I once owned a hardback edition of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence that had served time at the top of a bedside pile; its cover and spine had acquired several islands of melted wax from the candle it helped support. Running my fingers from the smooth dollops to the grainy fabric—an illegible but sensual braille—always afforded a small pleasure, even if the reading itself offered much less. That long-ago volume came to mind recently while holding a copy of an artist’s book by Deborah Dancy titled Winter Morning in the rare-book room of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Dancy’s slim book is made from wax-impregnated paper into which snippets of found text have been pressed. Light as wafer, the book almost hovered in my hands, and turning its stiff, deeply yellowed pages felt like exploring a precious archaeological artifact.
I was fortunate to handle this rare and fragile objet at the invitation of Rena Hoisington, a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she mounted the current show “Off the Shelf: Modern and Contemporary Artists’ Books.” The extensive range of artists and writers includes, among many others, Grace Hartigan, Picasso, Frank O’Hara, Ed Ruscha, Kandinsky, Susan Howe, Mayakovsky, Barbara Kruger, Robert Creeley, Kiki Smith, and, of course, the master of the artists’ book, the Swiss Conceptualist Dieter Roth. Equally wide is the breadth of approach: from Ruscha, there is an edition of Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, the photos printed on an accordion-folded sheet in the order they appeared on Route 66, going west to east; from Barbara Kruger and Stephen King, a large-format volume with a stainless-steel cover and an embedded digital clock; from three authors—Pasolini, Luisa Famos, Andri Peer—and the artist Not Vital, a series of poems written in Rhaeto-Romansh (the national language of Switzerland) and printed on pages custom made from cedar bark that sport attached objects, such as a saw blade. The rich variety of constructions and materials, as well as the methods of representing text—thickly rendered in paint, printed in chaotic typefaces, scrawled across images—beckons the viewer to reach out and touch. Read More