It took a pandemic to slow down Elena Ochoa Foster. In normal times, the Spanish publisher is a 21st-century nomad. As likely to open her eyes in Venice or London as her home city, Madrid, she was accustomed to a life where she “wakes up and — bing, bang”, she slaps her hands on her Zoom screen, “I’d be in meetings, on planes . . . ”
For most of the past year, however, Ochoa Foster has remained, alongside her husband, the architect Norman Foster, at their home in Engadin in the Swiss Alps. “It has been a huge change for good,” she says. “For me and the whole family. This is a place full of silence,” she continues, her eyes dancing with an innate joie de vivre that Zoom can do nothing to damp. “Most years, I never had time to discover the paths, the beautiful lakes. [This year] I swam for the first time.”
She smiles at the memory before adding that she also finally paid a visit to the “stone of Nietzsche” — the rock near Lake Silvaplana on which the German philosopher was sitting when he dreamt up the concept of eternal recurrence that underpins Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Ochoa Foster may not have visited Nietzsche’s rock before but I’d bet my Zoom account she’s read his books. A genuine polymath, she is the founder and chief executive officer of Ivorypress, the pioneering Madrid-based publisher whose artists’ books are a byword for innovation.
She is also an art curator and patron whose current commitments include serving as chair of the council of the Serpentine Galleries in London and as a trustee of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. When I ask her how she thinks international museums should navigate waters made even choppier by Covid’s financial decimations, she doesn’t hesitate. “We need businessmen and women to transfer their expertise” to the management of museums, she says. She believes that a “holistic approach” — such as the one pursued at the Serpentine, which sees museums embrace dance, film and technology as well as the visual arts — is essential if they are to “keep themselves alive” in a world where such boundaries mean increasingly little to younger generations.
Ochoa Foster herself exemplifies a successful multidisciplinary approach. Before turning to the cultural sphere, she spent nearly two decades as titular professor of psychopathology at Complutense University of Madrid. In the 1990s, she found fame when she presented a progressive Spanish TV show about sex that helped liberate attitudes in what was still a conservative society.
Ochoa Foster chooses to remain guarded about her early life. But she has written that her love of books was seeded in her childhood in Ourense, Galicia, and she grew up viewing books as a “private refuge, an inspiration and a source of discoveries”. She pays tribute to a trio of high school teachers — “Latin, mathematics and philosophy” — who instilled in her a passion for learning.
Her 360-degree vision has led Ivorypress to produce books whose sculptural exuberance defies categorisation. Our conversation is motivated by the house’s 25th anniversary, an occasion marked by Looking Forward, a box set containing three volumes, Words, Books and Stories, whose contents illuminate a journey that has included collaborations with Olafur Eliasson, Ai Weiwei, Anselm Kiefer, Anthony Caro, Maya Lin and Eduardo Chillida. An international exhibition is also planned to travel through venues including the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.
Ochoa Foster sees herself “as an instrument. I am a bridge, an agitator, to push the artist to go to their limit.”
As an example of just how far they will go, she holds a scarlet book up to the screen. “This is Richard Tuttle,” she says, naming the US artist whose wizardry with scraps of cloth, wood and bits of string has made him one of the world’s most oblique yet captivating contemporary artists. Foster slots the book into a narrow, golden object on the table in front of her.
“Richard said: ‘I want to talk about colours and on the way, I will make a symphony or an instrument which conveys the way I feel about colour . . . ’”
Rather than politely tell Tuttle that his idea was too arcane, Ochoa Foster invited him to London to work on the concept. The result was NotThePoint. Faceted from sycamore wood, the curves of the golden sculpture recall the shape of a mandolin. Carved into the surface are openings designed to hold five individual, hand-bound books whose texts expound on Tuttle’s chromatic philosophies. “It’s a piece of literature about colour,” says Foster, picking up the books and waving them at me one by one. “But it’s also [like] a beautiful musical instrument.”
Ivorypress came about in 1995 when Ochoa Foster, then deep in her academic career, realised she needed a “change in my personal and professional life” if she was to have “the freedom to travel and be with Norman”. The idea was planted by Robert Sainsbury, the art collector whose family name graces the exhibition centre on the campus of the University of East Anglia that was designed by Ochoa Foster’s husband.
“The Sainsburys were like parents to me,” recalls Foster. “We talked a lot about books. One day, Robert said: ‘You love books. Why don’t you start . . . ’”
In this new world, research in the British Library was followed by trips to specialist binders, artisans and papermakers. Respectful of avant-garde forebears such as Tériade — who produced Jazz by Matisse — she thought, “I don’t want to do the same as those great ones. I want to give the artist the book of their dreams.”
The first book she published was Reflections (2002) on behalf of Eduardo Chillida, the Spanish Basque sculptor who died in the same year as the publication. “I’m so sorry he passed away before his time,” says Foster. “But [if he hadn’t] I think I’d still be working on it now!”
Perfectionism, both her own and that of the artists, means that Ivorypress projects often take years. The design of Reflections was reimagined quite late in the production process after the discovery of a notebook of Chillida’s writings that offered valuable insights. “I had to put it in,” she recalls now, of the decision to include a facsimile. “There was no choice.”
The work of Ivorypress goes beyond artists’ books to include curatorial collaborations with other venues, a fertile publishing output (disclosure: I have written a text for Ivorypress) and an exhibition space.
Two years ago, I visited the Madrid gallery while it was hosting Breath, an exhibition by Edmund de Waal in which the display cases for his ethereal sculptures in porcelain, marble and gilding were themselves designed as open books. At its heart was an artists’ book dedicated to the Romanian poet Paul Celan fashioned out of materials that included vellum, gold leaf and liquid porcelain. At once transient as smoke yet ancient as a forest, the volume was a bold, delicate homage to a poet revered as an elegist for the Holocaust.
“It was a big gamble but Elena is fearless,” says de Waal, when I ask him how he found the process of working with Ochoa Foster. “She is so well-read that when I mentioned Celan, she was there, straight away, in the conversation with me. It was of the very few occasions when somebody says: ‘I don’t mind how long this project takes, I will support you to the end.’ She is a rare person in the art world: someone who doesn’t want simply to commodify or deliver. Working with her was an extraordinarily creative experience.”
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