Excerpts from "A Conversation with Robin Price"

Interview by Suzy Taraba, March 12, 2009, at Robin Price’s studio, as published in the retrospective exhibition catalog Counting on Chance: 25 Years of Artists' Books by Robin Price, Publisher

When did you first start printing?

Robin Price: The last semester of my senior year in college. I was a studio art major, concentrating in photography. I took a printing class at the Scripps College Press, during the time when Christy Bertelson was the teacher. All of a sudden, it just felt like the best thing I’d ever done! I already had a gut instinct toward making artwork in multiple, some kind of natural affinity for that. I also had an affinity with the process of printing. I loved being in the darkroom, and watching that transformation happen. Printing felt like that same kind of thing, with all the stages you have to go through. 

You’ve been quoted as saying that the work of the Press is like an extended liberal arts education. Can you elaborate on that? How do you see the relationship between the liberal arts and the crafts side of letterpress printing and bookmaking?

It’s almost like staying in school because I get to pursue subjects and do research and cover a variety of fields. I don’t specialize in a subject matter with the press, which on the marketing side of things makes it rather difficult, but it’s what keeps it interesting for me. I received a wonderful liberal arts education at Pomona.

That’s exactly how I feel about my work, too. Any thoughts on the relationship between the liberal arts aspect and the craft aspect?

There is a strong craft element in a lot of the books I make. You have to work on the totality of the book. You have to keep the whole thing in mind all along, from the beginning. You have to juggle what you want to do conceptually with how that is going to take shape physically and interact with other things in a technical way. When you’re involved in the technical aspects, though, it frees your brain from constantly focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish in a conceptual way. That seems to be a good time for fermentation, for the ideas to evolve. Some ideas change, based on the results of technical trial and error, and experimentation, and that will affect your creative work, but your mind is engaged in a different way of thinking. So you have a nice “aha” moment related to the concept that you might not have gotten to by going at it directly.

Who and what have been the strongest influences on your work as a book artist?  I’m especially interested initially in the early years.  

My first opportunity to see this kind of work was in the great special collections at Scripps College Library. When I saw Claire Van Vliet’s books of the Janus Press, I got really excited. Then I learned a little bit about who she is, and what she’s done, and her long, prolific career. Especially early on, she was a very strong role model, as I know she has been for a lot of women book artists. Also during that time, Susan King’s Paradise Press was a big influence, as a strongly feminist artist and bookmaker. I thought of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building as Mecca and I ended up spending a lot of time there. [Price used the community letterpress studio at the WB before she purchased her first printing press.]

Any other big influences you want to name?

Definitely. Before I came to Middletown [1995], I met Harry and Sandra Reese of Turkey Press. It was probably in the late 1980s; around the same time I met Carolee Campbell. Carolee made her first press book in 1984, same as me. They were, and remain, really strong influences on me. 

Let’s talk about how your teaching and your work intersect. We’ll come back to your more contemporary influences.

Last year [2008] I did alot of teaching. With 43 deluxe, some of the ideas I used came from working with students in the Wesleyan Graduate Liberal Studies Program class, "Typography and Printmaking for Artist’s Books, Via Chance Operations." This happened both in terms of ideas and with techniques that were not necessarily new, but were things I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Those went directly into the work. There were two mathematics teachers in the class; they talked a lot about fractals and chaos theory as examples of chance, and I used fractal imagery extensively in 43 deluxe.   

The other thing in working with students is that there’s so much lovely natural spontaneity. Because "they don’t know what they can’t do." That’s a lovely contagious thing, and it can feed me back in the studio. Also, when I’m teaching, when I have to articulate something, it can help me clarify or just remind me about what’s important. 

It seems as though, in the past several years, your work has evolved from traditional fine press printing to making artists’ books. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, how would you characterize that evolution? And, if not, why don’t you agree with it?

When I left USC Fine Arts Press (1992), I thought of myself as a fine printer only. Gerald Lange would certainly describe his work at that time, and for his previous fifteen to twenty years of the Bieler Press, as “fine press.” He talked about being the handmaiden to the author. “That is your role.” So back before I really knew how to print, I was doing things that were more aligned with the art world than the book world. Then, with Gerald Lange, it became all about being immersed in fine press and learning about the history of printing. Seeing in person the landmarks in the history of printing that we all love, studying them. That was a really rich time. So I had those tools with me, after I left the Fine Arts Press. There wasn’t ever much conscious intent about that shift, but it has happened. After USC, I didn’t remember what it felt like to think of myself as an artist at a young age. But I wanted to work again in a creative way, as an artist. That was a very strong desire.

Are there current book artists and/or fine press printers or artists of other kinds whose work inspires you particularly?

Well, one would be Walter Hamady, especially his Gabberjab series. His embrace of all things bookish, and going so deeply into the notion of what is a book, calling our attention to bookishness. And he does it in both an intellectual and a playful way. Anselm Kiefer’s bookworks are another inspiration. Their power, the size, their momentousness. They stay with me.  

And, of course, Keiji Shinohara. [Price's partner for 16 years] From Keiji I’ve learned a great deal about the sense of aesthetics in traditional Japanese visual arts. Many things about it feel, at a gut level, just like the affinity that I talked about with printing and artwork in multiple. It feels really resonant. 

One really lovely moment for me was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at an exhibition of work by Edo period artists. I was especially excited by the work of Hon’ami Koetsu. He was a ceramicist, a calligrapher, a poet, and a tea ceremony master. In this huge exhibit, there were many scrolls and poetry broadsides, and what had originally been silver had tarnished. How beautiful they were in this tarnished condition! I was working on Slurring at bottom at the time, and I was focused on one of its themes, namely, how things change over time. The concept of wabi-sabi, in its Japanese iteration. It was great timing that I got to go to this exhibit and to see and think about how his art changed over time. With Slurring, I was finally able to say to myself, “it’s ok!” You can do things in which not every single aspect is archival!” And actually, that would kind of be interesting. That was a huge hurdle to get over. You, know, Little Miss Fine Press Printer. 

Well, you know, not everything is archival. That’s okay. Are there trends in artists’ books that, today, you find especially compelling?  Or trends that you find not compelling? 

One thing that I don’t find compelling in either artwork or artists’ books, is the one-liner. I’m especially not interested when it is a big production and has a high value to it.  I’m also not into the real kitschy kind of work. It just doesn’t nourish me. 

In the last ten years or so, we’ve been so fortunate to see an amazing evolution in what can happen in the integration of language and visuals. The connection between them can be so multi-faceted and include so many diverse media. The connection between language and imagery feels very expansive now. That’s the lovely part about knowing the history of the book, both the manuscript book and the printed book, to have some familiarity and understanding that we’re not the first century to be interested in this. I'm fed from historical sources as well as contemporary, like so many other contemporary practitioners do. You see people working with some historical referent, then just completely changing it. It’s really exciting to see that. That’s part of what’s so exciting about working with books. It’s such a rich association, a rich history.

Collaboration and chance are signature elements of your approach to making books. Could you talk about each one briefly – or at length – and how they came to be so important to you?

I like that you linked them, and I’ll get back to that. With collaboration, I realized that I get to become involved with someone else’s artmaking for a while, I get to step into their mind and see a new visual world. I get to see it from their perspective. I like to be inside their head, if that’s what the project calls for. That can be a potential growth experience. It seems to be vital to my health as an artist.

Has that been part of your work all along? Or is it something that has become important more recently?  

More recently, definitely in the last ten years. The idea of synergy, that we make something together that none of us could have made individually. That’s really exciting to work with! You don’t know what the final product is going to be, you don’t know what direction the conversations will lead you and how they will define the project further as it goes on. It’s a very stimulating experience to work that way. What’s important is that there’s a surprise element to both of them, to collaboration and to embracing chance in artwork. What’s in front of you shifts often. If you are purposely trying to make that happen, by collaborating with other people, sometimes the number of people you’re working with on any one thing can increase the surprises. The palette is always changing, as is the field of inquiry. Things are shifting. When you’re working with chance, that’s what’s happening, too. What I like most about it, in the way that I try to use it, is that it forces you to get to something that you wouldn’t have gotten to on your own. You put yourself in the position of going in uncharted ways of thinking, in less traveled ways of working.

The initial interest in working with chance absolutely came about from feeling a need to break away from the exactitude of the craft. That was true particularly with typography and printing. I seem to have close-to-endless patience with trying to solve a problem on the press. Both the carefulness of typography and, especially, of printing can get you completely noodled. Your chest is tight and you can’t breathe. [laughs] The idea of control and how much margin of error there is made me think about my big mentor in this way, John Cage. Cage turned the idea of what does error mean upside down. Is there such a thing as error? At the very least, he encourages us to think about it in a different way.  

There seems to be a natural tension between the idea of embracing chance and the exactitude, the careful planning that is required in printing. How do you reconcile chance and rigor?

For me, it’s healthy to have both of those things. The rigor is always there, whether I want it or not. But when I invite chance into the making of the book, it’s very refreshing.  When it’s also part of the production in some way, it keeps it fresh and exciting. Then the skills that I have as a technician can naturally bond to something that comes up as a chance element, and they go hand in hand. It’s really healthy that way.