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Matchbook by Barbara Kruger

A matchbook by Barbara Kruger

In September 2014 I began a two-semester long acquisitions internship at the Museum of Modern Art Library. During this time I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catalog a recently acquired a collection of artists’ generated ephemera featured in the 2001 exhibition, and corresponding exhibition catalog, Extra Art: A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera, 1960 – 1999. The scope of the collection covers a broad span of art movements including Fluxus, Arte Povera, conceptual art, visual poetry, minimalism, pop art, and more, with the physical contents being similarly widely varied. Steven Leiber, scholar and curator of the collection, applied the term “extra art” to these materials in order to differentiate them from traditional art ephemera and to position artist created ephemera as a genre in its own right. These are materials that are integral to artistic practice; they are relics of performances and installations, or artworks in and of themselves. As such, the items in this collection exist in the space between art and ephemera and are an invaluable resource for art researchers.

While fluctuating in definition, the term ephemera is generally defined as “printed matter of passing interest” or “a short-lived thing” (American Heritage Dictionary). However, it was Clive Phillpot’s analogy, which compares art ephemera to the mayfly that caught my attention. Phillpot explains that the mayfly is of the insect order Ephemeroptera, a term with its root in the Greek ephemeros, “lasting only for a day.” The mayfly, he continues, can “emerge as an adult on May 1st and be history by May 2nd,” but it continues to play a role in the ecosystem after it ceases to exist (1995, p 1). Similarly, art ephemera, which typically consist of exhibition and event related materials, serve a distinct purpose for a brief period of time, after which they become historical records. Ephemera document transience and express a timeless quality by being both of their time and in the present.

In the Extra Art exhibition catalog, Leiber provides specific criteria for determining what constitutes artists’ ephemera and how it can be distinguished from traditional art ephemera. His criteria are:

  1. All materials are conceived and/or created by artists specifically for the purpose of being reproduced.
  2. All materials are distributed for free or very inexpensively.
  3. All materials have a supplemental relationship to art and perform a double function: a) they are secondary expressions of or about art, finding distribution in contexts in which these expressions are useful or instrumental for a short, limited time, and b) although these secondary expressions sometimes function in an external relationship to art, they also function, to varying degrees, as integral components of art or as art itself.

As noted, these materials are considered integral elements of art; they may be documentation that records work, fragments, or evidence of work – they are an archive of the ephemeral. We can see how this is manifest by examining a few pieces from the Extra Art Collection. In the poster-sized exhibition announcements by Daniel Buren, which have broad stripes of color printed on one side and gallery information printed on the other. These posters were also used to construct the exhibition itself, by being attached end to end to the inside and outside walls of the gallery, so that the holder of the invitation can be seen as an extension of the exhibition. Dan Graham frequently used magazines as an exhibition venue. For example, his piece Figurative, which he published in an advertising section in the March 1968, issue of Harper’s Bazaar, so that the monthly publication operated as the formal expression of the work. And Robert Barry, who issued exhibition announcements for a number of shows that read, “For the exhibition the gallery will be closed,” making the announcement the only evidence of the show.

The Extra Art Collection will be particularly relevant to researchers interested in the genre of artists’ publication and those studying the ways artists used commercial printing techniques in order to experiment and disseminate work. When Phillpot was appointed Library Director in 1977, he set the parameters for the creation of an artists’ book collection with the intent to “acquire and preserve the small inexpensive books that artists began making and distributing in the 1960’s” (Ekdahl, 1999). A characteristic of both artists’ books and artists’ ephemera is a democratic impulse. Ephemera created by artists were often intended as a way to reach beyond, or as an alternative to, traditional gallery and museum structures in an attempt to decentralize the art system. The Extra Art Collection is well situated between the Library’s artist files and its artists’ books collection in its nature, scope, and content.

In her essay “Art for the Occasion,” written for the Extra Art exhibition catalog, Anne Moeglin-Delcroix describes artists’ ephemera as “intrinsically provocative” because the durational aspect of these materials places the viewer in “a relation to a work that is no longer a contemplation but reading” (2001, p 19). This turn of words illustrates that it is all the more apt for these items to have found a home in the Library, where they are available to be seen, touched, and read.

A selection of images of highlights from the collection can be found on the MoMA Library tumblr.


American Heritage Dictionary. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?id=E5176500

Ekdahl, J. (1999). Artists’ Books and Beyond: The library of the Museum of Modern Art as a curatorial and research resource. INSPEL, 33(4), pp. 241-248.

Leiber, S., Perez, P., & California College of Arts and Crafts. (2001). Extra Art: A survey of artists’ ephemera, 1960-1999. Santa Monica: Smart Art Press.

Phillpot, C. (1995). Flies in the files: ephemera in the art library. Art Documentation: Bulletin Of The Art Libraries Society Of North America, 1(4), pp.13-14.