The Expansive Influence of an Archive: New Publication Honors Steven Leiber

Artists & Editions, RITE EDITIONS, 2012; Photo by Ian Reeves

Much has already been written of Steven Leiber’s unique contribution to the artistic landscape of the Bay Area -- from the collection and dissemination of arts-related ephemera, as an educator at California College of the Arts and as a generous tour guide of his own basement archive. For those of us who didn’t have the luck of forging a personal relationship to Leiber before he passed away in 2012, a recent publication attempts to give form to his wide-ranging influence and enduring legacy.

RITE EDITIONS, founded in 2007 by Leiber and Robin Wright, works closely with artists to make editioned objects ranging from vinyl records to glossy monographs full of blank pages. In memory of her late business partner, Wright has gathered new works from fourteen artists as one boxed edition, Artists & Editions, an homage to one of Leiber’s favorite publications in his own collection, the 1970 set Artists & Photographs by Multiples Inc.

<i>Artists & Editions</i>, RITE EDITIONS, 2012; Photo by Ian Reeves
Artists & Editions, RITE EDITIONS, 2012; Photo by Ian Reeves

If you don’t have $12,500 on hand to explore the publication yourself, thankfully Frances Bowes donated a copy to the Legion of Honor, where it is now on view in the mellowly-lit Reva and David Logan Gallery of Illustrated Books. The exhibition, titled Artists & Editions: A Publication in Memory of Steven Leiber (1957–2012) does it best to showcase works that are intrinsically tactile. I tried to get closer a number of times, only to gently bump some part of my face on the display case glass.

The contributions to Artists & Editions are wide ranging, as the edition’s descriptive text enumerates: “five prints (three silkscreens, one edition variée and one etching), four artist generated archival publications, two three-dimensional paper pieces, two posters, a painting, a drawing, a coupon for redeeming a record, an artist’s book, a metal stencil, a weaving, a sewn canvas work and an edition catalog.”

Let’s start with the three-dimensional paper pieces. Tauba Auerbach’s Filing system, a pop-up made from digitally trimmed manila file folders, nods to the filing system Leiber used to organize his own reference material on the artists in his collection. Auerbach visited Leiber’s archive while researching alternative construction methods for her own books, and the simple elegance of her contribution, contained neatly within an unassuming and familiar shape, acts like a note of thanks.

Claude Closky, <i>Easy-Difficult</i>, 2012; Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Claude Closky, Easy-Difficult, 2012; Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

While many of the contributors to Artists & Editions are emerging Bay Area artists and Leiber’s former students, his community extends beyond his role as a mentor. Claude Closky, an established French artist, is responsible for the second 3D work: Easy-Difficult, a single piece of thick paper folded in half. On one side, an illustration depicts the “easy” way to view the piece, propped on its two edges. On the verso, the “hard” way, balanced on its single folded edge. Self-consciously, the Legion of Honor display identifies itself as a “failed” installation.

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Some of the most tantalizing elements of the edition are also the most personal. Colter Jacobsen’s conjoined double volume Leben Lernen Lieben / Live Learn Love, includes a bookmark listing the concealed contents, made abstract without access to the images that accompany them. Two phrases on the spines come from a Ted Berrigan poem “The Fiend,” reading: “And you tremble at the boots upon the earth / As my strength and I walk out and look for you.”

Ruth Laskey, <i>Untitled (S for Steven)</i>, 2005/12; Photo by Ian Reeves
Ruth Laskey, Untitled (S for Steven), 2005/12; Photo by Ian Reeves

Of equal understatedness and beauty is Ruth Laskey’s Untitled (S for Steven). The hand-woven linen in a card envelop looks like a delicate monogrammed handkerchief. The design comes from a group of sketches Laskey made the same year she met Steven. One of those sketches was meant to be an undefined shape but resembled an S, so it remained unrealized. She states in the RITE EDITIONS catalog, “Every time I looked back at it in the years to come, I thought of Steven. Now here it is, the weaving of S for Steven.”

Scattered throughout these moving tributes are more lighthearted contributions that speak to Leiber’s sense of humor. Luke Butler’s Archive of Printed Material documents a collection of magazines, food cartons, and toy boxes, rendered as 35 graphite drawings (one for each edition of Artists & Editions). An illustrated master list accompanies each drawing, providing a taste of the archive as a whole. This list is far from impartial -- item #2, which appears to be a drawing of a lined notebook, is classified under “Reading and Writing,” and described as “Classic design, limitless possibilities for notation, documentation and self-expression.”

Dina Danish, <i>Back in 9 Minutes</i>, 2012;  Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Dina Danish, Back in 9 Minutes, 2012; Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Similarly, Dina Danish plays with the conventions of the archive and the well-documented artist edition with a unique painting for each box. An rendering of an oversize Post-it reads “Back in x minutes,” where x equals the edition number. Included in a custom box with the painting is a certificate of authenticity, a photograph showing how everything should be displayed, and a sheet of paper announcing the presence of both the certificate and the photograph. The whole arrangement forms an infinite mirror effect, a never-ending proof of its own existence.
The entirety of Artists & Editions is enclosed in a box designed by Elisheva Biernoff, who also contributed three screenprints to the publication. It shows the doors of Leiber’s garage, which were the entrance to his basement archive. In this cardboard version, they open onto a collection of ephemera he likely would have embraced, unpacked and spoken to visitors about at length.

Artists & Editions: A Publication in Memory of Steven Leiber (1957–2012) is on view at the Legion of Honor through March 29, 2015. For more information on the exhibition visit legionofhonor.famsf.org. For more information about the publication visit riteeditions.com.

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