only covering this type of material was to make otherwise unknown material known. It was that simple. There was no larger premise to it. It wasn't how something that was ephemeral, that basically was intended to announce a show plus more, would end up thirty years later being an exhibition in itself, and possibly the change of value of that type of material.

I thought that there was enough to let it be known that this type of material exists, and that these sorts of artists, besides making a floor piece in copper, also spend a great deal of time thinking about what was going on the invitation card.

So in terms of exhibitions that incorporate this kind of material now, as only an aspect of the material that's shown, I feel that it contextualizes what's in the show. You might say it sets the stage and it provides texture to an exhibition that otherwise might be just what you're always expecting to see. These things provide the surprise, and sometimes provide a key to the work, or a key to understanding the work in a different way.

PM: I produce an online art journal, and it exists online in part because it's much more affordable than producing something in print. And it creates a network of distribution. The (Bad at Sports) podcast exists because it happens online. But that starts to undermine archives of art activities. Things can be digitally archived, but there's this loss of the physical archive. I am curious to hear what you think about that.

SL: For me it certainly impacts the situation. When there's less of this type of material being produced, I'm certainly going to have less, because I'm certain that I'm not going to be archiving what you're doing. I'm not keeping my emails even if they're from artists. When we're producing editions, I'm not printing out every single email I get and putting it into a dossier.

But this is a major issue. You're absolutely right. There are certainly conferences that are going on right now concerning exactly this. I guess if there is no more material like this produced then I can just catalogue what I've got. Not likely.

DMcK: It also seems that in this age of digital advertising for exhibitions, there has been at least a little bit of resistance. I think a lot more people are going back and intentionally producing posters for shows.

Primarily I teach printmaking, and I often would take a stance that as printmakers, the space that is most interesting to work in is the ephemera space. It's not creating things -- you know, we're not all Gemini, we're not all going to be master printers, and for the most part, let's face it, printmaking wants desperately to be the next ceramics.

And so I constantly find myself trying to get my students to think about what they do in terms of printmaking and in artists' book making, and all sorts of multiple-making as ephemera work. As though they are producing something for a wider culture. They're having a wider cultural engagement, and that changes the space.

When Richard Long takes his postcard and sends it out to ten thousand people, maybe a thousand of them are actually going to attend the exhibition. So this becomes a kind of access point to another kind of meaning. This is another space to play out ideas that can traffic more broadly.

SL: That's the way the work gets known, by the broader distribution. Most people that received a Richard Long postcard for an exhibition in Korea are not going. I absolutely agree that the ephemera is pretty much the primary carrier of the work. It behooves the artist to pay attention.

DMcK: The other thing that occurs to me is that all artworks become artifacts, or all successful artworks become artifacts of the culture that produce them in some way. Those that don't successfully make that transition to artifact just get lost in the shuffle. It's interesting that you would focus primarily on that ephemera space as the space in which that most important meaning of transaction occurs and that is the most important space from these things.

SL: Thank you for putting that out there.

PM: We haven't talked about the artists' books at all. Maybe we can delve into that.

SL: I think I already touched on how I started buying artists' books for my own collection, in the process of doing research on the artists that I was covering. These books didn't provide the research that I was looking for in terms of reproductions of works and exhibition history information, but they were clearly works. From there, I became more interested in artists' books in the late '80s and early '90s when the art market went crap. I felt I might be able to start a variant of what I was doing by offering artists' books for sale. So I went after collections of this sort of material, and that's when I started making these catalogues. Probably the majority of my clients come from my activity as an artists' book seller.

It is a passion of mine; it just got a a little crowded by my interest in ephemera over the years. But, I'm still very interested in such material, and my (catalogues are) primarily that type of material. One of the catalogues that we're making right now for the upcoming NY Art Book Fair is going to concern only unique books by two twins from Germany named Barbara and Gabriele Schmidt-Heins, and the other is going to be a poster for my catalogue that's going to have approximately a hundred special artists' books primarily from the '60s and '70s.

BA: Are you producing catalogues or are you producing some of these artists' books?

SL: In terms of Right Editions, we've produced one multiple artist book. That's a difficult example, it's a ten-volume set in a slipcase, and it bears some relationship to a cube, so it has a kind of object quality, but you might say it's a ten-volume artist book. But when I'm talking about catalogues, I'm talking about my dealer sales catalogues, which look a little bit different than many other people's dealer sales catalogues.

BA: Is there a meta level to this, to know that you're actually producing and doing exhibitions and all this other stuff. Are you actually then generating your own ephemera? Do you have a file on yourself?

SL: Yeah, I mean I have an archive of what we've done. But no, it doesn't say Steve Leiber. It's actually too big to fit in the file.

To hear the full interview, listen to Episode 278 on Bad at Sports.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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