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Rare, obscure, modern

Posted by Sebastian Smee  April 7, 2011 11:07 AM

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Schwitters Doesburg. Kleine Dada Soiree.jpgLast month's story about the South End book dealer Elmar Seibel and his business, Ars Libri, has generated a great deal of interest. The history of the business and of Seibel's connections with Persian and Islamic culture is amazingly complex, and, long though the finished article was, a great deal that might have appeared in it did not. As I researched it, windows kept opening onto whole vistas that seemed to cry out for their own articles.
Perhaps the most important part of what was omitted is the story of Seibel's colleague David Stang (pictured below), who has spear-headed the company's move into the area of rare 20th century avant-garde books and related material (above, a poster - already sold - designed by Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg for the "Kleine Dada Soirée," an uproarious Dada performance held in The Hague in 1922.)
Stang came to Ars Libri from the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University in 1978.
The field of modern art in the rare book world was relatively new then. It "really began," says Stang, "with a series of auctions in Switzerland in the late 1950s and late 1960s. The first Tristan Tzara sale was a major event in 1968. By the late 1970s, not long after Ars Libri was established, there were a handful of specialist dealers in the field, all but one in Europe.
"In those days," he continues, "this was still a small world. Today it draws a far wider audience, though the number of serious specialists is still rather small and most of the original figures are now dead or retired."
David Stang.jpgArs Libri buys this material from private collectors and scholars, here and in Europe, at auction, and from rare book dealers and galleries in Europe and Japan. WHo buys this stuff? Primarily museums and rare book libraries. Regular clients include the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as overseas museums such as the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo; other major clients are libraries at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as well as the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and so on.
The shift into this area began, says Stang, when Ars Libri acquired three important (and huge) collections in 1985-1986. All three were sold onto the Getty Research Institute, which was Ars Libri's major client at the time.
One of the collections was centered on Russian avant-garde material; another was a world renowned library of books, periodicals and documents relating to the modern avant-garde, and the third was the Jean Brown archive. Stang describes the latter as "perhaps the single greatest collection in the world of contemporary experimental art and artists' books, focusing on conceptual art, Fluxus, mail art, concrete and visual poetry, and so forth." Mrs. Brown had long made this material available to the artistic and scholarly community at her Shaker house in the Berkshires.
Because there was a great deal of overlap between these three collections, Ars Libri had a large number of duplicates which it was at liberty to sell. These duplicates became, says Stang, "the basis of our first official catalogue of rare modern material, in 1988."
Stang had worked on late 19th and early 20th century art as a graduate student at Harvard. This was an area that appealed deeply to him. The first catalog was well received, so, he says, "we just kept going, issuing catalogues regularly every year. I now do four or five a year, most years. The research for them is often very interesting, and I enjoy designing them as well. Finding the material calls for frequent trips to Europe, some of them rather long."
Ars Libri continues to deal in antiquarian material in the fine arts, as it always has. But, says Stang, "the modern avant-garde - Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Pop, Fluxus, Minimal and Conceptual art, and others - remains our central focus. Over the past decade we've gotten into Mavo - the radical Japanese movement of the 1920s: absolutely fascinating; the material is excruciatingly rare - and into modern graphic design, from the 1920s to Herbert Bayer.
"It's all brilliantly interesting. I find that the more I learn, the more complex and interwoven it all becomes. The material is often very beautiful, and there are still all kinds of marvelous things to discover."

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