On Display: New Acquisitions in Artist’s Books at Brooklyn Museum

  • Posted on Jun 19, 2011 by

Processing the acquisitions on the Special Collections shelf is always a highlight of my week, especially when I know we’re expecting mail from Printed Matter or a book artist has been by to visit recently.  I approach the task knowing that strange and beautiful books of all shapes and sizes await me, and that processing will most likely not entail the usual rote click-click-click through, a cog in the wheel of acquisitions procedure, as the majority of the artist’s books we acquire are not in OCLC's WorldCat, a world-wide catalog of library catalogs, and require a unique new record to be generated.


Artist's books display case
One of two cases in the Library with recent acquisition in artist’s books currently on display.

One of such was the unique artist book Blue Flames by Marty Greenbaum (1974). This gift to the Library from Greenbaum holds particular meaning for our collection, as it was exhibited here at the Museum in 1976 as part of the Twentieth National Print Exhibition. Working with Master Printer and publisher William Weegee at the Jones Road Printshop in Barnevel, WI, Greenbaum would draw and then Weegee would transfer the drawing to a metal plate by photographic process; Greenbaum built each page up layer by layer, enriching and energizing the surface to achieve a sense of depth. As both a book by a Brooklyn-based artist and an exquisite, inventive example of the printmaking tradition showcased by the Brooklyn Museum for many years, we are very happy to add this work to our holdings.


Center: Blue Flames by Marty Greenbaum (1974); upper left-hand corner, Kuba textile covering Transkreatürliche Osmosenby Susanne Wenger (1915-2009), discussed below.

Our artist book collecting tends towards four major categories of materials: Brooklyn-based artists like Marty Greenbaum, books whose content relates to the major collecting areas of the Museum, books by artists collected by the Museum, and masters of the book form. I’ve selected a book from each category from the current display to discuss in the rest of this post.

Zero Mass: The Art of Eric Orr is one I came across in a David Platzker Specific Object mailing, and it immediately struck me as a potential addition to our collection; “…conceived by Eric Orr and his friends artist James Lee Byars and critic Thomas McEvilley during a journey to Egypt in early 1989[, t]he outcome is an exceptionally varied and generous work, consisting of a novella, explanatory texts, assorted notions, references, and some unexpected events" reads the publisher’s statement. Reading this brought to my mind Charles Wilbour, an individual so important to the development of our Museum and Library collections, and his houseboat on the Nile. Palming the ball of clay (Byars’ “The Sphere of Generosity”) which accompanies the book, while contemplating the Spanish word for “gold” of which Eric’s surname is suggestive, one achieves a sense of the alchemical that is so omnipresent in Orr’s unique work as a pioneer of the California Light and Space Movement of the late 1960s. Of particular interest to our patrons may be the "Skull Page" [pp. 163-4], handmade paper by Yoshio Ikezaki using kozo fibers impregnated with powdered mummy's skull.


Upper right-hand corner: Zero Mass: The Art of Eric Orr (1990).

Another book that speaks to the Museum’s object collections is Transkreatürliche Osmosen (1999) by Susanne Wenger. A Kuba textile covers the book’s binding, and the inside text and images are intriguing. This book complements many other books we own many we own documenting African art and culture. According to WorldCat, only eight libraries own this artists’ book, which was donated to us by Arnold Smoller.

Julie Chen and Clifton Meador’s How Books Work (2010) is a real dream-team collaboration, for me, as I have admired them both for so long for their skill and intelligence. How Books Work asks the question “What is a book?” and answers by laying out a list of characteristics familiar to anyone who has dipped into the body of criticism on the book as art. “A book is an experience,” Chen/Meador begin, with an image of a hand about to flip the page. “Reading creates an intimate space,” they continue, “contains time…The book is a vehicle for meaning.” Explanatory statements flesh out these maxims, set against a background of photographic close-ups of skin and images of eyes that stare back out into reader’s, recreating this idea of intimate space expressed by the text. The pages fold out to advance the narrative, like the petals of an abstracted flower, inviting the reader increasingly deeper into the heart of the work. “The book starts with an idea and ends with a reader,” conclude Chen and Meador, and How Books Work is one idea which, manifested in the artist’s book form, is sure to enchant any lover of reading, whatever their level of experience.


Lower left-hand corner: How Books Work (2010) by Julie Chen and Clifton Meador; upper-right hand corner (back), !Women Art Revolution: !W.A.R. (2010).

Consequent to the presence of the Sackler Center at the Museum as well as the important role that women have in the history of artist’s books, a number of books in our artist book collection represent the experience of the women art collectives like Women’s Studio Workshop, and the feminist movement, past and present. !Women Art Revolution: !W.A.R. (2010) features a number of women whose art is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, some of whom also made books, as well as referencing the Guerilla Girls and other such artist-activists. The book compliments the film of the same name that just opened at IFC Center last week, and contains a “curriculum guide” to the film, as well as an interviews with important figures such as Marcia Tucker, the first woman hired into a curatorial position at the Whitney Museum, and other highlights of the feminist art movement’s history, presented in graphic novel form by Spain Rodriguez. Lynn Hershman Leeson, the main author on the book and the film, which are otherwise very much collaborative products, is an important figure in the history of the movement; Brooklyn Museum holds some of her works, and even titled a 2009 exhibition after a quotation from one of her essays, “Reflections on the Electric Mirror.”

Next time you come to the Museum for a lecture or reading at the Sackler Center, swing by the Library before or after and see some of the best artist’s books to come out of the feminist movement!

Jennifer Chisnell, IMLS Intern Coordinator, Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives

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