New York

“A Good Read: The Books as Metaphor”

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

Art about books, artists’ books, and books by artists have been on display all over New York in the past year, from Anselm Kiefer’s charred and molten tomes at the Museum of Modern Art to the historical survey of avant-garde books at Franklin Furnace. “A Good Read,” an ambitious show of work by 32 contemporary artists, presented sculpture and graphic work made in, on, around, out of, or about books and reading in general.

The best works appealed both to the eye and the mind: in Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasarde (A throw of the dice will never eliminate chance, ca. 1969), Marcel Broodthaers covers lines by Stephen Mallarmé with black bands, reducing this early concrete poem to pure visual form. In Santana/I See, 1989, Robbin Murphy paints a bucolic landscape over pages photocopied from 19th-century texts: here, the words, imagery, and style reinforce each other, with the barely visible text creating a pointillist effect. Joseph Kosuth’s closed-circuit neon sculpture Self Described and Self Defined, 1965, with the words of its title illuminated, makes playful reference both to itself and to the artist.

Other works, while less conceptually dense, were striking for their beauty. In Altered LeWitt, 1985, Buzz Spector has painstakingly desecrated a volume of Sol LeWitt’s drawings, shaving each page in wavering lines to create his own less rigid pattern. John Latham’s The New Economics, 1970–85, and The Masterpiece Library of Short Stories, 1986, are expressionist relief sculptures made of books imbedded in plaster.

The works displayed are of uneven quality (probably a result of the considerable curatorial scavenging required to amass such a show) and don’t reflect a unified esthetic. “A Good Read” might have been improved had its contents been grouped along thematic lines. For instance, the numerous fabricated or recycled texts, including Richard Artschwager’s Formica Book, 1987, and Neil Winokur’s Untitled (Middlemarch), 1987, a photograph of a Penguin Classic book, address the contemporary interest in simulation, reproduction, and representation. Sealed books, such as Rosemarie Trockel’s Allieri: E Ia Fama? Cozzi: E Ia Fame? (Allieri: And the fame? Gozzi: And the hunger?, 1987), in which two volumes are encased in leather pouches, or Quine II, 1988, in which Julius Deutschbauer has fastened a Plexiglas shield over a shelf of philosophy books, speculate on the accessibility of information and knowledge.

Most of the works displayed pay homage to the act of reading; even the obliterated texts reveal a preoccupation with the book as hallowed object. As the title suggests, the show was really about reading works of art in general, and not merely about books. Perhaps it is a concern with how their own work is “read” that has led so many artists to manipulate written texts.

Lois E. Nesbitt