Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2009
To Illustrate and Multiply: An Open Book
Exhibition schedule: MOCA Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, October 19, 2008–March 1, 2009
To Illustrate and Multiply: An Open Book (2008). MOCA Pacific Design Center. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

For this exhibition, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, assembled over 130 works by more than 100 artists to present the first large-scale exhibition of artists’ books in Los Angeles since 1978. But To Illustrate and Multiply was not a historical survey of artists’ books. Despite the expanse of works included, the exhibition was decidedly contemporary in scope—the earliest book on view was Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake from 1965, and many of the books presented were created even more recently. This is not to say that the exhibition failed to provide an important perspective onto the history of artists taking up the form of the book. To Illustrate and Multiply did just that by investigating a specific thematic angle. The overriding aim of the exhibition was to move beyond the “project of legitimization” that has dominated the scholarship and exhibitions of artists’ books in order to examine these books as a time-based medium—one that intersects with the larger body of various artists’ work and their use of photography, film, and performance, or their practices of collecting, using chance procedures, and experimenting with narrative. Organized collaboratively by MOCA Publications Director Lisa Gabrielle Mark and MOCA librarian Lynda Bunting, To Illustrate and Multiply revealed that artists’ books are anything but a static form.

As Mark explains in her essay, included in the online catalogue that accompanied the show, one of the primary goals of the exhibition was to examine the relationship that the artist constructs between the book and the reader, to “look at specific approaches and strategies, to map, as it were, a topology of time.” Upon entering the exhibition space at MOCA Pacific Design Center, this aim was reiterated in the sole paragraph of wall text that framed the exhibition. “To Illustrate and Multiply: An Open Book examines how sequencing manifests itself within artists’ books, highlighting a diverse range of conceptual strategies and formal processes. . . .” Yet the gallery was motionless, as most galleries are. The books sat or stood frozen in their vitrines, and the exhibition’s focus on time, motion, and sequencing struggled to assert itself to the viewer.

But it was there, quietly latent within the books. Sequencing and motion could be found through the use of the book as a documentary form in Robert Flick’s Parade Route: Pasadena, May 8 & 9th 1993 (1994), which tracks the route of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in a series of video stills compiled along one long accordion-folded page, or similarly in Ed Ruscha’s seminal publication Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), which is comprised of photographs taken from a camera mounted on the back of a pickup truck. In Keith Haring’s Eight Ball (1989) and Jim Shaw and Benjamin Weissman’s Horror Vacui (1992), the comic book strip was taken up as a mode of ordering time and creating narrative, while the use of photographic images in books by Iain Baxter, John Baldessari, Larry Clark, and Hans-Peter Feldmann created implicit narratives through association, accumulation, and juxtaposition.

One of several highlights of the exhibition was the “Xerox Book,” an important Conceptual art object that purports to be an exhibition in itself. The “Xerox Book” is not an exhibition catalogue or a supplement to an exhibition but an artists’ publication as an exhibition. Published by the art dealers Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler in 1968, the “Xerox Book,” was created according to a basic set of parameters. Seven artists—Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, and Lawrence Weiner—were each given twenty-five pages on which to site-specifically “exhibit” their work. The only other requirements for the publication were that the artists’ work had to adhere to the theme of repetition and that each artist had to work within the basic 8½-by-11-inch page size. In its simple and austere mode, the “Xerox Book” represents a key moment in what has been described as the “linguistic turn” in postwar art. Given its archive-unfriendly glue binding and its small edition of 1,000 copies, it was a treat to see the book in person. Another more historical highlight of the exhibition was Marcel Broodthaers’s odd little book entitled A Voyage on the North Sea (1973), which was made in conjunction with a short film of the same title, while a more recent book by a lesser-known artist, Brian Kennon’s All the Cindy Sherman’s I’d Like to Fuck (2003), was one of the most delightful and unexpected discoveries provided by the exhibition’s reading table.

The biggest challenge that seems to have been faced by Mark and Bunting in curating To Illustrate and Multiply is a problem that riddles nearly all exhibitions of artists’ books: how can one effectively display artists’ publications? A medium that is generally defined by its intimacy of scale, its tactility, and, as Mark and Bunting strive to point out, its temporal nature, artists’ books can not be fully grasped through the presentation of a single two-page spread left open under a thick piece of glass. Yet many of the books on view in To Illustrate and Multiply are rare and fragile, and many were made in small runs and without a concern for archival preservation. Thus it would seem impossible to preserve these objects while also leaving them available for viewers to handle. This raises the question of how to exhibit these publications in a way that allows them to be experienced as three-dimensional and temporal objects. Mark and Bunting acknowledged this ongoing paradox of artists’ books exhibitions and took several steps to address it. Thus at the heart of the exhibition, both conceptually and physically in the gallery space, was a reading table that allowed visitors to flip at their own pace through a sampling of fifty different books made by artists. Moreover, the exhibition included a remaining online component with twenty books, most of which were the more rare books on view in the vitrines, shown slowly being flipped through so that viewers can get a sense of moving through their pages in time.

These are admirable attempts to address the paradox of displaying artists’ books, and their shortcomings reveal the immense difficulty of this problem. While the online videos of the books are helpful, they bring their own issues. First, the camera is not as versatile as the human eye. It cannot take in the whole book and simultaneously provide a legible view of the text. For example, while watching the recording of Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake, viewers either see the whole book and its playful page layout or else they get a cropped image and can read selections of the text; both perspectives are not possible at once. Second, with longer books, for example Sigmar Polke’s Daphne (2004), it would simply take too much time to go through the entire book page by page, so the surrogate reader arbitrarily skips pages and sections. Viewers cannot experience the book on their own terms; its temporality can only be experienced according to the pacing and choices of the designated reader. Third, the online videos are big files, they have particular software requirements, and they take time to upload. This is to say that they allow none of the freedoms that a book in the hand possesses. Yet in pointing out these shortcomings, I do not intend to criticize the sincere effort that Mark and Bunting have made to address the problems of exhibiting artists’ publications. Even if these supplements do not completely resolve the problem, the reading table and the online component of the exhibition are creative solutions and valuable assets for viewers interested in learning more.

All time-based media present issues of display and preservation, and Mark and Bunting endeavored to frame and contextualize artists’ books in these terms. Thus, while the exhibition was not perfect, it succeeded in pushing the conversation around artists’ books beyond legitimizing the genre and toward thinking about the book in terms of time, process, and experience.

Lucy Mulroney
PhD candidate, Visual and Cultural Studies Program, University of Rochester

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