Bookmarking Book Art – An Online Annotation of “The Book Made Art” (1986)

Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:

A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985).

The handful of images below would lead anyone to suspect that the 49 works (many loaned by Zwicker) were selected to startle and, in a subtle way, challenge the notion that ”a representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery”. The peculiar shape of the exhibition catalogue deepens the suspicion. The rest of its design and identity of its designer — Buzz Spector — clinch it.

Abt, Jeffrey. The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary Artists’ Books, exhibited in the Joseph Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago, February through April 1986. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1986.

While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in the catalogue ring true. The catalogue design itself, however, chimes not only to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.

Not long after this 1986 exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures and cover as well as its letter forms and their placement on the spread page — as having a syntax. With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and and this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page seals the self-reflexive joke of the markings throughout the catalogue.

Page 36 and cover 3 from The Book Made Art (1986)
Permission of the curator and designer.

The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:

The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a more than passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — Buzz Spector, “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p.13.

The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.

Pages 14 and 20 of The Book Made Art (1986)
Permission of the curator and designer.

But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding this catalogue of The Book Made Art might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.

The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:

Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — John Perreault, “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”, in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973 (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.

By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire.

With the catalogue for The Book Made Art being so scarce and with its inclusion of images of only 13 of the 49 works displayed, it is difficult to reconstruct and imagine what the exhibition must have been like. Why try? By the mid-80s, book art had opened its arms to a variety of works not existing in the 1960s to mid-70s when the Moore College of Art and the Nigel Greenwood landmark exhibitions occurred. From what the catalogues for Dianne Perry Vanderlip’s Artists’ Books and Germano Celant’s Book as Artwork: 1960/72 convey, from the images for each that can be found, the experience in Philadelphia and London must have differed greatly from that in Chicago with The Book Made Art.

From left: Image from Jonathan Hill, Bookseller; images from Books On Books Collection.

What follows is a resource for comparing and contrasting The Book Made Art with the two earlier catalogues. Although he is present in The Book Made Art through Spector’s Altered LeWitt entry, Lewitt and many of the earlier catalogues’ illuminati are missing: Art-Language (Atkinson, Baldwin, Burn, Hurrell, Kosuth and Ramsden), Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Mel Bochner, Stanley Brouwn, John Cage, Robert Filliou, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Phillips, Dieter Rot, Ed Ruscha, Daniel Spoerri, Lawrence Weiner and Emmet Williams. These omissions leave The Book Made Art with fewer works that are purely text-based, algorithmic or typographic (as in construction poetry). The overarching impression — urged on by Spector’s inspired design — is that The Book Made Art emphasizes more of the painterly and sculptural and offers a new group of claimants to the circle of book art illuminati: Beube, Broaddus, Löhr, Share, Smith, Spector, Van Horn and several others shown below.

In addition to images retrieved or provided by the artists, links to information about the artists, to sources or images of the displayed work or to images of similar work are offered. Where possible the links provided are persistent links (avoiding “Page Not Found” messages). As with the online annotation of Celant’s Book as Artwork: 1960/72 (see Further Reading), this one offers some comparison/contrast links to earlier and later bookworks to aid in appreciating continuities and departures.

Also under Further Reading, Jeffrey Abt has kindly provided additional context about the roles played by Tony Zwicker and Robert Rosenthal, Curator of Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library, in making The Book Made Art possible.

Caveat lector/observator: Even with a work’s measurements supplied by the catalogue, it is difficult to call to the mind’s eyes and hands the presence of the object — even harder to imagine the experience of an exhibition and its environment. Measure or scale is not the only issue. As one of the artists below — Timothy Ely — puts it: “Time is scale” and “On the scale of time, some books may well last a thousand years and a drawing on a beach only a few hours. Exhibits end and fortunes change.” But then that’s why it’s called an essay.

The Artists and their Works

Algardi, Alessandro. L’Immagine della scrittura [maquette]. Milan? (1983). Paint and graphite pencil over paper; codex binding in calf; 12 leaves. Signed. 20 3/16” x 14 1/4” x 3/4”. [No image of the work found]

Some of Algardi’s works can be seen here and more extensively and clearly in the online version of Ubeir Peeters’ book Alessandro Algardi (2006), pages 112-20 in particular. As a maquette, L’Immagine della scrittura (“The image of writing”) would have required the viewer to project in the mind the executed work. Algardi’s work ranges widely in materials: acrylic, oils, cementite, titanium, vinyl tempera, emulsified canvas and from large paintings to oversized and lesser books constructed of overpainted card and even plexiglas in various bindings, including the accordion. His constant subject (the written word) and use of impasto make Algardi’s work distinctive.

Detail from 28 works, Mythos (1995) at MutualArt. Accessed 3 February 2020.

Allen, Roberta. The Traveling Woman, Book IV (1985). Paint and ink over paper; codex binding with string loops and painted boards; 6 leaves. Signed. 8 15/16” x 6 5/8” x 5/8”.

The Traveling Woman, Book I (1985)
Roberta Allen
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Allen has provided images of Book I as all four books were similarly formatted. She notes, however, that the binding for all four books consists of archival paper, not boards. These artist’s books are one manifestation of The Traveling Woman oeuvre. Several stories from this vein of Roberta Allen’s imagination appeared in WhiteWalls, the magazine of writings by artists founded in Chicago in 1978, continuing up to 2002. In 1986, The Traveling Woman morphed into a novel.

The technique of roughly painted-over paper appeared among many of the works in The Book Made Art, thereby contributing to the exhibition’s painterly ambiance. While The Traveling Woman’s size is close to the US standard of 6 x 9 in., together with several other much larger painted-over paper bookworks, it must have created a colourful overall effect. It is a technique varying but traceable at least to the ‘70s if not earlier (for example, John Latham’s Skoob works) and continues today (for example, Bodil Rosenberg’s Vandstand).

Appel, Christian. Incontro di Dante con Beatrice (1983). Black-and-white and color photocopies, hand-coloured and mounted on binders’ boards; accordion-fold binding; 7 panels. Signed. 10 7/16” x 5 3/16” x 11/16”.

Appel is mentioned in the Umbrella archives as being associated with the short-lived review/cooperative KLAB, but there is little else online. This image of the encounter of Dante with Beatrice comes from the Walker Art Center Library (see the image’s lower right hand corner) and yields two of the seven panels of the twenty-edition work in accordion form, published out of Amsterdam by Da Costa Editions. Zooming in on the image behind the link, one can detect considerable and vigorous overdrawing. Vibrant turquoise, orange and lavender distinguish this work from these images of other works by Appel in the Bibliotheca Librorum apud Artificem. Appel’s Postkarten in the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection shows up only in its slipcase.

Baltazar/Michel Butor. Zodiaque des Nuages (1984). Watercolor, ink, and pastel over paper; in codex gathering but not sewn; with rigid publishers’ cloth cover and slip case; 18 leaves with paper wrapper. Script in author’s hand. Signed by artist and author. With autograph postcard, decorated with collage, Butor to Baltazar, 10.19.85. 11 5/16” x 7 9/16” x 1 3/8”. [No image of the work found]

Baltazar is Hervé Lambion‘s nom de plume. He has created numerous livres d’artiste with many authors in addition to those with Butor. No online image of Zodiaque des Nuages is readily located. The image below shows a similar work: Entre Deux Avalanches (1980).

Entre Deux Avalanches (1980)
Baltazar and Michel Butor
From Catalogue des Reliures Présentées à l’Occasion de l’Exposition Baltazar Organisée à la Bibliotheca Wittockiana, eds. Georges Bernard, Julius Baltazar and Antoine Coron. (Brussels: Bibliotheca Wittockiana, 1986). © Bibliotheca Wittockiana

Two other artist’s books by Baltazar can be seen here in the Champetier Gallery, and several images and an analysis of another (with Butor’s text) — La main sur le mur — can be viewed here from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. Baltazar’s work with the author Michel Butor has been extensive enough to warrant this lengthy (but minimally illustrated) essay. As can be gathered from the images of these other works and from the essay, Baltazar’s contribution to The Book Made Art served as an exemplar of the traditional artist’s book.

Beube, Douglas. Ashes: The Effect of Fire on Paper (1980). Cloth, fabric edging and cords, marbled and found papers, and specimen bottles; mounted on found and hinged compartment trays. Signed. 16 11/16” x 11 5/8” x 2 5/16”.

Pages 12 and 13 of The Book Made Art (1986)
Permission of the curator and designer.

No online image seems available, and the one in the catalogue is black and white. Framed on the back wall of the page, it hangs there like a religious diptych. This work became the second in the M.A.D. trilogy (matches, ashes, dust), and full-color images of Ashes and the trilogy have been provided here by the artist. These can also be seen in full color and context in Beube’s Breaking the Codex (New York: Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Press, 2011), p. 186.

M.A.D. trilogy. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Beube has been extraordinarily inventive with the book as raw artistic material. His works have altered the codex form and deployed nearly every element of its “syntax” to address recurring political, social and philosophical themes. His outcomes range as well across larger sculptural works as well as action installations. Breaking the Codex documents the impression that Beube has foreshadowed and/or echoed nearly every variation of book art in play. With Beube’s Ashes and works below by Lori Christmastree, David Horton, Andrew Masullo, Anne Hicks Siberell and Paul Zelevansky, The Book Made Art gives a significant nod toward the tradition of the Cornellian “box” in book art (see “The Box from Duchamp to Horn” in Further Reading below).

____________. My Book Journal: 1980-1982. Graphite pencil, watercolor, coloured marking pens, stamping, coloured pencil, found and layered papers, photographs, miscellaneous materials, small objects, and ephemera; codex binding in printed fabric-wrapped boards; 33 leaves. Unsigned. 5 13/16” x 10 5/8” x 1 9/16”. [No image of the work found]

Images of bound sketchbooks from other date ranges can be found on the artist’s website. Here is Sketchbook #1: My Book Journal (1979), which comes closest to the work described for the exhibition.

Sketchbook #1: My Book Journal (1979)
Doug Beube
Collage, fabric, paper, gouache, graphite, water color, thread, silver gelatin print, rubber stamp. H6 x W10 x D2 1/2 in.

Brater, Meryl. Black Pool White Pillow #2 (1984). Graphite, graphite pencil, coloured pencil, and printing ink over paper with ribbon ties; combination codex and accordion bindings; four principal panels. Signed. 23 7/8” x 16 11/16” x 1 5/8”. [No image of the work found]

As described in the catalogue, this work combined codex and accordion structures. Another of Brater’s works — Hidden Agenda — appears to do the same but adds a protective four-fold envelope. The accordion form is well represented among the catalogue’s entries: Appel, Brater, Haynes, McCarney, Polansky, Robinson, Schnabel, Senser, Van Horn and Vogel.

This image of Brater’s Hidden Agenda (1991) appeared on AbeBooks (23 January 2020); a thumbnail image of the same appeared on Printed Matter’s website the same date; and an exterior-only view can be found in the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection.

Broaddus, John Eric. Meridian Passage (1979). Paint and ink over paper; codex binding in painted boards; 9 leaves. Unsigned. 22 7/16th x 22 3/8” x 7/8”.

Meridian Passage (1979)
John Eric Broaddus
From Artists’ Books in the Modern Era: 1870-2000: the Reva and David Logan collection of illustrated books, edited by Robert Flynn Johnson and Donna Stein (San Francisco/London: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Thames & Hudson, 2002), p. 258.
Permission of Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

This unique work now resides with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Its record is “John Eric Broaddus, American, 1943–1990. Meridian Passage, 1979 Unique book, each page hand painted with acrylic, tempera, watercolor, and ink with abstract cut-outs Folio: 572 x 616 mm (22 1/2 x 24 1/4 in.) L15.99.2“.

Along with Allen’s, Apple’s and several others’ works below, the bold colours and cutouts of Meridian Passage underscore the painterly and sculptural nature of the book art celebrated by The Book Made Art. Despite the strong theme of democratic multiples around him, Broaddus explored the unique bookwork. Meridian Passage and the next work by Broaddus are unique, not limited editions or multiples.

____________. France I (1983). Found printed codex [popular geography] altered with paint, ink, coloured pencil, glitter, and cutting; with painted slip case and painted cloth outer wrapper; 104 leaves. Signed. 12 1/8” x 9 1/16” x 1 11/16”.

At 104 leaves, this was one of the larger works in the exhibition. The three small black-and-white images of double-page spreads in the catalogue do not do the work justice, nor does the one in The Cutting Edge of Reading by Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert. With the latter, however, we have this bit of description to aid in visualising the work:

By cutting away large sections of pages, Broaddus playfully establishes astonishing connections between well-known monuments as well as between them and his own imaginative creations. … By clever cutting, a cute photograph showing children observing an artist drawing, it would seem, their portraits, metamorphoses on the other side of the leaf into a gigantic statue consisting of Watteau’s famous Arlequin partly framed within a dark blue Broaddus abstraction. — Hubert, Renée Riese, and Judd D. Hubert. The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Press, 1999), p. 230.

Best of all, though, for visualising the work, we have the tribute video from the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, which includes full-colour images and discussion by the Huberts and others.

Christmastree, Lori. You Have to Break the Glass to Get Out (1984). Graphite pencil, colored ink, watercolor, found materials, and glass shards over layered papers; unbound in double-lidded box with ribbon ties; 9 leaves. Signed. 25 1/4” x 19 1/8” x 2 3/16”.

You Have to Break the Glass to Get Out (1984)
Lori Christmastree
Photos of pages 3, 6 and 7: Courtesy of Misha Tomic via Buzz Spector.

Much of Lori Christmastree’s work and documentation of it were destroyed in a house fire. The artist Misha Tomic, her partner, kindly provided the images above, which echo her other works’ characteristic use of collage, ink and watercolour.

Crawford, Elsie. Willow Waterway (1985). Colored ink over wood veneer-backed paper scroll mounted on wooden dowel with leather tie; with hollowed-out tree stump case. Unsigned. 6 1/2” x 4 5/8” x 4” [No image of the work found]

Ely, Timothy C. Field Points 3 (1985). Ink and watercolor over pigment, foil-stamped, and embossed paper; in codex binding with painted boards with collage elements, and pigment and foil stamping; in drop-spine book box with buckram covering; 26 leaves. Signed. 16 3/4” x 11 5/16” x 1 1/2”. [No image of the work found]

Synesthesia, a work that in some ways exemplifies Ely’s output but in others does not, provides a stand-in here. It contains drawn and painted images by Timothy Ely and text by Terence McKenna. The typography and printing are by Philip Gallo and The Hermetic Press; the binding is by Daniel E. Kelm and The Wide Awake Garage; and the publishing, by the Granary Press. It is a limited edition (75). Note the precision of production, especially in the binding, as well as the distinctive effect of ink and watercolor over pigment. Compare it with the Baltazar/Butor work above. This is a distinctively American livre d’artiste.

Synesthesia (1992)
Timothy C. Ely
Bound between black boards blind stamped with multiple symbols and shapes; boards have touches of copper, blue, and pink paint; copper triangle with symbols written on it is mounted on front board; exposed spine shows 3 bands of sewing attached at each end to a metal rod running through each board. In black cloth box. 250 mm in box of 270 mm.
Photos: Books On Books.

Forget, Carol. The Diplomat’s Handbook (1981). White cloth gloves stuffed with miniature flags of various nations, sewn end to end. Signed on display instructions. 8 1/4” x 4 1/4” x 3 9/16”. [No image of the work found]

With its flag-stuffed gloves punning on its title, The Diplomat’s Handbook hands us the catalogue’s first “book-alluding object“. The use of gloves finds later echoes in the work of Jules Allen (below):

The Book of White (in progress)
Jules Allen
Kid leather gloves, hand made paper, housing a collection of utilitarian antiques and collectibles from the mid to late 20th century.
H270 x  W80 x D50 mm

Forget’s tongue-in-glove tendency is evident from these images of another work — Margin Release (1976), a collection of loose cards (no binding, thus releasing the margins) — and from the New York Times’ mention of yet another of her works: “A Formica steak on a base of shredded newsprint, for instance, is titled ’Model for the Historical Novel (Meat Plus Filler)’ by the artist Carol Forget of New York.“

____________. VHF Salvation (1984). Found printed codex [Bible] altered with cloth ribbons. Signed on display instructions. 11 3/8” x 5 11/16” x 1 5/8”.

VHF Salvation (1984)
Carol Forget

The caption for this work tantalisingly refers to signed display instructions. With that (and unable to enact the instructions), the viewers must have felt their noses being rubbed in both the catalogue’s joking “vitrine” and the exhibition’s real glass case. It is a guess that the instructions helped the viewer to decipher this instance of an “altered-book object” (or, in keeping with its spirit, an altared-book object) that preserves the altered book.

VHF Salvation is a King James Version of the Holy Bible altered with a multitude of ribbon placeholders protruding from its lower edge to provide the “very high frequency” means of “saving one’s place“. In a special issue of Visible Language, Renée Riese Hubert describes the work as an “aggressive antibook” (p. 130). Even though VHF Salvation preserves the book being altered — unlike Beube’s Ashes diptych (above), which alters the book or books beyond recognition — some viewers might nevertheless have felt as uneasy as some viewers of Meg Hitchcock’s more aggressive alterations of the Bible, Koran and Bhavagad Gita.

Freeman, Jane. The Book of Sisters (1978). Watercolor and color marking-pen ink over collage elements including packaging ephemera, postcards, clippings from magazines and books, and photographs; in codex binding with cloth-covered boards and fore-edge ties; 23 leaves. Unsigned. 5 9/16” x 8 7/8” x 1 9/16”.

The Book of Sisters (1978)
Jane Freeman
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

As with Forget’s work, images of Freeman’s early works are hard to find. The description of the 23 leaves as a collage of packaging ephemera, postcards, magazine and book clippings and photographs — all covered by watercolour and colour-marking pen ink — serves well to capture Freeman’s approach in these additional images of another work — A Freelance Life (1988).

A Freelance Life (1988)
Jane Freeman
9” x 6 1/2“
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

____________. Worse Verse (1983). Found printed codex [poetry] altered with watercolor, color marking pen, and collage elements including string, postage stamps, and clippings from magazines and books; in codex binding in publisher’s cloth altered with paint; 12 leaves. Signed. 8 13/16” x 5 3/8” x 9/16”. [No image of the work found]

The New York Center for Book Arts shows four images of another work by Freeman — New, Improved (1985) — which is an altered Sotheby Parke-Bernet Inc. fine art auction catalogue. The artist has provided images of a similar work — Highly Important Paintings (1985) — shown below. With their heavily overpainted layers of acrylic and gouache obscuring and/or revealing parts of the underlying work and text and with tipped-in images and found bits of ephemera, these two works likely give an impression comparable to Worse Verse.

Highly Important Paintings (1985)
Jane Freeman
Auction house catalogue, each page collaged and painted. 10 1/4” x 8” closed.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

As mentioned in the entry for Robert Allen, the technique of painted-over pages has been widespread. So has the technique of painting over book and magazine pages and selectively allowing text to show through. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is perhaps the best known of the type that creates a new novel, a type not represented in the Chicago exhibition. The type that comments on the underlying form and content is well represented by Broaddus and Freeman.

Hartmann, Werner. Krankengeschichten (1979). White pencil over slate; assembled in cloth sleeves in codex format in cloth wrapper with ties; 10 slates. Signed. 11 5/16” x 7 7/8” x 2 1/4”.

In the catalogue, two images show Krankengeschichten (“Medical Records”) closed and open. Closed, it is a codex shape made up of page-size cloth sleeves; two cloth ties hold it closed like a hospital gown. Open, it displays one of ten dark slates removed from its sleeve and showing white-pencilled text and an image (a cross section? an X-ray?). Hartmann worked with images on slate in at least two other instances, but nothing as book-like as Krankengeschichten.

Haynes, Ric. Early Fish (1984). Paint, ink, and rubber stamping over layered papers in combination with decorative and marbled papers; in accordion-fold binding with rubber stamping and marbled-paper decorated slip case; 8 panels. Signed. 9 5/16” x 20 1/4” x 4 1/2”. [No image of the work found]

The description of Haynes’ entry conjures a work very different from his other work self-published under his Joke Bone Press imprint. With no image of Early Fish readily discoverable, Haynes’ Aquatic Yoga with Dangerous Foods (1984) may serve as an alternative with which to imagine what Early Fish depicts and to have a sense of Haynes’ sense of humor as well as to remind us of humor’s presence throughout The Book Made Art.

Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Aquatic Yoga subjects a number of targets to parody — including the New Age as well as the artist’s book as democratic multiple. His anecdote recounted in The Sun (March 1984) captures this:

Ric says that when he first published the book, “I took it to a ‘New Age’ bookstore and was thrown out for being insulting to the Art and Life of Yoga. However, I know that Yoga people, like the rest of us, get off on a nice chocolate mint-chocolate chip ice cream sundae with kaluha syrup on top and a shot or two of creme de cacao on the side once in a while. Maybe at least they dream of it. I am sure.”The Sun (March 1984).

Although Aquatic Yoga has the irreverence of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural (1970-77) and Fritz the Cat (1969), the description of Early Fish implies a nod toward the sort of livre d’artiste exemplified by Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté (1934) and Ludwig Zeller’s Alphacollage (1979). Continuing in this tradition are book artists such as Moussa Kone and Francesc Ruiz.

Hines, Kay. The Endless Filmscript [drehbuch] (1978). Found objects and motion-picture film altered with ink and mounted as a Möbius strip. Signed. 29 1/2” X 8” x 13 5/8”.

The Endless Filmscript [Drehbuch] (1978)
Kay Hines
Photo and video: Courtesy of the artist. Click on the image or title to see the video.

Along with her partner Dieter Froese (d.2006), Hines pioneered video installation art and co-founded Dekart Video. Both were part of the Fluxus movement. Displayed in the same space as Jana Kluge’s Untitled (see below), this loop of film altered with ink and mounted as a Möbius strip would certainly have contributed to the exhibition’s startle factor. The video behind the link shows the work more clearly and includes its reading by the performance artist Arleen Schloss. What a boon to book art exhibitions if each work displayed under glass were accompanied by similar videos.

Hines writes that the inspiration for The Endless Filmscript was twofold:

It was based on 2 concepts. One I wanted to correlate individual film frames with alphabet letters. And two, I was interested in the Möbius loop concept where the last sentence of a story leads back to the first. — Correspondence with Books On Books, 31 March 2020.

The Möbius strip is not uncommon in book art. Two outstanding examples are Daniel E. Kelm‘s Neo Emblemata Nova (2005) and Doug Beube’s Red Infinity #4 (2014). But combining the use of film with the allocation of one letter per film frame is one of the more uncommon challenges in book art to the page as a syntactic unit.

Left and top right: Neo Emblemata Nova (2005), Daniel E. Kelm
Bottom right: Infinity Text #8 (2014), Doug Beube

Hocks, Paula. No Caryatids (1982). Multiple: one of two. Black-and-white and color photocopy reproductions of collages; in codex binding with publisher’s cloth with inner and outer cloth wrappers; 115 leaves. Unsigned. 9 1/16” x 10 11/16” x 1 9/16”. [No image of the work found]

Founder of Running Women Press, Hocks (d.2003) relied on a photocopier to reproduce imagery and text that was hand written, typed, or clipped from printed material. This seems to have been more of financial necessity than allegiance to the ”democratic multiple”. Images of her other works can be found here. The Otis College of Art and Design has images of four of her works, including Head and Bodies 2, which illustrate the likely techniques of No Caryatids. The Paula Hocks archive resides at the New Mexico Museum of Art Library.

Horton, David. In Celebration of the Discovery of the Abandoned Star Factory (1982). Multiple: one of thirty. Paper maché and electric motor in commercial salesman’s samples case; with cloth pouch containing: David Horton. In Celebration of the Discovery of the Abandoned Star Factory. Atlanta, Georgia. Nexus Press, 1982 [halftone illustrations and text printed lithographically with serigraphed designs over paper and string collages, and silver print (photograph); in codex binding in publisher’s cloth; 12 leaves]. Construction: unsigned. 11 15/16” x 15 1/8” x 5 11/16”. Codex: signed. 9 15/16” x 8 11/16” x 1”. [No image of the work found]

As noted in Ric Haynes’ entry, Horton can be associated with the comic or cartoon book tradition in book art. Although In Celebration does not fall into that category, it predicts Horton’s fictional character “Dr. Thelonious Tinker, Cosmic Archeologist”. According to Horton’s entry at William Paterson University, “In addition to making artifacts, appliances and notebook pages, he is currently drafting writings and drawings for a series of graphic novels on this character’s life and adventures“. This work by Horton with its commercial salesman’s sample case reflects the Duchampian “boîte-en-valise” tradition in book art, and its introduction of moving parts and motors reflects another sub-genre in the field. See Regan Avery’s The Groton Avery Clan (2014) or Doug Beube’s Dis/Solve (2018).

Kluge, Jana. [Untitled] (1984). Found printed codex [Spanish/English dictionary] altered with seawater borne vegetable and mineral matter. Signed. 4 9/16” x 5 7/8” x 1 11/16”.

The description above matches that for her work entitled se(e)a book (1984) displayed by Galerie Horst Dietrich in Berlin in 1987 as well as that for the description of the work entitled Book Written by the Sea, Cadaqués, Spain (1984) listed and shown in Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection (2014). In correspondence with Books On Books, Kluge writes that the work was one of a series created over the summers of 1983-85 in Cadaqués, Spain. The technique or tradition in book art of creating a work by exposing it to the elements runs back to Marcel Duchamp’s Le Readymade Malheureux (1919) and forward to Mark Cockram’s Kintsugi (2013) and Decomp (2013) by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott.

se(e)a book (1984)
Spanish/English dictionary, covered under water with seaweed and seashells, being formed by movements of the sea, dried in the wind and by the sun); 23 x 18 x 7 cm. 
Photographer: Horst Dietrich. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Photo of page from Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection (2014)
Photo: Books On Books

From the late 80s though, Kluge felt another force impinging on the book form, and her work moved from collaboration with the elements to the communal and expanded into the digital. Her collaboration Gutenberg‘s Galaxy (2014) represents Marshall McLuhan’s themes of alphabetization, print culture and electronic medias altered by a “village” of artists employing audiovisual fantasies, video-works, digital art on paper and twelve electro-acoustical compositions.

Image: Courtesy of the artist

Kostiuk, Michael. Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82). Found codex, plastic airplane model, wood, and photolithography-offset reproduction altered with paint. Signed. 7 7/16” x 16 1/16” x 16 1/16”.

The found codex is apparently penetrated by a diving plastic model airplane (cut in two and attached to the back and front covers). From the Franklin Furnace “New Zealand Tour” of artists’ books, Kostiuk’s comments on his approach shed some light on Airplane Shadow Book, and images on his FaceBook page use an approach similar to that in Airplane Shadow Book.

I use the book format to involve the viewer personally and tactually [sic] by elements of surprise within the motion of opening and viewing the pop-up books and the physical or visual three-dimensionality of various works. Sometimes clear vinyl is used for pages, instead of paper, and are loose-leaf/ring bound, giving the viewer an option of hand viewing or, by attaching each grommeted page with push pins to a wall, linear viewing.

I use various artistic experiences to create an imagery that is both clearly stated and contradictory. The concepts are seen as paired imagery, visible speech narratives, and three-dimensional pop-ups, incorporated in various media of drawing, painting, and sculpture on photographic surfaces
to create a personal style.

In Artists’ Books New Zealand Tour, 1978, curated by Jacki Apple and Martha Wilson (New York: Franklin Furnace, 1978).

Kostiuk’s book penetration is quite distinct from those of, say, John Latham and Doug Beube. The Michael Kostiuk Collection is held at the University of Texas at Austin, but no online images are currently available there, and Airplane Shadow Book seems not to be part of the collection. Images of Kostiuk’s photography can be found in the Dallas Museum of Art.and archival material resides with New York’s MoMA.

Lavater, Warja. Jeu : livre en “papier modulé” (1980). Multiple: One of twenty-two. Cast paper, some color-dyed; in codex gathering but not sewn; in drop-spine book box with publisher’s cloth covering; 10 leaves. Signed. 18 1/2” x 11 11/16” x 1 7/16”. [No image of the work found]

Fourteen of Lavater’s works are in the Otis College of Art and Design Collection and another 23 entries can be found in the Arthur and Mata Jaffe Collection at Florida Atlantic University.

Lazaron, Edna (d.2007). Terror (1985). Multiple: One of four. Black-and-white and color photocopies of collages over paper and transparent polyester, altered with ink, paint, and color photographs; in codex binding with foil over heavy paper front board altered with paint and string, and colored plastic back board, with electrical coil cord, string, and field clasp tie; in matte plastic draw-string bag; 6 leaves. Unsigned. 9” x 12 1/4” x 1 7/8”.

The catalogue shows two images of this work: closed and open. A related work — Terrorism (1985) — resides in New York’s Center for Book Arts and is shown in the catalogue Multiple, Limited, Unique (2011), p.88. The Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection holds two other works — Souvenir vignette/Yucatán (1982) and Markings (1985) — that suggest a penchant on Lazaron’s part for soft containers for her bookworks, further confirmed by the plastic sleeve enveloping Worth the Wait?, four images of which can be seen in the Artists’ Book Collection, University of Louisville Margaret M. Bridwell Art Library.

Worth the Wait? (197?)
Edna Lazaron
Unbound artists’ book folded to 11 x 11 cm with illustrations; 22 x 22 cm unfolded.
Artists’ Book Collection, University of Louisville Margaret M. Bridwell Art Library.

Löhr, Helmut (d.2010). Blablabla (1985). Found codex wrapped in layered and rubber stamped colored tissue papers. Signed. 11 5/16” x 7 13/16” x 3 1/4”. [No image of the work found]

The many instances of Löhr’s works in the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum are nothing like that described in The Book Made Art. In Visual Poetry (1987), below, Löhr distorts blocks of type and the type within the blocks and presents them in irregular pentagrams. The text may be found text, but the production value is unlike that in most found codex works.

Visual Poetry (1987)
Helmut Löhr
Artist’s book, featuring typewriter art printed on double leaves cut in the shape of an irregular pentagram. Photos: Books On Books at National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Long, Richard. Mud Hand Prints (1984). Multiple: One of one hundred. Dried mud over paper; 6 leaves. Unsigned. 13 1/2” x 11 5/8” x 5/8”.

Mud Hand Prints (1984)
Richard Long

Mud Hand Prints was published by an early champion of Long, Coracle Press, which is also represented in The Book Made Art by Erica Van Horn (below). The incorporation of raw natural material in book art has a long tradition and ongoing

Masullo, Andrew. Pandora (1985). Twenty tablets wrapped in letterpress- and photolithography-offset-printed papers; in hinged box with glass-covered compartments containing dried flowers, a photograph, and found papers; box covered with found and painted papers. Unsigned. 2 5/16” x 6 5/8” x 4 5/8”.

Masullo retains the work, and the only view of it is that in the catalogue. Like Beube’s entry in The Book Made Art, the description of Masullo’s will remind the viewer of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. According to Masullo, the work’s full title is 1029; Pandora. His subsequent works (mostly paintings in vibrant colours and numbered sequentially), the titles are simply the number reflecting the order in which they were created. According to most articles about Masullo, the numbers reflect his aim “to prevent the viewer from being unduly influenced by words“. More than that, as Masullo writes: “using words to explain my visual life is something I do my best to avoid“ (correspondence with Books On Books, 17 February 2020).

So if the work had been named only 1029, how might the viewer in 1986 have responded to this hinged box, closed with a “P”-shaped clasp and containing dried flowers in their glass-covered compartments, images of classical busts and the Sphinx, medical drawings of the human organs, a globe and twenty tablets wrapped in paper and embedded in the upper half of the box? From that clasp, might the viewer have sussed that it was “Pandora’s” box? Would the viewer have known what had been irretrievably released by opening the box? Hard to say: like Pandora, the viewer/reader today cannot un-know what is known when responding to this work of art. The conundrum does, however, focus attention on the role of words and text in book art.

McCarney, Scott. Home Sweet Home (1985). Multiple: One of four. Paper in accordion-fold binding with decorative and marbled paper-covered Boards; with paper-covered slip case. Signed. 11 5/8” x 9 1/12” x 1 3/4”.

Home Sweet Home (1985)
Scott McCarney
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The role of words and text in Scott McCarney’s art runs long and deep. McCarney’s use of the pop-up and leporello forms is most often seen in his abecedaries, a common genre in book art that is surprisingly not represented in The Book Made Art. As Spector might put it, in Home Sweet Home, McCarney is a master of the syntax of the book. Using the leporello and pop-up structures, the forms of letters and their placement on the spread page, he creates a striking effect of simultaneity.

Miller, Brenda. The Aleph (1985). Pastel over stencil pattern-cut decorative paper [correction per correspondence with artist, 8 May 2020: “Blue editing pencil on hand made paper from sisal, cut from alphabet stencil]; in codex binding with leather over boards and gold foil title stamping by Gérard Charrière; 31 leaves. Signed. 16 13/16” x 15 1/16” x 1 5/8”.

The Aleph (1985)
© Brenda Miller
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Miller’s other alphabet-related works differ from The Aleph in their size and in this work’s more literary inspiration (the Borges story, according to Miller in correspondence with Books On Books, 21 March 2020). This “blue editing pencil on hand made paper from sisal, cut from alphabet stencil“ and Miller’s Horizontal alphabet (26) south-east in the Harry Ransom Center Book Collection, University of Texas Austin, share Gérard Charrière as binder. Clearly from the title of the latter, it is closer to the spirit of the installations under the titles Vertical Alphabet and Horizontal Alphabet, which can be seen on the New York MoMA site. An interview with Barbara Haskell on the occasion of an exhibition at the Whitney explains Miller’s conceptual and systematic creative technique.

Osborn, Kevin. Vector Rev (1983). Multiple: One of one hundred. Color offset lithography over decorative die-cut papers with glass marbles; in fan-shape binding (hinged near base); with brushed aluminum outer covers and cloth ribbon tie with aluminum clasp; 140 leaves. Unsigned. 19 3/16” x 2 1/16” x 1 7/8”.

Vector Rev (1983)
© Kevin Osborn
Photo: Books On Books.

Vector Rev (1983)
© Kevin Osborn
Photos: Books On Books. For another view, see University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Like Kay Hines’ The Endless Filmscript and many other works displayed in The Book Made Art, Osborn’s Vector Rev challenges to the very structure of the book. But this challenge is rooted in the book’s historical structure. Books shaped like fans are an Asian and Indian tradition, dating back to manuscript sutras.

Photos: Left – “Pattra”, Cangminzho • CC BY-SA 4.0; Right – “Palm leaf manuscripts of 16th century in Odia script”, Manoj Choudhury • CC BY-SA 3.0.

Phillips, Nicholas. Egyptian Hours (1980). Multiple: One of ninety. Color intaglio over paper altered with cutting, watercolors, thread, and graphite pencil; unbound in paperback edition leather folding case; 8 panels. Signed. 6 7/16” x 6 7/16” x 1 3/4”

Egyptian Hours falls somewhere between book and portfolio box. Somewhat like photos and captions in a photobook, text and relief images play off one another, but mediated by glyphs in the “table of contents”, the named hours are distant from the images associated with them. If the table of contents were held apart, the distance would shorten, but the images are so evocative, there is more pleasure in guessing the nature of the hour that the image represents: the image of a window lattice through which to watch, an image of a tile fragment or the image of archivally numbered shards.

Egyptian Hours (1980)
Nicholas Phillips
Photos: Books On Books at the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum.

____________. Tales of the Floating World (1983). Multiple: One of forty-five. Color intaglio over paper; unbound with two protective boards in publisher’s cloth and paper-covered telescoping box; 9 leaves. Signed. 10 1/4” x 10 3/16” x 1 1/16”.

Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

A sequence of images where the viewer floats away from the earth and its orbit to the far reaches of the universe. Starting with a view of the pyramids at Kareima (from drawings I’d done from high up on the Gebel Berkal), thence a low earth orbit view of cloud formations over the ocean, and so on past the moon to be amongst the exploding galaxies. The images increase in size as we travel: from the single squares at the start to the doubles for space walk and moon to the final image where the view opens out across 3 side-by-side sheets. The colophon text, a quote from a 17th cent Buddhist priest [Tales of the floating world, by Asai Ryoi] says it all. Nicholas Phillips

The words of Asai Ryoi, partially hidden in the first row’s center image, are

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating … Tales of the Floating World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, 1984).

Polansky, Lois. Anatomical Digressions (1985). Gold ink, graphite pencil, charcoal, printing ink, watercolor, paint, and dry transfer and self-adhesive lettering over cast and machine-made papers; in accordion-fold binding; 12 panels. Signed. 15 3/8” x 11 1/2” x 3 3/4”. [No image of the work found]

U&LC, February 1985, Vol 11, No 4 contains “The Metamorphosis of a Book”, an essay on Polansky’s bookworks. A small thumbnail appears on the “Art in Embassies” site, and two loose album pages have been offered for sale by RoGallery (see below).

The Heart Leves (n.d.)
Lois Polansky
From “Lois Polansky”, Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State, accessed 3 February 2020.

Album Pages IX & X (n.d.)
Lois Polansky
From RoGallery, accessed 5 February 2020.

Robinson, Aminah Brenda Lynn. Sapelo Hog Hammock Community (1984). Cloths, buttons, and embroidery yarns; in accordion-fold binding; 3 panels. Signed. 24” x 16 5/8” x 2 3/4”.

A halftone image of the bookwork is included in the catalogue, so the full glory of the work has to be appreciated by a look at its quilt work companion. The quilt work shown below surpasses the book work in size, but both thrust a vibrant narrative grounded in the African concept of Sankofa, “learning from the past in order to move forward“. Both works draw on her extended visits to Sapelo Island, Georgia, USA. [Image of the book art from Artnet]

Sapelo Island, Hog Hammock Community Quilt (1977-86)
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Wool, buttons, beads, leather, music box and found objects
49 x 64 inches. Collection of the artist.
©Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson

Schnabel, Bruce. Companions in Spirit (1985). See Simon Toparovsky below.

Senser, Andreas. I remember Italy (1985). Paint, graphite pencil, and ink over layered papers, found illustrations and text, photographs, and clear polyester; in accordion-fold binding; 11 panels. Unsigned. 13 3/16” x 10 3/16” x 15/16”. [No image of the work found]

Images of thirteen works by Senser can be viewed at Visual AIDS. The one below is the only accordion-fold among them.

Untitled (poem), 1986
Andreas Senser
Pigment on collaged paper, rag board, and wood, 6×10 1/2×4
Courtesy the estate of Andreas Senser and Visual AIDS.

Share, Susan Joy. The Bell Show (1982). Game board and game board pieces, black-and-white and color photocopies of packing ephemera, found illustrations, and text, altered with watercolor, paint, and rubber stamping; mounted on painted publishers’ cloth-wrapped panels; in end-to-end gate-fold binding with brass snap-buttons on buckram band closure; 4 panels. Signed. 14 7/8” x 14 5/8” x 1 9/16”.

The Bell Show (1982)
Susan Joy Share
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Another example of Share’s “architectural” flair in making art of the book’s form, Vivian’s  Photos (below) from the same period combines discarded photos of buildings and sidewalks with painted papers to create changing atmospheres and architectural formats. This work did not appear in The Book Made Art but did show up in Book Ar(t)chitecture, curated by Richard Minsky the year before.

Vivian’s Photos (1984)
Susan Joy Share
Cloth, board, photo, paper, acrylic, cord. The eight signatures are made from board-weight collaged panels, laminated to linen hinges. The signatures are oversewn onto a single common cord, creating a clothesline-like appearance. A collage folding-box contains the piece.
7” x 6.25” x 2.5” opening to 6.25” x 13″” x 30”. Photos: Hiro Ihara. Courtesy of the artist.

Update: still more can be found in this interview with Helen Hiebert, accessed 15 November 2020.

Shaw, Karen. Petit Larousse: Various Editions (1980). Found materials including twelve miniature blank books, pins, metal title plate, glass-lidded box, cotton, and small labels altered with dry-transfer lettering. Signed. 12 3/16” x 16 1/4” x 2 1/2”.

The catalogue provides a halftone image, but the zoomable, online images at the Yale Art Gallery, where the work is part of the Allan Chasanoff Collection, provides some of the color’s impact. Shaw’s bookworks have a great sense of humor, as does the best of book art. These images of another of her dictionary-related works demonstrate that humor well.

EntomologicalEtymological Specimens
Karen Shaw
From a series of nine. Open: 14” x 22”.  When these works were displayed, they were only partially open and mounted on the wall to resemble the shape of butterflies.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Siberell, Anne Hicks. Wotan (1984). Colored and cast plasters imbedded with found objects including photographic slide mount altered with paint, packaging labels, and ruler fragment; with wood box and cover and elastic band closure containing ink on vellum manuscript poem. Unsigned. 8” x 5 15/16” x 1 3/8”.

Wotan (1984)
Anne Hicks Siberell
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Unboxed: Wotan (1984)
Anne Hicks Siberell
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Clockwise from top left: Goddess Doormat (), Archaeology (), Three Blind Mice (), He Said She Said () and Pisa ().
Anne Hicks Siberell.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Skuber, Berty. A Different Game (1977). Ink, graphite pencil, and watercolor over paper in combination with black-and-white photocopies, black-and-white photographs, color photographs, and postage stamp; unbound in publishers’ cloth drop-spine book box; 16 leaves. Signed. 9 1/16” x 6 3/4” x 15/16”.

Last two pages of the bottom row from A Different Game (1977)
Berty Skuber
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

This work has “long, strong legs”. It appeared as recently as 7 March – 7 June 2019 in the exhibition called Anatomia del linguaggio at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Belle Arti in Macerata, Italy. In requesting that the work be framed in two rows, one above the other, each eight pages long, and shown on a wall, or displayed in a vitrine, Skuber makes clear that she does not think of A Different Game as exclusively a book. In correspondence, she also notes, “This was the form most typical of my work at that time, most of which, like this piece, made use of photographs, India ink, watercolor, and elements of collage.“ In 2002, Henry Martin wrote an insightful piece in NY Arts Magazine about Skuber’s work then. Skuber’s work will be shown in New Orleans in 2020, and for that show she writes: “Words are an essential part of [my work], and another of its features is a constant return to grids and grid-like stuctures that also have something to do with a sense of the scansion of time. This is particularly clear, moreover, in my animated video collages, all of which are visible on my website, and three of which I’d especially call to your attention: Widdershins, parts 1 & 2 (2015-2016); Epicycles/eclipse (2013); and Sieben Farbraeume, for which the best English title might be “Seven Spaces, Seven Colors” (1996).

Smith, Keith A. Book 91 (1982). Multiple: One of fifty. Die-cut and embossed paper with string; in quarter publishers’ cloth and paper-sides binding; 24 leaves. Signed. 10 3/16” x 14 3/8” x 1 1/8”.

Phil Zimmerman published Book 91 under Spaceheater Editions 1984 and released the video above in 2013. Another example of how an accompanying video can somewhat counter the glass case. Also known as the ”String Book”, Book 91 boasts images at the Boston Athenaeum] and the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, which has an excellent descriptive essay by Judith Klau.

Spector, Buzz. Altered Lewitt (1985). Multiple: One of five. Found printed book [Sol Lewitt. (untitled. n.p.:) Sperone/Fisher, 1974. Edition: one of fifteen hundred.] altered by tearing and mounting text block in open position. Signed. 17 11/16” x 8 7/8” x 7/8”.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist. Taken during preparation for June 2020 exhibition at Saint Louis Art Museum.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

At the 1’55” mark, this video provides a view of Spector’s handling a similar work (a Jasper Johns catalogue). The technique of altering another book artist’s work or another artist’s catalogue of works is a recurrent practice among artists. Bruce Nauman’s 1968 Burning Small Fires plays with Ed Ruscha’s 1964 Various Small Fires and Milk, and Dennis Oppenheim’s 1970 Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman returns the favour. Noriko Ambe has come closest to Spector’s variation; she has altered catalogues of Koons, Lichtenstein, Richter, Warhol and several others.

Terauchi, Yoko. Terra (1984). Multiple: One of ten. Powdered pigment and paper; in codex binding with cloth ribbon fore-edge ties. Unsigned [correction per artist’s correspondence: “the title Terra on the first page is handwritten by myself and it is my ‘signature’ for all my art works”]. 14 5/8” x 10 15/16” x 5/8”.

Terra was the first of several works that Terauchi published with Coracle.

From William Allen Word & Image. Accessed 24 January 2020.

Toparovsky, Simon. Companions in Spirit (1985). Sequins, wire, thread, and cloth over synthetic mesh in silk-wrapped mats; in accordion-fold binding with silk over shallow bas-relief covers; with drop-spine book box in silk-wrapped, embossed, and shallow bas-relief outer covers; 6 panels. Unsigned. 19 1/8” x 15 3/4” x 2 3/8”. [No image of the work found]

Bruce Schnabel taught bookbinding at the Otis College of Design. Around 1990, he abandoned book art and began sculptural work under the name Simon Toparovsky. Toparovsky writes, “I believe ‘Companions in Spirit’ is in Special Collections at the University of Southern California… The most similar book about which I have a record is in the Getty Research Institute– ‘Chaos Should be Regarded as Extremely Good News’.” (correspondence with Books On Books, 24 April 2020). Although a full description of the latter can be found under its link, there is no image there. The artist has been kind enough to provide images of other bookworks from the same period.

Healing Hand (1983)
Simon Toparovsky
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Tikal Codex (1982)
Simon Toparovsky
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

The Mind Sees What the Eye Misses (1986)
Simon Toparovsky
From the artist’s collection: A screen book made of hand-dyed silk, heat tooled with gold and color foils over boards with onlays of hand-dyed silk. Bound with silk insertion stitches and glass seed beads. Edition of 9.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Van Horn, Erica. La Ville aux dames (“second state”). Vitry-sur-Seine: n.p., 1983. One-of-a-kind. Paint over paper; in accordion-style cover in publishers’ cloth with cloth ribbon ties on three sides; 12 leaves. Signed. 12 1/4” x 17 15/16” x 11/16”.

Permission of the artist.
Additional images can be found in Yale University’s Beinecke Digital Collections.

The work is one sheet constructed of six sheets sewn together and folded accordion style. Displayed unfolded, the work exceeds seventeen feet. Nancy Kuhl’s The Book Remembers Everything (2010) shows images of La Ville aux Dames and places the work in context of Van Horn’s other works of that period.

Vogel, Cornelia. 6 Livres (1982). Each book containing a number of collage elements including ink, graphite pencil, paint, and watercolor over paper with string, intaglio prints, color photographic transparencies, and cloth mesh; in accordion-fold bindings with similarly prepared paper covers; 6 leaves each. All signed. With painted compartment box. Unsigned. 3 1/2” x 3 11/16” x 4 15/16”. [No image of the work found]

Wygonik, Melanie (d.2005). Lost Playground (1985). Colored pencil, graphite pencil, ink, and paint over layered and sewn papers in combination with collage elements including fabrics, fabric edgings; embroideries, embroidery threads, buttons, sequins, and charms; in codex binding; 7 leaves. Signed. 22 1/4” x 15 3/16” x 1 3/8”. [No image of the work found]

Images of some of the artist’s two-dimensional works can be easily found, not so for the three-dimensional. From the same decade, Just Desserts (1980) and Shimmering (1983) are representative; unfortunately the images are black and white. The detail from this untitled watercolour can be found here (accessed 25 February 2020).

Detail of untitled watercolor (1977)
Melanie Wygonik
From eBay, accessed 25 February 2020.

Zelevansky, Paul. The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book I (1979-81). Ink, watercolor, graphite and blue graphic layout pencils, rubber stamping, dry-transfer lettering, and typewriter printing over paper in combination with photographs and photolitho-offset reproductions; unbound in solander case with carrying handle; 101 leaves. Signed. [Partial manuscript for: Paul Zelevansky. The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book I. New York: Zartscorp, Inc. Books and Visual Studies Workshop, 1981.] 2 15/16” x 15 3/8” x 13 1/2”.

Images from Jeff Hirsch Books. Accessed 24 January 2020.

See additional images from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library, Common Crow Used & Rare Books, Otis College of Art and Design, and a video from Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Zush. Portrait of New York City (1976-82). Found blank codex, with fore-edge leather ties, altered with ink, graphite pencil, and watercolor with the addition of found objects including photographs, string, metal scraps, fabric, vegetable matter, map fragment, and postcard. 23 leaves. Signed. 12 15/16” x 10 3/16” x 1 5/16”. [No image of the work found]

The Catalan artist Alberto Porta y Muñoz assumed the name Zush in 1968 and gradually switched to Evru starting in 2001. Portrait of New York City may have looked like the work Untitled (1979-1984) in Colleció “La Caixa”. Another work Uroxos (2000) is one of the last bookworks by Porta under the name Zush. Although Uroxos is an accordion-fold, its appearance alongside those of the accompanying prints and Untitled may stand in here for that of Portrait of New York City.

Further Reading

An Online Annotation of Germano Celant’s Book as Artwork 1960/1972“, Bookmarking Book Art, 9 October 2017.

An Online Annotation of The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books“, Bookmarking Book Art, 7 September 2017.

Architecture“, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 November 2018.

Doug Beube“, Books On Books Collection, 21 April 2020.

Buzz Spector“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

On The Book (MIT Press, 2018)“, Books On Books, 7 June 2018.

The Box: From Duchamp to Horn“, Ubu Gallery, exhibition, 29 October – 10 December 1994. Accessed 15 February 2020.

Some final words from Jeffrey Abt:

Credit for the exhibit’s inception goes to Tony Zwicker (1925-2000) a passionate, knowledgeable, courageous, and caring dealer of modern and contemporary artists books. I first met her on a visit to her home/gallery located in a former artist’s studio in the National Arts Club building overlooking Gramercy Park (on 20th Street in New York) around 1983 or 1984. With its nearly two-story tall glass wall facing north over the park, it was a memorable setting. I was visiting her in the company of Robert Rosenthal, Curator (head) of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, where I worked as exhibition coordinator. In addition to that job, I also advised Bob on the acquisition of artists books for the rare book collections; and we were there to learn and perhaps make some purchases. Tony not only knew the history of artists books and kept up to date on the latest developments, she was also discerning, insightful, and generous with her learning. When the idea for doing this show came about in the following year, we did not–originally–intend to rely so heavily on her holdings, but it became inevitable because she was so widely connected and the artists she represented trusted her (nearly all the works in the exhibit were very fragile and had to be prepared for shipment by fine arts packers). Bob, who was nothing if not adventuresome in his approach to book culture, enthusiastically backed my proposal for the exhibition despite its cost and encouraged the University’s Library Society to fund it and publication of the exhibit catalogue.

Tony’s importance at this particular point in the development of contemporary artists books warrants further exploration. Her papers are preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago: Tony Zwicker Archive. — Jeffrey Abt, Professor Emeritus, James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University, 12 May 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – Appreciating Xu Bing

Xu Bing: Thought and Method 
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) (尤伦斯当代艺术中心)
21 July through 18 October 2018, Beijing

For most of us, the only glimpse of the 2018 Beijing exhibition Xu Bing: Thought and Method will have come from online articles, screen shots and a short film or two. By noting commentaries contemporaneous with the exhibition and linking them to older related articles and books, Books On Books aims to enhance appreciation of the exhibition and Xu’s work as well as findability of the latter. Throughout, where known, links to institutions holding Xu’s works are provided.

May 2018 saw the first announcement of the Xu Bing retrospective, his “most comprehensive institutional exhibition” to date, according to Sue Wang writing for CAFA Art Info.

July 2018, just before the exhibition’s opening, Helena Poole’s article arrived to guide the reader on what to expect from the exhibition. One of its useful observations is the influence of the printmaking tradition of Lu Xun on Xu’s early prints. Although not a printmaker himself, Lu stimulated the tradition with his activist writing and encouragement of woodcut printmaking in the journals of  the Morning Flower Society (朝花社) founded in 1929. In Art in Print (May-June 2016), the reader can find a useful background on Lu Xun and a selection of images from the New Woodcut Movement that will deepen Poole’s guidance.

Also helpful to a better appreciation of the prints are two online displays of images (more than offered by Wang and Poole): ArtThat eLite and RADII China’s “Photo of the Day”. Both displays enable us to see that, while Xu’s early prints — for example, The End of a Village (1982) — reflect the New Woodcut Movement style, his later work is at once more subtle and abstract than that of the early revolutionary periods and yet still evocative of the figurative, the diurnal and strife. The subtlety lies in the shift from the depiction of workers’ strife to the strife between sense and nonsense or language and concept, between cultures and their languages, and between the individual and polity.

Lu Xun
From A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, prepared by Patricia Buckley Ebrey et al. Accessed 2 August 2017.

Just after the exhibition’s opening, two excellent overviews of Xu’s career and art appeared in July. Sue Wang followed up her May announcement with a translation of an essay by Lin Jiabin expanding on the exhibition’s title Xu Bing: Thought and Method. Rather than focus on any one work, Lin Jiabin digs into the artist’s thought and method. Among Lin’s several useful insights are these:

Xu Bing adheres to the essence of simplicity and wisdom of eastern culture, and also faces the world in a broader sense. His works are forward-looking and vigilant; at the same time, his works under the guise of dislocation, multi-level social issues and cultural thinking sway and excite each other. [Emphasis added]

… the new work is an excavation and extension of something that is valuable in the past and that was not fully realized. It actually has a “cue” effect. Xu Bing said, “As long as you are sincere, no matter what form these works are, big or small, no matter how early or late, actually the final relationship between them is like constructing a closed system.” [Emphasis added]

Through the transformation of old artistic languages and the creation of new languages, the artist provides the audience with a variety of channels for entry and exploration. [Emphasis added]

Lin Jiabin, “Xu Bing: Constructing a Closed ‘Circle’“, CAFA Art Info, 25 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

The second overview — Grace Ignacia See’s “UCCA Presents …” in The Artling — takes a more descriptive and linearly developmental view following the exhibition’s division into three sections, “a direct reflection of the turning points in [Xu’s] artistic context and processes”.

The first section:

Book from the Sky (1987-1991), Ghosts Pounding on the Wall (1990-1991), and Background Story (2004-present) allow viewers to observe the means in which Xu’s meditations on signification, textuality, and linguistic aporia have been evoked; 

The second section:

A, B, C… (1991), Art for the People (1999) and Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present) project his explorations of hybridity, difference, and translingual practice through his works; 

The third section:

his more recent works Tobacco Project (2000-present), Phoenix (2008-2013), Book from the Ground (2003-present) and his first feature length film Dragonfly Eyes (2017), exist as commentaries on economic and geopolitical changes that have contributed towards China’s societal evolution and the world’s in the last hundred years.

Grace Ignacia See, “‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, an Artistic Career that Spans More than Four Decades“, The Artling, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

Tianshu or Book from the Sky, consisting of four volumes enclosed in a fastened wooden box, is a challenge to find, almost as much a challenge as being in the right place to see its installation version. The greatest challenge for a Westerner, however viewing the work, is grasping a Chinese viewer’s perception of it. How to imagine markings that, at first, look like the characters of the roman alphabet and even seem to form combinations that look like words and sentences but, on closer inspection, are not any letter, word or sentence known or knowable to the Western eye. Xu carved 4000 wooden stamps for characters that look like Chinese characters but are not and proceeded to have the four volumes printed under his instruction — as well as scrolls and wall hangings for installations.

Tianshu/Book from the Sky (1991)
Xu Bing
From the Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery
Fore edges of the four volumes
Close-up of the container and its catch mechanism, which is repeated on the other edge.
Book from the Sky (1991)
Xu Bing
View of installation

For a lengthier description and appreciation of Tianshu, John Cayley’s commentary and lecture are only surpassed by his book, where he writes:

[Tianshu is] not an object. It’s not a painting or a sculpture or even a book as such. It’s a configuration of objects and materials that represent a concept and provide some evidence or record of the development of the concept and the making of its constituent elements. You can’t possess it. You either have to find some elaborate way to acquire a personal record of the work or you have to take part in a process that allows the installation to remove itself into a museum or major gallery where this representation, beyond an individual’s acquisitive capacities, can be preserved for collective curated culture. In a sense, I’m helping you to ‘own’ the Tianshu by writing this. 

John Cayley. Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book (London: Quaritch, 2009). Pp. 1-2.

Given the challenge of tracking down locations to visit where Tianshu has been acquired, Cayley’s “help” is welcome. The Beijing exhibition’s installation can be seen at the 4’04” mark in the UCCA video.

Although nicely illustrated in See’s article, Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990) needs a bit more commentary for a fuller appreciation. According to Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen in The Art of Modern China (2012), the work was Xu’s response to the criticism that Book from the Sky demonstrated he had lost his way “like ghosts pounding the wall” (p. 258). It’s also worth noting that these two works have in common the process of turning one form of work into another.

Just as Book from the Sky consists of the four volumes in a wooden box yet is also an installation with scrolls and wall panels repeated in multiple venues, Ghosts Pounding the Wall began as the performance by Xu and his students wearing bright yellow jackets, stenciled with characters from Book from the Sky, and rubbing ink on rice paper fastened piece by piece across a one-kilometer stretch of the Great Wall and also is the installation. The latter is nicely shown in See’s article and can also be seen in the UCCA video at the 5’20” mark. Xu’s performance was one of “ghosts pounding the wall”; the installation, one of the ghostly impressions from that pounding of the wall. This characteristic or method in Xu’s art is one to watch for in almost all of his work.

Background Story, the third work in this section, is an installation and as such only fully accessible when in situ like Ghosts and later works. It first appeared in 2004. What appears to be a Chinese landscape printed on rice paper secured in a long row of joined-up lightboxes extending across the space of the host gallery is actually formed of shadows cast by objects on the other side of the lightboxes, which are open to view. Over time, the installation has developed as a series, with each version being based on a different ancient Chinese landscape painting. Usually the painting belongs to the institution where the work is installed. Four of the versions can be found at these links to videos and a slide show:  2011, 20122014, 2015. The 2018 version can be found in the UCCA video at the 6’16“ mark.

In the meantime, another earlier essay from Sue Wang provides useful insights on experiencing the version based on the painting “Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains” by the Yuan dynasty painter Huang Gongwang.  This version appeared in 2014 in Beijing as jointly organized by the Inside-Out Art Museum, Jing & Kai, the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media at Cornell University, Life Bookstore and SDX Joint Publishing Company.

Front and back of Background Story: Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains (2014)
Xu Bing
Photo credit: Joy Lidu Yi

Wang also includes an interview with Xu about the process and intent of Background. The work marks a departure from Xu’s traditional materials: ink, paper, print, characters and language, but as Xu points out to Wang:

…  whether using ink or not isn’t the issue at the core, while the most important thing is what the artist wants to express. It is necessary to think of what material does well in the presentation of the expected effect and the words of the artist. It may be a new language that no one speaks, it is a new language of the time, so it is in need of finding a new way of speaking …. 

Sue Wang, “Xu Bing’s ‘Background Story: Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains’ Opened at Inside-Out Art Museum“, CAFA Art Info, 29 May 2014. Accessed 4 November 2018.

The second section of the 2018 Beijing exhibition brought into focus Xu’s deepening thought about language and culture when confronted with English and the art scene in the US and elsewhere in the West. See’s article highlights A, B, C… (1991) and Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present) as examples of Xu’s “explorations of hybridity, difference, and translingual practice through his works”. One of those works is An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy (2000), a woodblock hand-printed accordion book with ink rubbings and wood cover. It is a textbook written by Xu Bing for users to learn the square word calligraphy writing system invented by the artist himself. The “installation version” consists of a classroom set up for learning and practicing the system.

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy (2000)
Xu Bing

Columbia University has produced a video of one such installation, which demonstrates the fun of interacting with art. For most of us, though, an easier means of interacting with square word calligraphy and owning a bit of Xu’s art is to purchase the children’s songbook shown below.

Another book by Xu, related to this third section of the Beijing exhibition and available for purchase, is Book from the Ground (2014), telling a day in the life of Mr. Black, an office worker — told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life. Xu’s playful but serious, to-and-fro treatment of language, meaning and cultures is another recurrent characteristic of his work. 

Book from the Ground (2000)
Xu Bing
From the Hanes Library, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Notice the difference in size. On the left is the “Chinese” edition; on the right, the “English”. Why the quotation marks? There are no differences in the icons in which the narrative is written! Of course, the book trade being what it is, the traditional trim sizes are one cultural difference Xu could not erase.

Full appreciation of Xu’s signature interest in language — text and art, culture and meaning — would have sent the attendee in Beijing back from section two or three to section one to look at Book from the Sky again.

Serendipitously, another Xu exhibition was running nearby at INK Studio in Beijing at the same time:  Xu Bing: Language and NatureThat show’s curator, Dr. Britta Erickson, is also the author of The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning without Words (2001). Her book covers many of the works in sections one and two and delivers insightful, plain-language readings of them that add considerably to the appreciation of Xu’s art. Again, as with the UCCA retrospective, Radii China delivers some outstanding photos from the INK Studio exhibition, and its briefest description makes the reader hunger for more as well as an actual visit:

… a selection from his The Living Word series in which the Pinyin Chinese word for bird, niao, transforms over a series of serial sculptures into the simplified character , then the traditional character , then, finally, into a small flock of birds soaring toward the gallery’s skylight.

Photo of the Day: Xu Bing Hangs Birds from the Sky at INK StudioRADII China, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

A visitor could have hardly hoped to take in the UCCA and INK exhibitions in less than several days.

Xu’s conceptualism, genius for planning and meaningful attention to the detail of material recurs again and again in his work. He has a deft wittiness and patient, opportunistic eye, ear and even nose for enriching his artwork after the fact. Section three’s strong odor of tobacco must have underscored that to visitors.

Red Book (2000)
Xu Bing
From the Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery 

Xu’s Tobacco Project trilogy, which began in 1999, incorporates Red Book (with Chinese and English inscriptions on each cigarette from Mao’s little Red Book), the floor sculpture Honor and Splendor (composed of 660,000 Fu Gui cigarettes) and several other related works. For an earlier in-depth piece on the Tobacco Project (and extensive illustrations), the reader can go to John Ravenal’s description in Blackbird (Fall 2011, Vol 10, No. 2). As the curator who organized the Tobacco Project exhibition in 2011, Ravenal’s perspective is unique. Like John Cayley, Ravenal also produced a book — Tobacco Project, Duke/ Shanghai/ Virginia, 1999–2011 (2011).

Introducing another of Xu’s major works — Phoenix (2008-13), not in the exhibition — See argues, contrary to Lin Jiabin, that Xu has been on a path to a shift in focus:

Phoenix (2008-13) and Dragonfly Eyes (2017) further highlight Xu’s …  shift towards the economic and geo-political, where the first comments on China’s breakneck development and the latter dramatizes the role of individuals within the framework of an ever-expanding surveillance network.   

Grace Ignacia See, “‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, an Artistic Career that Spans More than Four Decades“, The Artling, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

See’s comments on these works closing section three of the Beijing exhibition miss the presence of a tension in them — or rather tensions present in all of Xu’s works from the very beginning. In a way, those ongoing tensions support the analysis of Lin Jiabin and how Xu’s works “sway and excite each other”.

August 2018. Enid Tsui surfaced the primary tension a few weeks later — worth the wait for the artful weaving of her own observations with Xu’s comments —  in a “long read” in the South China Morning Post Magazine. That tension is between, on the one hand, the exquisite and, on the other, the cynical, the pessimistic, the ugly and anger. For Tsui, the anger is most evident in “Xu’s latest, and most bizarre, work … Dragonfly Eyes (2017)”:

His team edited 10,000 hours of surveillance footage into an 80-minute feature film loosely structured around the story of a man running after the woman he loves. There are no actors or cameramen. … Xu used only clips that were never meant to be seen in public. Film critics were baffled. Xu says the work is, once again, about how we are shaped by culture. The scenes in Dragonfly Eyes hardly fill you with joy: beauty parlours selling cosmetic surgery packages; aggressive customers in a shop; drab, anonymous streets. Scenes of terrible natural catastrophes or accidents add to the general atmosphere of doom. There is an uncustomary fury here about the state of the world, beyond the film’s obvious reference to how we are all being surveilled by invisible, all-seeing eyes.

Enid Tsui, “Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Beijing retrospective reveals his attitudes to China and Western art, but don’t call him a pessimist“, South China Morning Post Magazine, 11 August 2008. Accessed 2 September 2018.

The exquisite shows in the attention to detail and exactitude of execution.  There are other tensions at play within and across Xu’s works:  cynicism vs idealism, pessimism vs optimism, tranquillity vs anger, sense vs nonsense, meaning vs meaninglessness, beauty vs ugliness. But if The Beijinger‘s regular arts columnist, G.J. Cabrera, is right in his August article extolling the accessibility of Xu’s art,

… the exhibition is rife with examples of how Xu’s witty thought processes can find technically challenging ways to address questions about linguistic processes or historical circumstance, which resonate not only in his homeland but also worldwide. The content is surprisingly accessible and not at all obscured by the dense narrative which could easily hijack the content when dealing with such deep themes. 

G.J. Cabrera,”State of the Arts“, The Beijinger, 29 August 2018. Accessed 2 September 2018

then shouldn’t those tensions be able to shape our appreciation of the works without explanations from articles and essays like this one and those above? If we are attentive enough, yes. Xu’s works are clever and beautiful enough, sometimes appalling and shocking enough, almost always playful and serious enough to make the viewer pause and attend — to hear Xu’s works say, “Language, the things of our cultures and their differences are not always what they seem”.

Locations of works

Book from the Sky

Ghosts Pounding the Wall

Background Story

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy

Tobacco Project

Phoenix

Dragonfly Eyes

General

Xu Bing in ‘Beijing’: Art in the Twenty-First Century“, Art21, 25 September 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – Xu Bing

I count myself “magpie lucky”.

Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Kettle's Yard exhibition, 2015
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14
Kettle’s Yard exhibition, 2015

The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.

from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)
from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)

I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.

Book from the Sky, 1991 Xu Bing The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Museum of Modern Art Photograph taken 31 January 2015
Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991
The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery

After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop.  Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands.  The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”

Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and “square word calligraphy”, gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning.  Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.

The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aesthetica review of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.

Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.

With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning.  We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages.  We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.

On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery  intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.

Detail. Xu Bing Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

Further reading:

Wang, Sue. “‘Xu Bing’: The Art View and Action Logic of a Fatalist”, 12 January 2018.  A lengthy piece on the occasion of the Xu Bing retrospective in Wuhan, his first large-scale solo exhibition in China since returning ten years ago. Beitler, Daniel. “Xu Bing Tests the Limits of Language in Unique Exhibition“, Macau Daily Times, 20 November 2017. From www.youtube.com May 25, 2017 1:55 PM This video recounting Xu Bing’s life and work so far (from his start in China to the 90s in New York then back again to Beijing) broadens the appreciation of each work and the connections among them across time and place.

Bookmarking Book Art — Noriko Ambe

I first came across Noriko Ambe’s book art in 2013 through her site and MoMA’s Inside/Out. Two years later and preparing to attend the closing of Yale University Art Gallery’s special exhibition of Allan Chasanoff’s collection of book art, I spotted her Basic Sketch Book. The latter provided me with a way of making sense of what seemed like a slight contradiction of assertions in her artist’s statement and the MoMA interview.

Noriko Ambe, Work of Linear – Actions, Found sketchbook (2000)
27.9 x 21.6 cm (11 x 8 1/2 in.)
The Allan Chasanoff, B.A. 1961, Book Art Collection, curated with Doug Beube- See more here.

Referring to the series Work of Linear – Actions, Ambe writes, “It looks like annual rings of a tree or topographical map or wave, but it isn’t. It is absolutely the traces of actions of a person, which is me.” So here is book art as abstract self-portraiture.

Noriko Ambe, Work of Linear – Actions  (2000)
Noriko Ambe, Work of Linear – Actions, 2000

But in her interview with Hanna Exel and referring to the seriesキル –Artist Books Project, Ambe comments, “I am not trying to express myself or insert myself into the other artist’s work by cutting their catalogue …”. In that series, Ambe selected 24 artists’ books and catalogues, and, studying each carefully , excavated or rather drew by excision. Aren’t these “absolutely the traces of actions of a person” — Noriko Ambe?

Noriko Ambe, CUT: Egon Schiele, 2009 Artist’s book The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe
Noriko Ambe, CUT: Egon Schiele, 2009 Artist’s book The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe Noriko Ambe, CUT: Egon Schiele, 2009
Artist’s book
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Fund for the Twenty-First Century.
© 2013 Noriko Ambe
Reproduced with the artist’s permission

Here is the list of works in the series:

His heart, his life: Andy Warhol
Collected Beauties: Damien Hirst
Art Victims: Damien Hirst
Prologue: Sugimoto + Foer
Sculpture: Richard Serra
Spiritual America: Richard Prince
Crash!: Takashi Murakami
Kiru- Cut : Egon Schiele
In the Studio: Arberto Giacometti
Current – War Cut: Gerhard Richter
Current – A Private Atlas: Gerhard Richter
In the bathtub?!: Jeff Koons
Diamond Dust Shoes: Andy Warhol
Warning!: Richard Pettibone
Sailing to…: Cy Twombly
Anatomy of Love: John Currin
Listning to Tom Freidman: Tom Freidman
Thoughts on Tom Freidman: Tom Freidman
Beautiful Inside of My Head Forever: Damien Hirst
Dots on Dots and Leyers: Roy Lichtenstein
To Perfect Lovers: Felix Gonzalez-Torres
A Study of Robert Therrein: Robert Therrien
Double sides: Gilbert & George
Artists, Believe in Yourself.: Piotr Uklanski

In her series statement, Ambe elaborates:

The process of creation was divided into roughly three stages. First, I earnestly established a deep respect for the artists and verified what they expressed through their art. After assimilating that information I decided on the theme (title) that needed to be expressed. Through a filter, the filter being me, the work was made while cutting as though I was having a dialogue with each single page.

When cutting something from the back I didn’t know what kind of image would appear next. Each time I decided to cut away or to leave behind and the process continued to a point where the book was on the verge of destruction, and then following my theme I re-constructed. Finally, while I clearly remained in the work as a filter, the essence of the artist was emphasized. It became a collaboration for the first time when these two things were balanced.

She calls the results dialogues and collaborations. I see unique works of art. Literally taking tradition as her material, Ambe delivers book art with its own unmistakeable, individual style. Each interpretation through her eyes, hands and scalpel is a unique, new work and a self-portrait in an abstract sense.

There is not the slightest contradiction.

Bookmarking Book Art — Jacqueline Rush Lee

Dictionary Detail (From the Series Ex Libris), 2000Petrified Book (High-fired Book in Kiln)H 7” x W 15” x D7”H18 x W38 x D18cm
Dictionary Detail (From the Series Ex Libris), 2000
Petrified Book (High-fired Book in Kiln)
H 7” x W 15” x D7”
H18 x W38 x D18cm

From the artist’s website:

Jacqueline has been working with books for fifteen years and is recognized for working with the book form. Her artworks are featured in blogs, magazines, books and international press. Selected bibliography include: BOOK ART: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books; PAPERCRAFT: Design and Art with Paper and PLAYING WITH BOOKS: The Art of Up cycling, Deconstructing, and Reimagining the Book. Jacqueline’s work will also be featured in Art Made from Books, Chronicle Press, 2013 by Laura Heyenga. …  She exhibits her artwork nationally and internationally and her work is in private and public collections, including the Allan Chasanoff Book Under Pressure Collection, NY.

The Chasanoff collection connects Lee with Doug Beube, whose work has been noted here. Beube was the curator of the Chasanoff Collection from 1993 to 2011.   In his interview with Judith Hoffberg in UmbrellaVol 25, No 3-4 (2002), he comments on the purposes of Allan Chasanoff, a book artist in his own right, in putting together the collection “The Book Under Pressure”:

There are a number of ideas that meets Allan’s criteria in acquiring work, of which I’ll try to convey a couple. The first is; the problem of the book to perpetuate information is inefficient, it’s an obsolete technology due to the advent of the computer.  Another premise is; at the latter part of the 20th century the book is being used for purposes other than its utilitarian design. Allan has been working extensively with computers and digital imaging since 1985 and understands that the book is as “an outdated modality”, he’s fond of saying. He’s not interested in the book decaying or in its destruction, nor is he referring to the content of books, artist’s books, production costs, mass appeal or where they get exhibited. His interest is in the book as an antiquated technology.

Lee’s process of kiln firing to transform individual books, as with the dictionary above, strikes a harmonious chord. The kiln does not reduce the book to ash but rather petrifies it.  Another way of exploring “the book under pressure.”   Lee’s and Beube’s work are brought together again by Paul Forte  at the Hera Gallery for an exhibition entitled Transformed Volumes.