Object Focus: The Book Hands On
Yes! I had the chance to put on the white gloves and hang out at Museum of Contemporary Craft while curator Namita Gupta-Wiggers and crew installed the new exhibition Object Focus: The Book, a show of selections from the Reed College collection of artist’s books. Wiggers says, “We wanted to show the range of kinds of forms a book could take and because the collection is so stellar, it’s also a survey of who’s who.” That who’s who includes Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, William Kentridge, Allan Kaprow, and Marcel Duchamp, among others.
The exhibition, curated by Geraldine Ondrizek, the art professor at Reed College who acquired much of the collection, and Wiggers in collaboration with Barbara Tetenbaum of Oregon College of Art and Craft, includes conceptual work that feels very contemporary given the current flood of activity in art publishing as well as more traditional artist’s books and those that examine the shape and form of the book itself as well as various printing methods. One, Veronika Schäpers’ “Durs Grünbein: 26°57,3′N, 142°16,8′E” is printed, I am told, with squid ink! There are singular works like Clemens-Tobias Lange’s “Onni Santi,” a folio of haunting photo-etchings of walls in Georgian churches where people continue to burn candles though the icons are gone, and more mass printed works like the Great Bear Pamphlet series box set and the Marcel Duchamp “Manual of Instructions” for the 1987 show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Among the conceptual works there are those that stretch the notion of book to the breaking point, Xu Bing’s fantastic, “Tobacco project : Red Book” is a case in point with phrases from Mao Zedong’s 1945 text “On Coalition Government” printed on individual cigarettes. And there are those that play with book form as in the 80′s Russian mail art anthology by Collective Farm that is made up of regular sized envelopes bound into a book-like stack with a couple loops of twine. All of the envelopes contain inexpensively printed art works. And this is the rub of a show like this…you want to be able to get in there and touch this stuff! There’s no way that all of the incredible pieces in an S.M.S. folio can be shown at once. As might be expected in a museum with the word “craft” in the name, Wiggers says, “The way we’re installing is not about content as much as material, form, and structure.” The good news for the viewer is that the Museum is going to change the install a couple of times during the show so that you can see what you may not be able to see the first time around.
“These are objects meant to be touched,” Wiggers laments. “I have to put them in cases, of course, but what that does is render them as images and alters the intent. It’s tough.”
One reason I think the artist’s book is so hot now is that it circumvents the traditional hierarchical structures, the gate keepers of the art world, delivering art to a wider (international) audience. It’s worth saying, of course, that the internet does the same thing, but I think it’s precisely because the internet does the same thing, that artists are attracted to making printed books.
This ethos of distribution is what my favorite pieces in the show (and that’s saying something because there’s a Fluxkit AND Joseph Kosuth’s excellent “Notebook on Water 1965-1966″), the issues of “S.M.S” (1968) or Shit Must Stop, a multimedia art magazine (each issue really a collection of works in edition) by art dealer William Copley, is all about. Wiggers thinks of it as the “cornerstone of the show.” And I do too. Including primarily works on paper (Su Braden’s “Project for a Bridge” is standout), but some records (Duchamp), cassettes (Terry Riley), and objects, S.M.S. was available by subscription, and was assembled by Copley and family at the dining room table. (See also: Tom Marioni’s “Vision #5″ which includes works by Hans Haacke, Joan Jonas, and Larry Bell.)
Gently opening the issues of S.M.S. and looking through the works was like Christmas. Christo did a maquette of an environment, Meret Oppenheim has a print, Walter De Maria’s “Chicago Project” is included, and critic Julian Levy made “Pharmaceuticals,” a doctor’s prescription pad and a handful of brightly colored pills.
As an example, though, of the genesis of many artists books we’re seeing now, you have to look to Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (his first foray into the genre), simply, photos of 26 gas stations. That it’s spawned an industry of deadpan cataloguings of one sort or another is pointed out in the show by pairing it in a case with Ai Weiwei’s “Beijing,” photos of …Beijing taken through the windshield of a car.
But for genesis, we need to look back further still. “Sonia Delaunay: Ses Peintures, Ses Objets, Ses Tissus Simultanés, Ses Modes” (1925) is a wild collaboration featuring paintings by Delaunay and poems by among others, my man Blaise Cendrars and Tristan Tzara. And El Lissitzky’s “About Two Squares: In 6 Constructions: A Suprematist Tale” is an example of his extremely influential design. I know someone who is going to be nuts about seeing this one.
Finally, you have to mention the book arts kind of books, highly refined, fetishizing the object itself. Among these I was drawn to Buzz Spector’s triangular book “A Passage” published by Granary for which the same single page was printed over and over again, then hand torn by the artist such that the first page is the shortest, the second a sixteenth of an inch wider, and so on. It’s beautiful on the outside, and beautiful on the inside, the text tantalizingly unreadable.
And I wish you could have worn white gloves to see Allison Knowles’ “Time Samples,” one of many accordian books in the show, but with a twist, it’s made up of scraps from her studio floor. Each is leafed over a letterpress card or page with text about the scrap. One flips over the scrap and its card to read about it. It’s the one that begs to be touched.
Good news for you: someday, after the exhibition, when the books return to their home in the sub basement of the Reed College library, you can pay them a visit, the library is open to the public, maybe put on some white gloves and touch.