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ABeCedarium: An Exhibit of Alphabet Books
In The Avant-garde Book: 1900-1945 (Franklin Furnance: 1989), critic Jaroslav Andel viewed Marcel Duchamp's green box book, "Boite Verte" (1934) as "an emblem of the avant-garde book --a concept that is itself, by definition, open -- and as an embodiment of the now current dictum: 'The book is a container of information.'" "ABC Books Now" presents a number of works which, much like Duchamp's, and the functional precedents, exploit loose inclusions and applied objects. But the works in "ABC Books Now" do not follow Duchamp's scepticism about art works in an age of mechanical reproduction; they are limited edition art works which remain true to the alphabet book's raison d'etre, and which nonetheless are autonomous art. They refute and defeat mass replication in what they are as objects. Nor can they accurately be said to derive from any such 'Platonic' measure, as Samaras conjectured; they are born of precedents in utility. But, further, as Hannah Arendt maintained: "...their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs...."
A fine example of book art is "Identity" (1998) by Maria G. Pisano. In an edition of only four, her book contains twenty-six separate paper leaves and twenty-six mylar leaves bearing the text of an autobiographical alphabet. The three-sided mask wrapper, and all papers, are handmade of abaca and cotton. Her stencil designs are made with color pulp. The choice of paper leaves for the paper leaf inclusions is a playful, witty decision. The cast-paper eyemask of the wrapper's face seems to anthropomorphize an already personalized volume. The book, quite tangibly, spills its artist before us. It is still an alphabet book, and also stands as art which provokes and stimulates on several levels.
"Three Classic Faces" (l998) by Cris Clair Takacs consists of three books and a cabinet box which shelves them. The Solaire text papers bear electronically produced text, and the Mohawk endpapers of each book have laser-printed type cases suited to the country of origin of each typeface. The box is painted with a faux woodgrain; its brass handles are of twisted wire and gold Japanese paper. Here, Takacs, exploiting electronic resources, has created a clever, real and accessible alphabetic art book. This art actualizes much of what Duchamp and Samaras left behind in theories. "Three Classic Faces" delights and gratifies as art and as book. It is not a matter of my misunderstanding Duchamp and successors, but of disagreeing with their agendas. "ABC Books Now" points toward one of several more vital and sustaining wellsprings for inspiration.
Several of the book artists employ applied objects in their alphabet books, and to great effect. Their choices of techniques are purposeful and integral to the art.
"The Anxiety Alphabet" (1998) offers many points, and pricks a fascination in all who have visited the exhibit. This piece by Emily Martin sports pins and needles from front and back boards, which are covered in fog-blue Strathmore charcoal paper. The gray Rives BFK paper text is in an open-back, coptic binding. Whether its reader's anxiety comes from the act of reading or from the anxiety alphabet contained therein, "The Anxiety Alphabet" is art where subject and object coalesce. It is just one of so many entries that make "ABC Books Now" an exhibition one wants to spend time with.
Annie Tremmel Wilcox created "A Culinary Alphabet" (1998) and Cheryl Jacobsen rendered its calligraphy. Wilcox has sown, with silk, silver spoons with semiprecious stones to boards covered with Orizomegami over flax paper. This two-section book has illustrations and text rendered in gouache and watercolor. Here, in a masterful book, the objects might seem more associative than integral.
I have seen books bound in every conceivable substance, and references such as Bookmen's Bedlam by W. H. Blumenthal (Rutger Un. Press: 1955) document many more examples. "Rodentia Abecedarium" (1998) by Christopher McAfee tickles the most offbeat cockles of the heart. The text of Arches Cover is illustrated in acrylic, gouache and ink. The covers are goat leather and -- very identifiably -- rabbit... pelt. "Rodentia Abecedarium" is very much to its point -- the Surrealists would frown. It is more of wit, and only a little less 'perverse,' than Samaras' transformations; and, well, just a fun work of real book art. Go and judge for yourself.
Eric C. Alstrom tends toward a somewhat Duchamp-esque echo and, in contrast, draws his "A Box Containing Dreams..." (1998) back toward a functional ground, while elaborating the book object genre with self-consistency and originality. Duchamp may rest; Alstrom makes a unique alphabetic art book, and he needn't fret about replication. Alstrom finds and masters found images and dictionary pages, incorporates acrylic paste painting, and this within origami-folded pages representing alphabetical dreams. Alstrom's work is further contained within a pyramid box, which is covered with moriki paper and textured acrylics. Alstrom has exploited the mass print media, not conceded to it.
A number of the book artists in "ABC Books Now" display fine skill and artistry in bindings which refer to content. Eleanore Edwards Ramsey, for "A Fowl Alphabet" (1997), sculpted and tooled a framed loon using mosaics of morocco, chagrin and box calf, on boards bound in French Cape morocco. This volume closes with a leather-covered magnetic clasp at the foredge. "A Fowl Alphabet," like many of the works in this exhibit, reveals an artist in love with the process of creating, in love with expression well beyond just utility. One regrets not being able to hold the book in hand.
And Marie Kelzer's "Book Repair: A Sampling of Essential Tools" (1998) applies color-copied tools, on-layed and recessed into the cover boards. The book is bound in hand-painted tyvek and the artist's own paste paper. It is an exhibition reminder that books begin in actual necessity, they are objects; the results, displayed in "ABC Books Now," proceed from this into art.
The evolution of the book arts has generated a variety of techniques, conventions, devices.... The Newberry Library's "ABC Books Then," Part Two of this exhibition and exclusive to Chicago, offers over fifty treasures in exquisite example.
Some contemporary artists, as in the example of Samaras' Book, have 'pulled out all the stops' and piled on the 'bells and whistles' to deconstruct the book, to produce an "unbook." Art from theory, rather than art from living. It is stimulating and a joy to see premier book artists develop, within the genre of the alphabet book, a variety of works well-grounded in a past evolution and yet expressively, creatively flowering.
The very form of the codex book has been experimented with, and "ABC Books Now" offers some sterling examples. Amy Lapidow's "Spiralbet" (1998) is a first-rate visual and structural play with the book as material object and 'container of information.' "Spiralbet" delights. It is a tunnel book (Have I ever really seen one before?) on concertinas, with air-brushed color by Nancy Ames. Everything about this book 'works,' in ways one does not expect from any book. It may even elicit a stronger viewer response than much contemporary electronic or video art. And one can play with it. Participate. A book like this might even spur some progress on the problem of Why-Johnny-Can't-Read. Here, 'Johnny' would really want to learn. Excellent piece.
This exhibit warrants a wide public. It offers very contemporary art building on a tradition of function, which, as Arendt observes, does not explain away the art that arises from it. As such, it stands out -- as art that does not build down from rarefied theory, but up and out of living. Because of this it can speak to each visitor and stimulate new perspectives. Most works are by individuals; sometimes a few are collaborations among artists. The works of "ABC Books Now," the Guild of Book Workers biennial exhibit for 1998/1999, recall the observation of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: "...each artisan has not only his own fortune to make, but his reputation to preserve. He is not exclusively swayed by his own interest, nor even by that of his customer, but by that of the body to which he belongs; and the interest of that body is, that each artisan should produce the best possible workmanship." It is a perspective, all but extinct today, but which proves worthy of attention.
This is a show juried by noteworthy peers. As noted by the curator, Barbara Lazarus Metz, if a work received did not live up to the slides submitted, it did not enter. The jurors were William Drendel, book artist and GBW member; Paul Gehl of the Newberry Library and "ABC Books Then" curator; and Pam Spitzmueller, book artist and Conservator at Harvard University.
"ABC Books Now," and The Newberry Library's "ABC Books Then," offer such a wealth of works, and stimulate so many reactions and ideas that only a book could do them justice. And few readers have the Internet capacity or strength of eyesight for that. The exhibit is free. It is a must-see and after May 15 will travel to Ohio, Colorado and California. One can consult the Guild of Book Workers' homepage: http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byorg/gbw.html or purchase the exhibit catalogue ($20,00). email@example.com
In Chicago, several related programs are scheduled, among them "The Art of Artists' Alphabet Books," a slide talk by book artist, Barbara L. Metz, Thursday, March 25, 6:00 PM at the Near North Branch/Chicago Public Library, 310 West Division, Chicago.
For full information , phone the Center for Public Programs: 312/ 255-3700.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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