New York

“Beyond the Canvas . . . Artists’ Books and Notations”

Touchstone Gallery

“Text or pretext?” is the question to ask of the annotations accompanying so much art on view. This isn’t to determine where the art ends and the commentary begins, but is to probe why words are essential to a proper reading of the work. Narrative is the watchword in currency—what with exhibitions of narrative works last year in Houston and this year in Miami—but it’s as though narrative is a relatively new concept in art. Before abstract art, it was expected that every picture tell a story.

Ready explanations for the presence of text abound: nonrepresentational art can be read several ways, but with caption attached the intention is overt; a decade of rampant “content-ism” succeeds a decade of energetic formalism; language is more precise than images; etcetera etcetera. It’s not that words are unwelcome in the gallery, but there is a point when captions become captious, the text a shaky pretext for object making.

One place where text is welcome, and expected, is in books. The phenomenon of the artist’s book felicitously provides a wealth of words in provocative packages. “Beyond the Canvas . . . Artists’ Books and Notations” had any number of delightful tomes, narratives, and dispersals of serial work jammed into every crevice and cranny of the gallery: but it’s unclear, really, what these items have in common beside the obvious Work We Like sensibility.

Eric Siegletuch, the show’s organizer, maintained that “an ever-increasing group of artists is resorting to a sequential and linear mode of expression . . . restrained by accepted historical definitions of painting and sculpture.” As an idea, it is not compelling, and could easily include art by Giotto and Andre and practically everyone else in between. While the premise of the show may be questionable, the work in it is unquestionably fine.

Paul Zelevansky’s Case for the Burial of Ancestors could be a case-in-point of text overkill. But his reticulate arrangements of objects and commentary, his chronicle of the decline and rise of the Hegemonian civilization, is like a collision of Saul Steinberg and Rube Goldberg in Middle Earth. His fastidious eye for detail keeps perusers in a constant pitch between fascination and exasperation. The centerpiece of his installation, a relief sculpture of 40 cards from the puppeteer’s pack, has the cabbalistic obsessionalism of Wallace Berman with a commentary that’s three parts Tolkien to two parts St. Exupery. Mixed immediacy is the response to his mixed media piece, but its residual effect is one of enchantment.

Elke Solomon’s contribution, a mysterious arrangement of drawings and artifacts in a vitrine, invites a viewer-completion reading that Zelevansky’s work resists. Faced with Solomon’s accumulation of cards, multiple sketches of cats and soldiers, an ostensible book cover whereon the title People of the Book is emblazoned, one gets to play gallery gumshoe and reckon, to what does this evidence allude? Shards of the literature of a civilization? The doublings of Solomon’s images and words have a doppelganger effect, suggest multiple meanings, imply that every word, every image has a phantom twin.

Even if one didn’t read the notes accompanying Karen Shaw’s Reckoning Rilke, the compulsiveness of her schoolmarm’s cursive script and color-coded ink could not escape attention. Shaw attaches numerical value [a =1, z = 26] to all the letters in a chapter of a Rilke poem. She adds each line, and then the chapter, determining the sum of the poem by the number value of the letters. Subsequently she takes four English translations of the poem and gets different “sums” in her reckoning. For Shaw, the value of the text is arithmetical and fixed. The obligation of the translator: to translate the spirit and the letter of the work.

For the most part, the work in the exhibition is divided between those artists like Zelevansky, Solomon and Shaw (as well as Jerry Crimmins and Kay Hines) whose work is involved with the construction or deconstruction of insular methodologies, imagined social orders—Crimmins creates his own country, “La Republique de Reves”—and those artists who make books. In the second category are the evocative books of Michelle Stuart and the terra cotta proto-books of Charlotte Shoemaker. Stuart’s handmade bound-paper leaves prepared with rubbed earth from a Montgomery County, Ohio, site, have at the same time delicacy and durability, like any artifact that has weathered time. The contradiction of her books, that they are contemporary artifacts, amends Harold Rosenberg’s theory that, “in the future, all art will be anthropology.” In the present, much art is anthropology.

Although it’s always a pleasure to see work by Alice Aycock, William Wiley and Pat Steir, and despite the fact that their work in the exhibition is very strong, their contributions seemed homeless amid the rest of the show. It was like encountering a sculpture, an oversize journal and a paperwork series in the stacks at your library. You might expect it at the athenaeum, but not at your local branch.

Carrie Rickey