Tag Archives: art books

This Is Not a Father

I have spent much of this semester making this edition of five books reflecting upon my father who died when I was two-years old. It is very satisfying to make a book by hand and besides the moments when I wanted to abandon the project or figure out a way to abandon myself, (that moment when I was pasting down the pastedown and accidentally pasted the book in upside down was just one such lovely me-ism. I fixed it, but I am still bitter.) overall, yes, a finished book is a nice thing.

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I also spent much of the semester writing a twenty-five page paper for my sociology class on the culture of art. I wrote my paper on livre d’artiste—very briefly, these are French artists books from late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The very first such book was called Parallèlement with etchings by Pierre Bonnard and poetry by Paul Verlaine. In my paper I write extensively about the influence of Charles Baudelaire as well as the publishers of such books such as Ambroise Vollard and Albert Skira.

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When I finished pasting the books into the covers I wanted to put a weight on them so they would not warp. As I mention in my own little book about my father, I grew up surrounded by my father’s books and art,

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but imagine my surprise when a huge spineless art book I used to weigh my books down turned out to be my father’s. The title: From Baudelaire to Bonnard published by Albert Skira.

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That’s an odd bit of coincidence.

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Communication Communicates

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Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gasoline Stations (1963)

In 1963 Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, pioneering a new era in artist books. In the spirit of the counter-culture, this seemingly simple book altered the way that books were understood. The term “artist book” is a confusing and malleable term used differently by different people, but Ruscha’s work is understood as being at the incunabula of that discussion. Of course, Ruscha may not even accept the term for his own book, which he felt was mere documentation. What is Twentysix Gasoline Stations about? Ruscha might answer— it’s not about anything. It is exactly what it says it is: twenty-six gas stations. He is quoted in Mary Richard’s essay, “Artist Who Do Books,”  firmly stating: “Not that I had an important message about photographs, or gasoline, or anything like that—I merely wanted a cohesive thing” (Ruscha quoted in Richards, 30). One could argue that this is a slightly disingenuous stance given that he is the photographer, choosing the subject matter, angle, and method of delivery. In fact, by virtue of his choosing to present his photographs at all he is making a statement.

What that statement may be, is, of course, a more complicated matter. But there is at least one consistent element that comes through when reviewing Ruscha’s work as well as other works of that period, like Sol LeWitt’s Arc, circles & grids, or the whimsical Choosing Green Beans by John Baldessari. That is: the seemingly objective and removed nature of the content. Perhaps through a sort of wry humor Baldessari inserts himself a bit into his work, but these are all ostensibly impersonal works. They are“collections of facts” as Ruscha would say in Richard’s essay (31). They are all, also, works produced by men.

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Carolee Schneemann’s Vulva’s Morphia (1997)

Those works, therefore, juxtaposed with the feminist works, like those of Carolee Schneemann, Susan King or Jen Bervin, make for a very stark comparison. The female artists that were struggling to get their voices heard took to the artist book as a means to bypass the patriarchal authorities that kept them (and still keep them) out of the high-end art world. Books, they discovered, provided an accessible means for women to communicate their art. Lucy Lippard wrote in her essay “Escape Attempts” that the burgeoning genre of Conceptual art touch on the idea that “communication between people was subordinate to communication about communication” (Lipard, xvii). And that idea is clearly delivered in the works of Ruscha and DeWitt and many female artist as well, but when one considers the suppression of female artists throughout history, “communication about communication” takes on a deeper meaning. Feminist artists laid their minds, hearts and vaginas on the line in their art.

Vulva's Morphia

Vulva’s Morphia

Carolee Schneemann challenges notions of “polite society” and forces her viewers to consider just who it is that gets to say what women (and therefore people) can and can not talk about or display. In her book Vulva’s Morphia, Schneemann gives Vulva a voice, her radical stance is that Vulva has been denied the ability to communicate and the results, in Schneemann’s beautiful velvet-bound book, is at once sardonic and poignant. Vulva has a voice and through her voice,  Schneemann raises the sexual vitality of womanhood to fine art. The fact that, even in this day-and-age it feels incendiary, speaks volumes about how far women have yet to go to achieve equality in the art world—”‘vulva” is not even welcome as a word. It would seem we are not that far from the familiar, imposed “morality” that is pointed to at the end of the book: “Vulva goes to church and discovers she is obscene.…(quote St. Augustine)” (Schneemann). When Vulva says it— it is funny, but also, quite sad.

Jan Bervin's The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Jan Bervin’s The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Another popular and well-worn method of suppression is the relegating of “women’s work,” to some special, lesser genre. Some artist like Jen Bervin turn traditional female crafts (like needlework) onto the page in strikingly conceptual ways. Teasing out the secret world of Emily Dickinson’s unconventional notational systems in her poetry, Bevin creates in The Dickinson Composites a lovely minimalistic work in which one woman explores the secret inner life of another while expressing the deep continuity between them.

The Dickinson Composites

The Dickinson Composites

The intensity of the intimacy of Dickinson’s poems considered in Bervin’s gorgeous book is moving without being mawkish or sentimental. Here is a book that is just as much a statement of “communication about communication” as a Ruscha or DeWitt, and yet in Bervin’s work one can see that the impersonal tack is not the only approach to the concept. Just as Dickinson’s poetry is deeply personal, to the point of some inscrutability, Bervin highlights the mysteriously subjective communication that was, significantly, largely whitewashed out of Dickinson’s poems when they came to be published.

In the history of the art world there has always been a privileging of a male-centered perspective, reflected most obviously in the fact that males dominate the work that is shown and/or published. It is implicitly understood that the (preferable) rational, objective mind belongs to the domain of men while the emotional and subjective is relegated to women and children. Obviously that point of view is not only erroneous, but also damages and limits both sexes, yet it is clear that the stereotype still prevails. By comparing the above books, which are only loosely related, but share some conceptual, artistic and historical influences, one can see that the female and male perspective alike offer compelling and artistic insight and exploration into the experience—our experience, of being human. The artist that seeks publication is necessarily connected to communication and all the historical dynamics that influence the ability to be heard. Ruscha insist that he is not up to anything “deep” in his work. He is not, he states, being “arty.” But an anti “arty” stance in fact depends upon notions of “arty” to work against. Ruscha states that, “I think photography is dead as a fine art; its only place is in the commercial world, for technological or informational purposes” ( Ruscha quoted in Richards 30). But as the feminist artists of the 20th century show us, who disseminates the information, and for what purpose, matters.

 

*Vulva’s Morphia and The Dickinson Composites were published by Granary Books

**This essay was previously published in The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century Blog for Smith College in 2014.

 

 

Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

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The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.

 

*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn

 

Zeitgeist (recycled)

drawing by Victoria Accardi

On the way home from Brooklyn my daughter, son and I were sidetracked in the lower east side of Manhattan by our favorite doughnut shop (it’s worth crawling to if necessary: Doughnut Plant). Feeling highly satiated, churros in hand, we decided to walk over to The New Museum on the Bowery. It’s a snazzy new building that appeared suddenly in that expeditious New York kind of way after we moved (all of my place marks so quickly get swallowed up by new store fronts, it unmoors me causing in-numerous “wait, where are we?” moments).

As the three of us are all regrettably underemployed students we were put off by the entrance fee, even with the student IDs it would have cost us all 30$ to go in. We hesitated. It was too much of a leap into the unknown for our wallets to support. Instead we perused the very gorgeous catalogue that someone else’s dollars would have to pay for so that we could get an idea of what sort of art was on display. That is the tricky thing with collections of new art, they lack the decades that conveniently separate the wheat from the chaff. We then took advantage of the bathrooms (always an issue in the city). There was also, of course, a gift shop that we spent a good amount of time in. There were a lot of art books representing all the “new” art of the sort the museum housed. Some of it was very good. A lot of it irreverent and highly stylized, I had perhaps more patience for it than my extremely talented artist daughter who is endowed with a highly sensitive bullshit-o-meter.

Strumming through a book of (mostly) photographs I laughed at the images of a young man traipsing through a field in the buff. I picked up another book and had a moment of déjà vu, I turned the book over to confirm that I was indeed looking at a different book, different artist and yet I swear it was the same leaping fellow with swinging body parts.  A few books later there was another similar image, okay maybe it was…the cousin of the fellow, leaping at the…beach, but really I felt like I had been transported back to the early 70’s only it was a cleaner, more monogynous and organic granola version.

Maybe it is just the environmentally conscious youth of today: well trained to recycle everything. Music, fashion, art: it does seem to be in a particularly unoriginal state of late. Or maybe the preponderance of young free loving naked men is just some sort of reaction or balancing measure to all of the thousands and thousands of images of the female figure that have ever been made.Well…right on then. Equal rights after all people!