edited by Jo Steffens and Matthias Neumann. Yale University Press, November, 2017. 166 p. ill. ISBN 9780300216981 (h/c), $20.00.
Reviewed March 2018
Ann C. Kearney, Collections Conservator, Alice Hastings Murphy Preservation Department, University Libraries University at Albany—State University of New York, firstname.lastname@example.org
Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books, offers readers an armchair view of intimate conversations between editors Jo Steffens and Matthias Neumann and ten contemporary artists andart critics from the United States, England and Canada: Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, Billy Childish, Mark Dion, Tracey Emin, Theaster Gates, Wangechi Mutu, Martin Parr, Ed Ruscha, and Carrie Mae Weems. Subjects represent different countries (Canada, the United States, and Great Britain), a range of media (installation, photography, graphic design, and artists books, among others), and vary in their recognizability. They have in common an appreciation for the form and the content of physical books.
This volume is the third in a Yale University Press series. The first, Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books (2009), was also edited by Steffens. All three publications revolve around discussions with ten subjects highlighted by photographs of individual items, views of shelves, and panoplies of diverse storage environments.
Steffen’s introduction briefly describes the development of her original concept and the evolution of the current publication. In their interviews both Steffens and Neumann begin by focusing on the artists’ libraries. They then investigate the role of books—as literature and as objects—in their subjects’ work and lives. A particularly appealing feature is the list of each interviewee’s “Top Ten Books,” accompanied by photographs of the book covers. The book is thoughtfully designed. The small (5.8 x 8.2 x .08 inches) format belies an expansive representation—270 color photographs in addition to the interviews—of the artists’ collections.
Bibliophiles and collectors are the target audiences for this publication. While it sheds light on the relationship between visual artists and the books they value, it is not a scholarly work. It is not indexed and does not provide citations or a bibliography. The contributors section in the back of the book offers brief biographies of some, but not all, of the artists and critics featured. Overall, however, this is a fascinating and well-articulated publication. Its value lies in the varied, subjective portraits that it develops during the interview and photo documentation processes, in increasing the accessibility of the artists themselves, and in providing a window into the world of the work of each.