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Artists' Books: Books by Artists

October 12, 2011 - March 3, 2012


Unexpected and intriguing examples of "artists' books" will be on display in Artists' Books: Books by Artists, on view in the Boston Athenæum's Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery October 12, 2011, through March 3, 2012. (right: Julie Chen, The Veil (Berkeley, California, 2002). Athenæum Purchase, John Bromfield Fund, 2003)

The exhibition, selected and organized by Stanley Ellis Cushing, curator of rare books and manuscripts, will be the first public display drawn entirely from the Boston Athenæum's outstanding artists' book collection. The exhibition will offer an introduction to one of the most provocative and hybrid art forms in contemporary culture.

Featured in the exhibition will be works produced by Russell Maret; the Iraq Veterans Against the War; award-winning documentary photographer Stephen Dupont; Robert and Shana Parke Harrison; Laura Davidson, Donald Glaister, Veronika Schäpers, and Xu Bing.

Among the more than 30 artists' books on display will be examples with text cut by laser or painted on aluminum, an anti-capitalist book made from collaged paper currency, a book on paper made out of veterans' uniforms, photographs of wartime in Afghanistan, and a book that builds into a five-foot tall model of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.


A hybrid art form with many sources

Artists have been involved with books for centuries, as illuminators, illustrators, calligraphers, and designers. But the art form known as "artists' books" emerged as a form primarily in the 20th century.

Clive Phillpot, former director of the library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, writes that artists' books are "distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together."

Drawing on many sources, including photography, advertising, classic book design, the history of illustrations, political movements, comic books, modern art movements like Conceptualism, Dada, and Constructivism, and popular culture, artists' books are both hybrids and form a distinct approach to artistic expression.

They rarely take the book for granted. Some combine traditional hand-made paper, typography, and printing techniques with radical formats. Others bind together found or unconventional materials into a book-like form.

The late curator and bibliophile Peter A. Wick has described "the book artist who exploits the book form as an artifact, exposing its structural components, penetrating its surfaces, challenging its square format, opening and distending its text and imagery, and pushing its creative dimensions to the frontiers of rationality."


A collection focused on craftsmanship and surprise

"I want to be able to show books that are perhaps more traditional leading to extraordinary, beautiful, interesting books -- bound, design, and printed," says Cushing "Most of [the works in the show] are beautifully conceived, edgy and well constructed. I'm not as interested in poorly constructed pieces."

The Athenæum's artists' book collection has brought a number of important books to the Boston area, Cushing says. It began to grow significantly around the time he became rare book curator about a dozen years ago, he adds.

"I want to stimulate people. I want them to see the diversity," Cushing says of his collecting philosophy. "I was trained in traditional book making and binding. I want people to see the continuity, people doing all sorts of unusual things with artists' books that have grown from earlier work."

Dealers, who know the Athenæum is an important collector, bring him outstanding examples of the form. "They have to stimulate me. If they don't, I don't buy them," he says. "It's not like a stamp collection where you have to fill in every spot on the page."

Cushing describes some of the examples in the show as "edgy," even politically edgy, including some anti-war pieces. "It's not what you think the Athenaeum does, but we do."

"It's a fun show, a fun collection," Cushing concludes. "If you like books, I think it's going to be irresistible. I want it to appeal, I want to surprise people. They don't know they like artists' books yet."


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