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May 15, 2017

Stanford Libraries’ new exhibit examines the career of Peter Koch, esteemed Bay Area fine press printer, designer, and publisher

Peter Koch retrospective exhibition poster. Photograph by Jonathan Gerken, 2011. Poster design by Becky Fischbach

Peter Koch Printer: A Forty-year Retrospective opens May 24 and runs through October 15, 2017 in the Cecil H. Green Library on the Stanford campus

Peter Koch, whose training, influences, and achievements place him in the lineage of San Francisco literary fine press printers, has long been recognized as one of the most accomplished printers and typographic designers of his generation. The exhibition Peter Koch Printer: A Forty-year Retrospective at Stanford’s Green Library features his published works 1974–2016 and spans wide-ranging territory, from cowboy surrealism to pre-Socratic philosophy, and from contemporary and Renaissance poetry to hard-hitting requiems to the American West.

Stanford Libraries acquired the Peter Koch archive, which includes his work in publishing limited edition livres d’artistes, broadsides, portfolios, and what Koch calls “text transmission objects,” in 2007.

“The Koch papers are unlike any other collection at Stanford in scope and depth for the study of fine press printing and state of the art for the contemporary handmade book,” said Roberto Trujillo, Assistant University Librarian and the Frances and Charles Field Curator of Special Collections. “The records and work in the Koch collection are as much about a history of printing as they are about Koch the artist."


Koch spent his youth in Montana, steeped in the lore of the American West and witness to its aftermath of environmental and cultural destruction, which continues to influence his work more than four decades later. His aesthetic was subsequently shaped by apprenticeship to the great San Francisco printer Adrian Wilson as well as close study of the work of Jack Stauffacher and William Everson, and matured through various imprints in studios in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Venice.

Montana Gothic Vol. 5, Winter 1977 Peter Koch, Editor; Shelley Hoyt-Koch, Graphics & Design Editor Missoula, Montana: Black Stone Press

Koch’s printing career began in Missoula, where he founded Black Stone Press in 1974 and operated it with artist Shelley Hoyt-Koch, to whom he was married. The press’s first publication, Montana Gothic (1974–1977), best described as a cowboy surrealist literary journal, prompted William S. Burroughs to comment, “Montana Gothic poets may seem like strapping cowboys chugging absinthe and shooting out streetlights, but they are damned fine shots.”

The press relocated to San Francisco in 1978 and closed six years later. Koch subsequently published under press names that reveal his eclectic interests and seriousness of purpose as well as his irreverence: Peter Koch, Typographic Design; Peter and the Wolf Editions; Editions Koch; Hormone Derange Editions; Last Chance Gulch; and Peter Koch Printer.   

In 1990, with Herakleitos, Koch began a series of works by Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, and ventured into a new realm of art practice. “Herakleitos led me out of the framework of traditional typographic refinement into what I believed to be the arena of the book as a work of art,” Koch said in a 2015 interview.

Herakleitos The complete fragments of Herakleitos in the original Greek with an accompanying translation by Guy Davenport.  Peter Koch Printer, 1990 

Several works based on Greek philosophical texts followed, most notably The Fragments of Parmenides (2004), a ten-year, multi-faceted collaboration with translator Robert Bringhurst, stonecutter Christopher Stinehour, type designer Dan Carr (whom Koch commissioned to cut and cast a new Greek type for the edition), typesetter Richard Seibert, engraver Richard Wagener, and bookbinders Peggy Gotthold and Daniel Kelm. 

The 2005 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition became a galvanizing point for a group of publications described collectively as the “Montana Suite.” To date, this group of work consists of four titles: Hard Words (with Griff Williams, 2000); Nature Morte (2005); The Lost Journals of Sacajewea (with Debra Magpie Earling, 2010); and Liber Ignis (with Adam Cornford, 2015), each of which reveals aspects of the transformation of the American West by European migration and the destruction of native territory and traditions through a process Koch describes as “photo interventions.”

Describing his motivation for these works, Koch says “by my fifty-seventh year, I had buried most of my Montana family and inherited their books and manuscripts, as well as their dreams and responsibilities. I came, finally, to the realization that I owed a deep debt to the land and tribe(s) I grew up in. . . . I had the tools and the knowledge to shape a new way of seeing Montana, shorn of the myths that I was expected to swallow—especially the gospel of Manifest Destiny and all the inglorious puffery about civilizing the American West.”

Poetry—contemporary American, classical Greek, and Italian Renaissance—forms the warp of Koch’s publishing cloth; its weft is the creative work of his many collaborators, whose engravings, etchings, drawings, collages, and paintings accompany and animate the texts he chooses to print. Richly varied but never predictable, Koch’s work has an integrity that arises out of his engagement with ideas, and design solutions that, in his own words, cut close to the bone of meaning and content.”

Koch is co-director with his wife, paper conservator Susan Filter, of the Codex Foundation (est. 2005), devoted to preserving and promoting the book as a work of art. The foundation organizes the biannual CODEX International Book Fair and Symposium, which brings artists who work in the form of the book from all over the world to the Bay Area with support from Stanford University Libraries among many other institutions and individuals.

In conjunction with the retrospective exhibition, Stanford Libraries and Editions Koch co-produced an illustrated catalogue and descriptive bibliography. The catalogue consists of three volumes, sold as a set. For description and purchasing information, contact Peter Koch Printers & Editions Koch, or go to


Editor’s Note: Exhibit cases are illuminated daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to call 650-723-0931 or visit confirm hours. 

The exhibition is free and open to the public; first-time visitors and those without Stanford ID must register at the entrance to Green Library before entering the building.


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