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Art Books Whose Art Is the Book
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This is the text of the New York Times article Norman Sasowsky cited
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Peter Verheyen, Conservation Librarian
Syracuse University Library
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February 16, 1997
Art Books Whose Art Is the Book
By MARTIN FILLER
[T] he only books that influence us," E. M. Forster once
wrote, "are those for which we are ready, and which
have gone a little farther down our particular path than
we have yet got ourselves." The same is true of art, and
that sense of readiness suggests why artists' books, by
nature always in limited and handmade editions and
usually personal and eccentric, have become the focus of
so much of their makers' energy and viewers'
----------------------------- An exhibition of
Artists' books are handmade, limited-edition books
and highly personal. For made since 1990 by 91
Richard Tuttle, they offer a contemporary artists,
chance for 'illumination,' held at the Brooke
not illustration. Alexander Gallery in New
York earlier this year,
----------------------------- indicated the breadth of
recent activity. The Museum of Modern Art's splendid
1994 retrospective, "A Century of Artists Books," made
an irrefutable case for works that built upon or
departed from the age-old tradition of the deluxe livre
d'artiste. And in 1993, the Modern's purchase of the
13,500-item archive of the downtown New York
alternative-exhibition space Franklin Furnace, which
published and collected some of the most innovative
artists' books of the last few decades, reconfirmed the
long commitment several of the city's cultural
institutions have made to this vigorous hybrid medium.
Evidence of the continuing significance of artists'
books can be seen in "Richard Tuttle: Books and Prints,"
an exhibition of more than 50 pieces opening Saturday
and running through May at the main branch of the New
York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue and 42d Street. Mr.
Tuttle, the Post-Minimalist sculptor who is also widely
acknowledged to be one of the leading current exponents
of the artist's book, enjoys an excellent critical
reputation and is considered a cult figure in the
avant-garde art world. He is regarded as a hero by such
fellow artists as Bruce Nauman and Kiki Smith, who
esteem his ceaseless questioning of what an artifact is
and might be.
Mr. Tuttle was in New [Image]
York recently on a
visit from his home in Richard Tuttle with one of his
Santa Fe, N.M., to handmade books at the New York
help plan the Public Library (Jack Manning/The
forthcoming survey. New York Times)
But dismiss any notion
that he is interested in following the well-trod
footsteps of some of his eminent predecessors. "You
can't imagine how much I hate the dilettantism of
picking some famous author and then putting one's work
on it," said the shy but intense artist as he sat in the
Sperone Westwater Gallery, his New York dealer in SoHo.
"I find that breaks down into illustration. I take the
possibility of illumination."
Few who view the astonishing range of Mr. Tuttle's
artist's books are likely to doubt his success in
achieving that ideal. At one extreme is his "Book" of
1974, a deadpan, unbound stack of luxurious gray paper
leaves, each imprinted with one letter of the alphabet.
Its antithesis is "Early Auden," a sampling of poems by
W. H. Auden. Printed in a Japanese-style accordion-fold
format that extends almost seven feet, this
color-saturated unfurling of handmade paper seems like a
bolt of some miraculous fabric.
And then there is "Lonesome Cowboy Styrofoam," an
exhibition catalogue Mr. Tuttle worked on from 1989 to
1992. Like a medieval reliquary, it contains talismanic
fragments -- including earth, grass cuttings, a black
balloon and photos of the artist's Styrofoam sculptures
-- within a six-inch-square slipcase made from shreds of
banana leaf, denim, mica and, naturally, Styrofoam.
"Each book that Richard does is unlike the last thing he
did," said Robert Rainwater, the director of the
library's art, prints and photographs department and
organizer of the show. "But somehow they look like
Among a generation of American male artists notable for
the grandiosity or aggressiveness of their output
(Richard Serra's menacing steel sculptures or Mr.
Nauman's psychologically harrowing videos) the
55-year-old Mr. Tuttle pursues a delicate sensibility
perfectly attuned to the intimate scale and light
materials of the book. That ephemeral aura also
surrounds his sculptures -- random-seeming assemblages
of wire, bubble wrap, string, wafer board and other
humble substances. But like his artist's books, their
deceptively fragile execution belies the rigor with
which they were conceived and the power they can convey.
"In this century," Mr. Tuttle said, "artists have been
very involved with the body, which is the only real
critique we have of technology. Some of the best
inventions of humanity are models of the body and brain.
For me, the book is metaphorically bodylike -- the
spine, the symmetry, the cover, the contents. Because of
that, the book has an attractive potential for
subverting the usual and artificial division between the
mind and the body, which I believe are one."
After growing up in Rahway, N.J., Mr. Tuttle attended
Trinity College in Hartford, where he was the editor and
designer of the yearbook. In 1965, two years after
graduating, he produced his first artist's book, "Story
With Seven Characters." Handmade in an edition of seven
copies and bound between black paper boards, edged with
black electrical tape, it was printed on cheap paper
that has yellowed with age. A series of seven woodblock
glyphs are rearranged on each of the eight pages in a
way that implies a cryptic narrative. "I wanted to see
if you could tell a story with purely visual means," Mr.
Tuttle recalled. "It was a crossover, a real attempt to
achieve a literary experience."
[F] ar more immaculate was Mr. Tuttle's "Two Books,"
jointly issued by galleries in New York and Cologne
in 1969. The slim, elegant volumes -- one hard-bound,
one soft -- covered in velvety black felt are veritable
flip books in which Minimalist images change slightly
but sequentially from page to page. "This really got him
going with the more deluxe artist's books," Mr.
Rainwater said. "It set the stage for his making
decisions about paper, printing, every single thing he
The painstaking craftsmanship that Mr. Tuttle now favors
for his books is understandably expensive, but as he is
quick to point out, "I make books that cost $10,000 and
books that cost 49 cents." One of the most complex of
his publications was "Hiddenness," brought out in 1987
by the Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum, renowned
for its ambitious artists'-book program. The panoply of
techniques and materials Mr. Tuttle employed, including
hand stamping, lithography, letterpress, and screen
printing on white and colored pulp papers, found its
match in the equally demanding lyrics of his
collaborator, the Chinese-Dutch-American poet, Mei-mei
"Richard told me that they fought so much over this book
that they decided to get married," Mr. Rainwater said.
"What else could they do?" The couple are now
contemplating a move to New York for the schooling of
their 7-year-old daughter, Martha.
For all his versatility in responding to the written
word, however, the one thing Mr. Tuttle cannot
accommodate is a false pairing of artist and writer. One
of the five artist's books he did in 1995, "The Gyres:
Sources of Imagery," grew out of the artist's
involvement with the late poetry of William Butler
Yeats. "In my own simple way," he explained, "I tried to
compliment Yeats for having arrived at that language."
"I find in my own experience," he continued, "that the
text can augment the visual experience and the visual
can augment the text. If this synergy occurs, the result
is such a happy one, because the two challenges are
deliciously in the same place. The book I'm interested
in can be a major force in cultural evolution. It's not
a secondary thing in any way."
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