2013: WritingART AS COLLABORATION50 years of Edition Hansjörg MayerEleanor Vonne Brown and Gustavo Grandal MontegoArtist Year Book 2014/15
Hansjörg Mayer is a poet, printer and publisher. Raised in Stuttgard in a family of German printers he trained as a master typesetter and studied graphic design and philosophy. He founded the edition hansjörg mayer in 1964 initially publishing portfolios of concrete poetry.
Recognised at the age of 25 for his own work as an important representative of the concrete and experimental poetry movement with a museum retrospective in 1968, he then stepped back working for many years as a quiet collaborator producing books for artists Dieter Roth, Richard Hamilton among others and later in his life pursueing his interest in ethnography. Now as he reaches the age of 70 he is receiving overdue recognition from art and graphic design historians for his contribution to shaping the twentieth century modern artist book. When we visited his London studio in May 2013 we found him surrounded by his prints and photographs, working on material for a series of three new publications that will focus on his own practice and early work with experimental typography and film. Revisiting this material has left the works and ideas fresh in his mind, eager and excited to talk about them.
“Without Bense, I don't know where I would have ended up. Probably in a boring printing shop somewhere. Without Cage, without this amazing idea that sound and music are the same, I wouldn't have realised that…(printing debris could be artwork). I would have been too ashamed or afraid; it was totally against everything I had been told. It gave me the courage to see things in a different light, to open up.”
Max Bense and John Cage
GGM You studied philosophy with Max Bense, this perhaps could be a good starting point.
HM Very much a starting point. I used to play football with Max Bense's son, Georg Bense, when I was 13-14, in Stuttgart. The place where we played was right next door to their home, so sometimes, as kids, we would go to this beautiful house, where I saw for the first time stuff other than the boring, slightly kitsch things normal in a German bourgeois home like my own,... and I was flabbergasted, to be honest. I saw these wonderful things, Concrete and other Modern art, I was always looking, and Bense was terribly kind, he was very patient and answered my questions, and anyhow some kind of friendship developed. He introduced me to contemporary art, as well as many other things. When I started to attend Hochschule (higher eductaion), I often went to listen to his lectures. Bense was an extremely important figure in Stuttgart at the time, he was Professor of Philosophy, with a particular interest in aesthetics, and saw himself as a kind of theoretical centre for all the arts and design: artists, sculptors, poets, composers, designers, industrial designers, etc. He was an amazing magnet, introducing all these different people to each other. So that was the starting point, for sure, and very early on.
GGM Could you give us some names of people that he put you in contact with, or work that he introduced you to, from the point of view of graphics or in general, like Max Bill?
HM Yes, I did meet Max Bill through him. Max Bill and Max Bense had started the New Bauhaus in Ulm, and sometimes I went to Ulm with him. I didn't like Bill, I found him arrogant, charming but very fixed in his views, I was never terribly impressed. I also met Maldonado, who had taken over as head, I thought he was more interesting. I never really liked Ulm, however fantastic the original Bauhaus was, I thought that what the English called the New Bauhaus didn't get very far.
One of the most important things in terms of influences was visiting the new music festivals in Darmstadt as well as Donaueschingen, two of the most important contemporary music festivals after the war. Bense often went there, and he took me with him a few times. This was so liberating! For instance, to meet Cage and to listen to Cage... he had a huge influence on me. Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, all the important new composers were there and performed there, but the most liberating thing for me was actually to listen to Cage, and to realise that there is no difference between noise and music.
Staib und Mayer
HM In 1953 we moved in Stuttgart to a new house, which my father built, and I started Gymnasium (secondary school). My grandfather's printing works had been hit by a bomb and destroyed completely, so my grandparents got together with somebody and started Staib und Mayer a new printing company, which was exactly in between where I went to school and our home. So, from around the age of 10, often after school I didn't go home but to the printing shop, because it was brand new and wonderful, and I loved the smell of ink and the noise of the printing machinery and everything that was going on there... and I started using the printing processes.
EVB What equipment did they have?
HM I actually have got photos of the staff at the press here. They had hand setting, hot metal type setting, Linotype, proof presses and Heidelberg printing machines of various kinds; and then bookbinding, etc.
Since I was the son of the boss, I could muck around and ask people, sometimes I was probably a pain, but they were patient. They thought that I was the next generation that would take over later on, which I of course didn't... I got used to whatever hot metal type setting and letterpress printing methods existed, and was fascinated by all sorts of things: very early on I collected pre-run sheets, normally thrown away. I often collected them and often cut them out, but they had to be colourful, and have weird things on top of each other, etc. My grandfather, who was a master printer, found out that I collected them in a drawer and he called me over and asked me: “What do you think this is? Why are you collecting this kind of rubbish we throw away? You should be collecting beautiful examples of well printed things! Throw them out.”
EVB For him the misprints would have been an embarrassment?
HM Exactly! In those days, all the good printing shops collected sheets to show potential clients the quality of their work. To him, this was an insult. I was furious with him for weeks, but then I collected some more, in a different drawer, until I lost interest. Believe it or not, I have found one recently. I am so glad, the only piece that is left from the 1950s...
I was also fascinated by a lot of other by-products of proofing, inking, washing, etc. I can show you a few because I have been photographing them. Pictures made out of random inking, cleaning, etc. processes. I love all this throwaway stuff. But without Cage, without this amazing idea that sound and music are the same, I wouldn't have realised that, I would have been too ashamed or afraid, it was totally against everything I had been told. It gave me the courage to see things in a different light, to open up. I wanted to get away from craft and Kitsch, and introduce randomness, Without Bense I don't know where I would have ended up. Probably in a boring printing shop somewhere.
HM In addition to going to Bense's lectures, I also went to lectures at the music academy, in composision, because I was very interested in music. When I started making experimental films in the early 60s with Georg Bense. We all worked on the visuals and I normally made the music.
GGM What can you tell us about these early 60s films?
HM Max's son Georg was very keen on film-making (he ended up being a film-maker with the Saarbrücken State Television), so we started an experimental film unit called FAT (Filmarbeitsteam) under Bense's umbrella, the Studium Generale of the Technische Hochschule Stuttgart.We made about 10 experimental 16mm films... filming text and things like that, from 1960/61 perhaps. Some of them were shown in experimental film festivals (Oberhausen, etc.), some were even run in cinemas in Stuttgart. But then we all went our own ways...
EVB I saw one of them at the Barbara Wien gallery and bookshop, a 16mm film of a tram.
HM We showed them a year ago in Berlin at Barbara Wien (2012), the ones that we had already digitised and where OK.
That was called 'Jetzt'. It was still in good condition. We also showed another, 'Terry Jo', in a room at the back. The others need a lot of work and their soundtracks need to be re-recorded.
GGM What sort of soundtracks did you make? Re-used sounds?
HM Yes, but not in Pierre Schaeffer's tightly knit, musique concrète style. That to me was a bit too restricted... in a much freer way. Again, Cage played a big part, I suppose, liberating. Sometimes I recorded sounds somewhere, distorted it or mixed it, but not in a very formal way, not Schaeffer or Nono or Stockhausen. It was very... incidental, I could call it. I was quite astonished, listening to it again after more than 40 years... I found in this old ammunition box that came from Stuttgart, reel to reel tapes, which I thought I had lost. I had to buy on ebay a machine to play them so I could listen to them and digitise them.
GGM I read somewhere that you also studied painting, around 1962, is that correct?
HM Painting? I have never painted in my life!
GGM Don't ever take any information from the internet...
HM My whole idea was no painting, no hand made, no craft... I wanted to get away from it. Absolutely not.
HM In 1963 I went to the USA. I was flying via Reykjavik, the cheapest at the time (obviously, I had no money) and Max Bense said: “Iceland?” We were in his study, in his house. He went to the bookshelves and pulled out two books: “There is someone called Dieter Roth that lives in Iceland and has sent me these (Bok 2b and Bok 3d), I am very interested to know who this man is, find out who he is”. I asked him: “How do I find him?” “It says Box 412, Reykjavic, you will find him”. When I got to Reykjavic I asked people, nobody knew who he was, until finally someone told me where he lived. I went there, knocked on the door and nothing. Next day, I went back, knocked on the door, nothing. Then, fortunatelly, a woman who was working on a garden next door, saw me. She didn't speak English or German but kindly wrote down an address, so I got a taxi and went there. He was for the summer months in a house outside Reykiavik that belonged to his brother in law. I knocked on the door and he opened. That was the end of that, or the beggining...
EVB Why do you think Dieter Roth had sent Bense those books?
HM He had self-published several books in the late 50s but nothing happened. So he got Bense’s name from someone and send him the books, in the hope that something would happen.
GGM Roth had published a magazine in Switzerland in the 50s with Eugen Gomringer and Marcel Wyss, 'Spirale'.
HM Yes, he did that before he went to Iceland. They never got on terribly well because Dieter was really way out of the Concrete art stuff that the other two were into. He went from Switzerland first to Denmark to work in textile design, and there he met his Icelandic wife, and then went with her to Iceland.
We got on extremely well, because our ideas were very similar. There weren't many people that were so open as he was... for instance, he showed me this book made of pre-run sheets, and I laughed and told him that I was doing that when I was 11 years old. That was it, we saw eye to eye... Before I left for America I said to him, “I would like to publish your books, I think that you have made the most important books that I have ever seen...” He was quite pleased, because nobody else wanted to do it. We talked about, also later on, the few books published by others, for example Something Else Press, or Dumont, they never did what he really wanted. I would make the books with him exactly as he wanted them, no censorship, nothing. And, of course, for someone like that, if it's not exactly what he wants, what is the point? Everything is 100%, that's what we always did.
EVB Did you print on your father's press?
HM Yes, we printed most books there, but not all. We didn't want for everything to look the same, and if you print everything in the same press it may do, so we also printed in Iceland, we had two books made by Cantz, etc. We didn't want the same look, so we used other people too.
EVB When you offered to publish his books, had you already published other artists’ books?
HM Not really... I had done some typographical interpretations, and some so-called Concrete Poetry. I had some intentions to publish books.
GGM But is not just that you facilitated or realised his works, in some books you offer a typographical interpretation of his texts, for instance 'Stupidogramme' (Band 9).
HM I had published a series of small books like Emmett Williams 'Sweethearts', so I said to him: well, wouldn't it be fun to do letterpress printing? I could set it all, whatever I see, in various different type faces. He thought it was a wonderful idea. So I sat on a linotype machine and did all of this by looking at his manuscript. Whatever it said, I would set.
GGM This an example of a collaborative project, it is as much, if not more, your work as it is Dieter Roth's.
HM I was never interested in that. What I wanted was to publish books that are exactly what the artist wants, that's all. Who does it is not interesting.
EVB That is very generous.
GGM Extremely generous...
HM It's the only way that makes sense, if you think about it. You are either a publisher who is really trying to do what the artist wants, or you are one of these commercial boys who have all sorts of other ideas...
Obviously I made suggestions, and had my take at the technical level, some things I knew better than the other way around, but I was never pushing myself forward. If I showed him something, he would say: ‘oh this is interesting’. Dieter was always curious about everything, so he would say, that is a new idea, no one has ever done that...
EVB Why do you collaborate?
HM One of the things that Bense did was to be a catalyst for collaboration already in the 50s. He was always saying: “came on, get on with it, mix, talk to each other...” The musician composes here, the artist works there, the literary world... all separated. And he really pulled people in, he said: I am your theoretical, philosophical centre here, come around me.
GGM Collaboration seems a good idea, but successful collaboration is a rare thing, many collaborations are often boring or pointless or...
HM superficial, yes. Look at Dieter Roth and Richard Hamilton, that is great collaboration, incredible. Someone as dry as good old Richard, in a way, and this crazy Dieter Roth, fantastic stuff came out of it. That is what I call real collaboration... But I agree with you.
edition hansjörg mayer
EVB Under edition hansjörg mayer you published books by artists and poets, numerous Dieter Roth books and many print portfollios. Did you work with a distributor? Where you interested in getting the books out?
HM I was very interested in getting them out, but it was hopelessly difficult, I can tell you that... My luck was than went I first went to the USA I went to see George Wittenborn, a German refugee, by then a major art books distributor and publisher in the USA. Someone had told me about him, and I walked into his shop in New York, a little bit shy. By chance he was standing at the door, he looked at me and asked in German: “Are you German?” He said: “Come in! What have you got under your arm? Show me”. I had some of the concrete poetry folders and some of my early typography things. He bought everything... He asked me if I had more and I sent it to him from Stuttgart. That was a huge help... Thanks to the Wittenborn connection I had a wonderful distributor in the USA. He introduced me to Bernard Karpel, the librarian at MoMA who then bought everything for many years. As my official distributor he sold lots of stuff. Without him it would have been very difficult...
GGM How many copies did you sell in a year, typically – a new Dieter Roth book, for instance?
HM The first three or four titles, we sold relatively a lot, because people like Walther Koenig would order 100, and then reorder 100... So there was a real movement, but then it slowed down a bit...
EVB Did you have subscriptions or anything like that?
HM No, but people knew about the new books, for example I always used to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair (for 50 years, no more now...) The old Book Fair was something else, now it is boring and nothing happens, but in the old days it was a fair where you sold books... The booksellers, the collectors, the museums, ... they came and actually bought! Now nobody comes to buy, it's all done with reps, etc. Well, I suppose we had some subscriptions with the Futuras, for a few people, but for the Dieter Roth Complete Works, they knew when new ones were coming out and just ordered them.
HM When I left the USA in 65, I went travelling in Mexico, staying with Mathias Goeritz for a long time, then went to Ecuador, Peru, Chile, etc., and ended up in Brasil, where I stayed with Haroldo de Campos for quite a long time too, and he of course introduced me to the other Noigandres members. He coined the term “typoems” for the work I did. He wrote a little letter that was then reproduced in the 68 catalogue: “A type is a type, a poem is a poem, but when a type is a poem, and a poem is a type, this type of this poem is a typoem (...)” What I was interested in was to reduce all the different elements to just type. It may not have meaning, word or semantic component, but only visual, and maybe acustic.
GGM Why Concrete poetry as opposed to mainstream graphic design?
HM Bense! Again this early meeting... Bense was already interested in Concrete Poetry, he had contacts with the Noigandres (Haroldo de Campos, Augusto) and all the other people, that I also met through him. Through him I met a lot of different people from all over the world...
HM Sure. I wasn't keen on Gomringer either... I like his old stuff, his so called Constellations, a lot of really beautiful work... He is so dry, so Swiss... but nice, friendly, I am not knocking him...
GGM You met Clifford Ellis at the opening of Between Poetry and Painting...
HM Indeed, yes. When Jasia Reichardt made this show in 65 at the ICA, I had just come back to Stuttgart from Brazil, and she wanted lots of stuff, my own things as well as what I had published then. I had been pretty much everywhere in Europe, but not to England, so I thought it was a good opportunity, and I said that would come over by car and bring the stuff with me.
I just loved England from the first day, it was heaven, absolutely wonderful, and have never looked back... everybody was terribly nice, and so on... I remember I arrived lateish because coming by ferry I stopped at Canterbury, looked at the fabulous cathedral, and because I was hungry, there was a tea room – I will never forget this – just next to the cathedral, and there were these lovely old ladies having tea, so I looked at the menu, and they had two things: beans on toast and spaghetti on toast. I just killed myself laughing, it was the funniest thing I'd heard in my life!
When I arrived in London the ICA was already closed. Jasia had gone home, I didn't have any telephone numbers... the only address I had was that of John Willett, of the TLS, in Hampstead, so I went there, I had a little map, knock at the door, and fortunately John Willett opened the door. I said: “I am Hansjorg Mayer, I am terribly sorry...” He had already done an article in the TLS about my work... anyhow, a nice, wonderful guy: “Come in, have dinner with us! Where are you staying? Stay with us!” I mean, fabulous people... Next day I went to see Jasia, who lived nearby... Lovely people! So I decided to stay for the opening, which I hadn't planned. And then, of course, at the ICA in those days, everybody was there! Richard Hamilton, Hockney, Kitaj, Paolozzi, everybody in the artworld was there. It was a tiny group, not like now... And also Clifford and Rosemary Ellis. He came over, smoking his cigar, and asked: “Would you like to teach at the Bath Academy of Art?” It was the last thing I wanted, I had too many other things to do... But he insisted: “Why don't you come and visit us? I'll send the chauffeur over.” Bath Academy at the time was in Lord Methuen's beautiful country house (Corsham Court), 30 peacocks running around, and I was put in the red room, and all that... and the students were lovely, and all was fantastic... so, of course, I conceded: “all right, but you have to buy a better proof press, futura typefaces in such and such sizes, and I can't come at normal times, I can only do blocks, because I do many things, I can come two weeks at the time, but then I can work from 10 in the morning to 10 at night...” They agreed to everything! Astonishing! So I started teaching on the 1stof January 1966. I was lucky, wonderful place, nice people, incredible... We did so much work there...
Talking about Emmett Williams, Annie was my student, at Bath Academy. She finished in 68 and then was my assistant, she helped me with the 68 catalogue, Robert Filliou, etc.
GGM It was another hotbed for Concrete Poetry at the time, wasn't it?
HM Well, I got John Furnival to come and teach there, Tom Phillips stayed for a little while, and of course Dom Sylvester Houedard being nearby, and so on... We did this concrete poetry portfolio that you also have, and I did another one with work by the students which Tate also has now.
I created many portfolios one of which was the Futura series (1965 -1968) where I worked with people with typography..
GGM How did you select the artists to work with?
HM That is a question that is so often asked, and it's very simple: a lot of it it's random too. Random comes in all the time... You meet somebody, more or less by chance, you actually like them or you don't like them. There is no system, there is no pre-conceived idea of who and what, it was all just meeting somebody and just doing it.
GGM There is a Futura that is handwritten...
HM Andre Thomkins (no. 25).
GGM ...breaking the rules, which I quite like, you have a structure and then you break it, or play beyond its limits, and there is another, I am not sure how to describe it, made of little squares...
HM That's Peter Schmidt (no. 24). Futura no. 25, the handwritten one by Andre Thomkins, and no. 26, Robert Filliou, which you can fold into a hat. The interesting thing is that it then points out to other directions
What is interesting, is that this is the end, the last Futuras in 68... In 68 everything changes: my interest changes, it goes much more into publishing works by others, away from strict letterpress printing, offset printing is coming in. When Andre, and old friend, came with his text, I told him “you have written this down so well, it's a shame for me to set it, offset is coming, let's just have it like that.” This is already pointing in another direction. Then comes brilliant Robert Filliou, with Gallerie Legitime, and what do we do? You can fold it up into a hat, like a painter hat... This shows what is going on from 68... The end of an era, with the show, and from then on I'll work with a lot of other artists.
GGM You had a gallery in Stuttgart from 1966-1969. How did you see the exhibitions in relation to your publishing?
HM I called it Gallery of Editions Hansjörg Mayer (galerie der edition hansjörg mayer) the aim was to show work by the people I published books with, because nobody showed these people... I did the first Dieter Roth exhibition in Germany, can you believe it? The first Robert Filliou, first George Brecht... it was very much related to my books, yes.
EVB In 1968, you had a retrospective of your own work at Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. It was accompanied by the catalogue Publications and Works by Edition Hansjörg Mayer. Can you tell us some more about this book?
HM They came and told me that wanted to do a retrospective of my work, at the age of 25, at the Haags Gemeentemuseum, showing the published work alongside my own.They asked me if I wanted to do a book, and I knew I didn't want to do a catalogue, I wanted to do something that complemented the show, and they were very happy with that.
Already in 1968 I didn't like the idea of an exhibition catalogue. 'Publications by Edition Hansjörg Mayer and work by Hansjörg Mayer' was published as part of an exhibition, it's complementary material, not documenting the show but giving additional information. People tell me that this was one of the first times that this happened.GGM Since then there has been a huge gap between another exhibition of your work, why was this?
The museum were doing a retrospective at a ridiculously early age, and I thought that I would call it a day. I had done this work, I would stop and from then on I just wanted to publish artists' books. That is also what I said to Dieter, who was a little bit jealous... which he was often anyhow, because nobody knew him then. He was a little angry that I, 13 years younger, had a big exhibition in a museum, that he never had... He never came and look at the show, by the way... But I said to him that from then on I would just publish his books and a few other artists' books, like Richard Hamilton's.
GGM You published two later books of your own work: 'Typoaktionen 2' (Pieter Brattinga, 1976) and 'Bis zum unfallen: just ice' (Hansjorg Mayer, 1987).
HM They relate to 60s projects. 'Bis zum umfallen' was an idea (some proofs still exist) from 1967, but I only printed the edition in 1987, after I had finished publishing Dieter Roth's books and had therefore more time.
GGM Will there be any major exhibitions of your work soon?
HM The Tate is interested in doing an exhibition (Trustees expressed this interest following a recent acquisition of a large collection of work, including portfolios, monoprints, etc.), and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin is planing to do a show, next year. They have a collection of Concrete Poetry acquired from Jasia Reichardt years ago, and they have added further material: it's a nearly complete collection now. And the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart decided that, as they have the Sohm Archive and a lot of my material, they would do a show too.
HM I made the First alphabet in 1961/2. In 1968, before the exhibition even, I had to do a Last alphabet. But because of other work (I was teaching at Bath Academy, at Watford, I was working with Petersburg Press, which I had started with Paul Cornwall-Jones... I was doing a thousand things), I just didn't have time to actually do it... When the show was over, January 1969, I think, I started to actually print the Last alphabet, and it was a very elaborate, huge project, involving some 2,700 prints. I was in Stuttgart and Dieter came over: he was very enthusiastic and positive, but I looked at him and I could see that he actually hated it... I told him: “don't worry about it, I am not going to finish it”. I only did the first prints, I left it and that was that... I really left it.
And now, I have been working on it again, because now I have time... so I am actually doing it, but not to the full extent I had planned.
EVB Is it the same that you sent me for the XALPHABET series?
HM The 'x' that I sent you is one out of 26 random ones. It's quite a simple idea, you take each futura typeface and you print each letter singularly 26 times, by just ramdonly moving them, without fixing them on the proof bed. You do that with the whole alphabet, each one is printed 26 times – but in order to get the impression (I always like to print quite hard, so that you can feel it, physically), I put another sheet of paper underneath, so you get a blind embossed version of the print. My idea was to print 26 different colours on a set of tissue sheets, make die cut forms, and die cut each of them. This was about reduction (as the previous was about addition)... I still have got some here. What I did is to use only part of each letter. This is the blind embossed second sheet which I then filled in, at the time, with whatever part I wanted to keep. Because this is about the reduction, this isn't 'h', I only wanted to keep this... So, random techniques, random was always an important thing.
I am doing inkjet prints, now. Originally it would have been all letterpress printed with die cut coloured sheets stuck on by hand, each one. But now, of course, things have changed, so I am now using computers and inkjet printing.
EVB Do you like that? Because I think people are not actually keen on inkjet printing, but I think in the future inkjet prints would be what people love about today...
HM Of course. It achives print quality that has never been seen before. Richard Hamilton's last work, the last five years, are all inkjet prints, and they are beautiful. I published a little book of his about printing technology, and he explains how it is as much work as any other technique, but people don't understand it, they think it's just copying something, which is not true at all!
EVB Do you still have an interest in contemporary publishing? Are you familiar with print on demand?
HM I am very interested in print on demand, I think it's a wonderful technique. We are thinking about doing some of Dieter Roth's diaries like that, with Walther Koenig.
I have always been interested in having cheaply produced books, the opposite of the livre d'artiste, which really didn't interest me very much. I worked on some of that with Petersburg Press, to make money to finance the other stuff. Our interest was always in artists' books produced cheaply, as normal books, not for £100 but for £10 or less... We sometimes made De Luxe editions, but only to help to finance it, because it was dire, often... you sold a hundred copies, maybe, for £5... it was tough!
GGM You are working now on new publications about your early work…
There will be three books. In the first volume (Typo), there will be four different sections: the first about print processes, the second will be the alphabets (the first alphabet, typo actions supposed to be carried on or things done with them, and the last alphabet, which I am now going to follow through and finish), the third will be typoems, where I actually create all aspects of the work, and the fourth is typographical interpretations of poems by others: the three portfolios and the 26 Futuras (there are other things but I don't want to over do it).
I will do the design, They will be printed offset. I have more or less done it all, but I will let someone that is 50 years younger do the production and publishing.
EVB And you have the Last Alphabet to finish, have you got any new projects planned beyond that?
HM No and that is an old project from 68, which I couldn't finish (Dieter Roth being so enthusiastic about it. It would have taken a lot of time...) No, this is it.
EVB So no more publishing?
HM Well, I don't know, of course, having said that... At the moment I think not, but tomorrow I may think something else...