With books as the medium, there’s more than words to look at in new batch of literary works of art
When artist Ed Ruscha turned to producing books as art objects with works such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1963, the gesture was one with a darkly satirical and ambivalent democratic bent. Art could then be taken off the frame and distributed beyond the purview of the elite gallery, and was simultaneously capable of being as mass-produced, cheap and disposable as any pulpy novel or crass commodity. While not the ideal format for many works of art, the book may also be heralded as an exceptionally accessible medium, and disseminator of difficult visual abstraction in a subversively common system.
The book as an experimental form of art object was further pushed and prodded beautifully in works like artist Nick Bantock’s celebrated Griffin and Sabine trilogy (1991-1993), a hybrid of epistolary novel, love story, mystery, and paper art, with a narrative unfolding through literal, illustrated letters a reader opens and holds in one’s hands, offering an intimately tactile, visual and narrative experience like little else.
Art and words also collide in the following three suggestions for spring reading, the two brought together to affirm that they might align and support one another.
Gertrude Stein’s experiments in poetry paralleled and complemented the aims of her friends the Cubist painters in taking up fragmentation as a device to probe and model a troubling modern experience. Her puzzling yet often charming wordplay is given new life by another impressively imaginative, if more gentle, contemporary sensibility in the reissue of her poetic work from 1914, Tender Buttons: Objects.
Now illustrated by the artist Lisa Congdon, Stein’s difficult meditations on everyday objects become playful little sources of illumination. The attachments we may form to the things that populate our daily routines and their attending relationships are granted a sense of revelation by Congdon’s stylistically sincere drawings, making Stein’s mysterious, open, undefined fragments of description into concrete objects—still full of curiosity, but imbued with life and, magically, touches of yet more wonder.
Artist Yayoi Kusama has been working diligently since a young woman, achieving international-art-superstar status and fame only recently, in her 80s, as her work was commissioned last year by Louis Vuitton to embolden the fashion house’s high-end lines, and was granted major retrospective shows at the Tate and Whitney museums.
Kusama’s enduring visual motif is that of the polka dot, which she’s employed from the 1950s through today in painting, sculpture, drawing and textile, as evocative of a real hallucinogenic vision she has had since childhood: an altered vision of reality encountered while working through severe mental-health issues. Kusama’s visions are uniquely suited to join up with Lewis Carroll’s version of altered reality. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kusama’s illustrated-book version of the dark children’s tale gives form to her wonderful and challenging polka-dot-covered way of seeing—childlike and also haunted.
Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen is interested in big ideas. He investigates concepts of time, communication and how history is told and preserved in projects like The Last Pictures, a collaborative effort between the artist and a number of scientists, philosophers and anthropologists who have discussed the contradictions and conflicts of our contemporary cultures and chosen 100 photographs representing modern human history (from cave paintings to the Dust Bowl) to make up the book form of the project. We may hold onto this artifact which gives earthly presence to their project and is also manifested as an archive etched onto a golden silicone disc attached to a communications satellite currently orbiting our planet. This satellite ultimately will become a super time capsule, long outlasting anything else humans have created.
As visions of our elaborate and obscure world surge forward and manifest in new mediums, we may also hold onto the everyday version and visions, with the visuals on paper binding, turning comfortably and comfortingly in our hands.