New York

Jonathan Hammer

Matthew Marks Gallery

Pushing the livre deluxe to its luxurious limit, Jonathan Hammer collaborates with artists and writers to create tomes swollen with the uniqueness challenged by the artists’ books of the ’60s and ’70s that, motivated by specific political agendas, were often produced in relatively large quantities as inexpensive alternatives to the limited edition.

Hammer, a kind of bibliophilic Warhol, gives himself over fully to the role of middleman—spine, hinge—to become artisan and patron saint of volumes so precious they are fittingly, albeit tellingly, encased in vitrines: you could look but neither touch nor, beyond a page or two, really read. Thus, the show’s title, “The Books: Read ’em and Weep,” bore an unintended irony. The means of display bespoke the work candidly: the books are as much, if not more, about their look than their contents, indeed, their look is their content: look at ’em and weep.

I Salute Night’s Eyes, 1994, was open to a page of handwritten, ludic poetry by John Yau facing a somber charcoal and graphite abstraction by Pat Steir. But even a mere description of Hammer’s extravagant contribution rivaled the interior on view: fullleather cover with inlays and onlays of shark, lizard, pig, and goat, tooled in silver, full-leather doublures. Hammer is like a mother who loves her children so much that she continually risks asphyxiating them with luxury goods: “It looks gorgeous on you!” “But, Mom, I can’t breathe!” Fortunately, he elected to spoil only strong artist children (Yau and Steir, Dennis Cooper and Lari Pittman, John Baldessari and Hugo Ball, to name a few of the better-known ones) and part of each book’s affect is generated by the vicissitudes of its own particular family romance.

In this respect, the predominance of Hugo Ball’s presence is curious. His texts filled four of the ten books on display, one of which—the novel, Tenderenda the Fantast—Hammer first translated into English before lavishly embracing it with a leather cover tooled in gold and white gold. What motivates—or results from—this yoking together of Dada’s antiart thrust and bookmaking at its most elaborately artsy-craftsy? Well, on one level, it has the potential for an opposites-attract volatility, but it might also be seen as an idolatrous enshrinement of one of the century’s most aggressively iconoclastic spirits. Ball’s work begs either reaction or both. For while he was certainly at the vanguard of Dada, Ball’s writings (like so many others of the period—think of Breton, of early Brecht) repeatedly strike a prophetic pose and so ask for, and in a sense deserve, what they now get in the form of Hammer’s cultish, bibliophilic encrustations.

Hammer wants at once to uphold Ball’s work as prophecy and to undercut its prophetic qualities. This at least is what he seemed to state on the back cover of perhaps the most successful of the works, Ball’s The Violet Faced Seer, 1993, a text accompanied by Kay Rosen’s silkscreens. In gold capitals on a violet background, Hammer announces that “The Violet Faced Seer is in fact the book and Ball and us. The tale becomes historiographic scripture. The object becomes oracular character.” Weep not, but permit us to doubt.

Thad Ziolkowski