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Text/Messages: Books by Artists

Go ahead—judge an artist’s book by its cover. Artists who make books give as much thought to the front and back as to the contents. While literature is often a point of departure, artists’ books often bear little resemblance to conventional volumes. Many are sculptural, multidimensional, or made of material other than paper—some have no pages at all. Over the past three decades, the Walker has amassed a significant collection of books by artists, now numbering some 2,000 objects. Many of these are housed in the Walker’s library, where they have long been an insider favorite. Staff and visitors cannot help but be drawn in by librarian Rosemary Furtak’s enthusiasm for the eclectic collection, which has been steadily growing under her watch since the early 1980s. The library, says Furtak, “tries to have books by all artists represented in our permanent collection who have made books.” Examples include books by the Surrealists and Futurists, elegant tomes conceived by artists such as Robert Motherwell and Ellsworth Kelly, conceptual projects by Lawrence Weiner, humorously subversive books by Karen Finley, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy, and rare illustrated editions such as Salvador Dali’s take on Alice in Wonderland. Usually accessible to the public only by appointment, these items are now brought together in a major exhibition.

Co-organized by Furtak and Walker curator Siri Engberg, the show highlights this important trove of material, which is supplemented with pieces from the museum’s collection. “Books have historically been an important arena for artists,” Engberg says. “In addition to conceiving works as books, many artists today are also engaged with a more abstract notion of ‘book,’ and where that idea can lead them in making a work of art.”

The first half of the 20th century saw many artists responding to texts through illustration, creating deluxe, often lavish publications printed in limited editions, but by mid-century the book was beginning to be seen by artists as a more democratic way to present visual information. The rush of underground political publishing and the rise in widely distributed leaflets, posters, and magazines at the time set the stage for an unprecedented exploration among artists into the book as an art form. The 1960s also saw burgeoning printmaking activity as more workshops designed to collaborate with artists began to be established, and more artists began to use printmaking techniques such as lithography and etching and newer commercial printing techniques such as offset and screenprinting in the service of making books.

In the early 1960s, California artist Edward Ruscha was a pioneer among artists of his generation for exploring the book form. Every Building on the Sunset Strip, one of his most well-known publications, unfolds accordion-style to reveal 26 feet of deadpan black-and-white photographs documenting this storied Los Angeles boulevard. Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s books were “built” with carefully constructed pages of typography—language is the artist’s material, and his books, notes Furtak, “put his art directly into the hands of his public.” Andy Warhol created his 1967 Index Book to resemble a mass-produced children’s pop-up book. “Many books from this period weren’t about high-quality images or production—they were concerned with disseminating an idea,” Engberg says. “This was a turning point for what artists could do in this medium.”

Engberg and Furtak have sought out examples in the Walker’s collections that not only illustrate texts, but also play with the concept of narrative, and the visual and physical experience of opening a cover and turning pages. They have also included many works, as Furtak has noted, that “refuse to behave like a book,” such as Maxims by the Yard, a book by Angela Lorenz printed on a spool of ribbon, or Red Book, a work by Chinese artist Xu Bing composed of a row of cigarettes printed with text and housed in a box that resembles Chairman Mao’s so-called Little Red Book. Some of these works, Furtak says, are “books that refuse to open, books that wear trousers . . . books that when opened become sculpture . . . books devoid of text.” Other artists use a recognizable format on which to transpose their work, as in Robert Gober’s illustrated rendition of Joyce Carol Oates’ chilling short story “Heat,” bound in a pair of locked volumes that resemble twin diaries; or David Hammons’ 2002 edition in which copies of a catalogue of Marcel Duchamp’s complete works are concealed within leather covers emblazoned with the title Holy Bible: Old Testament.

A number of artists in the exhibition have explored the idea of using books as a material for art-making. Milan Knizak’s 1972 work Killed Book/Shot is riddled with bullet holes. Cuban artist Kcho has fashioned a dinghy from the schoolbooks he used as a young man. John Latham’s 1961 piece Painting is an Open Book is a collection of torn, burnt books given new life as they are assembled across the surface of a canvas.

The process of selecting the works in Text/Messages: Books by Artists was a fascinating endeavor for the curators, who found the premise of the exhibition to be an ideal opportunity to explore many areas within the Walker’s collections. Even in today’s digital age, artists’ continued engagement with books—as medium, material, and subject—is evidence, say Engberg and Furtak, that this is an area of artistic invention alive with ideas and possibilities.