Collecting For... The Archive: Thomas Millroth on Artists' Books

An interview with Thomas Millroth, freelance writer, critic and specialist in artists' books

Thomas Millroth lecturing in the library of artists´ books in Valand Academy,, University of Gothenburg. Showing Cucumbers, 1971, made by Jan Falkman and Anders Bergh; Bergh was a member of the most important group of avantgarde artists, who in the late 60´s made important contributions to artists´ books. The group was named after the Beagle Boys (Björnligan).

Photo by Håkan Granath

Where did your interest in artist books come from? Is it something you can trace back in your life experience or professional experience?

My first publisher was the great and radical Bo Caverfors in Lund and he had already published some exciting examples of artists' books by Berndt Petterson and Sture Johannesson. As I am very keen on what happens outside of mainstream focus on the art stage, I very soon found a stream of works that did not fit in. In the late 70s and onwards I took an interest in what happened in the GDR - after a while getting to know fantastic artists books all made 'outside the frame' so to say.

When I started the only job I have had, director of Ystad Art Museum 1995 - 2008, I immediately invited some of the best artists' books artists from the former GDR. Carlfriedrich Claus, Gerhild Ebel and I also showed all the issues of the magazine 'entwerter/oder' and invited Uwe Warnke to visit Ystad.

Well and so it went on, we started projects in the museum together with a print office in Brösarp and then I proceeded to meet a lot of artists in Sweden etc etc. I also knew Leif Eriksson - who had started to look for artists' books. What were they? Is there a history?

Examples of work by the master artist, printer, paper maker and book artist Richard Årlin. Every single letter is hand made – books like these taken years to make.

Courtesy of Thomas Millroth

How does one go about collecting artist books? Is there a market with galleries or auction houses or do artist books more generally come from artists themselves?

I do not really know if artists books are there to be collected.

Galleries or auction houses - well? It is not a matter of galleries and indeed not auction houses.

This is an art outside the art market and the ordinary scene - that has been the general idea already from the beginning.

What factors would you say determine when a book becomes an art object?

I do not understand this question at all. Artists books are not made to be art objects. Some of them have been more or less expensive, but being expensive and collectable does not mean that something is an art object.

Yes, I know very many books by artists are exquisiet - but then we are talking about luxury books. An artists' book can look like shit, be a simple zine and in spite of that be one of the foremost and most interesting ones.

Carl Henning Pedersen, Helhesten Forlag, 1945, Copenhagen

Courtesy of Thomas Millroth

Niina Lehtonen Braun, Mädchen lass los, 2022, Berlin

Courtesy of Thomas Millroth

You purchased a significant collection of artist books on behalf of Ystads Konstmuseum. Could you talk a little bit about that process and why the collection was so significant?

Leif Eriksson was an interesting artist in Malmö, working with idea-based art, whose interest in artists' books started in the late 70s.

He started out as a publisher of such, founding the publisher Wedgepress & Cheese. To find out what had already been done with artists' books, he looked for them everywhere and found an intriguing history, especially in Denmark – this super power in European art from the 40s through the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Thus he soon saw how the ordinary art scene spoke about artists' books, and that there were many misunderstandings, for example that the art market was willing to accept that artists' books started in the US with Ruscha etc. Nonsense.

So Leif looked for and found important works in Hungary and indeed Denmark and Sweden. The Swedish part of his archive 'SAAB' is what I bought for the Museum. Leif did not collect artists' books, he built an archive which is now in Ystad.

Ella Tilllemas' small zine 'How to fuck up the system,' designed and printed using a computer

Courtesy of Thomas Millroth

Christine Schlegel, cover for artists handmade magazine, GDR, Ariadnefabrik, 1984

Courtesy of Thomas Millroth

Why do you think collecting artist books is seen as more a speciality than collecting other media like painting, sculpture, photography for example?

I do not think so. You are talking about luxury editions and/or photo books. Do not misunderstand me: I love book art and luxury editions and photo books, but they are not artists' books.

"Artists books are not made to be art objects. Some of them have been more or less expensive, but being expensive and collectable does not mean that something is an art object."

Thomas Millroth

Thomas Breitenstein Millroth is a freelance writer and critic from Stockholm, living and working in Malmö. Having received his Ph D in 1975 in art history, Millroth has gone on to publish more than 40 books (mainly about art, but also music and belletristic) as well as hundreds of essays and short texts in catalogs and magazines. From 1995 – 2008 he was the Director of Ystad Art Museum and has previously worked as a curator at Ystad Art Museum, Lunds Konsthall, Moderna Museet, Malmö, and Sprengel Museum, Hannover. In 2008 he received a lifetime award from Författarfonden.

Millroth's recent publications include: 'Artists books from a Swedish Point of view with special atention paid to the contributions of Denmark and GDR, ellerströms, tragus,' König, 2021, and '"Im langen Mantel Beuys in (und) Schweden", in Beuyskiosk, Ein Kaleidoskop arrangiert von Rolf Bier,' Editition Metzel, Stuttgart 2023. In December of 2023, Millroth will present a large-scale exhibition about artists' book pioneer Leif Eriksson at the Ystad Art Museum together with Anders Kjaer Rasmusen.