Artists’ books bore reviewer

Tucked away in the library of the Clark Art Institute are two small glass showcases that make up the so-called “exhibit” on artist’s books published by the Lapp Princess Press. There are a grand total of 12 books on display. The woman at the desk even looked sheepish as she pointed it out to me, as if apologizing for its small size. As the lack of content would suggest, the exhibit doesn’t offer much of interest, unless you have a particular obsession with artist’s books from obscure presses of the 1970s.

The Lapp Princess Press was a small press founded by the writer and art critic Amy Baker in the 1970s. Each artist who created a book for the press was given free reign on what to create; the only restriction was that it had to be in the format of a six by six inch square.

Each book was sold for three dollars, in hopes of making them widely accessible to the public. The artist’s books created by the press were part of the conceptual art movement of the 60s and 70s, which aimed to get art to the public through a medium other than the traditional art gallery.

What exactly is an artist’s book? Many of them seemed to be collections of thoughts that the artist expressed either through drawings, words or a combination of the two. For instance, one book titled Drawings While Waiting for an Idea by James Rosenquist was simply a collection of ideas for his own Lapp Princess project.

An artist’s book can also be an alternative medium for a piece of artwork. One book titled Unwritten by David Shapiro and Lucio Pozzi consisted of an 18 by 24 inch piece of paper folded into the required six inch square format. The paper included a poem by Shapiro and an illustration by Pozzi printed on it, although the two pages on display were completely blank. The reader is instructed by a note on the margin that reads, “Pages are meant to be cut by hand; a poem and image are inside.” The book reminded me of John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music in which the performer simply sits at the piano bench for four minutes and 33 seconds; both require the active participation of the viewer in order to create the art.

My favorite book was Chuck Close’s Keith: Six Drawings, 1979, the one closest to a traditional piece of artwork. The entire book was laid out so that you could see every page. The book contained several portraits of Keith Hollingworth, a friend of the artist. Each portrait consists of a grid of blocks of texture; Close used a different medium for each one, including watercolor, fingerprint smudges and swizzle stick scratches. Some pages of the book showed just a facet of a given portrait. The details provide a close-up look at the individual blocks that make up the grids in each portrait and highlight the different textures, ranging from grainy to soft.

In addition to my personal lack of interest in the subject matter of this exhibit, the layout was not very conducive to understanding the works. Because they are books, they don’t make much sense when you can only see two pages of the entire work. It’s like seeing only a corner of a painting or an arm of a sculpture. Granted, there are many complications involved when considering letting visitors handle pieces of artwork on display, but I think it’s the only way to meaningfully exhibit this type of work. Overall, this tiny and ineptly constructed exhibit is only worth a passing glance if you find yourself already at the Clark to view another collection.

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