First things first, Mark Nelson's name is on the cover of one of the most extraordinary books I've ever had the pleasure of looking through. It's called Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A. and it is a stunning achievement of research, archival and new material, design, and detail. If you don't know, Louise and Walter Arensberg were Los Angeles's pre-eminent art collectors from the 1920s until their deaths in the early 1950s and I think it's entirely arguable that during those decades they were amongst the world's most esteemed collectors, period. Their collection totaled some four thousand rare books and manuscripts and nearly one thousand works of art. They owned all three versions of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (!! for just that alone!).
I was thrilled when I saw this book was coming as for years I've not been alone in having a deep affinity for the Arensbergs' discerning eyes and open minds which placed in their LA home (densely) some of the most important 20th century modern paintings and sculptures next to Mesoamerican artifacts next to Renaissance works, etc.This is what you'd see just looking at their living room fireplace: three Picassos, three Braques, three Rousseaus, three Klees, four Brancusis, four Duchamps, interspersed with original letters written by Sir Francis Bacon, a leaf from a 1462 Mainz Bible, a monolithic figure from Easter Island, a Peruvian mask, Persian rugs, and at least a dozen pre-Columbian sculptures. Whew! And that's just one part of one room. The book details every object on every surface in every room. You are walking through the Arenbergs house and you get to stare at their art and get an answer for what each piece is which you have a question about. A decade in the making, it is an absolute tour-de-force and must win awards.
Some pertinent details:
Authors: Mark Nelson, William H. Sherman, Ellen Hoobler
Publisher: Getty Research Institute, the kind of institutional support it would have taken to get something like this book produced, plus they're in LA so it makes sense
Designer: Mark again, with his firm McCall Associates
Front cover: Louise and Walter Arensberg and Marcel Duchamp informally gathered, perfect
Spine: a smart use of orange to make it pop on shelves
Yes, Mark is author AND designer. That's why I had to feature him, I found the combination for this special book just too intriguing. Plus the fact that he has years of experience designing books for artists, galleries, and museums as a partner at McCall Associates made me sense that he was a great reader and would give me intelligent, thoughtful responses. He is and he did, did he ever.
I'm sorry this introduction is so long, I already cut a bunch more I wanted to say about this book. Please now proceed. -WDV
WDV: Which designers’ shoulders do you most wish you could have been peering over as they designed book covers?
MN: Alvin Lustig—no competition. But maybe not for the reason other designers might think. Like many people, I admire Lustig's graphic design work, but I’m mostly interested in him because he was truly one of L.A.’s early modernists. He designed the stationery for Walter and Louise Arensberg's Francis Bacon Foundation, as well as brochures, stationery, and other ephemera for the Arensbergs’ next door neighbor, the art dealer Earl Stendahl. I’m not sure how well known those strange little examples are to people who study his work, but they are important to me. I feel so incredibly fortunate that I was able to visit his widow, Elaine Lustig Cohen, a few years before she died. She was able to tell me a few great anecdotes about their time together in Los Angeles, but I wish I knew more of them.
Most great readers of course know him through his numerous New Directions’ designs. I wasn’t aware of this Arensberg connection, but fitting that this info comes from you!
Sadly, I can really only transmit the small amount I know from what she told me and showed me when we met, back in 2014. I was introduced to her through a designer named Doug Clouse, who worked with me for a time at McCall Associates. Doug suggested the two of us meet because he knew she had actually been inside the Arensberg house. In fact, she turned out to be one of only two people my co-authors and I could find who had known the couple personally. Elaine told me that whenever Alvin was meeting with the Stendahls she would walk next door to visit the Arensbergs and to study their collection of more than 1,000 art objects. I hadn’t even realized, until I met her, how much her life had intersected with the subjects of my own interest. At the time of our meeting, much of the reconstruction of the house (in book form) was well underway so I was able to witness, first hand, the joy she felt in revisiting each room.
Speaking of Lustig and ND, were original editions of his books for them important for you to see in person and/or own?
At the time, Doug was going through an intense phase of collecting original Lustig-designed publications and he would often have them at work so we spent a lot of time discussing them. I wouldn’t say it was crucial to have seen them for Hollywood Arensberg, but there can be no doubt that seeing originals of anything is far superior to seeing reproductions. I would be happy to spend most of my waking hours digging through stuff in archives.
You’re handed two $100 bills and can only buy books with all of it. Where are you going and what are you buying?
This is a very poignant question for me because my dear friend Susan Delson has just given me an unnecessarily generous gift certificate as thanks for some assistance I provided on her forthcoming book, Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time (Indiana University Press, Fall 2021). Soundies are these little-known and not so well-understood films that were played in bars and restaurants by dropping a dime into bulky machines called Panorams—by combining sound and image they were sort of a precursor to MTV. Her book doesn't just put a gloss on the well-known performers that were featured in these movies—Nat King Cole or Dorothy Dandrige, for example—it puts the apparatus of their production into an illuminating cultural context and challenges some very base assumptions about race relations in the US. I think it's going to be a tremendously important book. Anyway, Susan bought me the gift certificate at McNally Jackson in Nolita. There are many independent bookstores I love to support, but for this answer at least, I guess I am going there.
Now, what to buy? It’s been troubling me, since I want my choice to be special and remind me of our long friendship. But now that you’ve put an extra $200 on the pile I’m really sweating. I guess with your money I’d buy Kuniyoshi, by Matti Forrer, as I’ve always wanted to know more about ukiyo-e prints. I’d also pick up Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta: A Sixteenth-Century Calligraphic Manuscript Inscribed by Georg Bocskay and Illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel, recently published by the Getty. I’ve been meaning to get that for a while now and it just looks like it will be a pleasure to take in. Neither of these particularly reminds me of Susan though, so I guess I’ll have to let you know later what actually transpires.
Susan’s book sounds very interesting. Thank god for university presses which can accommodate historically important subjects like this without having to solely worry about sales.
Undoubtedly that is true, but I wouldn’t count her out in the sales department! Type “soundie” into YouTube and see what comes up. Now imagine someone helping you understand better what you are actually looking at.
I think you could maybe ask Getty for the calligraphy book since they’re the same publisher as your Arensberg one…;)
I suppose I could. I wouldn’t turn down a free copy, certainly, but I’m a big believer in buying books. I feel so much more connection to them when I have offered a little of myself (that is to say, of my money) by exchange. To consider the sheer number of hours—many of them mind-numbing—that go into the creation of well-made books is to realize they are already, quite literally, the best deal you will ever get for your dollar.
Mind-numbing...so very true. A person can get Hollywood Arensberg for just $65.00?! And of course less from you-know-who.
What are some of the finest book recommendations you’ve ever received and in turn have passed on to others?
Many years ago, someone introduced me to James Joyce’s The Dead. I think it has to be the most moving story ever written—an astounding meditation on the meaning of love and the perils of hubris. I’ve read it too many times to count and it never loses its punch to the heart and the gut. Not long ago I read it aloud to my very young daughter. I thought she would be bored but she stayed right with me all the way through. I think it's important to have at least one piece of writing to treasure this way.
A more recent recommendation I received was John Brewer’s The American Leonardo. It’s the story of a returning World War I veteran and his French wife who try to sell what they believe to be an original Leonardo da Vinci painting. They are slighted by the famous dealer Joseph Duveen and the ensuing years-long legal battle is gripping. I found Brewer's exposition on early court cases challenging the authenticity of paintings, which pitted ideas of connoisseurship against nascent scientific analysis, incredibly engaging. I have since passed it on to at least three others. And I’ve learned that one of them has just passed it on to someone else as well.
Also on the list would be The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. To the extent that I have or need a hero, Lucretius would fill that role. His story isn’t just well-told here, it seems especially urgent given all that’s going on around us. I can’t hand it to anyone else though: that would be a little too much like proselytizing for my taste.
Well you can do it care-free here. I’ve had the ebook of The Swerve for years and maybe now thanks to you recommending it I’ll finally read it.
Great! I’ll be interested to hear what you think…and I won’t even feel as if I’ve told you to buy it.
Whose offices have you been in with the most impressive reference libraries?
Many people I know in the art-world have impressive wrap-around libraries, well-stocked by seemingly limitless budgets for book buying. They are great resources, but the libraries themselves don’t really move me one way or another. My favorite library, by far, belongs to the art historian Charlie Stuckey. One can just feel that he has lived with his books and loved them. They line every wall in his Manhattan apartment but he accesses them with an ease of recall that seems almost supernatural.
“Lived with and loved them” is the crucial distinction you note. I get the sense the many people you know in the art world with impressive, well-stocked wrap-around libraries rarely if ever open any of what they own and are mostly using them as decor because nothing else one can decorate with so inexpensively signifies taste and/or intelligence as does a “right” book on display. Is that a correct assessment?
Hmm… I didn’t mean to suggest that, actually. I only meant that many of the libraries I visit regularly seem to have been generally assembled as a means to an end—that end being the selling of paintings. If a gallery has a 15-million dollar painting by Max Ernst for sale, they quite rightly will want to know everything about it and will therefore purchase every book on Max Ernst. They will do this for every valuable painting they have for sale, ad infinitum, and so their libraries grow exponentially through a kind of transactional accretion. That doesn’t make them bad libraries—they just don’t necessarily communicate the same warmth as one made by an individual out of a love for books or the ideas inside them. Of course I know, abstractly, that there are some people who could theoretically drop many millions of dollars on, say, a 42-line Gutenberg bible just for show. But is there any wrong way to own a book? Don’t answer that.
I won’t, but will mull it, it’s an intriguing point.
What is reading you consider of a quality level which you make sure you never miss regardless of your schedule?
I don’t read much fiction anymore, but I’m still interested in essays or polemics on the writers I was drawn to as a younger person (Nabokov, Camus, etc.). I’m very interested in understanding what drew me to them in the first place and how reception to those books has changed over time. I usually encounter these pieces in the New Yorker and will invariably stop whatever else I am doing to read them. Which reminds me, I just learned recently about Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation (OK, sorry, I know—it came out seven years ago) a novel told from the perspective of the brother of Mersault’s unnamed “Arab” victim in Camus’ The Stranger. I’m going to buy that after I finish answering these questions for you.
No apologies necessary! No one today, not even our most dedicated and celebrated book reviewers, can possibly keep up with everything.
Has anything book-related embarrassed you?
Of course! But I can’t talk about it—too embarrassing. Also, admitting that I just learned about The Mersault Investigation doesn’t make me feel great. But one must be continually awed—and, dare I say, comforted—by realizing that what we don’t know is so much more vast than what we do know.
What books did you hold in your hands last year which gave you a jolt of excitement for the current state of book design and publishing?
That question is a little unfair, but since it would be tacky to give the prize to Hollywood Arensberg, I’ll have to give it to Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: The Original. I would have preferred a little more didactic help, opposite the plates pages, for understanding the associations Warburg may have been looking at in his project (OK, call me lazy), but the idea and the visuals are incredible and just the fact that someone cared enough to get it made makes me excited about the possibilities of the book form. It was published last year by Hatje Cantz to accompany two joint exhibitions: One, at Berlin’s Haus Der Kulturen der Welt and another at the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. One can get a good sense of the exhibitions (and by extension, the book’s content) online, but I hope some institution in the United States will take it on so it can be more fully appreciated here. The book is big though—and by big, I mean huge—so I would counsel people to measure their available empty space before committing. I love this little animation of the design process posted online by the book’s designers, WilsonWooton.
I don’t speak French, but I really liked the accessibility and feel of this one I picked up last year. You certainly don’t get details of the images, but there is something to be said for being able to get a sense (in print—though maybe this is a case where online experience is superior overall?) of the scope of Warburg’s incredible project without having to break your back or wrists.
Cool! I haven’t seen that book before. I’ll check it out.
How do you handle big/huge books you come across these days that you want to buy? Do you make sure you’re able to create room for them or does their size in addition to what you already own ultimately preclude you from purchasing?
I must admit to feeling real annoyance at books that seem unnecessarily out of scale. The real question is always whether or not a book needed to be big to best get its idea across. If the answer is yes, then I’ll somewhat grudgingly find the space for it.
Can you share favorite memories of developing passions for new subjects because you specifically read about them as opposed to say saw a documentary, heard a lecture, etc?
A single paragraph in the book West Coast Duchamp, in an essay by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, titled “Hollywood Conversations: Duchamp and the Arensbergs” redirected the course of my life for more than a decade. What more needs to be said about the power of print?
What having to do with reading words makes you the most optimistic for 2021?
The headlines of nearly every newspaper worldwide as they appeared online not long after 12:00 noon EST on the 20th of January.
The design of spines of books is so often plain and boring (most back covers are for that matter as well). Looking at your shelves right now, which titles first jump out due to the designer not forgetting the importance of an eye-catching spine to assist in garnering attention for bookstore customers’ scanning eyes?
This is a beautifully simple question that deserves an absolutely epic answer. I would love to attend a panel discussion in which a designer, an author, a philosopher, a mathematician, and a poet all express their views on the subject. With no such panel imminently planned—and no such thoughtful people on hand—I’ll do my best in a few words. If I simply turn around and look at the many books I have on the desk behind me (those that I am actively using) the two that stand out the most (though for entirely different reasons) are The Lives of Artists and Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler.
The Lives of Artists consists of six small books that package together the collected New Yorker essays of Calvin Tomkins. In these books you can really see designer Kobi Benezri's careful hand at work. Each spine has only one word on it, and the mind is left to fill in the rest. When all six books are put together the entire title and their author come together as one. The interior typesetting is beautifully done, too. It’s really perfect!
The spine of Imponderable works in a completely different way. The book's audacious one-word title presents the type of paradox one might find in a Magritte painting. That is to say, when we see it on a shelf we understand, clearly, that we are looking at nothing other than a book—and therefore logic dictates it must contain words and images to ponder—yet the title forcefully exclaims that the information inside may not be so accessible for this purpose. The thickness of the spine, with its plain but considered typeface, renders this challenge more acutely. It somehow shouts and whispers at the same time. Had the author or designer or publisher put more information on the spine—the subtitle, especially—the effect would have been greatly diminished. Inside, the strange and overwhelming collection of objects presents worlds of magic and pseudoscience (among much other high weirdness) that are both known and unknowable…which is to say, imponderable. I will never find my way out of it.
I should add that I don’t necessarily consider simple informational spines boring (provided they are well typeset). Often it is the case that spines become confusing or over-designed. And they can sometimes even wreck the simplicity or prettiness of a cover—sort of in the same way, I suppose, that ugly shoes can wreck an expensive suit.
Nothing like discussing minutiae with designers! Those are two wonderful examples and descriptions. I wasn’t aware of the Oursler and am kicking myself as I love JRP|Ringier, and agree that what Phaidon did is absolutely a thing of beauty and befitting the writing contained within.
Someone wearing a smoking jacket and an ascot, while puffing away at a pipe, should create a YouTube channel where they have a sort of “fireside chat” about book spines. Just spines, nothing else. I’d tune in.
With which writers do you dream you could have been in regular friendly correspondence?
George Orwell. To me, he has never been surpassed. Homage to Catalonia, Burmese Days, Animal Farm, 1984. The collected essays, too. Pure brilliance. Had I been writing to him though, I quite possibly would have spent some time and energy trying to cheer him up, which maybe would have wrecked his writing or driven him crazy. Better for me not to have done so, I suppose.
Yes, cheering up many creative people through the ages would I think have resulted in a lot of missed masterpieces… Thanks Mark!