Rare & Beautiful

The Artist’s Book in America: The Arion Press in the 20th Century

By Peter Kraus August 13, 2020

For most of the twentieth century, books that brought together literature and fine art were largely published in France. Certainly almost none were published in the United States. The advent of the San Francisco-based Arion Press in 1974 changed all that.

Portrait of poet John Ashbery by photographer Richard Avedon, frontispiece to Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1984).

Originating as the Grabhorn Press in 1919, which became an award-winning printer, the enterprise was reconstituted as the Arion Press just over forty-five years ago under the direction of Andrew Hoyem (now retired; Rolph Blythe is the new director) and has issued more than 100 limited-edition artist’s books. Starting off on a modest scale with a small catalogue of some of Hoyem’s own drawings and poems, within four years the Press had published what is probably its most famous book, the splendid 1979 edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick illustrated with 100 wood engravings by Barry Moser, in the classic tradition of the English private press. From the beginning, however, Hoyem broke with one of the key elements of the private press: its tendency to have a strong unifying style. Every Arion book has had its own specific identity. Hoyem’s astonishing ability to sustain this for close to half a century, publishing a steady stream of “conceptually unique” books illustrated by major artists, is what separates the Arion Press from any other publisher.

The Apocalypse: The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, illustrated by Jim Dine. Oak-veneer plywood cover featuring a lightning bolt image drawn by the artist (left) and That Old Serpent, Called the Devil, woodcut from the interior by the artist (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1982).

In 1982, the Arion Press published its first artist’s book, The Apocalypse: The Revelation of Saint John the Divine from the King James version of the Bible. Illustrated with twenty-nine woodcuts by Jim Dine, it set an immensely high bar for the examples that would follow. The book is an American masterpiece, with a stunning design on French handmade paper, and is a true testament to the printer’s ability to collaborate with the artist to create a unique artwork. The Press went on to publish four more books illustrated by Dine, including, in 1984, The Temple of Flora, a massive modern take on an 1807 botanical classic.

Jasper Johns, Summer, etching, frontispiece to Poems by Wallace Stevens (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1985), introduced by Helen Vendler.

The Arion Press quickly settled into a steady publishing program of fascinating diversity. While it has issued the standards of the private press like the Bible and Shakespeare, these have been vastly outnumbered by the works of such authors as Vladimir Nabokov, Tom Stoppard, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett. More significant, the books published have featured illustrations by some of the most important artists of the twentieth century, beginning with Jasper Johns, who contributed an iconic etching to the Press’s superb 1985 edition of Poems by Wallace Stevens. Among the highlights are the monumental edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses with forty etchings by Robert Motherwell; and the spectacular 1984 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery’s famous 1975 poem (inspired by a c. 1624 Parmagianino portrait of the same name) illustrated with circular prints by Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Jim Dine, Richard Avedon, and others, and housed in a movie canister. The roster of prominent artists who have illustrated books published by the Press includes Richard Diebenkorn, R. B. Kitaj, Kara Walker, Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Kiki Smith, William Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, Martin Puryear, and William Kentridge.

Also noteworthy are the Press’s numerous books illustrated with photographs. These include works by Michael Kenna, Lucy Gray, Laurie Simmons, and Diana Michener, among other contemporary photographers.

Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer, illustrated by Martin Puryear. Cover (left) and interior woodblock print (San Francisco; The Arion Press, 2000).

In addition to publishing interesting and provocative pairings of texts and art, the Arion Press has made a tremendous effort to achieve a scholarly underpinning to its work. Most of the books produced are accompanied by introductions by major scholars such as Helen Vendler and Richard Wilbur.

Poems of W. B. Yeats, selected and introduced by Helen Vendler, illustrated by Richard Diebenkorn (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1990). This etching faces a verse from “Apparitions.”

Last, it would be remiss not to emphasize the singular ability of the Press to refuse to stick to a standard format. When one encounters an Arion Press book for the first time, one never knows what format one will be confronted with. It could be Andrew Jackson Grayson’s colossal Birds of the Pacific Slope, a 1986 compilation of ornithological portraits that is a successor to Audubon’s Birds of America; the 1999 metal-bound edition of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or the film canister containing Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. It seems there are almost as many possibilities as there are books. So, while the books published by most presses remain readily identifiable from the way they look, the books of the Arion Press rely on their identity as works of the imagination. Combining a regular diet of interesting authors and artists in ways that remind us of the unending wonder of the printed word, these books underline why it will be so difficult to replace the book with its digital counterpart.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the eleventh installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Unusual Book Design for Unusual Times: Revisiting the Work of Iliazd,” “Desert Island Books,” “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

comments powered by Disqus