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WOID #III-34. Review: Artists' Books at the Brooklyn Museum.

Artists' Books
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Through April 16
200 Eastern Parkway
(718) 638-5000.

If these books weren't books would they be interesting art? This smallish
show tucked in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum of Art is as technically
proficient as one could wish; there are books that are outsize matchbooks,
books like a punk hairdo, books bound in bustiers, etc.. Unfortunately
this proficiency seems aimed at making the books not look like
books. That's not bad in itself, but it's indicative of something else.

One of the most resilient beliefs in the European tradition is the theory
that a work of art should look like the thing it represents. There are, of
course, books (and works of art in general) that try to look like their
own content: a book about sex that looks like a condom, a book about cars
that looks like a wheel, a painting about pulchritude that looks like
Venus, etc. This, thankfully, is not a problem for this show: the
contributors, on the whole, are far too sophisticated for that.

The problem rather, is that they've gone off in the opposite
direction. There are physical constraints within the tradition of
book-making whose absence from this show is bothersome: the relative
linearity of script against the static unity of the book as a whole; the
relationship of two-dimensional surface to three-dimensional depth, and so
forth. Those are aspects of form that, under the right conditions, become
content. Yet, tellingly, even the most traditional in design among the
books here on view (accordion books, for instance) show very little
interest in these aspects: they paper them over, because they see them
only as form, not as content. It's a fine instance of what dialecticians
call the "negation of the negation."

It's one thing to move beyond the tradition of hide-bound books; it's
another to do so in the belief that "art" consists in the absence of
"tradition," because the new content of the work ends up excluding
everything that made the book itself an interesting tradition to work
with. We risk being left with "competition books," the kind of stuff that
anyone can grasp at a glance - or perhaps from a slide in a juried
show: "Hey! that's a book! Hey! It's also art! Must be an artists' book!"

Books like that look like books, after all; but they work so hard to
persuade us they're not books as content, that in the end they
succeed. That, precisely, is why they fail - as art.

Paul Werner, New York City
     DRAGONSBLOOD AND ASHES: a project to research and teach the
techniques of the Medieval scribe and artist.
     THE ORANGE PRESS: most recent titles: "Vellum Preparation:
History and Technique," and "Dragonsblood and Ashes: the Beta
     WOID: a journal of visual language in New York, including reviews,
listings and resources.

            BOOK_ARTS-L: The listserv for all the book arts.
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