Genesis of a Book Artist: Booktryst Interviews Richard Minsky
By Stephen J. Gertz
Richard Minsky is considered to be the most influential book artist of his generation, a pioneer and innovator in the book arts. His critically acclaimed work is found in museums and private collections around the world; he has won many fellowships and awards. Booktryst has written about the breathtaking book art of Richard Minsky.
We know that he got a printing press when he was only thirteen years old but his fascination with printing and books began much earlier than that. We recently asked him about his formative years, when he was initially captivated by printing at its most basic.
Booktryst: Prior to getting that printing press when you were thirteen you were strictly into rubber stamps.
RM: No, I just had a few sets of rubber stamps, mostly sets of letters. At the age of 10 I was given a Superior Cub Printing Press, a postcard size cylinder press that used rubber type, with rubber dies for the images. I don't have the same one, but here is a photo of the one I now own. It has a 1955 copyright on the Rotary Printer’s Journal that came with it. That has all kinds of information, from “What You Should Know About Type” to “Drumming Up Business.” The Cub Press has been around since at least the 1930’s. As you see, the type is similar in form to metal type. You set it into slots one letter at a time, as you would compose foundry type, sort of like in a Multigraph.
Booktryst: After the initial attraction what kept you at it?
RM: The week after I got it my father died. He was a journalist, an editor, and on weekends I would go to his office and play with the Royal typewriters and some of the other equipment. I guess this replaced that activity.
Booktryst: At age thirteen you buy yourself a small, hand printing press. A gift? Did you save up for it?
RM: Sort of. I was given some savings bonds for my Bar Mitzvah. That year my mother died. My grandmother was my guardian jointly with the Guardianship Clerk of the Surrogate’s Court. There was some income from Social Security, but not enough to do anything but cover the basic expenses. At that point I figured it would be best to do something that I loved for the rest of my life, since it was likely to be short. The previous year I had Graphic Arts shop at Russell Sage Jr. High in Forest Hills, Queens, and was inspired by the teacher, Mr. Joseph Caputo.
I decided to become a printer, cashed in my savings bonds, which yielded about $350, went to Zimmer Printing Supply on Beekman St. in Manhattan, and bought a 5x8 Kelsey hand press. A block away was Damon and Peets, another printer’s supplier that had used foundry type, and I got six California job cases filled with lead. They were heavy. Bank Gothic in three sizes, Copperplate Gothic in three sizes, Park Avenue, Typo Roman Shaded and Goudy Old Style.
My homeroom class became a 15% commission sales team, so everybody made money selling stationery, business cards, announcements, and the like.
Booktryst: Do you recall what you felt when transitioning from stamps to letterpress, aside from the practical differences?
RM: I loved everything about it. The activity, the smell, the income. I started building a muscle in my right forearm.
Booktryst: You seemed to have been completely absorbed by printing during your teens. And then, in college, you change directions into another area of interest. What happened?
RM: I discovered Daniel Gibson Knowlton in the basement of Brown University’s Rockefeller Library while in graduate school studying Economics. He was the University Bookbinder. Everything about what he did appealed to me, and I learned as much as I could from him.
Booktryst: And then you returned to printing. Again, what caused it?
RM: I never gave it up. In 1972 I opened a storefront printshop, bookbindery and art gallery in Forest Hills. There I had an 8x12 motorized Chandler and Price clamshell press, and two cabinets of foundry type, about 40 cases. The Weiss family of fonts, with many sizes in Roman, Bold and Italic, Orplid and some other decorative fonts, Bodoni, Americana and more.
Booktryst: Your early bindings are beautiful yet not outside the tradition. When and why did you begin to experiment with bindings to move beyond popular conceptions of the art and craft?
Booktryst: There seems to have been a creative leap in your work. What motivated it?
RM: Chance. In 1973 a client brought in a book for repair, Pettigrew’s History of Egyptian Mummies. I put it down on the counter on a yard of airplane linen I had just bought at Talas, the bookbinders’ supplier. It looked like it belonged there, so I tore the linen into strips and wrapped the book like a mummy.
Booktryst: Much of your work over the last twenty-five years has incorporated political themes. Do you have any plans to address the current political climate?
RM: Unfortunately the current political climate is no different, so my work of 30 years ago, The Crisis of Democracy, is even more relevant today. The Bill of Rights set of ten works that I did 1998-2002 is fresher than ever. Nineteen Eighty-Four still speaks to people as the government watches everyone ever more closely. Today the Executive Branch asked Congress for legislation to allow wiretaps of the Internet. As though they weren’t already doing it!
Booktryst: What's the future of book arts, as you see it?
RM: It’s entering the mainstream. Last week I was at Albany Airport, and there is a book art exhibition installed there.
Booktryst: Any other thoughts, random or otherwise?
RM: It would be nice if your readers would buy my work. The price range is from under $30 for a trade book like The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 to $120,000 for The Bill of Rights, so there’s something for everyone. How about Freedom of Choice, a poetry book chained to an electric chair that comes with a shotgun, a sword and other deadly things? Look at everything on my website, there are over 400 pages.
And if you will be near New Haven this coming Tuesday, October 5, come to my talk at Yale at 1 pm! It’s free and there is a reception afterwards. You can stop in at the exhibition while you’re there. Click that last link—there is a free PDF exhibition catalog.
The article was published on Booktryst (Monday, October 4, 2010), and is presented here by permission of Stephen J. Gertz.
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