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“The Book as…”

“Book as Art VII”

“Science and the Artist’s Book, Parts One and Two”

Ever since the invention of the codex format in late antiquity, “art” and “books” have been linked in a single format. During the medieval period, calligraphy was often so elaborate and designs so intricately interwoven with the words that text itself became art. But only for the past 30 years have contemporary artists engaged in the reconceptualization of both “book” and “art” that has led to the creation of “the artist’s book” or “the book as art.” This rethinking requires artists and viewers alike to approach books as artifacts in new ways. Assumptions about the relationship between information and knowledge, about public and private space, and about the status of objects and the shape of meaning are challenged in current investigations.

The unpredictable insights elicited by the book-as-art form are currently under investigation in three shows at Washington museums and galleries. Parts One and Two of “Science and the Artist’s Book” are on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries Exhibition Gallery at the National Museum of American History and the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA). The project is a collaborative venture by the two institutions: The Smithsonian provided the science, the WPA contributed the artists, and half the books are on display at each site. “Book as Art VII” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the seventh in the museum’s well-regarded ongoing presentation of artists’ books. At Gallery 10, “The Book as…” features four nontraditional interpretations of the book as a vehicle for artistic exploration, with works by Brent Crothers, Judith L. Kornett, Margo Klass, and Maria Barbosa.

The first and most major challenge of book art is establishing an altered perception of what a book can be. The artists at Gallery 10 are most successful, in each case linking the “book” idea to some other form or process. The fanfold is a common method that artists employ to spread out pages horizontally for viewing. Used predominantly by Kornett in this show but by many of the artists both in the “Science” project and at NMWA, the fanfold as a shape isn’t particularly interesting as either form or idea, and depends for its success on the imagery or material presented on or between its folds. Kornett gives it an interesting twist in her hanging Books, Books, Books by attaching one end of the fan to a wall-mounted picture frame and allowing the pleated boards to cascade toward the floor.

Margo Klass re-presents a different book possibility in exquisitely crafted objects that combine the mystery and interactive adventure of the jewel box. When open, these sculptural pieces reveal niches and alcoves filled with such natural objects as shells and stones that contrast with marbles or small decorative shapes. They open in sequence, like medieval altarpieces, but closed have a delicate but uniform blankness, revealing as little of their interior riches as the closed cover of any book.

Crothers uses the book itself as the primary structural component of sculptures that allude to reading, culture, or the creation and manufacture of books—often all three. The texts he uses are Reader’s Digest condensed books that add an additional, satisfying layer of irony to the works. Story Telling looks like a small topless igloo whose interior has been burnt out, leaving the inside page edges charred. Crothers uses the same domical form in How I Got to Be Perfect, but fills the hollow interior with a mass of woven twigs. For Infrastructure, two-thirds of the dome is constructed of books; the final third is completed by the bare branches of a tree that seems to be growing at the dome’s core.

The fourth artist at Gallery 10, Barbosa, has constructed a “walk-thru artist’s book” inspired by the poetry of Claudia Nogueira. The Mule Without a Head presents panels of text alternating with small shadow boxes in which tiny figures and objects interpret the narrative fragment on the adjacent panel. The story itself is compelling, but the interaction of text and sculpture is disjointed; the tone of the little box tableaux does not sustain the undertow of inevitable misery revealed in the written tale. At the story’s conclusion, visitors pass into a curtained confessional where they can sit and become a component of the narrative they have just read and seen.

The idea that prompted “Science and the Artist’s Book”—to have contemporary book artists reinterpret important texts from the history of science—offers the tantalizing prospect of remarkable new booklike creations. Unfortunately, few of the artists who participate do much to revitalize the book form or to relate it to the ideas of the scientists they choose. Many use the fanfold, which begins to seem like an easy way out, and merely place decoration on or between its surfaces. This is particularly disappointing because the 27 artists base their work on some of the most inventive thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Their choices were drawn from the “Heralds of Science” collection of 200 works considered to be of pioneering significance in science and technology. The Smithsonian’s Dibner Library owns rare manuscript editions of the works, and the originals are displayed with the contemporary reinterpretations.

Those artists who have developed an alternative way of presenting their reinterpretations produce the most satisfying responses. Geoffrey Hendricks’ QUADRANT/A meditation on Tycho Brahe—a box with pouches, maps, plans, a clay ear, nose, and hand, glass and steel balls, and a sewn-together booklet of watercolor illustrations of the phases of the moon—combines playfulness and mystery. The same dualism works in Daniel Kelm’s Templum Elementorum, which derives from a 16th-century Italian text about working with fire. Kelm created four glass cylinders of varying heights, one dedicated to an element of nature. Each cylinder contains slots into which small booklets on earth, air, water, and fire can be inserted. Kelm took his idea from an illustration by Italian chemist Vannoccio Biringuiccio of a distillation furnace, but his work captures the mystery of chemical transformation, linking it to metaphysical and poetic alterations.

The box as book is also employed in Julie Chen’s response to James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick’s description of DNA structure and Susan kae Grant’s reflections on Marie Curie’s life and work. Chen’s book-box contains paper components that can be assembled by the “reader” into a model of DNA. Grant’s book and its pages are lead: Inside the book’s container are five glass rods holding scrolls of silver transfers printed with descriptions of Curie’s researches. Both the book’s pages and the silver transfer scrolls seem to be written with disappearing ink, evoking the invisible but deadly radium with which Curie worked.

Other notable works in this show are Edward Hutchins’ Moving the Obstinate and George Gessert’s Natural Selection, the latter a conceptual response to Darwin. Gessert, a breeder of irises as well as an artist, presents 12 cards, each with a photo of his hybrid flowers, a description of his experiment, and a handwritten judgment of each. One reads: “It looks neither wild nor domesticated, but merely confused. Another boring iris.” Its fate: “Composted.” Hutchins chose baroque architect Domenico Fontana’s 1590 treatise about moving the Vatican obelisk to the square in front of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. His obelisk-shaped “book,” Moving the Obstinate, opens to reveal a fanfold whose cleverness transcends the form. It discusses the difficulty of persuading people to change their minds, especially with regard to ideas based on ignorance, and is juxtaposed with Fontana’s illustration of the numerous pulleys, horses, cables, and scaffolds necessary to move and erect the multiton Egyptian relic. Hutchins accomplishes a profound commentary that is saved from pretension by the whimsy and charm of his brightly colored book-obelisk.

The seventh annual NMWA “Book as Art” show also contains a number of works that re-examine the possibilities of the book form. Ann M. Kresge’s Air Born even refuses to consider the book as a stationary object. Like Kelm’s work at the Smithsonian, Kresge investigates the elements, but she has five—adding wind to earth, air, water, and fire. Each of her book’s five pages are kites, and the piece includes instructions for flying them. A different kind of transport lies behind Rhea Sanders’ Moroccan Sketch Book, a work derived from sketchbooks carried by desert travelers of the past. A large cross of linen, the sketchbook can be folded into a small square and carried in a suede bag. The narrative, postcard-like paintings Sanders has affixed to the linen aren’t very interesting, but the fabric, its shape, and its pouch are remarkably evocative.

The only major disappointment of these museum exhibitions is the prohibition on handling the books. It’s inevitable in museum presentations, of course, but the chance to hold and examine the artists’ books at Gallery 10 points up the issue of intimacy, so crucial to appreciation of the book object. None of the works in any of these shows investigates the special kind of possessiveness that results from our interactions with books and the knowledge we acquire from them. But in an era increasingly dependent on the electronic transmission of information, which leaves no physical trace, the tangibility and possessibility of books takes on important resonance. Many of the works in the NMWA, Smithsonian/WPA, and Gallery 10 shows elicit the impulse to touch and hold, to literally as well as mentally turn over the ideas they contain. This spatial and material reality establishes the dialectical completeness of books that all three exhibitions confirm.