The Book Lovers

From rare artist publications to obscure ten-dollar zines, Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons’s passion for printed matter is all-consuming.

Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons

This was not what I’d expected. ____ Searching for a place to park in downtown Los Angeles, I became disoriented. I asked a passerby how to get to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA—with his shoulder-length hair and sparse mustache, he looked like a German grad student. “Follow me,” he said. “I’m going there, too.” Within a block I noticed that pretty much everyone else was walking in the same direction. The foot traffic thickened as we reached the museum’s plaza, outside of which there were a couple of taco trucks and a bad band playing loudly. Inside, the museum’s entire 67,377 square feet of space was packed, but there were no paintings or photographs on the walls. Instead, there were tables and vitrines stacked with all sorts of books and zines, leaflets, and posters—almost every kind of ink on paper, so long as it wasn’t made by a sizable company for commercial reasons. Around the tables thronged thousands of visitors. They were young, eccentric, slightly threadbare, earnest; very much like the stuff they were there to look at. It was Printed Matter’s second annual LA Art Book Fair—the West Coast corollary to New York’s—which began nine years ago and arrives again at MoMA PS1 in September.

I was looking for Phil Aarons, who is president of the board of Printed Matter, a storefront operation that’s proved to be one of New York’s truly great art world institutions, albeit one so familiar and modest that its importance is easily overlooked. Printed Matter was founded in TriBeCa in the mid-’70s by the artists Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard as a repository for just what its name suggests: all those things that exist in between multiples and monographs—roughly, anything in book form made by (as opposed to about) an artist. Aarons is not the originator of the fair (that was his predecessor, the artist-publisher AA Bronson), but he is its guiding hand and leading booster.

You could describe Aarons as a wealthy real estate developer, or you could describe him as a man with an uncommon love of print. He and his wife, Shelley Fox Aarons, are major collectors of contemporary art and sit on the boards of a half-dozen cultural institutions (he’s on MoMA PS1; she’s on the New Museum); he was one of the first advisers to the High Line in Manhattan and is one of the founders of Millennium Partners. Still, he’s perfectly unassuming—low-key almost to the point of anonymity. I asked a handful of staffers and exhibitors if they’d seen him, but no one knew who I was talking about. Finally, someone told me to look for the man in the suit, which helped quite a bit. Nobody else was wearing one.

“I would say book collecting is a mania and a passion,” Aarons said when I at last found him. As we made our way through the thicket of people, he pointed out that this was different from your usual art fair. “It feels more like a party, and there are more young people,” he said. He steered me toward some of his favorite self-published stuff. Another Companion to Books From the Simpsons, In Alphabetical Order, a small but thick volume of washed-out frames from every sequence of the TV show in which a book was visible. A broadsheet-size publication called Evil People in -Modernist Homes in Popular Films, which consists of stills of exactly that. There was quite a bit of Risography, a printing technique, much like mimeography, with crude lines and garish colors that can get misaligned in the printing process, leaving an effect not unlike a 3-D image seen without the appropriate glasses. The biggest and most prominent setups belonged to the dealers with the most valuable treasures, including rarities like Ed Ruscha’s early photo books, a first edition of Robert Frank’s Americans, Josef Albers’s magnificent Interaction of Color, and one of the few surviving copies of Francesca Woodman’s Some Disordered Interior Geometries.

The Printed Matter store, located in Chelsea, in New York, carries more than 12,000 items in its inventory, at a median price of about $10. The fair houses around 270 vendors. Together, they help dispel a host of widespread canards: that the Internet has become the dominant force in visual expression; that art is an expensive hobby, where even a single painting by a relatively young artist can cost as much as a new Mercedes; that the all-important market is ruled by unreasonably rich people bidding anonymously at fancy auctions; that aesthetic appreciation thrives on scarcity, exclusion, and connoisseurship; and that ephemera can’t outlast more permanent work. None of these things are true.

Aarons himself has an enormous collection of books, zines, and the like—it occupies the larger part of an extra apartment, two floors above the one where he and his wife live, near Lincoln Center. He started collecting quite young—when he was an undergraduate in art history at Columbia University. “I just became interested in print,” he said. “The collection really evolved from books about art, of which I have many, since I never sell anything.” One night Aarons went out late, walked to a dodgy neighborhood where some students were selling catalogs from the Guggenheim Museum, and bought a handful for $150. “Then I knew I had become a collector,” he said.

But why books and zines? “I love the unmediated quality between what an artist or a writer wants to say and the product he can hand out or put in the mail or give to a friend,” he said. “You don’t see that anymore.” Shelley explained further. “One of the reasons he cares is that it’s this populist thing,” she said. “A young artistic person can just do it and put it out there, without a gallery and without expensive materials. They’re not precious. People throw them away.” She is perfectly content to let her husband exercise his affections for these things, as he is to let her pursue her interests, which run more toward painting and sculpture. “I think we’re both tremendous enablers of each other’s lunacy,” she told me, and then she laughed.

Aarons’s own taste is startlingly inclusive, running from the abstruse to the streetwise: In his private collection, artistic heavyweights like Martin Kippenberger and Marcel Broodthaers share space with Mark Gonzales, the skateboarding-champion-turned-artist. Aarons is trying to gather complete sets of all three. I asked him if there was any find he was particularly proud of. For many years, he coveted a copy of Larry Clark’s Untitled (River Phoenix Book), a massive compilation of found pictures of the actor that Clark produced in an edition of three, back in 1994. Aarons recently found one of those three copies—and, as he told me about it, he wiped the canary feathers from his lips.

Of course, sometimes the book you most want doesn’t exist yet. To that end, Aarons has helped publish a few himself: a volume reproducing the altered pages from the library books that the British playwright Joe Orton had defaced and then returned (an act that got him a six-month prison term) and an anthology of queer zines. “I’ve supported the publication of books that Shelley and I are interested in” was how Aarons put it. “I don’t think of myself as a publisher.” He’s certainly more forgiving than most publishers. He once commissioned a series of books by the artist Terence Koh, then known as Asian Punk Boy; when the deliverymen arrived, they brought a coffin-size (and -shaped) mirrored box filled with well over 100 one-of-a-kind booklets. The piece now serves as a sort of coffee table in the Aarons’s library. Aarons has no full catalog of his holdings, and they are not terribly well organized. “I know where a lot of stuff is, but I also like the things you find when you’re looking for something else,” he said. “I don’t worry if I can’t find something immediately, because I like the process of looking.”