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[BKARTS] Run, don't walk...

If it is at all possible, find a way to get to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut this summer to see "Cooking the Books: Ron King & Circle Press." It's a rare opportunity to learn not only what can be accomplished in 35 creative years, but also to see some of the drawings, models and apparatus that produced these wonderful books. 

The tendency is to think that great books spring fully formed from an artist's hands. The title of this show, "Cooking the Books," refers to the gestation process, the mental stewing over, and the physical experimentation that is necessary to create magical books. In at least one case the artist worked with a book idea for 15 years before the concept came into focus, the mechanical problems were resolved, and the final version of the book was completed. The resulting work, "Tabernacle" (2001), was worth the wait. 

The Center for British Art had already collected a complete set of Ron King's books (115 according to the catalog) when the he and his wife, the artist Willow Legge, offered to donate all the drawings, letters, rough drafts, early models, jigs, experiments, posters and even some of the type associated with the books. The collection, known officially as the Daniel King Circle Press Archive, is in memory of their oldest son who died at an early age. This is the first time that a representative selection of these materials has been publicly displayed here in the United States.

The Circle Press came into existence in 1967 when Ron King drew together a group of kindred spirit artists and authors to create a "shared, supportive framework" that would inspire innovative books and prints. Over 100 artists, writers and poets have been involved with Circle Press projects.

Ron King brought his training in painting, drawing, design and sculpture to the endeavor. He added skills in letterpress printing, problem solving, and experimenting with new techniques and materials. The Circle Press has become known for creating well-crafted books distinguished by their bold silkscreened graphics, fine letterpress printing, elegantly conceived pop-up alphabets, custom made paper, humorous touches. dramatic text, and daring use of unusual materials.

I purchased my first Circle Press book, "Alphabeta Concertina" (1983) from Ted Cronin in Manhattan soon after it was published. The book is made by taking a long sheet of paper, folding it lengthwise, and then in concertina folds. Half of the alphabet (A-M) pops-up from the valley folds on one side and the remaining characters (N-Z) pop-up from the valley folds on the reverse. The letters are elegantly conceived and gorgeous in their simplicity. This book is so clearly thought-out (cooked!) that the same symbol is used for both the A and (flipped top to bottom) the M on the cover and a similar symbol is used for both the N and (rotated 90 degrees) the Z on the back.

In 1992 I worked for Joshua Heller at his booth at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The highlight of the experience for me was being able to show and demonstrate the new publication that year from the Circle Press, "Anansi Company." Opening the cover unleashes a barrage of jazzy text and bright, bold, swirling colors that almost make the reader hear steel drums and feel Caribbean breezes. Best of all are the articulated wire puppets that can be removed from the page. Each one includes an everyday object as part of the design. Anansi (the spider) has eyes that are binoculars, Chicken-Hawk has dancing combs for hair, and the features for Dry-Skull's face are the floating heads of a Norelco-style shaver. On display at the British Art Center is a jig that was employed to fashion the intricate bends of wire that form one of the puppets.

Two books that I hadn't seen before, "Turn Over Darling" (1990) and Circus Turn (1993) utilize heavy wire to embossed deep designs on the page that are convex (raised) on one side and concave (recessed) on the other. The way these books are set up, when a page is turned, the part of the convex illustration on the right hand page becomes the left hand portion of an entirely new concave illustration.

Of special note is the 180 page catalog that accompanies the show. It includes color photographs of the books and some of the significant pages, a detailed essay by Andrew Lambirth chronicling the development of Circle Press, notes by the artist, and--as a special bonus- there are additional facsimile pages inserted. These include a letterpress and silkscreened layout from "The Song of Solomon" (1968), a double folded pop-up from "The Half-Year Letters" (1983), a mirrored page as in "The Mirror Book" (1985) and wax-treated pages as in "Black Sea Letter" (1997). Even with these non-traditional pages added, the catalog closes completely flat. It must have taken some cooking to get that to work out correctly!

I know from previous postings that many readers will want to know details for getting a copy of this unusual catalog. The list price is $75.00, but I understand that during the run of the show it is being offered at the special price of $60.00. I got my copy at the Museum Shop at the Center for British Art, (203) 432-2820. If you act promptly, it might be possible to get a signed copy. There is also a nice selection of Circle Press books available ranging in price from under $20 to $4,500.

Those who are unable to visit this show can view some of the Circle Press books at www.circlepress.com

As a book artist who is often scrambling to meet deadlines and to get editions ready for sale, I often overlook the value of letting books develop to the point that they deliver their maximum potential to the reader. From now on, thanks to this show, I hope to change that.

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