I was very eager to be in touch with James Crump as for years I've greatly admired five photography books he edited and published two decades ago while at Arena Editions: Garry Winogrand's 1964 (2002), Carlo Mollino's Polaroids (2002), Richard Misrach's Golden Gate (2001), Bruce Weber's Chop Suey Club (1999), and Peter Beard's Fifty Years of Portraits (1999). Each now goes for hundreds of dollars, so if you have any hold on to them. He's overseen and been a part of several other excellent art and photography books as well, but those are my five favorites.
As it so happens James is also now working on his fifth art/photography/design-related documentary, Breuer's Bohemia, about Marcel Breuer's experimental house designs. This follows his four other fascinating features: Spit Earth: Who is Jordan Wolfson? (2020), Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco (2018), Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art (2016), and Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007). Based on the releases of his last three films, it appears James can get one out every two years, so I hope there are many more in a similar vein to come from him. Proceed down for who I think he should for sure focus his attention on next.- Wes Del Val
WDV: What excites you the most when holding a new book: incredible design elements of it or content that you’re seeing for the first time? What are some memorable examples of both from the past few years?
JC: Whether it’s an illustrated book or a literary work of fiction or nonfiction there are tactile elements that stimulate me when I pick up a book. I get a rush from the aroma of fine papers and traces of the reproduction process; ink, varnish, talcum. I prefer weighty volumes that have beautifully designed covers with a bias toward minimalism, great photography and refined typesetting and design. But I’m not a fetishist and I’m always seeking content first and foremost and when these things all come together it can be really exciting. A book that floored me a couple of years ago was the re-issue of Richard Avedon’s and James Baldwin’s Nothing Personal, originally published in 1964 and designed by Marvin Israel with a new essay by Hilton Als. I recall how sad it made me feel when I encountered the first edition in graduate school, but seeing it anew the book struck me as tough, brave and beautiful and so well produced. It’s hard to believe it was even published in the tumultuous early 1960s, but equally astounding is how urgent the work still remains today. A more recent experience was Benjamin Moser’s excellent Sontag: Her Life and Work which I read immediately after its release, before it won the Pulitzer Prize. The book object itself is so sexy and heavy and Moser’s deep research and originality made it impossible to put down.
I’m intrigued that you mentioned reading it immediately and before it won the Pulitzer. Why is that? Though Moser’s Sontag received loads of press upon its release, is there a personal sense of intellectual pride or another satisfying feeling at recognizing the importance of something like a serious biography or difficult piece of literature before it gains mass critical attention? I know there is with me if I’m being perfectly honest with myself.
There is a sense of intellectual pride, certainly. I’ve always valued one’s individual ability to choose and select and to assert a personal aesthetic and with that I’ve tried to maintain a high standard for myself. Sontag has fascinated me forever and I’ve read much of her output in all genres, some of it numerous times, but she is also symbiotically joined to the cultural life of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s and its chief characters in every creative field. New York in this period is itself a character in most of my films and I would have read this book in any case.
Whose archives would you most like to access to make a book? How about a documentary?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Germano Celant, the Italian critic, curator and art historian who sadly died recently of covid. I first met Germano in the mid 1990s at Joel-Peter Witkin’s Guggenheim Museum retrospective dinner. Over the years, I continually marvelled at his output; how prolific he was and the totality of his vision with contributions over decades across a wide spectrum of creative disciplines. In 2014, I did an intense principal interview with Germano at his home in Milan for my documentary, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, a film in which he was essentially the de facto narrator. We became friends and occasionally saw each other in New York, London or Milan. Germano built art historical archives in Genoa and Milan that rivaled most institutions; focussed repositories of materials about the art I’m most fascinated by today; conceptual art, land art, arte povera, minimal art; the artists and their exhibitions of the late 1960s and 1970s. He was on the scene in a way that today makes it seem like he was everywhere at once, which he pretty much was. Germano was so intellectually compelling as well as physically striking; a force with commanding opinions about everything. His life and work would make for an unforgettable documentary film series.
That was a perfect summation of his life and heft in the art world. Absolutely agree about the essential need for a documentary on him. If only we knew someone who made documentaries...
What are some books which you were just about to give up on but then forged ahead and were pleased you did for they ended up being excellent reads?
I recently completed Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, but I found starting the book a slog. A while later, I was filming in Big Sur near the Esalen Institute and having returned from this extraordinarily beautiful place high above the Pacific Ocean, I picked the book up again and this time found it thoroughly absorbing.
What one room have you been in where you were most in awe of the books in it?
In the mid-1990s, Jack Woody and I were invited by Elizabeth Glassman to visit Georgia O’Keeffe’s summer house in Abiquiu, New Mexico, the highlight of which was O’Keefe’s library, at that time off-limits to visitors. I remember it being a small space with a kiva fireplace and floors paved with red and yellow tiles, but the library was still perfectly intact with many volumes Georgia bookmarked with tissue. The room felt as if Georgia had just been there. It was a time capsule of her life with and in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz and the intellectual community they shared in New York in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. The library for me gave a better impression of the artist than any photograph could. There were artist monographs, personally inscribed first editions, books on psychology, philosophy and sexuality, novels and poetry. In that one moment I sensed O’Keeffe’s aura.
Did you get any particularly meaningful personal reading done when you were in the desert for your land art documentary? That leads to a larger question of the impact of space on how you take in words. Do you notice any kind of special connection?
In the desert, I was traveling with a first edition of The Writings of Robert Smithson which I found hypnotic and transported me back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan.” Smithson’s voice in his audio/slide show artwork “Hotel Palenque” gives one the gist of this kind of visceral reading experience. I lived in Santa Fe for over a decade and there I built a sizable library. I’ve never really thought about space in these terms but in retrospect those were very productive years as far as reading is concerned, which in turn inspired many book and film projects I produced later.
With each passing year do you find yourself reading new books or revisiting previously read favorites to experience new impacts from them?
For me it’s a mixture of both. I often return to a book to retrieve a particular sensation and, similar to watching films again, I have in the process often discovered new meaning or details that were somehow overlooked. This happened recently with Camus’ The Plague which, in the pandemic era, offered a very different, surreal experience like living inside the novel. Over the years I’ve constantly returned to books about subjects I’m obsessed with, Hannah Arendt or Walter Benjamin, the artists Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter or filmmakers like Antonioni and John Schlesinger. When I was doing research for my film on Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, I struggled with Hervé Guibert’s original Gallimard editions in French which I’ve returned to thanks to recent English translations. I do enjoy making new finds browsing in my local bookstores and through the latest book reviews and there are contemporary authors whose next works I anxiously await; Andrew Durbin for example, Rachel Kushner or Alan Hollinghurst.
Which artists, photographers, or filmmakers whose work you like also wrote books, essays, or articles which you hold in high esteem?
Pier Paolo Pasolini is at the top. Last summer I sped through the second edition of Barth David Schwartz’s mesmerizing Pasolini Requiem which is a monument to the biography form but deftly analyzes the director’s prolific published contributions; poetry, critical essays, stories, scripts and journalism. Werner Herzog is up there, too, especially his Of Walking on Ice, but I also love books like Michael Ondaatje’s conversations with iconic film editor, Walter Murch (The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film). The writings by artists Tacita Dean, Donald Judd and Jeff Wall have made lasting impressions on me and are always worth revisiting.
Again within those three categories, who can you not believe hasn’t had a biography, memoir, or documentary completed about their life?
Gerard Malanga is a fascinating and extraordinarily prolific poet and writer, photographer and filmmaker who was an essential Warhol collaborator in the 1960s. Malanga seems to have known or been acquainted with virtually every important (counter)cultural producer of the late twentieth century. I published Gerard’s first monograph of photographs, Resistance to Memory in 1998 and I thought then: What a compelling character and subject worthy of a substantial documentary film. I hate to think that Gerard has now fallen through the cracks.
I love the shot of Andrew Wylie you chose for that cover! (Look it up.) I think his memory still has substantial time with us as we’re not close to ceasing fixating on Warhol or his circle.
About which creative circle at any time in the past do you wish there was an in-depth oral history written?
In her essay about Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’ activities during the second world war, Janet Malcolm points out how often we think we know a subject but invariably our knowledge is so incomplete. The previously unheard voices of those whom Malcolm interviewed offer a new, though shockingly despicable portrait of Stein. Conversely, they give new human dimension to Toklas, typically eclipsed by the shadow cast by her lover. Using Malcolm’s inclusive line of inquiry—warts and all, sometimes damning—an in-depth oral history of Stein’s circle or for that matter Jean Cocteau’s in France before and after the war would be fascinating.
Who are your favorite ever book-world people, ie editors, designers, printers, publishers, bookstore owners, etc? Those who do fantastic work on one side of the business so readers and buyers on the other side are continuously pleased.
Jonathan Galassi, editor and publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Chris Grimley, designer, OverUnder
Alan Rapp, editorial director, The Monacelli Press
Dung Ngo, designer and publisher, August Editions
Lothar Schirmer, publisher and art collector, Schirmer Mosel
Mary DelMonico, publisher
Lorraine Wild, designer
Gerhard Steidl, printer, publisher, art collector
Mark Holborn, editor, designer, author
Dimitri Levas, designer, stylist, design collector
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, writer, publisher, owner City Lights
Sarah McNally, owner McNally Jackson Books
Lee Kaplan, owner Arcana Books, LA
Book Soup, LA
DAP @ Hauser & Wirth, LA
Skylight Books, LA
Richard Christiansen, Owl Bureau, LA
Great readers love great lists, so thank you James!
James Crump in LA, 2018