Even in this era of all things digital, big institutions like the Getty in Los Angeles and more regional ones, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, continue to produce new printed art books at an impressive rate.
That may seem logical, given that museums are committed to preserving the best of the past, even if it becomes obsolete. But today’s print-based art books aren’t odes to the past. Instead, they deliver a sense of tactile immediacy.
“I like to joke that we’ve started buying mysteries and romance novels as electronic books, but we still have coffee tables where we want to put our prized possessions,” said Kara Kirk, publisher of Getty Publications. “It’s almost the fetishization of the object.”
And what better kind of books to collect than art books, and even more particularly, exhibition catalogs? All those stunning color plates, brainy essays about the spectatorship of consumption and meticulously compiled back matter.
As broadsheet newspapers grow skinnier, and page-turners become digital files, it’s easy to overlook how technological progress has bolstered print while simultaneously undermining it. But as art books grow more materially impressive, they remind us that technology’s sword cuts two ways.
Take “Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern,” a companion catalog to an exhibition on the social history of tropical plants staged last year by the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum, in Miami Beach. Thanks to a printing process that uses a soft-to-the-touch coating and multiple levels of embossing, the leaf depicted on the book’s cover functions as an engaging bit of tactile trompe l’oeil: It has the same subtle, velvety feel and raised white veins of an actual philodendron.
“Print technologies have gotten so advanced,” said Elisa Leshowitz, director of publisher services at D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, the largest distributor of art books and museum exhibition catalogs. “You pick up a book from 1980, something that was considered an important art book back in the day. And you compare the quality of its printing to today’s printing, and you essentially see that we’ve come a very long way. The amount of colors that can be used to replicate an original illustration. The extensive selection of papers available. Things have gotten very exciting.”
Just as the Wolfsonian-FIU’s founder included a library within its building, with the idea that a book is an art object, the museum focuses on the physicality of books in its own publishing efforts. “We want to create books that are beautifully produced material objects,” said Timothy Rodgers, the Wolfsonian-FIU’s director.
In 2015, that relatively small museum — it has a full-time staff of 38 and an annual budget of just over $5 million — published four new titles, all of them on paper.
While budget constraints certainly affect the efforts of museum publishers, their intentions typically transcend bottom lines. “Their idea of investment is really different from traditional publishers’,” said Kimberly Varella, a book designer based in Los Angeles. “One is monetary, and the other is intellectual or educational.”
As a result, Ms. Varella suggests, museum publishers have the latitude to capitalize on today’s printing capabilities in a way that many other publishers can’t.
“The catalog that I did for the Hammer Museum’s biennale, “Made in L.A. 2014,” would have made any traditional publishing company die, basically,” Ms. Varella said.
It was, in other words, expensive to produce. “The cover price maybe reflected the cost of printing only,” Ms. Varella said. “But the goal wasn’t to net out. The goal was to make this time capsule that lives on after the exhibition is over.”
Indeed, no one who possesses a copy of “Made in L.A. 2014” or “Philodendron” is likely to get rid of them soon. Visually stunning, beautifully made, they are themselves art objects that perfectly encapsulate a curious cultural moment, one in which a supposedly obsolescing technology feels lively and immediate.
Correction: March 16, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a publisher of art books and museum exhibition catalogs. It is D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, not D.A.P./Distributed Art Press.