Critics’ Picks

Paul Bonet, untitled, no date, China ink, printer’s ink, pencil, and die-stamp impressed on paper, five parts, dimensions variable.

New York

Paul Bonet

Galerie Buchholz | New York
17 East 82nd Street
May 4 - June 16

Cartonnage is a term that denotes a material the ancient Egyptians used for their funerary masks and sarcophagi—layers of linen or papyrus mixed with plaster to protect the bodies of the hallowed deceased. In the (much) later invention of French bookbinding, cartonnage became a method of trussing precious pages. Across both traditions, embellishments and other graphic elements were added. These serial sets of symbols often pulse with aesthetic pleasures, which we know from studying the repetitious ciphers of early civilizations. The same kind of “reading” happens in this astounding exhibition of cartonnages Paul Bonet made for bookbinding between 1925 and his death in 1971.

Compiled by the Viennese artist Florian Pumhösl, who has been collecting Bonet’s work for several years from French antiquarian bookstores, each of the delicate, sometimes punctured drawings was used to produce a bespoke cover for the owner of the tome, and this unique practice was how Bonet developed a signature style. Offering barely any text, his designs for covers of books by André Malraux, André Gide, and Paul Valéry, among others, often resemble modernist geometric abstractions, with gilded semicircular embossed motifs, gridded patterns of dots, and perspectival lines of erratic girths. They remind me equally of Art Deco and Tibetan thangka paintings, though to construct some comparative art-historical lineage is unnecessary.

The show unsettles. Despite its relative straightforwardness, at its depths the work is unknowable, indescribable, and, certainly, it’s not easy to reproduce in photographs. Pumhösl notes in an accompanying text that Bonet’s book covers emit much less information than those made today, and that they are “kind of blank.” That’s true in more ways than one. Let’s not forget: for many ancients the word cipher was tied to the idea of nothingness, i.e. zero.