left: European distribution; right: U.S. distribution
The recent opening of the Walker-curated exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love at the Whitney has seen a flurry of press in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the cover of Art in America, and all I really care about, really, is how this affects our amazon.com sales for the catalogue. In that spirit, here is a reflection I wrote for the May/June issue of WALKER magazine—more than you ever wanted to know about the cover of this book. See here for images of the interior.
Designing an exhibition catalogue offers you a chance to become immersed in someone else’s world for awhile. Kara Walker’s is a mythologized fiction of the antebellum South, a brutal place inhabited by slaves and masters, struggle and submission. It is also a graphic world, in both senses of the term. Her work is about as designer-friendly as it gets, particularly her cut-paper silhouettes. But her form wasn’t the only impetus behind the design of the book. What really kept me up at night was the opportunity to highlight her writing. Characterized by mock politesse and merciless honesty, it shows up in excessively long titles, hand-typed index cards, wall texts, and fragments of diaristic essays. In an interview with the artist, Thelma Golden suggests that if Walker’s various writings were collected together, the combination would approach something of an imaginary slave narrative. This notion became a loose framework for the book.
Practically, the project began like any other—with questions. How do you present works that are 30 feet long next to those that are 6 inches tall? How do you reference the past, in this case the pre-Civil War South, without perpetuating redundancies or invoking typographic cliches? How can it function as both catalogue and textbook? How do you make a book that is as aggressive and unrelenting as Walker’s work?
How indeed. A good place to start was with the subtitle of the show, taken from the artist’s Letter from a Black Girl. A bitter text written from a freed slave to her former master, Letter also serves as Walker’s critique of the art world. By starting with the half-title page and working backwards to the cover, we were able to present the entire text. The artist loved it: “I laughed a hearty throaty laugh when I saw the cover. yes. yes yes. And yes.” Besides being racially charged, the text includes several expletives, which concerned our American distributor, who consequently asked us for a new cover design. This, of course, did not go over well at the Walker, but our design director embraced the problem as a challenge (I needed a little coaxing), and we eventually created a vertical band that wraps the cover and hides the naughty parts while (not accidentally) suggesting censorship, something the artist has faced before. After a project is sent to the printer, the designer is sent to a press check. This one landed me in Belgium, where I watched over the color balance, binding, foil-stamping, and fine-tuning of the book’s 10 (count ’em!) different shades of brown. Press-checking can be a nerve-wracking experience—most of your time is spent in a waiting room obsessing over slight variations in ink colors and second-guessing the design. This purgatory is punctuated every three hours by a trip to the presses to check the next sheet, and then—back to The Room, which, in my case, meant writing long and demented e-mails to whoever might be awake in whichever time zone.
During one of my checks I explained the cover situation to my Belgian pressmen; they laughed somewhat incredulously—did art still have the power to offend people? After all, our European distributors had no problem selling the book with its original cover. Of course, the context of a book cover is different than that of a gallery. And a bookstore in America is not a bookshop in Belgium. But their nonchalance made me question whether they had any understanding of the complexities of U.S. race relations.
Admittedly, I could offer them little clarification in this area, though I could have shown them my favorite part of the book, the artist’s original 34-page visual essay entitled “Chronology of Black Suffering, Images and Notes, 1992–2007.” We had intended this to be a 16-page insert, but what she sent us was a huge notebook overflowing with examples of the media’s portrayals of the black image over the past 15 years. Flipping through it (with white gloves, of course) brought revelation after revelation. I was particularly startled by a telecommunications ad showing Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Some Photoshop whiz had digitally removed the crowd to make it look as if King was speaking to an empty lawn. Did that company intend to create such a bleak image, one that could imply the (apparent) futility of the Civil Rights movement? Maybe in this I did have an answer to the pressman’s question: maybe art had relinquished the power to offend, only to have it assumed by someone else.
spread from “Chronology of Black Suffering, Images and Notes, 1992–2007”