Offset and laser gravure, perfect binding. H325 x W250 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Printed Matter, 10 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Appropriated and sculpted bookwork was taking off in numerous forms even before 1964 when Marcel Broodthaers half-embedded the last fifty copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête in plaster. Bruno Munari had introduced libri illeggibili (“unreadable books”) in 1949. John Latham had already encased books with plaster in Shelf Number 2 (1961) and much else in his various skoob works. Tom Phillips’ line-by-line, found-book alteration A Humument was underway, first appearing in 1970, as was Dieter Roth’s string of sausage books Literaturwurst (1961-74). So Broodthaers could have taken any of several directions before deciding to replace Mallarmé’s lines of verse in Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Poéme (1914) with printed and engraved placeholders in paper and anodized aluminum, respectively, to create Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Image (1969).
Son of Giorgio Maffei (bookseller, curator, scholar and book artist in his own right), Giulio Maffei has made video catalogues for Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei since 2015. Each catalogue is a work of video. In this twenty-sixth outing, Maffei has created a video from the 1914 edition and Broodthaers’ 1969 Image version of Un Coup de Dés.
By 2008, Michalis Pichler had an even greater wealth of forms from which to choose for his double appropriation/homage to Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image. Since the ’80s scores of book artists had been introduced to ingenious structures by Hedi Kyle and Keith A. Smith, among others, so why not an Aunt Sally’s shipwreck of string, canvas and torn paper? Long-Bin Chen had been sanding books and phone directories into busts since the ’90s, so why not a bust of Mallarmé from old editions of Un Coup de Dés and a bust of Broodthaers from catalogues of his works (a variation on Buzz Spector’s treatment)?
Instead Pichler appropriates Mallarmé through Broodthaers’ design and production: an efficient and direct double appropriation. He follows the trim size and layout of the 1914 and 1969 works. Further underscoring the double appropriation, he reprints verbatim Broodthaers’ preface (the full text of Mallarmé’s poem set in small type as a single paragraph with obliques separating the lines of verse). Like Broodthaers, he produced limited editions of three versions: 10 copies in plexiglas (rather than Broodthaers’ 10 in anodized aluminum), 90 copies in translucent paper (just as Broodthaers had done) and 500 copies in paper (rather than Broodthaers’ 300). Where Broodthaers had solid black stripes, though, Pichler substitutes laser cuts in the translucent and paper editions and engraving or abrasion in the plexiglas edition. Hence Sculpture (2008), rather than Image (1969) or Poème (1914).
Not until 2016, though, was Pichler able to cap his double appropriation. Just as Broodthaers had held an exhibition entitled “Broodthaers: Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Antwerp, December 1969), Pichler held one entitled “Pichler: Exposition Littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Milan, December 2016). Like the Broodthaers exhibition, Pichler’s was an opportunity to showcase his own work: it was his first solo exhibition in Italy. Like Broodthaers, he included the Nrf 1914 edition, but also included numerous other editions and translations that had occurred since. Also, key to Pichler’s artistic intent, he included a host of other artists who by appropriation had made homage to Un Coup de Dés … Poème and, in some cases, Broodthaers’ … Image.
Book art is so self-referential in its instances (think of Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes) and as a genre (think Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman) that appropriation offers a natural next step. In Pichler’s case, the subtlety of that step comes in how he reaches through Broodthaers’ Image all the way back to elements of Mallarmé’s Poème to achieve his aims.
When Broodthaers first appropriated Mallarmé’s layout, type sizes and roman/italic styles, he was engaged in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. Usually ekphrasis runs from the work of art (say, a Grecian urn) to the text in response (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Here, the poem and its shape come first, then the work of art — the Image of the poem. By calling his exhibition an exposition littéraire, Broodthaers underscored this. By calling out the shapes on the page, he elevated the original’s semblances of waves, an abyss, a foundering ship and a constellation and, in exposing them, performed a kind of literary study as well as artistic work.
Count it down from Pichler’s appropriation of Broodthaers’ exposition littéraire, from the inclusion/appropriation of other artists’ appropriations of Poème and/or Image, from his own work of book art Sculpture, from his own other works: Pichler’s appropriative ekphrasis is squared, cubed or perhaps raised to the fourth power. Clearly, book art and appropriation are Pichler’s chief palettes — or rather his twin decks from which, as DJ, he mixes what he calls “Greatest Hits”. The phrase simultaneously names Pichler’s imprint on Sculpture‘s cover and the series on his website. The series includes other appropriations such as Every Building on the Ginza Strip (2018) from Ed Ruscha and Some More Sonnet(s) aka Poem(s) (2011) from Ulises Carríon. “Greatest Hits”, however, suggests another subtlety in Sculpture, albeit one best appreciated in the context of all the exhibitions.
The first instance of Broodthaers’ exhibition in Antwerp included a continuous playing of the artist’s tape-recorded reading of the poem. In Cologne for its second instance, Broodthaers renamed it Exposition littéraire et musicale autour de Mallarmé. Broodthaers was simply taking Mallarmé’s musical cue in Un Coup de Dés’spreface, which advises reading the poem as if it were a “score” for music to be heard at a concert and its blank spaces as “silences”.
Taking Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ musical cues and that of his piano-roll-like slots in Sculpture, Pichler created for his exhibition Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique, a piano-roll version of the poem to be played by any visitor who cared to sit and pedal the pianola on which it was installed. So in further appropriation of Mallarmé through Broodthaers, Pichler’s piano roll turns the empty spaces, where the words and black strips would be, into music while the blanks around them become what Magnus Wieland calls “white noise”.
In traditional literary ekphrasis, the referring text can stand on its own. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield does not require a side-by-side engraving or painting of what Hephaestus forged. Nor does Auden’s exposition of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) need an art history book to hand.
But without the context of the exhibition, the presence of other appropriations, or even Pichler’s translucent and plexiglas editions, what to make of Pichler’s paper edition on its own? The traditional Nrf cover design suggests no surprise to come, although the trim size looks non-traditional in today’s market. The book’s slimness, subtitle and preliminaries also warrant a raised eyebrow: how can this be a sculpture? Turning the pages, the reader/viewer comes to the cuts and sees through to the pages beneath. Shadows move through the leaves. The laser cut technique hints at something that a die cut does not. Do the burnt edges where the laser has cut suggest a more surgical approach to book burning, an allusion to burning decks, or a 19th century and 20th century legacy to the white spaces?
Both Mallarmé and Broodthaers noted the intent to draw attention to the white space of the page. Pichler appropriates both the poet’s and artist’s form and intent. He sculpts a conceptual double-palimpsest not by overwriting the first level of overwriting but by removing it and the original layer altogether. The core subtlety of Pichler’s paper edition of Un Coup de Dés lies in those empty spaces defined at their burnt edges and by the blankness around them. For Sartre, Mallarmé was the poet of nothingness. Broodthaers appropriated the nothingness with black ink. Pichler has appropriated both. The paradox is a work that stands on its own by invoking and eliminating what it appropriates.
With the exception of Unpacking my Library, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. Unlike much other ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, these items have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.
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”).
While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, 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 this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.
Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). 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, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.
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 morethan 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. — “Art Readings”.
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.
Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus. The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue 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. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.
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. Including this catalogue.
The Library of Babel (1991)
The Library of Babel Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector. Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991.
As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.
The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.
The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.
As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalog to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.
Marcel Broodthaers (1990) Buzz Spector An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers. Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Cente/Rizzoli, 1989.
He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogs, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.
When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic: “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse.
Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogs in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Unpacking my Library (1995)
Unpacking my Library (1994-95) Buzz Spector Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994.
Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.
From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.
Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:
This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.
The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:
So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.
Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.
As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:
The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.
Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.
The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)
The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book Buzz Spector Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing. Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches.
Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.
The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.
Between the Sheets (2003)
Between the Sheets (2003)
Cloth over boards, Japanese stab binding, 15 folded sheets, outer sides offset printed with enlarged “artist photos” clipped from dust jackets of art books repurposed by Spector for his bookworks, inner side printed (recto only) with text by and selected by Spector. H157.5 x W216 x D12.7 mm. Edition of 40, of which this is #40. Acquired from Olive Branch Press, 26 June 2020.
Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “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), p. 160.
Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.
Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.
Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.
Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.
Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.
Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.
Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.
Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).
This collection note is a reminder of how comparison and contrast can lead to understanding how particular works evoke pleasure, thought and appreciation.
The First Cut (2015)
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has lent inspiration to poems, paintings, sculptures and even cinema — why not book art?
The First Cut (2015) Transformed Harvard Loeb Library Translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses H7.75″ x W5.5″ x D6.5″ Photos: Books On Books
Lee’s The First Cut transforms the two Harvard Loeb volumes into what appears to be a block cross-cut from a tree with red and black bark, split down one side showing the inner bark and flesh. The metaphoric metamorphosis of book back to tree alludes to the transformation of Daphne, Myrrha and others into trees but that is only one of many changes to which The First Cut leads the eye and mind.
Looked at on edge, the object shows the might-have-been-expected concentric tree rings transformed into a variety of quills, folds and warped signatures. Some inked black, some red; some a bleached white, some an aged beige. The numerous shapes in the cross-sectional view are changing and press on other changing shapes. Likewise in Metamorphoses there are manifold transformations of humans: not only into trees but flowers, birds, stones and more as well.
There is also something uterine or endoscopic in the cross-sectional view. There is plenty of sexual activity between humans and the gods in different forms in Ovid’s poem. A tree serves as Adonis’ womb, and Ovid often provides agonizing descriptions of limbs and organs undergoing their change. Among so many metamorphoses, which is “the first cut”?
Silenda (2015) Transformed Peter Green Translation of Ovid’s The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters Manipulated Text, Ink, Graphite. H9.5″ x W12″ x D6.5.” Photos: Paul Kodama
The Latin word “silenda” means “secret”, which evokes the still unknown offense that led to Ovid’s exile by Emperor Augustus in 8CE to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) where Ovid wrote his poems of exile. The ink-blacked pages evoke both the hiddenness of the secret and the black despair into which Ovid sank.
Silenda strongly resembles another of Lee’s works: Nous [There’s No Why Here] (2014), an altered philosophy book. The Greek word “nous’ means “the faculty of intellectual apprehension and of intuitive thought”, especially as it applies to a grasp of first principles. The subtitle to Nous and the opaque ink-blacked pages work more broadly, bluntly and ironically with the identity of that work’s raw material than is the case with Silenda.
Nous [There’s No Why Here] (2014) Jacqueline Rush Lee Photo: Paul Kodama
How do we weigh one work against the other? On the basis of the identity of the raw material? On the basis of the title? (What if both were “untitled”?) On the basis of execution? On the basis of how well the source material, the title and the execution combine and how they “work” with the visual impact of the object created?
The questions aren’t restricted to these two works, this artist or book art. Consider the numerous instances of “incised and excised” books. The term is used here for works such as Brian Dettmer’s Eye Surgery (2005) or A Sentimental Journey #1 (2018), where the artist has cut through the front cover, down through the pages, and left sentences and images in meaningful relief. Many other artists have produced similar works, but Dettmer’s combination of technique and the object’s close alignment with its source book set the bar for this kind of art. His individual works invite that closer look at their similarities and reward the look with differences to enjoy.
To return then to Lee. Her works (The First Cut, Silenda and previous ones similar to them) also have set a bar for this variety of book art. They invite a closer and comparative look. Within her own body of work, her series invite this. Silenda is part of the Inked series, whose output compares and contrasts productively with that of the series Ex Libris. The process Lee used for the latter series whereby “books and periodicals were fired in controlled kiln environments with no clay or slip addition” resulted in “fragile, bloom-like forms or skeletal remains, while others were coral-like, calcified forms with covers that were shell-like in feel with text, cover titles, and book cover colors present in their new, warped state”.
Ex Libris: Endoskeleton (1998) Jacqueline Rush Lee Fired book in kiln (Biology book) H7 x W15 x D17 inches
The results from the two series’ different techniques are clearly night and day. Beyond similarities of shape, there is another similarity that unites the works across the two series — the practice of ekphrasis, or rather reverse ekphrasis. Ekphrasis generally refers to literary efforts to depict a work of art: Auden describing Breughel’s Icarus or Jarrell describing Donatello’s David. In the process, the poems go beyond mere description or allusion; they stand on their own. Reversing this, Lee (and Dettmer) take physical instances of literary works and create art that depends on the literature from which they are actually made, and they stand on their own.
But if the viewer is not or cannot be aware of the identity of source material, is the work a lesser work for that? Without some awareness of the biblical stories, images and symbols to which a religious work of art alludes, the experience of the work seems certainly lesser. But does that apply to these ekphrastic works (reverse or otherwise)? Does the more slightly subtle way that the title of Silenda works with its source than Nous works with its source give an added edge to Silenda?
Dettmer and Lee provide offer another basis by which to appreciate their works: that of innovative variation of technique and form. Dettmer’s move from the relief effect of Eye Surgery to three-dimensional carving of single and multiple volumes (for example, Tristram Shandy, 2014) shows such innovation. Such innovativeness enhances our appreciation and preferences across his works and those of other “book surgeons”. Likewise a visit to Lee’s site will prove that the breadth of her innovation is even wider than the impressive evidence of The First Cut, Silenda, Nous and Endoskeleton.