Literary Beauties 

Cheekwood book show charms and frustrates

That dual identity of books—as both media for ideas and fetish objects—makes any exhibit such as Cheekwood’s Artists’ Books From Postwar to Present both intriguing and problematic for book lovers.

People have adored books as a form since the time when they were handcrafted treasures for the literate few. Our reverence for the messages they contain seems to inspire a corresponding attachment to them as objects. Rare and beautiful books are valued, of course, but book lovers take pleasure in encountering any book—feeling the heft of it, the texture of its pages, enjoying that unmistakable smell it develops with age. All of this is inseparable from the intellectual pleasure of reading. The wonder of books is that they’re a perfect marriage of the abstract and the concrete. A book lets you put an idea in a backpack and carry it around.

That dual identity of books—as both media for ideas and fetish objects—makes any exhibit such as Cheekwood’s Artists’ Books From Postwar to Present both intriguing and problematic for book lovers. On one hand, asking viewers to consider books purely as a form of visual art makes perfect sense. It acknowledges the value we place in them as objects, the totemic status they carry. At the same time, there’s something frustrating, even alienating, about walking into a room full of beautiful books that have been enclosed in glass cases. With their content almost entirely invisible, and physical contact with them denied, they become like specimens in a natural history museum—dead things that can only convey a hint of their full nature.

Much of the exhibit consists of fine press books from the Wilson Limited Edition Collection of the Nashville Public Library, many of them produced by the Arion Press in San Francisco. These include a volume of the poems of Wallace Stevens with a frontispiece by Jasper Johns, Joyce’s Ulysses with etchings by Robert Motherwell, and Mel Bochner’s print series Counting Alternatives incorporated into an edition of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty.

Such books, sometimes called livres d’artiste, are joint creations of the press and the artist. They are conceived primarily as art objects, not reading texts, so an art gallery is perhaps their natural home. Certainly, all the examples in this show are complex and engaging as purely visual entities. But they generally rely at least to some extent on reference to the content of the book, so a portion of their meaning is lost on viewers who are unfamiliar with the text in question.

For example, Johns’ print for the Stevens poems features a shadowy figure surrounded by a clutter of icons including the Mona Lisa and an American flag. It’s a sad, almost frightening depiction of an individual’s isolation within a noisy culture. The curator’s statement describes this as an autobiographical statement by Johns—in fact, the figure is supposed to be a silhouette of Johns himself. But the image is also a very apt expression of the central theme of Stevens’ poetry, the ordinary man’s search for meaning and identity within uncertain reality. The curator’s statement notes that fact, but nevertheless, the power of the reference is difficult to grasp without some direct knowledge of the poems.

Bochner’s Wittgenstein illustrations evoke their source text just as vividly, but in this case knowledge of the text seems less of an issue. Bochner incorporates direct quotes from Wittgenstein into the prints themselves, and he has a rather lengthy artist’s statement that helps explain what he’s up to. He writes, “An illustration is (as in Medieval illumination) an idea brought to light.” Bochner’s prints, which depict sequences of numbers laid out on a grid of intersecting triangles, accomplish precisely that illumination. The numbers relate to each other and to the grid—perhaps the best comparison would be an acrostic puzzle—and thus they convey the dynamic of a conceptual structure in which each element supports and leads to another. It’s a brilliant visualization of Wittgenstein’s work, but could serve just as well to illustrate the nature of any analytical inquiry.

The show is not all so highbrow. There’s a delightful edition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with collotype prints by Ida Applebroog. Instead of the busy Victorian aesthetic that is usually associated with Dickens, Applebroog’s prints are simple, thick-lined drawings, almost primitive. The book includes a set of prints on card stock, designed to stand up and create a tableau suggestive of—what else?—Christmas cards, or perhaps paper dolls. Kara Walker’s pop-up book, Freedom—A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, presents a 3-D version of her trademark black silhouettes, which explore racial themes with fierce humor.

The show also includes some modest independent press volumes, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Soccer Half-time Cookery Book, and there’s a single example of an online artist’s book by Aleksandra Mir, but these both seem thoroughly overshadowed by the fine press books, as if they’d been left over from a previous show. Viewers who feel thwarted in trying to connect to the caged volumes will get some satisfaction from pawing through the piles of humble zines from the collection of Watkins College of Art & Design. These simple Xeroxed productions are a lively counterpoint to the luxury books, and best of all, you’re allowed to throw them in your backpack and take them home.

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