There's a little book of photographs by André Kertész called On Reading that shows people in various settings and situations, book or printed matter in hand, gazing intently at some text. Since they were absorbed in the act the photographer was recording, none of them knew they were being photographed. Among the readers are an old woman sitting up in bed at a French hospice; a top-hatted carnival girl slumped in a chair in front of a carnival display, charmingly absorbed in her reading; a man in a straight chair on a rooftop; some barefoot kids somewhere in Hungary in 1916 sharing a book; a boy couched on a bed of newspapers reading a newspaper; an old man in a coat at an outdoor book stall who seems to be sucking oxygen from the pages of the volume he's holding up to his face. There are people reading on the subway or sprawled on the sidewalk, in backyards, in gazebos, in studies, propped against trees, or amid the junk in secondhand shops, all at diffent times and places over a span of fifty years. Whether it's hack work or Shakespeare, a newspaper or a racing form, what's actually being read doesn't matter. What matters is the random, thoughtful moment Kertész has captured. There's a special grace about these people absorbed in the act of reading. They might almost be praying.
The point of this lengthy preface to a review of "Books as Objects of Art" at the Montgomery Arts Center is just to suggest the difference between the magnetic power of "real books" and the limited nature of the book idea artfully explored and employed, as it is here. Most of these art objects in the guise of books convey something like the intimate, companionable quality of the real thing reflected in Kertész's pictures where "reading" and "communing" become one. Works like Patricia Malarcher's Field Journals and Day Book, Jean Stufflebeem's book of handkerchiefs and other found materials, and Randy Keenan's mixed-media journal, Melbourne Travel Companion, seem almost prohibitively personal, enough so that it seems odd to put a price on them, particularly the ones resembling scrapbooks of cherished mementoes rather than objects created for public viewing. (Almost half of the 36 works on display are not for sale.)
As much as I enjoyed "Books as Objects of Art" and curator Lore Lindenfeld's presentation of them, I found myself missing the genuine article or at least some imaginatively designed cover or receptacle for a "real" book. Ms. Lindenfeld conceived the idea for such a show early last spring and began contacting the artists in May. She says that a number of the works were expressly fashioned to fit into the concept of the show. While it's possible to make out a wordless storyline here and there, the concept inevitably favors form and theory over content.
Robbin Ami Silverberg, who created an elaborate volume of cut-out shapes resembling letters in a text for Musing, refers to the cabalistic belief that "true wisdom" can be found in the "white spaces between the words and between the letters," or "negative space," as she calls it. Her examples are "the pause in a sentence" or "the gesture before the act." She also wonders if ideas can exist without language and words.
Debra Weier's books are abstract constructions that expand to simulate the progression of a story building toward a conclusion; so you have, in effect, a beginning, middle, and end.
Samuel G. Fortenza's silhouette-as-book, Skyline, is cleverly flanked by the pages of a telephone directory whose tall dense columns themselves suggest skyscrapers. In his statement (among those available in a portfolio put together by Ms. Lindenfeld), the artist, whose concept reflects his experience both as a psychologist and an architect, wants us to imagine "all the stories" behind those cut-out windows. The questions he poses are not unlike those he might have asked of a patient taking a Rorshach test. What's our reaction to the image? Where could the skyline be? Does the place exist in reality or fiction? He even wonders if we might know any of the people in the accompanying phone lists, thereby inviting us to stick our heads inside the framework of his "book" for a closer look. In effect, he wants us to supply the plot.
Of all the works on display, probably the most potently suggestive is Ms. Stufflebeem's Burning Book, which is also the one that comes closest to having the weight and depth of an actual volume: it also suggests quality in the making equal to the one-word text burned in large letters through its pages: passion.
Although it's not part of the show, one example of a similar dynamic is the edition of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage with a bullet hole boring through it along a trail of simulated bloodstains. The supposed bullet enters through the front cover, its perforation of the text growing gradually smaller until it exits through the back. The book was published by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company in 1968. The premise was that it should resemble a kit of the type that a real Civil War soldier might carry into battle. Such an adventure in book design might seem like an extravagant gimmick but it at least enters into the spirit of the narrative with its trail of "red badges" and it doesn't violate the text.
I would have enjoyed seeing at least one volume in "Books as Objects of Art" that expressed the significant impact the actual printed word can have on the reading experience. I was thinking in particular of the type in the edition of Shakespeare that made it possible for Herman Melville to experience one of the central influences on the writing of Moby Dick. In a letter to a friend, he exclaimed that he had never "made close acquaintance with the divine William" until he found an edition "in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every 't' like a musket barrel." What had previously prevented him from experiencing Shakespeare? The fact that the only other editions he'd had access to "happened to be in a vile small print unendurable" to his eyes.
Melville's use of the words "close acquaintance" shows how the quality of the material object made possible contact with an angel "who ranks with Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael ... another Messiah."
Melville's description of that "glorious, great type" made me curious enough to scan the internet, where I found and ordered the same seven-volume edition of Shakespeare. Although it was printed in 1837 and spent a large part of its life in a college library in Ohio, the paper is still bright and crisp and the print is just as big and bold as Melville claimed. At the same time, each page has a texture that makes reading more intimate and more immediate. I wish a photographer had been around to take a picture of Melville, as he describes himself, "lounging on a sofa reading ... this glorious edition of Shakespeare" and exulting "over it, page after page."
"Books as Objects of Art" will be on display until December 23. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
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