Dustin Yellin has always been into books. His collection includes one owned by Robert Frost in which the poet scribbled a verse, and he has the first English translation of Nostradamus from the 17th century. All this is to say nothing of his scores of books published by Olympia Press, home to Lolita and Naked Lunch when everyone else turned them away.
“When I was younger and a little wilder,” Yellin, 39, said over the phone, “I would meet with my collectors at the Strand—the beloved bookstore on Broadway in Manhattan—before I had had any real success, and say, ‘Listen, take me to the rare-book department, buy me this one, buy me this one and this one and, uh, I’ll give you a painting, OK?’”
Yellin is no stranger to the world of publishing. Among the many projects at his Pioneer Works art space and studio in Brooklyn is the publication of a biannual magazine called Intercourse that Yellin helps edit. But on March 3 he debuted, with art-book publisher Rizzoli, his most comprehensive project in his much-loved medium, the monograph Dustin Yellin: Heavy Water.
At first, Yellin intended for the book to focus on his dense 3-D collage The Triptych (2012), a 17-foot-long piece that took years to complete. It seems to tell the entire history of this planet, and really is worthy of its own book. Another idea was to focus on his “Psychogeographies,” an ever-growing series of human-form sculptures that has been in progress for seven years. (Yellin already has plans for a traveling museum show of around 40 of these works; the book serves as a testing ground for that.) There was another idea for a book with transparent pages that would mimic Yellin’s collages, which are displayed suspended in resin or glass.
But: “I think this is going to go into Barnes and Noble,” Yellin said. “I don’t know that that many people know my work.
“I guess I always think of myself as a kid,” he added.
So he decided an overview, or more of an introduction, might be better. The result skips from his slides (“frozen examples of my building blocks”) to his smaller work to cave and room constructions to the larger work (The Triptych and his “Psychogeographies”) all with close-ups that linger on small details. The book is front-loaded with essays by Alanna Heiss, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Andrew Durbin.
Yellin said he fretted about certain things that had been left out of the book just before it came out, books being so final, even for an artist who works with elaborate glass constructions. But, he said, now that he had the book in his hands he was quite pleased with it.
“I’m just so thrilled I have something to give away now,” he said. “Better to give away books than art. I’ll get yelled at less.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bookworm.”