New York

“A Private Reading: The Book as Image and Object”

Senior & Shopmaker Gallery

This crowded and pleasantly fusty show presented not artists’ books but artworks premised on the idea of the book as a cultural form, a prism refracting conceptual, formal, psychological, and historical meaning. Fifty-five pieces by thirty-five artists were on view; not surprisingly, emphasis fell on assemblage, photography, and works on paper, with modest dimensions and subdued palettes predominating. “The book as image and object” is a loose designation, and certain items seemed to have been chosen more for their maker’s name than for intrinsic wit or wisdom regarding visuality, textuality, or the gentle erotics by which looking shades into reading and vice versa. But, as in any library, the gratuitous shared space with some great stuff. Intricacy and idiosyncrasy were in ample evidence, as was the slightly mad, sweetly obsessive love of swaybacked shelf and toppling pile.

No curatorial attempt was made at categorization, but certain groupings emerged. A number of artists invited the book’s explicit blockiness and implicit talkiness to contradict each other. Rodney Graham offered a comic homage from 1994, mounting the orange-jacketed Donald Judd (Catalogue raisonnè, The National Gallery of Canada) high on the wall in an anodized aluminum “slipcase.” Shaped like an open dictionary or family Bible, Richard Artschwager’s Book, 1987, displays patterns suggestive of page edges and tooled cover, but the whole thing is made of Formica-laminated wood. a sleek joke on surface and function. Swiss conceptualist Peter Wüthrich—one of the show’s nice discoveries-invokes the minimal grid in nine hardcover octavos, brightly colored but unadorned, fixed to the wall in crisp rows.

Other sculptural plays on actual tomes included Christo’s early Wrapped Books, 1962, and Duchamp’s classic Prière de Toucher for the cover of the catalogue Le Surrèalisme en 1947, complete with pink velvet and foam-rubber breast. This cheerful fetishism turned darker in collages by Lenore Tawney and Hannelore Baron, while Man Ray, Ann Hamilton, and of course Joseph Comell played on the Surrealist trope of book as box and writing as hiding place. The voyeuristic nature of reading pleasure asserts itself with fresh pathos in Sophie Calle’s quasi-collaborative use of a Paul Auster novel (The Hotel, Room 30, February 24,1983) and in Glenn Ligon’s appropriation of text by British cultural theorist Richard Dyer (White #I, 1995). Meanwhile, like Duchamp, Hamilton and Barton Beneš addressed the fantasy of legibility as a private and explicitly female thing: Hamilton with cinder, 1999, a silver thimble engraved in lacy script; Beneš with Jayne Mansfield Story, 1978, a folio of leopard-skin pages punning on the idea of “print.”

Books as icons of authority preoccupied the photographers. Certain entries—Candida Höfer’s chilly, immaculate portrait of the New York Public Library reading room; Laurie Simmons’s Fishin’ Jimmy, 2000, a boy’s-own title with Barbie-like legs protruding from between the covers—felt vaguely at odds with the elegiac mood of the show. But Abelardo Morrell’s Dürer Painting, 1995, and The Coliseum by Piranesi, 1995, which might have looked unremarkable elsewhere, revealed a clever understanding of the collusion/opposition between a single framed picture and consecutively bound illustrations, folding and tilting multiple pages of illustrated books so that they might be captured within the unified picture plane of the photograph. Similarly, Tim Maul’s triptych A Terrible Beauty, 2001, bloomed in this context: the mournful gray-green covers—inner and outer—of a volume about Irish history, its title taken from Yeats; the bitter verdict DISCARD stamped across its smudged check-out slip.

Such inquiry into semiotic aesthetics underpins the idea of the book as a portrait subject. In contrast, prints and drawings by blue-chip practitioners like Oldenberg, Rosenquist, Caro, and even Ruscha seemed content to judge the symbol “book” by its ostensible cover. These easy reads were footnotes to a larger visual essay on the book as palimpsest and enigma, in which the endlessly mutating dyad of linguistic and imagistic signification held still for a moment in order to have its likeness made.

Frances Richard