Women Making Art: Artists' books at the Women's Studio Workshop

By Kathleen Walkup, Professor of Book Art and director of the Book Arts Program at Mills College

Every weekday at 12:30 the long plank table in the Women's Studio Workshop office begins to fill up with food. The dishes seem to appear by sleight of hand; what starts out looking like sparse offerings of left-overs soon expands to bounty, and just as magically, people suddenly begin to appear also, as if they have been teleported from their various work spaces tucked into the meandering old building, grabbing plates and piling them high with black beans, tempeh, broken bits of cookie, spaghetti with pesto, beet and carrot salad. Most of the women gathering at the table have been working in the studios since early morning, and they are hungry. They have been pulling heavy paper molds out of vats on the first floor, throwing pots in the basement, lifting silkscreen frames over and over in the second floor studio, running the platen press in the closet-sized room behind the printmaking studio. Everyone finds a spot to hunker down, conversations take place, announcements are made, questions are asked. ("What celebrity would you most like to have associated with the Workshop?") Then just as suddenly lunch is over and everyone disappears back to her work. This quotidian scene is remarkable for one reason: It has been going on for more than thirty-five years.

In 1974, when these potluck lunches began, they were prompted by another type of hunger. Barbara Leoff Burge, Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, and Anita Wetzel came together to form a new organization simply because they wanted to make art. The litany of reasons why this was so problematic at that time is by now familiar (the original edition of Janson's History of Art did not contain a single woman artist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art had mounted fewer than five solo exhibitions by women artists in the combined 138 years of their existence, less than five percent of all artists represented at the Met were women), but in the 1970s these statistics had a chilling effect on the ability of women to even define themselves as artists, let alone think about how to make or market their art.

The four women, who had settled in the village of Rosendale, New York, about two hours north of New York City, silkscreened t-shirts with the name Women's Studio Collective and began to offer classes in printmaking, painting, and collage in the house where three of them lived. They got their picture in the local newspapers, which described not only the classes but also these living arrangements, pointing out that the "unmarried" women (that is, all but Leoff Burge) lived alongside the studios in their premises on James Street. The popularity of the classes soon meant that the three had to move to new quarters to make room for the attic-to-basement studio. (According to Kellner, Kalmbach cried when she had to leave the house for an apartment in a bright yellow building next door to the James Street house.)

In creating this working space the four women were inadvertently joining an ad hoc DIY art movement that included many disenfranchised artists—women, people of color, artists whose work at the edges of mainstream art were not seen as acceptable by the conventional gallery and museum world. By 1974 the historian and critic Lucy Lippard's essay on dematerialized art was a well-known, if controversial addition to the art criticism canon. Fluxus and its happenings were in full force. (Dick Higgins, who coined the term intermedia, and Alison Knowles, his partner, both at the center of Fluxus and conceptual art, would later support WSW through three small grants issued by Higgins' mother's foundation.)

On the West Coast the Free Speech Movement begun on the University of California Berkeley campus had helped to awaken in the college generation the realization that marginalized voices could be heard, given the right sort of insistence; this had been most pointedly directed against the ongoing atrocities in Vietnam. (Of course the earlier lessons of civil rights activism, while not always acknowledged, were critical to this understanding.) All across the country, the movement that would come to be called second-wave feminism was becoming an increasingly visible presence not only in marches and demonstrations but on the covers of mainstream magazines like Time, where Susan Brownmiller was declared Woman of the Year in 1975 for her passionate writing about rape in Against Our Will, and even on the tennis courts, where Billie Jean King defeated the over-confident Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes. More serious battles were being won in the legislature and the courts, none more critical than Roe v. Wade, decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, which gave women legal control over their own bodies for the first time.

For women who simply wanted to make art or to write, the changing political will did not necessarily translate into immediate opportunity. In 1974 the four women who called themselves the Women's Studio Collective did what many women across the country were also doing: create their own physical and, more importantly, mental and emotional spaces in which to do their work.

In the rural spaces of the Lower Hudson Valley where they were living, Leoff Burge, Kalmbach, Kellner, and Wetzel were also moving through the process of building an institution, one that required a new vision away from mainstream models. Wetzel referred to herself and her three co-founders as art desperados. What she meant was that the four women understood the paucity of their chances in the mainstream art world; why not be art outlaws instead? At the James Street house the new vision included etching and intaglio in the living room, stone and plate lithography in the dining room, silkscreen in the basement, and photography in an upstairs bedroom (all of the print washing was done in the bathroom across the hall). Offset was added next; a copy camera was the first piece of equipment purchased from donated funds. Letterpress and ceramics would come later. While their initial interests did not include the new medium of artists' books, their focus on production and particularly on techniques that promoted editions was leading them in the direction of this developing medium.

The women were also experimenting with scale, materials, and production methods, including the re-purposing of "women's" tools toward new ends. For an exhibition in a converted choir loft in a former church in the town of Rhinebeck, New York, the women wanted large pieces that would fill the space. At the same time they were intent on having the work be collaborative, not individual; the spirit of the collective was strong. Finally, the work needed to be inexpensively produced. To make the prints they dipped brooms and mops in ink and drew to scale on bond paper. They then took the artwork to a service bureau that made blue- and red-prints. This method of printing allowed them to hang and drape the four-foot-wide images so they could be seen from the gallery floor below. Since the pieces were only to be used for one exhibition the ephemerality of the substrate was not a concern. This type of experimentation with materials would help lead them to consider unconventional options when it came to making books.

Meanwhile, all around the Workshop, the interest in artists' books was intensifying. In New York art historian Lucy Lippard was so enraptured by their potential that she wrote an essay in which she talked about these books finding their way to supermarket checkout lines. This excitement (which Lippard would rather quickly repudiate) was based on the ability of the artist's book to subvert the mainstream gallery and museum system through the creation of non-precious artifacts that could be easily duplicated and passed from hand to hand or sent through the mail. To help promote these books, Lippard and eleven partners, including the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, founded Printed Matter bookstore in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood in 1976.

The fledgling artists' book movement was hardly concentrated on women. If the intention was to subvert the gallery system, the main players were names familiar in the gallery milieu. David Hockney, Jim Dine, Dieter Roth, Ed Ruscha and Robert Motherwell were among the artists whose more than 250 works were included in the 1973 exhibition Artists Books at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, possibly the first time the term was used. But Lippard saw a specific linkage between the medium and its feminist practitioners:

The book as a field onto which the viewer projects her own meanings is a potentially effective medium for a new kind of communication. It offers a sensibility particularly suited to a visual approach and a collage aesthetic, a fragmentation focusing on relationships between parts rather than on their stylistic peculiarities. Much more than male artists, women artists understand this and avoid pontification and aggressive pointlessness. Lucy Lippard. Surprises: An anthological introduction to some women [sic] artists' books. Chrysalis 5: 1977

In the same article Lippard attempts to categorize themes in artists' books by women. Her list ranges from violence to politics to autobiography to time itself; while she never concedes the point, the range is so broad that she is unable to come up with a cohesive listing. A year later in Chrysalis, Judith Hoffberg, an art librarian who, as an early champion of artists' books founded her own magazine, Umbrella, to celebrate them, compiled a bibliography of more than 150 books by 105 women artists, from Kathy Acker to Rachel Youdelman. Hoffberg's main criterion for these books was that "they reveal an original graphic style rather than a textual emphasis."

Throughout the early 1970s as the Women's Studio Collective developed and grew, artists' books increasingly had a presence in the studio programming. At their weekly salons the participating women worked on altered books and created small edition photocopy books in a collaborative learning environment. These salons, led by Leoff Burge, were established to allow women to experience working with a woman instructor, since there were none at SUNY New Paltz, where three of the four founders had met. (Leoff Burge, several years older than the other women, had done some teaching at Dutchess Community College, where she was told that she would be hired only until they found a male replacement.)

A watershed year for the Collective came in 1976. With more than 300 artists passing through the James Street facilities that year, the founders knew that changes were necessary. First, they incorporated as a non-profit organization, with an Executive Director (Kalmbach) and an Artistic Director (Kellner). These titles were only formalities at this point; it would be another year before any of the staff received salaries. The incorporation also necessitated a name change. The State of New York didn't permit any non-profit organization to have the word collective in its title, so the Women's Studio Collective became the Women's Studio Workshop. Kalmbach would later say that the word collective was simply too pink.

Kalmbach and Kellner visited Printed Matter, where they bought books like Suzanne Lacy's Rape Is. This book, a subversion of the Charles Schultz phenomenon Happiness Is and an indictment against sexual abuse toward women, was done on the other side of the country, first at the Feminist Art Program at California Institute for the Arts and then at the Feminist Studio Workshop, part of the Los Angeles Woman's Building. The FSW took a more institutionalized path toward the development of women's creative voices by establishing a program in feminist art education that was both formal and outside the mainstream academic institutions. That the Feminist Studio Workshop in the west and the Women's Studio Workshop in the east grew up together with very little knowledge of each other's philosophies and daily methodologies evidences the lack of a national feminist art movement. Both institutions, in their different ways, came to embrace artists' books as a primary medium.

Most of the artists' books in WSW's growing library were of the modest, stapled variety, as they would later describe them, printed in small but open editions, the type of artist's book that dominated the 1970s and which were coined "democratic multiples" by Museum of Modern Art librarian Clive Philpott, an ex-patriate Englishman whose strong views on the medium would come to dominate collection policies in art libraries for decades. The production method for the bulk of these books was by offset printing. By 1981, WSW had added offset to their range of production equipment; their press resided in the garage behind the James Street studios, with layout tables for pre-press production on the second floor of the main house.

Kalmbach, who was in charge of the offset shop, had learned to print at her church in Rochester, New York. The church, a large and venerable institution that had held the funerals of both Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had an extensive print shop at which Kalmbach learned how to make hand-drawn plates, a somewhat unusual practice at that time with offset. The WSW press was purchased to print Voices, an edition of 500 books that documented women's work in Ulster County, one of the many projects that WSW undertook to stay connected with the local community. Through grants by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a government-funded program, WSW was able to hire women to run the press; their first printer was a woman named Sky, who named the press Chutzpah, perhaps because women press operators were unusual in the 1980s. Cynthia Marsh, the offset printer from the LA Woman's Building, taught Kalmbach to develop halftones at a workshop at the School of Printing at Rochester Institute of Technology. Ultimately WSW decided to discontinue offset printing because of space and technical considerations.

Even before the addition of offset facilities, Kellner, whose main work was with photo etching, had been looking for alternatives to this process, whose toxicity she found increasingly concerning. One attempt to move to a less toxic medium had her experimenting with making three-dimensional prints out of paper. After Kellner had burned out every yard sale and Good Will store blender in the Rosendale area trying to pulp rag paper to make cast forms, WSW raised funds to hire a papermaker. Lynn Forgach came to the workshop to set up a papermaking studio and provide basic instruction to Kellner and other artists interested in the medium.

Kellner's work with photos did help lead her to explore issues of sequence in her art. In 1979, Kellner made her first artist's book, Suspender Saga, an accordion photo book that shows Kalmbach dressing up in various styles of men's suspenders. The book, like all of the earliest books produced at the Workshop, had no text. Suspender Saga became in effect the first book of WSW's artists' book program, an event that went largely unheralded, most likely because an overall program plan was not yet in place.

No books were published at WSW in 1980, but in 1981 Kellner made a series of three books that she collectively refers to as the leg books. Nice Knees, Jeez Knees and Great Gams all used the same black-and-white graphic photo technique as Suspender Saga in simply bound silkscreen books. The legs in the books are treated as straightforward linear structures as well as objects of sexuality when the photos imply their connection to a more intimate part of the body. Kellner describes the series as a way of comparing photo and drawn images by using bodily lines and curves. The fact that Kalmbach modeled for these and several other of Kellner's books is unacknowledged (Kalmbach is often recognizable, but no faces appear in the Legs series). Kellner claims that Kalmbach's enjoyment of posing was a further incentive for the early books, since she had a ready source of subject matter. The choice of her life partner and the subtle suggestions of sexuality (the three legs books) and sexual identity (Suspender Saga) in these early books suggest an intentional inclusion of the body issues and female sexuality that dominated so much of 1970s art. These books are light-hearted and unselfconscious; Kellner was both aware of and amused by the often overly serious handling of issues of the body and sexual identity in second-wave feminist art.

The year 1981 also saw the publication of 4x4, a collaborative book done by the four co-founders of WSW. In a way this book marked the beginning of the artists' book program at the Workshop, since all four of the women, by producing their respective four pages in the book, acknowledged the book as a vehicle for their own art. Since Wetzel had left WSW a year earlier to pursue her interests in art and music in New York City, the book also confirmed the continuing importance of all four women to the mission of WSW. None of these early books by the WSW founders was grant funded. The books were in essence demonstrations of what WSW could accomplish in their own studios on a small budget.

The following year brought the first round of jurying for the publication and artist's book residency programs, heralding a process that would eventually lead to WSW's position as the single largest publisher of handmade artists' books in the U.S. The inaugural juror was Joan Lyons. Lyons travelled from Rochester, where she directed the Visual Studies Workshop Press, to evaluate proposals from the first group of artists to apply for the new artist's book production grants. Lyons chose four projects. Two of that first cohort of books, by artists Sharon Gilbert and Susan King, went on to become iconic works from the time period.

Sharon Gilbert's A Nuclear Atlas is a prime example of Lippard's collage aesthetic and the genre of books from this period that dealt with the pressing issues of the potential for nuclear disaster. Printed by offset in an edition of 500 copies and pamphlet-bound, the book combines snippets of news articles with maps and grainy photos of men in full hazmat gear. Susan King's Women and Cars employed a new structure designed by conservator Hedi Kyle, who initially created it as a way of organizing samples of the materials she used in her conservation practice. The structure uses an accordion spine to which are attached a series of stiff cards; by gluing some of the cards on one side of the accordion fold and some on the other, when the book is opened the cards flare out to form a pattern. The structure has come to be referred to as the flag structure, and is ubiquitous in book art workshops and exhibitions.

King was the first artist who incorporated textual content into the structure. In the book she tells the story, in anecdote and quotes from various writers, of some of the female members of her own family and finally herself and their relationship with what is usually considered the male domain of cars. King, who would eventually complete two books at WSW, is the only one of the 105 artists listed in Judith Hoffberg's 1978 roster of women artist's book publishers who also published through WSW.

Once King finished her 1983 residency she was asked back to act as jury for a new round of artists' books proposals. In keeping with their collective ideals, the WSW founders decided at the beginning of their publication grants program not to rely on their own choices. They instead decided on a rotating jury, usually including one artist who was a previous recipient of an artist's book residency grant. In this way the variety of artists' books published by WSW has remained diverse and lively. While there are obvious risks with this style (although WSW tries to avoid one type of risk by choosing the jurors after the proposals are filed, thus eliminating the possibility of a juror encouraging friends to apply during her jury year), the rotating jury does guarantee an expansive stable of artists working in a variety of media with widely varying content.

Kalmbach and Kellner used these two years to begin their collaborative book work under the name KaKeArt, an acronym made from the first two letters of their last names. Their first collaborative book, Scene around Rosendale, is a group of postcards that represent the type of postcards found in many small towns in rural America. Some of the images are historic images of Rosendale, the location of the Workshop as well as their home, but others are photos made by Kellner of Kalmbach in their apartment. Still others are taken from generic found postcards. Scene around Rosendale became the first of several books to be referred to as A Piece of KaKeArt. While Kalmbach and Kellner collaborated and Kellner continued making her own books (Me? was completed in 1982) both Wetzel (Sea Ribbons) and Leoff Burge (Kunst Comix: a phony art history) contributed a second book to the growing collection.

The books published in the earliest years reflect not only the diversity of the artists and their content, but also a broad range of materials, structures, and production methods. Two books demonstrate the breadth of production used during this time. Empress Bullet: an allegory by Louise Odes Neaderland (1982) belongs to the category of books designed on a copy machine. This is the type of book that helped give rise to the term multiple. In addition to the copier (identified in the colophon as a Xerox 9400) the book, which was ultimately offset printed, makes early use of appropriated text and imagery, both taken in this case from The New York Times. Neaderland describes the book as being created from " . . . multiple copies of a single image arranged in such a way as to create a visual narrative moving through time and space with discovered poetry emerging from re-aligned text." The story, written by Times reporter Steve Crist (it is not clear whether it is used with his permission) is about a race horse, the eponymous Empress Bullet, a horse who found herself riderless at Aqueduct racetrack and was ultimately "destroyed" after impaling herself on a section of the rail. Both the story and the single image (by Vic DeLucia) are produced using a step-and-repeat technique engineered directly on the copier. Despite the use of the word multiple in the colophon, there is a note that the book was limited to 100 copies. Making 100 copies of many of WSW's early books assured their place on the shelves of Printed Matter, which used that minimum edition size as one parameter for the kind of work the bookstore would carry.

Headdress (1983), another early KaKeArt book is, in contrast to Empress Bullet, a rich and colorful evocation of form following function. Described by Kalmbach and Kellner as a wearable artist book [sic], the book is a long accordion with a folded opening at the top where the wearer can put her head. There are twelve images by Kellner of Kalmbach wearing party hats and striking silly poses. Even the title, a large Art Deco fatface type, gets in on the act. The multi-colored silkscreen production, accordion fold, and cloud-and-lightning bolt closure, and even the purely visual content are a harbinger of more complex forms to come. The book was done in an edition of seventy-five, an implicit acknowledgement that this was not the sort of production that would interest Printed Matter. The colophon says that the book was "published at WSW Print Center," terminology that was not repeated.

Once the books began to be published, WSW needed to find a market for them. Aside from Printed Matter, by now incorporated as a non-profit after realizing how poorly sales were going (so much for Lippard's supermarket checkout line sales), there were very few places in the country selling artists' books or their cousins, small press books. WSW found an early market at the American Craft Council shows and in museum libraries. Leta Stathacos at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, was a particularly strong supporter of the early work.

In the 1990s the Workshop decided to cash in on the catalogue sales craze by publishing a catalogue of their handmade papers, which by this time they were producing in factory-like quantities. They added the artists' books on some extra pages at the back of the catalogue only to discover that the books were selling better than the paper (the market for which was beginning to be hurt by the influx of inexpensive papers from India and other Far Eastern manufacturers). As they concentrated on marketing the books, they met booksellers like the late Tony Zwicker, whose generosity to them was mirrored in her dealings with nearly every artist bookmaker with whom she worked. It was Zwicker who guided WSW toward university libraries. On a trip back from Florida where they travelled to close up the home of Kellner's parents after the death of Kellner's father, Kalmbach and Kellner made sales calls at universities along the way. Special Collections in academic libraries would eventually become by far the largest purchasers of WSW books.

The fourteen books published in 1982 and 1983 helped to set the pace at which the artists' books would be selected, funded, and produced; ultimately WSW would settle on publishing seven books a year. (For some years men were invited to apply, but once grants for artists to work in their home studios were halted, WSW decided to only accept women for the residency grants. Six books by men are in the collection.) The guidelines suggest that the artists consider editions of between fifty and 100 books, although as the books have grown more complex the editions have, not surprisingly, shrunk somewhat to a current number that generally ranges from twenty-five to fifty. Thematically there are patterns: Family, relationships, and domestic life, particularly centered on food, tend to dominate the list; many of these use memory as the primary narrative device. The book as a political act has had a strong presence at WSW since A Nuclear Atlas. Kalmbach and Kellner's enduring interest in political discourse has helped to feed this category; they have contributed half a dozen books either singly or under the KaKeArt imprint with overt political content. Several of the books have a strongly conceptual basis; some of these also focus on science and nature. There have been surprisingly few books over the years that have specifically focused on issues of women and the body, although the subject is implicit in a number of the books.

To Kellner, editioning is at the basis of artists' books; whatever they are, unique objects are not artists' books in her definition. Kalmbach's concerns rest more with the increasing focus on form over content, a trend she sees as potentially damaging to the integrity of the books. While Kalmbach and Kellner remain committed to the artists' book program at WSW, they realize that once they leave, which they say will be in five or six years, future directors of the Workshop could decide to continue the program or they could take a different direction. In the meantime, the vision of Kalmbach and Kellner, so prescient in 1979, and their continuing rich collaboration, remain the driving forces behind Women's Studio Workshop's one-of-a-kind artists' book program.

On a recent morning in the Workshop's bright front room, studio manager Chris Petrone works closely with a ceramic artist who is exploring printmaking as a medium. In her even voice, Petrone explains techniques new to the artist, working with her to wipe the plates, mix inks, and crank the etching press. As Kellner passes through the studio, she, too, stops to describe a technique; the next day Kellner herself will spend the morning working with the same artist. In this manner Women's Studio Workshop continues to feed the artists fortunate to pass through its doors. WSW is no longer a collective, but the spirit of sharing and encouragement that has driven the Workshop for more than thirty-five years has not changed, a testament to the four art desperados who continue so many years later to guide and shape its mission. As in 1974, the main work of Women's Studio Workshop is, in the end, women making art.