HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Library Hosts Showing of Artists' Books
By Marvin Hightower
What is a book?
Few questions sound sillier or more unnecessary in an academic setting. Stop by Widener Rotunda sometime soon, however, and the answer becomes anything but foolishly self-evident.
There, through Oct. 31, Houghton Library has mounted "The New Storytellers: One-of-a-Kind Artists' Books in Boston Libraries and Museums," a show whose 29 works collectively subvert most traditional conceptions of "book," prompting second thoughts about that most basic of questions.
Expressive options range virtually without limit. Some artists transform existing books by adding painting or collage, for instance. Others, seizing on the sculptural nature of books-as-objects, construct their volumes as geometric forms. Some demote words to merely decorative functions within a larger design. Still others whimsically serve up traditionally minor components like cloth as books in their own right.
Even this small sampling of artists from France, Germany, Great Britain, Latvia, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. demonstrates the genre's strong international appeal -- and it is growing, says organizer Joan Nordell, who has served as director of the Boston Athenaeum's Twenty-First Century Fund since retiring three years ago from a 25-year University Library career. Guiding her throughout has been Anne Anninger, Houghton's Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts.
So what are artists' books, and where do they come from?
Nordell traces them back to experiments in the '60s and distinguishes this recent genre from "livres d'artistes or livres de peintres [traditionally defined artists' or painters' books], where Bonnard and Picasso, for example, magnificently illustrate classical texts. This is a different form, in which the artist tells his or her own stories instead of illustrating somebody else's. It's a very personal, creative art, and people at all levels are doing it," from grade-school classrooms to colleges of art.
Last year, in fact, 450 students from the Mass. College of Art, the Boston Museum School, the Art Institute of Boston, B.U., and other local institutions studied artists' books and other book-related rarities in Houghton's Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, which houses most of the books now on display.
Book artists are also using computers in various ways, but the show could not accommodate examples of their work. The most thoroughly electronic experiments have produced virtual books -- and real disappointment, Anninger says, as artists recognize the absence of qualities that only physical objects possess.
Anninger, who regularly examines a broad sampling of artists' books as she continues to build Houghton's collection, believes that today's artists are pushing the book to its conceptual limits in ways that some may find "threatening." Her experienced eye, however, perceives the genre as a meditation or "reflection" on the book as form.
"The artists care about the form of the book and what is essential to it, which is mainly a sequencing of some of the pages, the intimacy of expression, and the intimacy of reception. The form of the book has exploded but has nevertheless kept a book concept." Even in their most extreme departures, she says, artists are all trying to confront and define "what 'bookness' is."
Again and again, the show illustrates her point. Standing on relatively familiar ground, for example, are works that look like traditional books but have the distinction of being entirely handmade or radically altered by artistic intervention. Meg Black's Northern Light (1991), a series of hand-bound color prints exploring outdoor light in winter landscapes, belongs to this category. Opened for viewing are two shorelines in which Black admirably captures the paradoxical see-through clarity and reflective opacity of watery surfaces.
In Altered Lewitt (1985), Buzz Spector does a literal new take on Sol Lewitt by reconfiguring an illustrated paperback of the sculptor's works. Taking advantage of a format in which each work appears uniformly scaled and centered, Spector has meticulously torn off pages in a stairstep pattern that slopes down like a ramp from the center toward the covers and collapses overlapping slivers of many works into two composite "Lewitts" never envisioned by the original artist.
Using different methods, Carl Heywood transforms Living with Others: A Book on Social Conduct, a 1939 book by Laurence Goodrich illustrated with cartoons of social situations in which black people play no part. Heywood's 1987 modifications introduce mixed-media images of black life directly onto the page to generate an ironic dissonance between the book's promisingly inclusive title and its disappointingly exclusive content.
African themes animate Mary McCarthy's Rhythms (1988). The featured opening presents silver cutout hands against heavy black paper dancing with spots, white zebra stripes, and stylized human figures. McCarthy's raw materials (e.g., Mexican bark paper, papyrus, banana bark) enhance the illusion that she has conjured up the world of prehistoric cave paintings in which artists "signed" their work with palm prints.
Black paper (with monotype and gilt) also sets off the rarefied calligraphy of Gino Lee in Seven Japanese Poems (1991), an elongated book of 9th- to 12th-century Japanese verse in English translations by Carl Kay. Lee's exquisite sense of placement and proportion reconciles the seemingly irreconcilable, as supremely lyrical calligraphic grace holds its own against the larger void that, in less skillful hands, would engulf it.
Although still recognizably books, Paul Johnson's Visions and Laughter (both 1994) subvert standard expectations of content within a fanciful, palm-size form. The covers of these minibooks slope downward from the upper edges, and a tightly spiraled paper tube (reminiscent of a loosened grease-pencil wrapper) erupts from each upper spine. Festively splotched and lined with red, purple, yellow, silver, and black, each volume houses a single line of text and numerous irregularly cut pages echoing the cover decoration.
Words are not the main content of Johnson's books, but his words, at least, are legible. In Pamet Harbor: Poetic Forms (watercolor and ink; 1994), Marian Parry adds illegible script to clouds above her pastel evocations of summer in Maine, suggesting that only the ineffable language of dreams can match her vision. This in turn frees viewers to absorb what they can from their own direct encounter with the work.
Jean Evans pushes form and content to a humorous outer limit in Lettuce (1995; second in her "garden-variety" series), made entirely of word-bearing ribbons and stiffened cloth (lace borders and various coarse-mesh weaves). If Cinderella were a book, this is how she might go to the ball. The exuberant spray of "leaves" plants this work firmly among Anninger's "exploded" forms. Subtly hidden among the many-layered fabrics, words (in a typeface Evans designed in honor of retired Hofer Curator Eleanor Garvey) play hide-and-seek on their respective ribbons and make conventional linear reading impossible. "Reading" this book is a purely tactile and visual experience.
Geometry has inspired several artists to produce what might be called "controlled explosions" of book form. Artist Timothy C. Ely and book artist/engineer Daniel E. Kelm, for example, teamed up to produce the extraordinary refinement and precision of Turning to Face (1989), a set of five wire-hinged parallelograms that can be formed into various polyhedrons, including triangular-base pyramids. Each parallelogram teems with dense hieroglyphics and geometrical graphs that resemble close-ups of antique maps. Everything folds up into an elegant inverted-triangle box that stands as a sculptural object in its own right. Here again, the "reading material" is purely tactile and visual.
John Broaddus's Space Shot (1987) combines geometry with traditional book concepts in an imaginative visual narrative. Broaddus heightens the discovery inherent in page-turning by creating geometric cutout grilles on every page, with pop-up human forms along the way. Each turn of the page thus creates a fresh sculptural event, as the depth and content of the see-through grilles progressively shift.
Pop-ups, so readily associated with children's books, take an unexpectedly serious turn in Beth Thielen's Sentences: Words Spoken in Prison to an Artist (1990). Based on Thielen's experiences as artist-in-residence for the California Corrections Department, this brief work makes a lasting impression, Anninger says. "There are only six sentences and six monoprints, but the message is very powerful, [conveying] the disdain and contempt of some of the guards for the women prisoners, and then the sense of absolute loss that these women have in their confinement."
Nordell has discovered that artists' books are still new enough to be largely unfamiliar. But with more than three decades of creativity behind them and with young artists regularly exposed to the genre, such books can hardly remain obscure much longer. They offer tangible proof that we have neither seen nor heard the last word on one of humanity's greatest inventions.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College