Three years ago, PPP Editions published a limited-edition book called 100 Fanzines / 10 Years of British Punk 1976–1985. I have a copy and keep intending to give it to any number of friends who know more about the Clash, the Mo-dettes, or Attila the Stockbroker than I do, but I haven’t yet handed it over. I certainly wasn’t a fixture of the Thatcher-era punk scene, but I nonetheless feel nostalgic when I look through the book. The cover of Verbal Warfare no. 1, from 1981, contains the line “Beware of the serpent that twines around the cross … his body, the living dead at their production lines,” and I notice that it’s written in a script that resembles my sister’s eighth-grade cursive. I’m transfixed by the the ratty hand-drawn graphics and raw, energetic designs, not to mention the silliness and badassery of titles like Ignorance of the Unborn, Terminal Illiteracy, Surrey Vomet, and Raisin ’ell (number 10 is the special “This issue sucks!” edition). I also love the zines’ materiality: the staples in the bindings, the softly foxed corners, the smudges, visible erasure marks, and toner streaks. The idea that these are at once mass-produced publications (you can almost feel a phantom photocopier heat coming off the page) and rare objects—always already ephemeral—is fascinating.
The very notion of ephemera is curious: objects of little value that weren’t meant to be preserved but whose vulnerability, I imagine, appealed to someone. Political buttons, business cards, seed packets, and train timetables—scrappy artifacts that otherwise would have been lost to the dustheap. Even ephemera’s subcategories—like “fugitive materials” and “gray literature”—are suitably mothy and eccentric. In the art world, potential ephemera is everywhere: small-edition artist books, exhibition posters, flyers, announcement cards, invitations, press releases. The Museum of Modern Art Library, in New York, houses an extensive archive populated by such materials. A photograph of the files at MoMA QNS shows reams of folders that resemble medical records, though a bit of feathery orange fluff peeping out from one folder suggests something less sober. Through its sheer volume, the archive offers a minihistory of art and of individual artists.
David Senior, a bibliographer at MoMA Library, curated an exhibition around the archive; “Please Come to the Show” was on view last year in New York and earlier this year at the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool. It must have been fun digging through all the files and (re)discovering canon-adjacent materials like Claes Oldenburg’s blue, slightly stained business card/invitation to The Store; Nancy Spero’s pugnacious, textual invitation to “Torture of Women”; and an announcement, addressed to Frank O’Hara, of the premier of Warhol’s film Empire (admission: two dollars).
I feel about the catalogue to “Please Come to the Show” (published by the British press Occasional Papers) the way I feel about 100 Fanzines: it’s a dusty trunk hauled out of an attic that contains memories that aren’t mine but feel as though they are. I recognize most, if not all, of the artists’ names from seeing their work and reading about them, but these vestiges of exhibitions past look foreign to me—while also looking familiar. Context is the problem. It’s looking at a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can and then at an actual Campbell’s soup can, and then back at the Warhol. They’re so much alike, but you know that one of them is art and the other isn’t.
Art ephemera exists in that same gray area: it resembles art, and even depicts art, but isn’t art. That doesn’t stop these posters, cards, and invitations from having the appearance of miniartworks and for being innovative within a genre I didn’t even know existed. Many items in the catalogue aren’t content to remain mere advertisements. On a particularly lovely Ed Ruscha announcement for a show at the Ferus Gallery in 1965, the tail and beak of a black-and-white bird morph into the two ends of a yellow pencil; with his beak, the bird scrawls the show’s information on a small slip of paper. An undated ad for a performance by Judson Dance Theater, designed by Robert Morris, shows two overlapping prints of a right foot, one blurring across the other: the motion of modern-dance steps captured on paper, like Yves Klein’s Anthropométrie or Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks. The card for a 1980 show, in Sweden, of work by the land artist Michelle Stuart has an actual chunk of rock affixed to it. The invitation has moved beyond mere ephemera; it’s a sculpture in its own right. (What must the mailing costs have been?)
Conceptual play is at work in a good deal of material. In 1962, a Croatian group of artists known as Gorgona sent out an exhibition invitation that bore only the words IZVOLITE PRISUSTVOVATI, or “Please attend,” printed on it; there was no other information—nothing about, say, where or when the show would be held. It’s rather like Stephen Hawking’s imagined party for time travelers: the invitation is sent out only after the party has occurred, and no one shows up. The Gorgona noninvitation was an influence on Senior’s conception of the exhibition (as well as its title). He cites its “quiet comportment, which coupled cleverly with a clear mischievousness.”
Another prime example of that guiding principle is Robert Barry’s infamous Closed Gallery, from 1962, which consists of invitations to exhibitions in Turin, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles (only the first two are included in the book). God help the poor soul who didn’t read the information closely: “during the exhibition the gallery will be closed.” Collector Herb Vogel called it “without a doubt the greatest piece of Conceptual art that was ever done in the world.”
Occasionally, the artist intrudes on his or her own announcement in more tangible ways. A 1982 postcard for a show of work by David Wojnarowicz carries a handwritten inscription to art historian Lucy Lippard: “Hope you can catch this show. —David.” I don’t know whether she did—by Lippard’s own admission, she didn’t take Wojnarowicz’s art seriously until the late eighties—but it’s a wonderful, touching moment of a now-famous and successful artist (though, sadly, posthumously so) yearning for recognition. It represents an instant in which, Senior says, “now-iconic figures in contemporary art … were decidedly not iconic”; it is “art history as it happened.”
Creatively conceived materials work in tandem with the art they seek to advertise. An announcement for the opening of Lucio Fontana’s show at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1961 is printed on chartreuse, felt-weave paper and is riddled with holes, as though from a hole punch, mimicking the buchi for which Fontana was then best known. On a card for the Dwan Gallery’s 1968 show “Earth Works,” the type is rendered in what looks like sand; its granular form is barely legible against the cardboard-colored paper. Someone, perhaps an overeager assistant or librarian, has written “Conceptual art” in the top corner, only to have it, rightly, marked out.
There are announcements, too, that must have gained value as the work they advertise has become increasingly famous: Dan Flavin’s Four Monuments for V. Tatlin, his first show at Leo Castelli, in 1970; Richard Prince’s provocative Spiritual America (which could be viewed by appointment only), in 1983; Cindy Sherman’s now-iconic Untitled Film Stills, at the Kitchen in 1980.
As the eighties take hold, the materials’ inventiveness flags. Designs are occasionally contrived, the jokes less fresh—it can’t be easy to follow on the heels of Barbara Kruger’s hugely influential graphic declarations or Adrian Piper’s gold-embossed, funereal “direct mail advertisement” for Funk Lessons or Group Material’s 1981 invitation for the benefit “exhibition and feast” called “Eat This Show,” which is printed on a paper plate. Still, I expect more from a Mike Kelley invitation, for instance, than a restrained black-and-white design and text with variable kerning. An exception in the closing pages of the book is a quartet of prismatic posters and cards from the early 2000s for events at the collaborative art space General Store, in Milwaukee. The idiosyncratic ethos of the gallery is reflected in the lo-fi aesthetic of the announcements and is a marked departure from the increasing reliance on more conservative and computer-based design work.
There are far too many excellent invitations and flyers here to have a favorite, but the most intriguing may be those that work as expeditions—invitations not simply to view art but to hunt for it. One of those is an announcement for a 2009 book signing for Rarely Seen Bas Jan Ader Film, by David Horvitz. The flyer reproduces a Google Maps satellite view of a section of land between Bard College’s Blithewood Manor and the Hudson River. Handwritten annotations make it a kind of treasure map, complete with a large X marked “Here.” Attendees were to follow the map’s instructions and meet at sunset at the river. Ader, a Dutch conceptual artist, was famously lost at sea when he set out in a small boat in an attempt to cross the Atlantic, in 1975, as part of a performance project called In Search of the Miraculous. In the first part of the project, however, Ader took a nighttime walk from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific, a journey Horvitz’s map echoes.
In the early seventies, Daniel Buren distributed his signature blue-and-white, vertically striped paintings around various cities. A cache of cards from this period advertising the installations tells you what to look for and when and where, but not in the way you might expect. The card for his bus benches project from 1982, for instance (the project was initiated in the seventies), lists the locations of fifty bus benches around Los Angeles at which the stripes could be found, “day and night.” Another such project lists a billboard’s location as 11501 West Pico, in Los Angeles, “across the street from the Chung King restaurant.” It doesn’t get any more in situ than that. But the best may be a card from 1970 that provides the details, such as they are, for an installation in New York: the dimensions are “variable according to the day”; the color is “arbitrary according to the day”; and the location is “different every day.” The card offers a phone number that can be called at any hour for more information. But a note at the top of the card is significant: “You are invited to read this as a guide to what can be seen.” Art isn’t always what—or where—you expect to find it.
Nicole Rudick is the managing editor of The Paris Review.