Remembering Steven Leiber
I am sad to write that Steven Leiber has died after a long illness. Steve was a participant in Public Collectors. You can listen to hours of recordings of Steve discussing artist’s boxed editions with his assistant Amber Hasselbring on these pages on the Public Collectors website. He was also a friend of the group Temporary Services, that I am a member of. We often sent him packages of our publications.
Others will be able to speak to Steven’s many accomplishments better than I can, but I will say with certainty that Steven Leiber was one of the world’s top experts on artists’ books and printed ephemera. He is the author of the book Extra Art: A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera 1960-1999; it is a tremendous resource. Steve also produced many dealer’s catalogs that each pay tribute to specific artist’s books and are interesting creative works in their own right. His website, stevenleiberbasement.com, is a valuable archive of information.
I first met Steven Leiber back in January, 2003 when Temporary Services was exhibiting at Southern Exposure in San Francisco in a show curated by Steve’s friend and colleague Ted Purves. I had just met the collaborative duo It Can Change who were helping with our exhibit. They were going to Steve’s place to look at books and invited me along.
We arrived at the residence and Steve offered me a bottle of good beer with the warning: “Don’t spill it on Anything.” I gripped the bottle with two hands and he proceeded to show us plenty of amazing artist’s books and multiples. He asked me what I wanted to see and appeared a little annoyed that I wasn’t instantly ready with a precise request. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities! When I asked if he had any books by the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, just giving him a name wasn’t quite enough. “I have everything. What do you want to see?”
A visit a few years later with my Temporary Services collaborator Brett Bloom was equally rewarding. Brett asked if Steve had anything by the group Ant Farm and of course he had plenty. He brought out books, original drawings, and several posters with burn marks around the edges. They had been rescued from the fire that destroyed the group’s studio and effectively ended Ant Farm’s collaboration.
The depth of Steven’s collection was extraordinary, but much more amazing was his generosity in sharing it, and the exactitude with which he could recite critical details about seemingly any object. And if he didn’t have the facts in his head, he knew exactly where to find them and probably had reference materials on hand that could instantly put a question to rest.
The few times I visited Steve’s basement left a deep impression on me. He was a dealer but he was also a teacher - both informally and at California College of the Arts. He never once pressured me to buy something. My few visits to Steve Leiber’s basement were one of the inspirations to start Public Collectors, and to promote the need for more direct sharing and greater access to obscure cultural materials that reside in private hands. With Steven Leiber, I saw that it is one thing to look at a rare object in person and to have that tactile experience, but it becomes so much more when the collector can illuminate the ideas and history behind an object in great detail. Steve cared about the specifics of an artist’s work and ideas like no one else I have ever met.
To be taken seriously by Steven Leiber felt like a real compliment, but if a fact wasn’t remembered accurately or you didn’t know something he thought you should know, you could be sure that he would say something. I’ll never forget the time when I admitted that I was unfamiliar with a certain mail art piece by the artist Jan Dibbets that he referenced in conversation. First Steve said “You know it.” I admitted that I did not. Then he said: “You HAVE to know it.” Still nothing. Then he got out a book and showed it to me in the book. I couldn’t lie; I didn’t remember learning about it. Finally he just pulled out the postcard itself, slapped it on the table, and said: “THIS!”
He could be intimidating for sure, but he was so generous, so smart, so kind to artists who were trying to learn the histories that were so meaningful to him, and he was also just really fucking funny. It was terrific fun pushing his buttons. On one visit he pointed out the various contents of a very tall and heavy-looking block of about fifty banker’s boxes filled with all kinds of printed treasures. I pointed to the most deeply buried box at the center and the bottom of the massive stack and asked: “Could we look in this one?” He dryly replied: “Oh, that’s really rich, Fischer.”
Though distance prevented me from spending nearly as much time with Steve as I would have liked, his death is a terribly saddening loss. There will never be another person like Steven Leiber.