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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Read Local: Arion Press Transforms Books into Works of Art

Posted By on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 at 7:30 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, series on books produced in the Bay Area.

I spent a good chunk of 2010 looking at artists' books in the special collections of the New York Public Library. Many were obscured by elaborate packing, and unwrapping them was nothing less than ceremonial. Some were rolled into tight scrolls, while others were simply bound, but every turn of the page revealed intricate foldouts and pop-ups. A few appeared to be made out of the ordinary stuff of a life, but those pencils and Styrofoam cups demanded inspection, and only then would you notice the tiny print upon a single pair of black, fishnet panty hose still tucked into packaging bearing the brand name of a luxury store bankrupted in the 1990s. All copies bore the name of a famous artist of the past and present, from Henri Matisse to Jenny Holzer.

It was there, behind the locked doors of the Prints and Photographs Study Room, where I discovered Arion Press. Andrew Hoyem chose the name, and one imagines he did so with purpose. As the myth goes, the Greek poet Arion was kidnapped by pirates, but his gift of song won the sympathies of a dolphin who carried him to Cape Tainaron, the sanctuary that belonged to his father, Poseidon.

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In 1974, Hoyem started producing limited-edition books, and by the 1980s, Arion produced artist books in collaboration with the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell. Of course, those books are collected by the world's foremost research institutions, but the Presidio-based press does offer trade editions, broadsides, and commissions. It is unlikely that many readers have purchased books at this price, but as the next few selections will show, these are no ordinary books.


Kiki Smith regularly employs her own hair in her art. She made an entire series by applying coat after coat of thick, black mascara, after which she held her face close enough to blink on the large, white canvas, and repeated until it was full. It is not surprising, then, that Smith provided 16 lithograph prints of her own hair to accompany I Love My Love, a ballad by Scottish-born San Francisco poet Helen Adam, who profoundly altered the course of American poetry in the 1950s and '60s. Bound in concertina format, the 18 panels are folded like an accordian. Laid flat, it can be spread out to 12 feet. Only 75 copies were printed, some of which are still available for $5,000.

Lighthearted and Virginia Woolf are not words one often finds in the same sentence, but consider the spectrum: Orlando is the most lighthearted of Woolf's novels. She undertook the endeavor at the height of her career in 1927. The novel is about a hero who comes of age as a titled country gentleman in the Elizabethan era, but it is also fantastical in nature: By the end of the book, our hero is a prize-winning woman author in the 1920s. Arion enlisted the works of photographer Diana Michener, who used friends and relatives and found portraits as models, suggesting historic periods and the passage of time. It is a large quarto, 13x10 inches, 168 pages of text and 12 foldouts. The books are bound entirely by hand, of course, sewn with linen thread over linen tapes, contained within an iridescent tan-gold cloth cover. The print run was a mere 400 copies, each signed by the artist and priced at $900.

I will never forget the first time I encountered Trout Fishing in America at City Lights Bookstore. I was a 16 year old on my first unchaperoned trip. Everything seemed revelatory, so I bought the copy to take with me, sure it would be dulled back home in Los Angeles. I was incorrect, and I still have the book. It is fitting, then, that I should so lust after this deluxe edition, which contains color lithographs by Wayne Thiebaud. The text is printed by letterpress on Mohawk Sueprfine paper. They type is Bookman, cast on the Monotpye. All 200 copies of the edition containing the Thiebaud print are sold out. There are still copies of the second 200 copies available for $450, but they do not contain the print.

While most of the books Arion produces may be out of your price range, the press offers a public tour of their facilities for just $10, which includes demonstrations in their historic typefoundry  letterpress shop, and bookbindery. 

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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Alexis Coe


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