Rotch Library offers a small but growing collection of contemporary artists’ books. The collection focuses on artists’ books published from the 20th century to the present and explores a range of techniques and technologies employed by the books’ creators.
Yellow Submarine? Monty Python? Heath Robinson? Rube Goldberg? Hieronymus Bosch? Albrecht Durer? Quentin Massys? Whatever the influence, David M. Moyer has created choice work under The Red Howler Press. MIT has chosen well.
Errantry, a 27-foot scroll housed in a howitzer shell casing, is inspired by Der Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians or The Triumphal Procession of the Emperor Maximilian (1515), a series of 130 woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and others, about which Pfeiffer comments: “One of the dominant features in this document is the militant nature of many of the characters depicted, as well as their posture in parading their arms on horse, by carriage or on foot.” The text in Errantry draws from a poem of the same name in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology. The source poem, composed by Bilbo Baggins, describes one of his quest adventures in the usual self-aggrandizing yet self-pitying tone. As a model for Pfeiffer’s text, it makes the digitally printed images of war all the more horrible.
Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then crouch within the door. Red is the fire’s common tint; But when the vivid ore Has sated flame’s conditions, Its quivering substance plays Without a color but the light Of unanointed blaze. Least village boasts its blacksmith, Whose anvil’s even din Stands symbol for the finer forge That soundless tugs within, Refining these impatient ores With hammer and with blaze, Until the designated light Repudiate the forge. – Emily Dickinson, Part One, Life, XXXIII
MARC STRAUS, the contemporary art gallery in the Lower East Side of New York, opened “an exhibition of white paintings and sculptures by an international selection of artists” on 3 June 2017. It runs through 3 July, and its title The White Heat comes from the first line of Dickinson’s poem above.
Books on Books offers this “white book report” on book art not included to put attendees in the mood for their experience of the works in white by artists such as
Joan Levison and others.
Irwin Susskind‘s “Book Faced Down” is an example of the technique of mixed media – a stark white plaster block facing down the objectified cookbook – to create book art. A piece of sheet cake, a cutting board?
Jonathan Callan‘s piece denies viewers the colorful still lifes of Francisco de Zurbarán and leaves them with this drained-of-color, chiselled double-page spread of a book on the artist.
Where Callan chisels away from the edges inward, Noriko Ambe carves from the inside almost to the edges in her work above.
As the Straus exhibition notes, “In Chinese cultures, White is associated with Death.” In J. Meejin Yoon’s book Absence, the absence of color in a solid white block of thick stock cardboard pages and the “text” of one pinhole and two identical squares die-cut into each of its 120 pages – one for each story of New York’s Twin Towers including the antenna mast – lead the reader down through the missing buildings to the final page where the footprint of the absent structures ends in a die cut of the entire site of the World Trade Center.
Olafur Eliasson seems to have followed Yoon’s technical approach in Your House, 2006, although the effects are far more intricate.
Echoing Yoon’s somber note, Julie K. Dodd‘s paper and book art often dwell on environmental issues, such as the death of a coral colony above and the contours of the natural landscape versus manmade as shown in Untitled.
A more hopeful note is struck in the whiteness of Chris Ruston’s final “ammonite” book in the series The Great Gathering, inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The mirror under the maker’s tools and the made thing implicate the viewer here and now in an optimistic ongoing evolutionary process of making and remaking.
Where the white of Yoon’s and Dodd’s works evokes absence and the white of Ruston’s work evokes the blank invitation to singular creativity, Michael Mandiberg‘s installation of multiples, Print Wikipedia, evokes the plenitude of white noise that is our online lives.
And just as technologically allusive, M.L. Van Nice‘s Swiss Army Book poses (tongue in cheek?) the single volume as somehow able to capture, store and transmit knowledge in ways it need not, albeit the meaning of the whiteness here is a bit elusive.
Werner Pfeiffer’s works constitute an extensive treatment in white. The installation at UConn Storrs represents a small proportion of the works shown in retrospectives in the last ten years at Bucknell, Cornell and the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Pfeiffer’s works touch on censorship, and from his Cornell exhibition, he explains:
The objects I create are made with real books. They are not casts, nor are they sculpted imitations. At its core each piece has bound, printed pages. Glued together and painstakingly covered with gesso, they are silenced and sealed for good. I practice this destruction, this obvious censorship, simply as metaphor. It is to visualize, to demonstrate, to provoke. For these acts of violence are not about the damage done to stacks of paper, to books. The objects are about the harm inflicted on the human spirit. The ropes, the nails, the clamps, the hooks and knifes are real as well. They are symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act.
With the advent of ebooks, Pfeiffer celebrates the tangibility of the book with his white gessoed book objects and their punning titles as well as origami-like works such as Zig-Zag.
But back to the white works of art at the MARC STRAUSS gallery. Book art is not entirely neglected. Following in their tradition since 1984, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (“Kids of Survival”) pondered, discussed and “jammed” on 1895 novella by H.G. Wells to produce THE TIME MACHINE (after H.G.Wells), which is included in the exhibition.
According to the artists, “We believe that every total work of art is a time machine – a synthesis of a living past and present located in an object that can only be completed by the social experience of a viewer in the future. The total work of art exists in the invisible fourth dimension of space/time and it is this notion that unites the works in the exhibition. We paint on historic texts in the present so that they can haunt our futures.”
Suitably prepared? Jump in your time machine and head over to 299 Grand Street, on the Lower East Side in New York, and immerse yourself in “The White Heat“.
“The book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented.” — Werner Pfeiffer, Book-Objects & Artist Books, online exhibition, Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
“The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge … I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.” — Anselm Kiefer, publication entry for Brünhilde schläft, in Toledo Museum of Art Masterworks (Toledo, 2009).
Like Anselm Kiefer, though eight years older, Werner Pfeiffer grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany. The works of both artists are rooted in the book and its peculiar place in that culture. Pfeiffer’s book-objects consist of deconstructed, dismantled library discards that are reassembled with glue and coated in gesso. “Gagged and tormented” (with nails, screws, rope and various physical distortions), the works are “symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act”, the real remnants of which Pfeiffer recalls from his earliest childhood.
Pfeiffer’s artist books on the other hand run the gamut of foldouts, scrolls, flexagons, walk-in environments and rely on traditional bookmaking craft: handset type, letterpress printing, sophisticated binding as well as original print techniques such as wood cuts or linoleum blocks and etchings on archival papers. The emotional range of Pfeiffer’s art is also wide — humorous, playful, piquant, simultaneously angry and sorrowful, concerned. The overriding concerns are straightforwardly explained in the text to the online Cornell University exhibition.
The first schoolbooks I can remember, leftovers from the previous regime, were heavily “edited.” They were books with words and sentences blackened out. Chapters were deleted; entire pages were missing. This was information declared unsuitable for a post-war generation, a generation who six months earlier had been practically obliterated by the events now deemed unfit to be read about. Part of what they had lived through, their own history, had been blocked out, hidden behind those black marks.
Measured by the perceived fears an innocently bound codex seems capable of instilling, the book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented. And yet we find ourselves at a threshold where its power and influence seem to be waning.
… As in the past, we find at the core of our current socio-political realignment the process of communication…. The new cultural footprint is a set of digits and their application, made possible by the microchip and the speed of electricity….
My book-objects have their origin partly in this ambiguous realm, a period of change as radical as it is dramatic. Superimposed over this perceived uncertainty is my personal concern about censorship. By making books which are deliberately mute I try to raise questions. Words are lost; they are no longer important. The books take on new forms; they become provocative statements. No longer instruments for reading they become sculptures, they become Book-Objects.
As with all superior sculpture, Pfeiffer’s works make the hands twitch to touch and manipulate them. In a few exhibitions, that interaction has even been encouraged. There is something inherently haptic about his book art (for example, Zig Zag and Abracadabra) and his book-objects (for example, Drawing Blood), which can be enjoyed vicariously in these videos: Youtube 1, Youtube 2, Youtube 3 and Youtube 4.
Kiefer’s materials are more varied, more monumental than Pfeiffer’s, and his concerns are decidedly not straightforward. Considering his sprawling studio complex at Barjac, in southeastern France, and its towers and installations, to say that Kiefer’s oeuvre extends beyond book art is an understatement. But for Books on Books, his most moving works — even those in which the book’s material presence is greatly subordinate — remain tethered to book art. The ache to touch Kiefer’s art, however, is different from what you feel with Pfeiffer’s. What little playfulness there may be in some of Kiefer’s earliest pieces is overshadowed by monumental works evoking an urge and dread at the same time.
You feel it walking up the stairs in the Royal Academy, looking up and seeing the sculpture Für Fulcanelli – die Sprache der Vögel, its great wings of beaten lead spread and rising above you. Between the wings, the body is made of a stack of elephant and double elephant folio books lying flat (or rather gathered folios made of lead like the wings). Interleaved with the closed and open books are rusted metal folding chairs with wooden seats and backs, the kind found in city parks. Thick metal wedges that appear to be wood are inserted at various points to balance out the angular, tilting pile. Separate and lying before this huge bird is a carved wooden snake, elongated and heading right to left as you view the work. The pages of the books curl and fold and roll up as if sodden or aflame. Some are rusted. The bottom-most book has lead binder boards, water stained and looking like marbled paper. Not all of them have binding boards, but all are spineless. You want to touch but know that if you do, your fingers will come away with some alchemical residue of history that will not come off and may burn the skin.
Pfeiffer’s works from a major exhibition in 2011 at Cornell remain on view online. Another major exhibition followed in 2012 at Vassar College. A new exhibition is scheduled for February 2015 in Toledo, Ohio. More about it in The Blade.
A major retrospective of Kiefer’s art at the Royal Academy of Art concluded in December 2014, coinciding with an hour-long BBC program. An interview with the artist and several podcasts are available on the RA’s site, and the rich and extensive exhibition catalogue provides articles exploring the complex themes of Kiefer’s art.