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Spread from John Ashbery and Trevor Winkfield’s ‘Faster Than Birds Can Fly’ (2009), cloth and paper over boards, 12 5/8″ x 11 1/4″, ed. of 40, published by Granary Books (all images courtesy Granary Books unless otherwise noted)

For over 30 years Granary Books, under the direction of Steve Clay, has explored the possibilities and limits of artist’s books and collaborative publishing. With the title of their 2001 retrospective catalogue they asked, “When will the book be done?” An exhibition at Columbia University seems to offer an answer to that question. Celebrating the university’s acquisition of the publisher’s archive, The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books presents an overview of Granary’s history. Publications, related correspondence, and flyers and ephemera line the walls of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in glass cases organized into sections emphasizing the full range of forms possible for books: “Books without Words,” “Innovative Formats,” “Black Ink,” “Books about Books.”

Spread from Johanna Drucker’s ‘Stochastic Poetics’ (2012), sewn in etched aluminum, 9 3/4 x 12 3/4″, ed. of 39, published by Granary Books (click to enlarge)

In his introductory essay for the 2001 catalogue, poet and Granary Books author Charles Bernstein muses, “Perhaps it makes sense that Granary’s reassertion of the physicality of the book comes just as so many of us are doing more and more reading on screens.” The innovative printing methods, bindings, and typesetting on display at Columbia evidence Bernstein’s assertion. The exhibition, which is only a sampling of Granary’s products, includes single-sheet, accordion, and limited-edition books, as well as a book that takes the form of knotted cords and bamboo, displayed rolled out in a glass case. “Books without Words” includes the beautiful newspaper and printed ephemera collage book The Corona Palimpsest (1996) by Ligorano/Reese alongside drafts and a final copy of Jen Bervin’s pages of typewritten weaving patterns, Draft Notation (2014). A book is a diagramed sentence, unfolding downward along a folded sheet in Jane Wondening’s What the Ambulance Driver Said (a story with sentence diagram) (1998), which is displayed in “Innovative Formats.” Granary is not content with the basic bound codex form of the book. Instead, their creations are dynamic and malleable, essentially taking the book apart — undoing it — in order to make it anew.

bill bissett, ‘Lunaria’ (2001), cloth over boards, 11″ x 8 1/2″, ed. of 40, published by Granary Books (click to enlarge)

The editorial correspondence and proofs included highlight another essential element of Granary’s production and output: collaboration. A spread drafted on tissue paper shows the possible placement of Susan Howe’s text to accompany Susan Bee’s illustrations in Bed Hangings (2001). In laying out the pages, Bee kept the format of Howe’s poetic stanzas and wove her black-and-white drawings around the text. Granary’s collaborators are often brought together by Clay, who envisions their potential. In this way, Granary’s collaborations are not just between a text and an image, or between a writer and an illustrator, but are built out of a totally collaborative vision with the publisher from the start.

The only thing lacking in the exhibition is a proper way to share these innovative and collaborative efforts. Artists’ books, especially those that take the range of forms Granary’s do, are notoriously difficult to display. As Bernstein’s statement and this exhibition demonstrate, the physicality — cover, binding, order (or lack) of the pages — of the book is essential to the experience and reading of it. The books shown in the rare book room are spread open on raised plinths in glass cases. The cases are closed (and not openable upon request), preventing the viewer from paging through. The plinths are solid, blocking the cover imagery and preventing viewers from seeing the spines or edges of the book pages. These circumstances in effect negate the very things that make the books so successful and enduring. The greatest strength of Granary publications is also the greatest weakness in mounting and exhibiting them: these books demand to be held and experienced as whole objects. It is this quality that ensures they will never been done.

Installation view, ‘The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books’ at Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books continues at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (6th Floor East Butler Library, 535 W 114th Street, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through January 29.

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Megan N. Liberty

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her writing on artists' books, ephemera, and graphic novels also appears in, Art Review, Brooklyn Rail, Frieze, LA Review...