The book is disappearing into the ether, becoming electrons assembled on screens, or maybe not — you never know with books. The obituaries might be premature. But the mere threat of the disappearance of books has prompted a fascinating surge of art related to books, not images in books or book cover art, but books as objects converted into works of art. All of which connotes, yes, a vast nostalgia amongst thinking people for the book and a multimedia inquiry into the meaning of the book.
Numéro Cinq is carving out a niche for itself in the field of book art (hybrid text and art, conceptual art, art using typography, typesetting and media, books made into objects of art) and hence it only seemed just and fitting when Paul Forte asked me to use NC as a venue to announce and promote a major new show of artist’s bookworks, Transformed Volumes, scheduled to run at the Hera Gallery, Wakefield, RI, June 15 to July 13. Forte has assembled a stunning, surprising, witty, gorgeous collection artist’s books by six artists, also provided us with a short essay on the concept of the artist’s bookworks along with mini-essays by each of the artists, a trove of art and information. Who can resist Doug Beube’s self-description as a biblioclast? And Donna Ruff’s use of the word scarify, relating her work to scars and script? These are smart, wonderful artists. The work dazzles.
The “artist’s book,” as publisher and poet Dick Higgins once defined it, provides a good basis for understanding what artists are doing when they use a book format to make art. In the preface to Artist’s Books: A Critical anthology and Sourcebook, Higgins writes: “It is a work. Its design and format reflect its content – they intermerge, interpenetrate. It might be any art: an artist’s book could be music, photography, graphics, intermedial literature. The experience of reading it, viewing it, framing it – that is what the artist stresses in making it.”  Higgins points out that the artist’s book is nothing new, that it has a venerable history that can be traced to the work of luminaries like the 18th century Romantic poet, William Blake, a master printer and bookmaker who was also an accomplished visual artist. Books by artists–whether the livre d’ artiste of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or the experimental works made since the mid 1960’s–have long provided a kind of portable venue for the dissemination of art. But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that artist’s books gained mainstream recognition as a legitimate genre. There have been countless exhibitions over the years devoted to the artist’s book, but much less attention has been paid to a more recent development: the artist’s bookwork. Artist’s books and artist’s bookworks are not the same thing. Whether considered something distinct from or a sub-genre of the artist’s book, the bookwork–or art object based upon some formal or material aspect of what we recognize as a traditional book–departs from the medial concerns of both ordinary books and most artist’s books. And it does so in a cognitively interesting way. The defining feature of bookwork art is its “de-mediated form,” which means that the basic function of the book to convey ideas or expression through its content (usually text and or images) is disrupted or suspended in some way. The artist’s bookwork does away with or occludes content in any number of ways. And yet, the most successful examples of this art form can still be read in some sense, not for what they contain, but for what they embody. While no longer acting as, strictly speaking, receptacles or vehicles for words and or pictures, bookworks can nevertheless rise above mere reduction to a formal or material basis and take on or acquire symbolic or semiotic functions. Such unusual art objects succeed as significant or meaningful things when exhibiting an imaginative engagement with the material and or form of the book while also maintaining clarity of purpose embodied by that material or form. This is exactly what makes the bookwork cognitively interesting. Viewing and reading, sense and thought are brought closer together. The point, according to interdisciplinary scholar, Garrett Stewart, is: “reclaimed or fabricated, the de-mediated bookwork, as we will come to understand it, is a conceptual object: not for normal reading, but for thinking about.”
The bookworks assembled for this exhibition explore various facets of de-mediation through two related transformative processes: 1) the alteration of found volumes and 2) the fabrication of new objects based in some way on the traditional book. This exhibition has two objectives as well. The first is to turn the usual way that books convey ideas on its head and present the bookwork as a primary or immediate mode of thought, thus also distinguishing it from the better known genre of artist’s books. As Stewart puts it: “One way or the other, to become book art, rather than an artist’s book in any sense, requires in the main a surrender of pagination to sculptural form, message to sheer mass.” This is understood, although, again, the “sheer mass” of the book might be used in some way to convey ideas by acquiring a symbolic or semiotic function. And Stewart agrees with this in principle because he made it clear to me that what was de-mediated (by occlusion or effacement) was text alone (although, I would also include images here as well) leaving the medium or material of the bookwork sculpture as a trope or metaphor; which is to say, a sign or symbol. The second objective is more nuanced and perhaps problematic: to mount a show that counters the prevailing notion that bookwork art is largely in response to the displacement of physical books by digital technology. This is less a reaction to such a possibility and more a matter of offering an alternative view. For those who believe that physical books are on their way out, bookworks are inherently elegiac. But there is another way to understand the bookwork phenomenon, this recent development that deploys what appears to be a passing mode of cultural conveyance: bookwork is an art form that summarizes, encapsulates, and exemplifies a cognitive turn in the arts. A half-century ago the arts took a conceptual turn. In time we regained our senses, so to speak, newly informed by our conceptual bearings. The phenomenon of the bookwork speaks to this cognitive turn in ways that other art cannot. After all, books have always been the great repositories of thought and feeling. Now they and the objects that represent them have become vehicles of sense as well.
— Paul Forte
“Fault Lines” 2003
Altered Atlas, 18 x 25 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches
Doug Beube: Why do I perpetrate acts against the book? I have a love-hate relationship with the medium of my art. I love the collection of concrete words and ideas set in their fixed margins, the heft of its pages, the exposition, the narrative, the linearity and curvature of a story, the unfolding of a point of view, the simplicity, even the assumed preciousness, of this object, the codex. Yet, its technology in this digital millennium is outmoded, even frustrating, as a method for recording, preserving, and transmitting culture and information. On computer, I can delve into ideas with a series of clicks on a keyboard; I can drill down through websites into an almost infinite library of human expression. I can reshape, rearrange, erase, and restore, at will. All such acts, so intrinsic to digital technologies and so unnatural to books, is nevertheless what I am driven in my art to do. I view the codex with the span of its body and its spine, as a metaphor for the human form, and with its story, as a metaphor for human expression, on the one hand; and as an artifact of civilization, on the other. And, so like a physician or an archeologist, I am compelled to examine it, to dissect it, to cut it open, to dig into it, literally and otherwise. And, ever the biblioclast, I am compelled to unfix margins, make tomes weightless, empty volumes of their stories, and twist a point of view into its opposite.
Doug Beube is a mixed-media artist working in bookwork, collage, installation, sculpture and photography. Since 1993, he has been curator of a private collection, The Allan Chasanoff Bookworks Collection: The Book Under Pressure, in New York City. Beube has taught classes at Parsons The New School in artists’ books, collage, mixed media, and photography and given workshops at Penland School of Crafts, in Penland, NC, Haystack Mountain, Deer Isle, MN and The Center for Book Arts in New York City. He regularly lectures on his work throughout the US, Canada and Europe. Prior to receiving an MFA in Photography from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, graduating in 1983, he was a darkroom assistant to Minor White in Arlington, MA. Doug has exhibited nationally and internationally and his bookwork and photographs are in numerous private and public collections. In the fall of 2011 a monograph entitled, Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex: Bookwork, Collage and Mixed Media, was published by Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Press, Brooklyn, with an introduction by David Revere McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City. The volume presents an in-depth overview of Doug Beube’s artwork over the past thirty years, with essay contributions from several well-known writers, critics and curators.
“The Red Line” 2011
Book mounted on board, 10 x 6 1/2 x 6 inches
Claire Dannenbaum: In this recent work I explore the conceptual life of the book.
My artwork is constructed from fiction, holy books, guidebooks, instructional manuals, and all types of books recycled from thrift stores, used book stores, and library book sales. In these pieces, I rearrange texts, disrupt, reveal, or obscure the narrative and the authority posed by the printed word. I use the graphic quality of text on the page to create a layering of visual narratives. I have purposefully flattened the book so that it can be appreciated as a vehicle for associations, without even being read. For me there are many compelling contradictions in books. They are mass-produced yet precious; they are sacred, they are pulp. They can carry profound personal connotations as we carry our experiences into reading. Books can be rare, lost, digital, or dog-eared, and still convey loaded meanings and conventions that fuel daydreams, revolution, the social imagination, and far-reaching historical dogmas.
I come to this topic from several vantage points. As a librarian I have, quite literally, built my professional life on the book form. I see books as social agents: of inquiry, of personal fulfillment, of self-determination, and fundamental to the very fabric of knowing. Despite an onslaught of data, and routine access to trillions of bytes of information, there remains an enigmatic resonance to the book and the written page. Reading is a kind of magic one performs on oneself. Every act of opening a book poses potential transformations: of heroic escapes, of redrawn borders, of ecstatic pleasure, or a reconstructed sense of oneself in the world. In my work I explore how the book is both inanimate and a living organism.
Claire Dannenbaum is an academic librarian and visual artist living in Eugene, Oregon. Her current work explores the conceptual life of books through manipulation, destruction, reconstruction, and collage. Claire’s bookwork has been exhibited in Oregon, California, and Rhode Island. She was awarded a Celebration Foundation grant in 2012. Working as a librarian continues to be a rich source of inspiration for her projects. Previously, Claire was a filmmaker and her work has screened internationally. She has participated in public panels, been a visiting artist, won a few awards, and has films in university libraries on both coasts.
“Liber Dermis (Skin Book)” 2008
Medical illustrations (human skin cross section) on sealed medical book, mounted on wood, 17 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 3/4 inches
Paul Forte: My use of a book format to make art began in the mid 1970s when I produced a series of small booklets in editions of 50 in offset lithography. At about the same time I was also making simple one-of-a-kind book objects, what were then called “unique volumes.” The first book objects experimented with typewritten signs, graphic symbols and materials such as graphite and Mylar in an attempt to blur the distinctions between form and content. Such early works were precursors to what are now called “artist’s bookworks.” As with much bookwork today, the unusual content of these pieces was meant to be visually metaphorical. By simply placing such “content” between the covers of a book, the material signaled intention, thus inviting the viewer/reader to explore it for significance. Visual metaphor is a primary vehicle of or for meaning in all my work, bookworks included. Philosopher, Noel Carroll, calls visual metaphor, “a device for encouraging insights, a tool to think with. This is not to deny that visual metaphors can provide insight, but only that they do so by way of having a meaning.” An artwork that is visually metaphorical can elicit more than one interpretation, although, these readings are usually constrained by both the material parameters of the work and the context in which it is presented or understood. Appreciating such art, much like creating it, requires focus and openness, judgment and imagination. This conceptual attitude or orientation is in my view the key to opening a new chapter in our understanding of the relationship between art and the world. Liber Dermis is an illuminated manuscript of sorts, but one that celebrates the body or flesh instead of the Spirit. The color illustration on the book’s open pages is an enlarged image of a cross section of human skin. The implicit humor of the title is meant to create some tension by raising the specter of the sacred versus the profane. In keeping with those extravagant medieval works of piety, the surface of the open pages of Liber Dermis has an almost jewel-like quality. The skin image has been duplicated in reverse and both sides are rendered in low relief to provide an appropriate tactile experience.
Paul Forte’s career began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s. Primarily a visual artist, he also writes poetry and essays. Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California (1975, 1976, 1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008); and The Wattis Institute, San Francisco, California (2011). Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley. Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990). A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Forte lives in Wakefield with his long time partner, Laura Beauvais.
“Fanatic 2” (from Fanaticism Series) 2009
8 x 10 inches
Donna Ruff: Paper has a very real and tactile appeal for me. I’m attracted to paper’s fragility and pristine beauty – yet my work involves scarring, incising, burning and puncturing its surface. These processes are simultaneously destructive and constructive, providing an image that confounds reductive comprehension as drawings. The word “scarify” is etymologically related to stylus and script, and creating works in this way developed from my interest in language, books and the written word. I’m inspired by geometric systems- celestial, fractal, graphical: the basis of visual language and the historical means of informative communication.
Donna Ruff grew up in Miami Beach, and moved to New York to pursue a career in graphic design and illustration. She earned an MFA from Rutgers University, where she focused on printmaking and installation. In 2010 she moved to Santa Fe, NM. She has been chosen to create site-specific installations at the Eldridge Street Project on the Lower East Side of New York, PS 122, and for ArtSPACE in New Haven, Connecticut. Exhibitions include Speaking Volumes at the Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin; Fireworks at the Hunterdon Museum in New Jersey; Paper[space] at the Philadelphia Art Alliance; Qville, at the Flux Factory in Long Island City, NY; 4th International Graphic Trienniale in Prague; and Feedback: Artist to Artist at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany, as well as numerous gallery exhibitions. Recently her work was purchased by the New Mexico Museum of Art. She has curated several exhibitions, including Off the Wall>Rethinking the Print at the NewArt Center; and Status Update at Heskins Laboratory at Yale University. Her work was recently featured in Book Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books, published by Gestalten.
Jacqueline Rush Lee
“Inside Out” (from Volumes series) 2001
Soaked, dried, book components, 21 x 22 x 9 inches
Jacqueline Rush Lee: My work focuses on the book as object, medium and archetypal form. Working to reveal or transform the nature of a book, I’m interested in the aesthetic of books as cultural objects that come with their own histories of use and meaning. By using books as my canvas or building block, I can transform their formal and conceptual arrangement through a variety of practices in which the physicality, and thus the context of the books have been altered. I’m also interested in creating evocative works that are cerebral with emotional depth. Remaining open to the physical and metaphorical transformations that occur in my working process, these residual sculptures or installations emerge as a palimpsest – a document that bears traces of the original text within its framework but possesses a new narrative as a visual document of another time.
Jacqueline Rush-Lee is a sculptor from Northern Ireland who lives and works in Hawaii (USA). Jacqueline has been working with books for fifteen years and is recognized for working with the book form through artwork features in blogs, magazines, books and international press. Selected bibliography include: BOOK ART: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books; PAPERCRAFT: Design and Art with Paper and PLAYING WITH BOOKS: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing, and Re-Imagining the Book. Jacqueline’s work will be featured in ART MADE FROM BOOKS, Chronicle Press, 2013 by Laura Heyenga, writer and former editor for SFMOMA.
She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction in Ceramics and a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a background in [‘O’ level] drawing and painting from Northern Ireland. She exhibits her artwork nationally and internationally and her work is in private and public collections, including The Allan Chasanoff Book Under Pressure Collection, New York City.
Altered paperback book (series), 8 ¼ x 7 x ½ inches
Irwin Susskind: Books are tactile – computers are not. I started working with books eight or nine years ago when I felt this impending shift. I create these objects as if books have already passed into history. As if they are archeological discoveries from another time. They can no longer be read, but by means of tearing, cutting apart and re-assembling, concealing, revealing and other manipulation, I try to reveal the lives of these books.
Irwin Susskind has worked as a graphic designer at Lippincott & Margulies. Inc., a firm that specializes in developing corporate identities, where he designed logos for Fortune 500 in the United States and world wide. His artwork has been exhibited at the Bertha Urdang Gallery in New York City and in the Members’ Gallery in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
—Curated and introduced by PaulForte
- Dick Higgins, Artist’s Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, p. 11. Joan Lyons, Ed. Visual Workshop Studies Press 1987.↵
- One of the earliest bookworks was Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade of 1919. Bookwork art or “book objects” first appear in the mid 1970’s as a development with roots in Conceptual art.↵
- De-mediation is a relative matter, whether it involves text or images because the effacement, disruption, or occlusion of such content is often partial or incomplete. Instances of purely de-mediated bookwork are probably rare because, among other things, the refashioned material embodied by most transformed books and their surrogates could be broadly construed as image content.↵
- Garrett Stewart, Bookwork, Medium to Object to Concept to Art, p. 14. The University of Chicago Press 2011.↵
- Ibid. p. 97↵
- A good working definition of cognitive can be had from philosopher, Nelson Goodman: “Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.” See Goodman, Of Mind And Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984. p.84 According to Goodman, “cognitive” and “conceptual” are not interchangeable terms. Cognitive is the more inclusive term, lending depth and breadth to how we know and understand.↵
- Noel Carroll, Visual Metaphor, in Beyond Aesthetics, Philosophical Essays, Cambridge University Press, 2001. P. 365↵