Alexandra Grant recently discovered the real-life version of her imaginary paradise: an aptly named publishing mecca called Book City, located an hour north of her newly opened painting exhibition at Positive Art Center in Seoul. Back when she was “a baby artist” mapping out her career at the California College of the Arts, the 49-year-old realized no matter how much she pursues painting, literature will always be her no. 1. She’s since gone on to publish many a title through X Artists Books (the press she runs with her longtime partner and collaborator Keanu Reeves) and write a number of her own—the most recent of which may be her most noteworthy yet.
Love: A Visual History of the grantLOVE Project chronicles the 14 years Grant has spent selling and producing artworks and editions to benefit nonprofits in the arts. And while a reflection on philanthropy may sound snoozy, Grant makes it captivating: She considers it her responsibility to make sure the issues—both within the system and among its members—aren’t overlooked. The book is also a portrait of how Grant has successfully answered the question she asked herself at the very start: “I wanted to be an artist but also someone who worked to give back to civic society—how [is] it possible to be a civic artist?” Ahead of its December 6 release, Grant reflects on her journey to balancing philanthropy and her artistic practice and shares her Culture Diet questionnaire.
I was not expecting for the connection between you and Roxane Gay, who wrote the book’s foreword, to be that you went to high school together. Then I looked it up and was like, wait—Mark Zuckerberg went there, too?
At Exeter [in New Hampshire], we had this little book called the Facebook with everyone’s photos and contact info—organized alphabetically, so Roxane and I were on the same page. When Mark started the Facebook at Harvard, we were all like, You just took the thing from high school and made it digital—what’s so special about that? I have mine somewhere; I found it because Debbie Millman, who is Roxane’s wife, asked me what she was like [back then].
I was shocked to read that at the time you launched grantLOVE, which has gone on to produce so many artist editions, you were being asked to donate artworks multiple times a week.
For me, that’s the genesis of this project. I am genuinely a very sensitive person, and I know that against my own self interest, I would give away more than I had. This is from when I was a kid: My mom would give me my allowance and then I’d give it away to the children on the street. When I started [grantLOVE], I was more of a struggling artist than a working artist. I was searching for a way to be generous, to be a member of civic society through my profession, and looking at photographers thinking, they’re so lucky they can print editions.
The book mainly highlights your collaborations with brands like Oscar de la Renta and spotlights collectors at home with their “love” works. But it also doesn’t shy from the issues you had in projectLOVE’s early years—namely, the dissolution of the nonprofit you first collaborated with, Watts House Project, and your legal battle with Cartier over the “love” trademark.
I’m a terrible liar. But I also feel like the book is not just saying these things happened—I didn’t want to shy from what can happen when you try to do good, which is an idea that can be problematic in itself. There’s a sense of ethical responsibility, which I realized I had after these outsized problems [alongside] outsized success. I learned that Robert Indiana never controlled the intellectual property of his love symbol at Swarthmore, and that sent me off to trademark my love symbol, which then caused more problems for the first few years. But [the Cartier lawsuit] helped me understand that when someone is threatened by you and your thing, you’ve created something with value.
Getting into the Culture Diet questions, what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
I do Duolingo in German; I’ve completed up to day 319. In 2020 and 2021, we lived in Berlin—Keanu was making The Matrix and John Wick 4, and I was painting for a group show at Carlier Gebauer.
Can we expect another book from the two of you?
Yes—we’re going to do a Japanese-language version of [Grant and Reeves’s book] Ode to Happiness. We got Shuntarō Tanikawa, who’s a very important, OG Japanese poet, to translate it.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour, Hélène Cixous’s new book Mdeilmm, and a lot of Olga Tokarczuk. I just finished Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and now I’m on to Flights.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Tár—and oh my god. Talk about a script, a director, and an actor. I have a studio in Berlin, and my landlord is a cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic who has given me incredible insight into how that world really works.
What’s the last piece of art you bought?
A diamond-shaped lamp with spider legs by the wonderful sculptor Jinwoo Kim. I showed up back at the Positive Art Center [in Seoul, where Grant just mounted her first Asia exhibition] holding this thing and everyone was like, what… Both of my parents were folk art collectors, and as a child, my mom would come home with, like, a giant wooden alligator.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
I love “Hotel California.” I see it as a sort of magical song because it’s so ubiquitous and mysterious—I don’t think anyone knows what it’s about. And I love pop music, so there’s a lot of that. For example, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”—for me, that song is for when there’s bad energy. It works! [Laughs.] I’ve also been known to play it in groups.
Who are your favorite people to follow on Instagram?
There are so many, but @jerrygogosian would be my no. 1. And I can’t say that I don’t love @upworthy. I like seeing stories about cute dogs and puppies, and I like that it shows you that the news focuses on horrible things instead of what’s actually going on most of the time.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Now, probably apply 12 layers of Korean creams. [Laughs.] I went to the pharmacy on a day off in Seoul with a dermatologist in training who translated everything, which was heaven. Really, I power down all electronics and have some sort of communication about gratitude—to be thankful for the day, say how lucky we are, and get that bigger picture back in place.