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Text/Messages: Books By Artists, Walker Art Center, An Exhibition Review

With more than 1,600 artists’ books in its collection, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is a treasure trove in an area already rich with collections of books and organizations for book lovers. Text/Messages: Books by Artists was an entertaining and educational cache that served as an introduction for a wide audience. Co-organized by Walker librarian Rosemary Furtak and curator Siri Engberg, the show was culled from the extensive holdings of the library and the permanent collection. Some 180 works were on display in the Medtronic Gallery from December 18, 2008- April 19, 2009.

The exhibition took a sampler approach with broad appeal, and was predominantly geared towards an audience new to the field. For the more experienced viewer, it was a reminder of the breadth of the collection, usually locked away in permanent storage (some on view for the first time in decades) or available by appointment only in the library. There were books that may have been familiar only through catalogues, and there were thoughtful juxtapositions of works throughout the installation.

The title of the exhibition cleverly circumvents the various nomenclature and punctuation problems that insiders have discussed ad nauseum—artist’s or artists’ books, book art or arts. It also averts any overt hierarchy by including a wide range of practitioners and objects from blue chip artists whose books are only one facet of their studio practice to local artists whose sole output is books. It incorporated both historical and contemporary examples, prints and book objects, livres d’artistes and multiples. With all that variety, the full title included the Library of Congress call number N7433.4 .W353 A4 2008, which on the LOC on-line catalogue places the show squarely within artists’ book collections, between Franz Erhard Walther’s Organon, 1983 and Marshall Weber’s Cycle, 2006.

The frontispiece to the exhibition was David Hammons’ The Holy Bible: The Old Testament, 2002. The large leather-bound, gilt-edged Bible was housed in a vitrine, its cover propped open to reveal the title page of another book inside: The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Paperback Edition, Arturo Schwarz. Essentially an editioned altered book, the work pairs words with The Word, high modernism with a contemporary sense of irony, ideas of the ready-made with an experience of the constructed object, and the tremendous reach of the Bible with the more limited audience of artists’ books. Both can be seen as foundational texts. As the introductory work, it sets up a series of dichotomous questions played out over the course of the exhibition: is it a book or an object, is there a difference between an artists’ book and a book by an artist, how does a permanent collection differ form a library collection? While the first two questions were discussed by curators in the interest of newcomers, the last question was not, and is more germane to those with deeper connections to the field.

The Bonefoleder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist
Volume 6, No.1, Fall 2009
http://www.philobiblon.com/bonefolder/vol6no1contents.htm