Printed Matter is pleased to present a survey of artists’ books by American book artist and poet Wally Depew, spanning nearly 40 years of the artist’s practice. The exhibition is on view at our Chelsea location from March 9–April 11, 2024. On occasion of the show, Printed Matter is offering many of Depew’s out-of-print publications for purchase, available in thematic collections and individually.

Wally Depew (1938–2007) was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and later moved to New York City where he began publishing Poetry Newsletter in 1964. Around this time he started to release small, minimalist-inspired flipbooks composed of geometric shapes and ordinary language, and over the years he continuously expanded the medium of artists’ books through experiments in concrete poetry and graphic illustration. His synthesis of visual and typographical elements drew influence from Dada and conceptual artists like Kurt Schwitters and Sol LeWitt and his literary forebears include Gertrude Stein and the Oulipo author Raymond Queneau. While he was relatively unknown throughout his career, Depew worked steadily to produce a large number of experimental books spanning nearly 40 years.

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Collection of ten early experimental publications by Wally Depew, 1970–74. Available here

Depew and Concrete Poetry

Also known as visual poetry, concrete poetry combines linguistic and graphical elements to develop meaning in the form of a poem. The arrangement and fracture of words and letters on the page shifts the text into a visual composition that resists typical methods of reading. While Dada and Futurist artists popularized the genre in the early 20th century, the style dates back to the Ancient Greek poet Simmias of Rhodes (ca. 300 BC). Depew’s books employ a wide range of different approaches to the medium, showcasing his experiments in communication through image and text. Some of his contemporaries working in a similar fashion include Dick Higgins, Richard Kostelanetz, Bern Porter, Dieter Roth, and Emmett Williams.

Depew writes in the preface to Once, “I am not playing with letters or words to give them new meanings or for them to be seen in new ways. I am playing with communication and power.” Many of Depew’s works began as a simple woodblock print or arrangement of stenciled letters and shapes, which would then be altered and reproduced on a mimeograph machine. Following the iterative techniques employed within the texts, the aggregation of the books reveals the significance of iteration and serialization that appears throughout his entire career.
  • Once by Wally Depew; Paradise, CA: Dustbooks, 1971.

PN2 Experiment Series & Iteration

Depew published 30 books under the label of “PN2 Experiment,” a series he began creating in the late 1960s. Each book serves as a variation on an aesthetic, linguistic, or semantic theme. Some begin with a single letter that is altered in size and shape, while others track subtle shifts of plain geometrical objects. Each publication in this series concludes with a bibliography that provides insight into his sources of inspiration.

These books are included in the PN2 Experiment series and show some of Depew’s innovative techniques of physical intervention. They are distinguished by the physical alterations Depew applied to the pages by burning, impressing, perforating, and gluing down foreign objects. In other miniature series such as The Five Cent Scarlet Ink Books and The Tangerine Books, ink is applied to the pages through various methods. As a result of this technique, each book in the edition is realized as a unique copy.

Although Depew rarely included a proper title page in his books, nearly all of them feature a bibliography. The cited works draw from a wide variety of different genres and periods that expand the conceptual reach of his own book. Frequently cited artists and writers include Guillaume Apollinaire, John Cage, Alfred Jarry and Gertrude Stein, but sprinkled amongst them are mechanics manuals, novels, philosophy, and musical compositions.

Poetry Newsletter

In 1964, Depew began publishing Poetry Newsletter, a monthly mailer that presented the work of a diverse ensemble of artists and writers in and outside of New York City. Contributors included Charles Bukowski, Kirby Congdon, Sam Cornish, Judson Crews, Stanley Fisher, Richard Krech, d.a. levy and others associated with Beat, Fluxus, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and the Black Arts Movement. The aim of Poetry Newsletter was “to present good poetry in an informal unpretentious format while serving our readers with reviews and a list of Poetry Happenings in the city, and to do this cheaply.” After releasing 12 issues, Poetry Newsletter closed in 1966 and Depew and his wife and collaborator, Linda Bandt Depew, moved to California.

Dust Magazine

Dust was an art and literary magazine first published in 1964 by Len Fulton out of the San Francisco Bay area. Depew became the head editor in 1970 when he moved to Sacramento and became involved in the West Coast poetry scene. Original work by Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard and Steve McCaffery, amongst others, are featured in the four known issues edited by Depew (Dust 14–17). Around this same time Depew served as the magazine editor for The Small Press Review.

In 1970 Depew began publishing small, limited run books under the name Poetry Newsletter, or PN Books—including works by Jean-François Bory, Richard Kostelanetz, D.R. Wagner, and Hannah Weiner. His years spent moving across different disciplines and geographical regions put him in touch with a large body of known and unknown artists and writers, many of whom he would later collaborate with.

After living in California for a long period, Depew and his wife, Linda Bandt Depew, moved to Patagonia, Arizona where he continued to publish titles under the name Bright Moments Press. Depew’s work around this period appears more personal and intimate—many of the books are inspired by the natural landscape of the desert and reveal a closer collaboration with Linda, who was responsible for designing and creating the book covers and packaging.

1986 Depew began publishing books in editions of 49 under Bright Moments Press, each signed and numbered. These books reflect his earlier book experiments, where hand stamped originals are mimeographed and a bibliography is included in the back. Each title features a hand-realized cover and frontispiece, and several employ his techniques of physical intervention that render each book into a unique copy.

  • Art by Wally Depew; Patagonia, AZ: Bright Moments Press, 1986

Exhibition Support

We thank The Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry for their generous donations that have made this presentation possible.

This exhibition is supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thank you to Conveyor Studio for their in-kind support.