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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
earlier today


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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
          Tuttle always."

          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
          can control."

          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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