Artworks London: To start we were hoping you could tell us a bit about yourself. What was the path that led you to become the Commissioning Editor of Phaidon’s Contemporary Artists Series?
Michele Robecchi: I worked as an art magazine editor for a few years. I also edited exhibition catalogues and did some freelance writing and curating. I think one of the things that made me gravitate towards the Contemporary Artists Series is that it encompasses all these experiences. The fact that these monographs are part of a series, and as such they are published periodically following more or less the same format, means that you have to focus on one particular project while taking into account the big picture. I can’t help looking at the series as a whole, and every time I commission a book I am very conscious of the fact that it has to fit within a larger narrative.
AL: Much of Contemporary Art is challenging to reproduce - for example, photographs don’t always effectively illustrate elements such as scale, temporality and site specificity. Is this a challenge when you’re commissioning monographs? And, if so, how do you manage this?
MR: I think this is one of the edges printed matters have over the Internet. If you google the image of a painting, you will get at least 100 tonal variations. It is impossible to determine what it really looks like. A monograph or a book represents a unique opportunity to set the record straight and reproduce the work exactly as it should be. In terms of the difficulty of effectively illustrating big installations or performances, it is clearly an objective beyond our scope but I like the idea of giving the readers the responsibility of using their imagination. It is what reading a book should be all about. Normally I tend to listen to the artist and make sure that we can come up with a fair compromise that will do the work justice. A crucial factor in this equation is of course how the work has been documented but we don’t have the ambition of creating a surrogate for the actual experience of the work. If anything else, we are trying to inspire our readers to go out for themselves and find out more.
AL: Most of the artists featured in the Contemporary Artists Series are still producing work. How do you decide when it’s appropriate to commission a monograph?
MR: There are many factors at play. The majority of the artists I choose to work with are either poorly represented in terms of books and catalogue, or they have a few to their name but they are mostly project-oriented. A monograph in the series should be perceived as a chance to put together a comprehensive presentation of who they are and what they do in a specific time in their career. The ultimate goal, however, is not to create a catalogue raisonné. Because of my background in curating, I see these books as the equivalent of putting together an exhibition on paper. I am dispensed from practicalities like shipping and hanging but intellectually it’s very much the same process. At the end of the day it’s about selecting the work, and presenting it in a way that establishes an interesting discourse.
AL: What are you most excited to be working on at the moment?
MR: I just finished working on a book with Frank Stella. It’s coming out this winter and I’m curious to see how it will do. There were some perplexities when I proposed Stella for a Contemporary Artists Series monograph. Isn’t he more like an historical figure? But I think it makes perfect sense. Stella has never stopped reinventing himself, constantly exploring new avenues and possibilities. When I went to visit his studio in upstate New York last year I was beyond impressed. I realized that the real challenge was how to capture the energy of his work in the book. His sculptures and paintings are dazzling – they literally move before your eyes. We had Terry Richardson going up to spend a day with him and document the activities in the studio. It’s never been done before and I hope those images will help giving our readers a better idea of Stella’s practice. The other authors I worked with are also interesting. We decided to stay away from the stern academic who would have talked about Stella’s stripe paintings and his relationship with Minimalism and very little else to focus instead on a group of writers from a different generation in order to bring fresh perspective. Kate Nesin wrote a stunning survey text. She is a bit of a genius – an incredibly talented writer and thinker. Hopefully people will enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed making it.
AL: What do you wish you could spend more time learning about?
MR: There is so much out there that I would like to learn about. I wouldn’t even know where to start. My job takes an awful lot of my time but I can’t complain. The philosophy behind the Contemporary Artists Series is to make a book in strict collaboration with the artist. It’s actually quite a long process – the average timeline of a book is about 18 months, from commissioning to print. During this period I have the privilege to spend a lot of time with the artists I work with and I feel I have learned a lot from all of them.
AL: What’s your favourite place to see art in London?
MR: I don’t think I have a favourite place – I just try to see as much as I can. The gallery landscape has changed a lot in the last decade. There is such an impressive variety of venues in London. Mayfair is now the equivalent of Chelsea in New York. I also love to visit and support younger galleries. Fortunately there are many – Arcade, Bosse & Baum, The Concept Space, Carlos/Ishikawa, Kunstraum, Sid Motion,Union and Vitrine.
AL: Internationally speaking, is there anywhere that you think has a particularly exciting art scene at the moment?
MR: You need both a practice and a scene in order to create a strong cultural proposition. Some places go through times when they have one or the other. Then there are moments when the stars align and you have both. One of my favourite times of the year is the opening of 1:54 at the Somerset House. It’s one of the few Pan-African art fairs around the globe and there are always exciting discoveries to make. It’s obviously the tip of the iceberg – there is so much more to see – but it makes for a good entry point.
AL: Do you collect art as well?
MR: I don’t. A few artists kindly gave me some work either as a present or as a swap over the years. I am very fond of these pieces but I don’t have the instinct of the collector. I prefer to look at art in galleries and museums.
AL: And finally, have you read anything good lately? Do you have any recommendations for our readers?
MR: The pile of books on my bedside resembles Pisa’s leaning tower. There are so many books I started that I have yet to finish. I just finished reading Rita Dove’s Through the Ivory Gate though. It came out in 1987 but I only got around it now. It is her first and so far only novel and it’s a tricky book. You have a few leads that instead of being resolved turn into loose ends but also moments of great poetry. There are a couple of pages describing the relationship between mankind and puppets that make the book worth reading alone.