A woman picks up a thin book of poetry, ruffles the pages and inhales deeply, as though she were smelling a bouquet of lilacs. A man pulls a compact architecture book off the shelf and weighs it in his hands, then strokes the cover as if it were the coat of a prized mare. A child sits on the floor, reading a book nearly as large as he, then suddenly lays his head down upon the open spine with a contented smile as if the book were his mother’s breast. Spend an observant few minutes in a bookstore and you’re likely to notice people who appreciate books not only for their content but for their physicality.
The book-as-object — as collectible object — has been around for many centuries. Before moveable type, books were produced by hand, and their uniqueness made them available only to the wealthy. Conveyors of information, books also were considered works of art. In early Christian “manuscript illuminations,” artwork and calligraphy formed an exquisite union. And “bestiaries” contained no text at all, only drawings of creatures both real and fanciful. With the invention of moveable type and the mass production of books, some of the artfulness was lost — progressively lost, until today when we have millions of books with terrific content but paltry visual design.
Enter the artists. Specifically, artists who understand and love all of the possibilities the book form has to offer. They consider both the medium and message of basic elements like front and back covers, spines, bindings, versos and rectos — all palettes for artwork as varied as traditional visual arts. Their medium might be any combination of ink, graphite, paint, tape, string, plastic, wood, metal, glass … and text.
The Writers Place exhibition Artists’ Books offers an extensive and diverse sampling of nearly sixty books created by local artists or loaned from local collections. For art lovers, this is a great opportunity to view seldom-seen works by often-seen artists. For the uninitiated bibliophile, it is a perfect way to have your exquisite book and touch it, too. White gloves are provided for those who can’t keep their hands off these tantalizing objects.
Which brings up one of the difficulties in exhibiting artists’ books. Many are one-of-a-kind artworks or limited editions. Whereas most paintings and sculptures can be contemplated without physical contact, books with pages must be handled to be experienced fully. It’s an issue the artist — and curator — must address, but it does not necessarily mean that every artist’s book is built to last. Its hardiness or delicacy is the first indication of how frequently and with how much nonchalance the reader may peruse. In some cases, the slow disintegration may appear to be part of the art.
Gwen Widmer’s one-of-a-kind Puzzle Pages was created in 1977 and has aged with a ragged grace. It is apparent that the book, in its original form, was never meant to be elegant — though its rawness creates the peculiar kind of dignity one finds in ancient artifacts. Inner pages have been torn from a spiral sketchbook and then rebound inside a paper cover. Each page could be presented successfully as a solitary work of art. Some pages use only layers of paper, masking tape and Scotch tape; others are nothing but graphite or ink scribbles; still others consist of staples, cut-up paper or text over text. But what’s most interesting is how many of the pages have “spoken” to each other over the years. For example, one right-hand page is a graphite rubbing of a wall surface with patterns resembling the skin of citrus fruit or a map of muddy river bottoms. The words “Best Wall in the House — Cedar Falls” are written across the rubbing and hint at the artist’s life behind the image. On the facing page, the phrase “Cell Structure Equals” is flanked by patches of old glue, outlined in pencil, resembling what appear to be cells under a microscope. The graphite from the opposite page has rubbed off on this page — a rubbing of a rubbing. Further, the embossed marks from the page behind “Cell Structure” have picked up much of the graphite, creating yet another layer constructed by weight and time.
Other books are newer or so solidly constructed that neither weight nor time nor fondling hands can wear them down. Books produced by GrafikARCHIVE Publishing and printed at Hammerpress (both are Kansas City companies) have the essence of machines. The pages of Western Cargo: Words and Images of Russel Ferguson are created using a four-color printing technique, a highly complex but extraordinarily handsome process when produced on a turn-of-the-century letterpress. The resulting pages are bound between pressboard bolted to a back cover of red-stained wood, a reference to the wood Ferguson uses in his three-dimensional sculptures.
“Like a Japanese stroll garden, [a book] cannot be appreciated from a singular vantage point,” says Carl Kurtz, who for years has taught the art of bookmaking and calligraphy at the Kansas City Art Institute. “It must be moved around and through to wake up all the senses.” Regardless of subject matter, Kurtz prefers books that “do not separate form and content but, instead, attempt to unify their differences into a meaningful and integral relationship: a kind of yin-and-yang interdependency.”
Such interdependency is malleable, and contemporary artists often take into consideration the book’s many incarnations over the centuries. Adriane Herman’s “Wish I Were There” mimics those books of postcards that are bound into one small volume and ready for tear-and-send use. But she suggests a reversal of roles between stay-at-home sender and the “Lucky recipient of this view.”
Ann Fessler’s “First Aid for the Wounded” is nearly identical to small paperback handbooks produced to fit inside first-aid kits. She uses illustrations of life-saving techniques from the 1950s to tell a story about a man who marries a woman in order to disguise and repress his homosexuality.
And Toby Lee Greenburg’s “The Menu” borrows the aesthetic of a five-star restaurant menu to list the real last meals of real death row inmates. The book’s luxuriousness — and its references to wealth and privilege — makes the contents all the more haunting. For example, the controversial execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who was brain-damaged and thus unable to comprehend his death sentence, is summarized in his last meal, which is printed in lovely black script on a creamy-white page: “Slice of Pecan Pie (Saved for later; never eaten).”
The computer now provides a simpler, more cost-effective method of creating artist’s books that are replaceable. But because artists still choose to make irreplaceable books, exhibitions that allow potentially destructive hands-on viewing are few and far between. Now is a good time — perhaps the only time — to explore the pleasures of a book that is more than just a good read.