Shirin Neshat, "Untitled" (Graphite, ink and paper collage on printed book) (2014) (all photos by author)

Shirin Neshat, “Untitled” (published in 2013, modified 2014) (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

Some unique artist books are currently on view at Christie’s in New York. Artists were given a book that illustrates their work and then invited to paint or draw over its pages. Hacking into their own images, these artists subvert and enrich the books, giving viewers entirely new works to explore on each page. It’s worth a trip to Christie’s to particularly see how Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, and Shirin Neshat disrupt and twist their earlier artworks in these modified books.

Julie Mehretu is best known for her abstract paintings that accumulate layer upon layer of marks and shapes. In several pages of her 2010 Grey Area book, which documents a commission by the Deutsche Guggenheim museum, she puts additional ink markings as a new layer on top of her already highly layered works. It was incredible to watch these energetic forms visual interact with what was printed on the page beforehand.

Julie Mehretu, "Grey Area" (published in 2010 and modified by the artist in 2014)

Julie Mehretu, “Grey Area” (published in 2010; modified 2014)

Julie Mehretu, "Grey Area" (published in 2010 and modified by the artist in 2014)

Julie Mehretu, “Grey Area” (published in 2010 and modified by the artist in 2014)

In a more political vein, Julie Mehretu inserted a large arrow that points at a potrait of Barack Obama in an interior. That room has become sullied with a jumble of squiggles that now swirl underneath him. It’s an apt illustration for the messy chaos that now surrounds the president in Washington. These smudgy, grimy marks allude to how clouded Obama’s administration now appears to many observers.

Glenn Ligon was the youngest artist that the Obamas selected for display on the walls of their personal quarters in the White House. For his book project, Ligon blotted out many of the words that originally glowed as neon lights in his book, “Neon” (2012), which was the catalog for his recent solo show at the Luhring Augustine gallery. “The Moon belongs to the People” now reads as “The —————– People.” “I live on my Shadow” now reads as “———– Shadow.” On other pages, his neon signs are entirely blotted out and it’s just a dark haze that sits like a storm cloud over the once shinning prose.

Glenn Ligon, "Neon" (published in 2013, modified in 2014)

Glenn Ligon, “Neon” (published in 2013, modified in 2014)

Ligon explained in the press materials that “I was thinking about how fragile neon is and, by extension, how fragile words are, how they can be made to disappear, which is a central tension or metaphor in my work. The PEN auction is about celebrating the resilience of words in the face of attempts to erase them.”

His book, along with the other books on display at Christie’s, will be auctioned to benefit PEN America. This organization advocates for freedom of expression, names and shames acts of brutality and censorship against journalists and writers, and invites persecuted writers from countries that do not honor freedom of expression to speak publicly in America. Seeing Ligon censor his own words was a vivid reminder that not every artist enjoys the protections of the First Amendment that many Americans take for granted.

Living in exile for over 30 years in New York, Shirin Neshat knows the pain of coming from a country that does guarantee artistic freedom. As she remarked in a recent Ted Talk, “Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics have defined our lives. If you’re living in Iran, you’re facing censorship, harassment, arrest, torture — at times, execution.”

Her marked book, “Untitled (2013), which was the catalog for her 2013 solo show at the Detroit Institute of Arts, reflects a mixture of pride in Persia’s artistic heritage and the rage and sorrow of exile. She drew, painted and collaged onto the book. Darkly veiled silhouettes loom over one page. The hand of fatima, which is an emblem of protection, has been added to a page opposite a gun menacingly poking through two feet. Arabic calligraphy scrolls across other pages and even forms a horse on one notable page.

Shirin Neshat, "Untitled" (published in 2013, modified in 2014)

Shirin Neshat, “Untitled” (published in 2013, modified in 2014)

Flipping through all the books, there was an unfiltered and uneven quality to the artists’ interventions. Some pages worked out better than others; and some plainly didn’t pan out. Yet, this inconsistency and the occasional botched page actually made the books more intriguing than a tome of perfect images. We so often don’t get to see the rejected drawings and dead ends of Shirin Neshat, Glenn Ligon or Julie Mehretu. These books offer a more far more honest glimpse into their minds and process. Salvador Dali once remarked that “Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” And seeing these drawings on the books without cheating, filtering or any editing was a revealing and gritty joy.

First Editions, Second Thoughts is on view at Christie’s New York (20 Rockefeller Plaza, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 2. 

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