Fog enveloped Phan-Xi-Pang, Indochina’s tallest peak, in an ocean of vanilla milkshakes. You could drink the air with a straw.
Touring Vietnam during the past two months, I eagerly anticipated painting and drawing the mountains I found pictured online. Unfortunately, clouds and fog often hid the range like the closed covers of a book, day after frustrating day. Frustrating, that is, until I embraced the mystery of what was there — Robert Ryman on swimmy steroids — rather than longing for what wasn’t.
Shortly before leaving the US, I had a related experience. I was at a press preview for a show called Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where being unable to see all that I wanted to see played first a troubling role, then an enticing one.
Artists’ books tend to be rare and fragile. They need to be protected. Hence the vitrines, which, along with closed covers and fixed, double-page spreads, prohibit a full read. It is, however, a treat to see any part of these inventive objects.
Of course, there are many works of art beset by obstacles that limit our viewing experience. We stand far below that colossal, every-page-visible-at-once picture book known as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Who wouldn’t like a more optimum look at the narratives muscling their way across a vaulted heaven? Who wouldn’t like to get up close and personal with Adam or Eve, or to bite into an apple from that tree in their garden? We can’t. But we take what we can get.
Compare this to the thwarted desire to leaf through the pages of the publisher Ambroise Vollard’s 1931 edition of The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu) by Honoré de Balzac, the first book I was drawn to upon entering Off the Shelf. Six of the etchings by Pablo Picasso that accompany this tragic literary classic about art and seeing, which hang directly above the book. The illustrations can be treasured independently, as can the French author’s words. But when a great story and great images merge, it’s magic.
With one exception (a promised gift), all the works in Off the Shelf are from the BMA’s collection. Rena Hoisington, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, curated wisely, as well as helped design the individual displays and overall galleries. On monitors in an adjoining room, viewers can scroll through numerous books from the exhibition, allowing for a more start-to-finish eyeballing (albeit virtual) experience. One of my scrolling favorites is Paul Verlaine’s once-banned, sapphic Side by Side (Parallèlement, 1900), sinuously illustrated by Pierre Bonnard. In what is considered by many to be the first modern livre d’artiste (artist’s book), the artist’s rose-sanguine marks echo the look and spirit of Verlaine’s words, which were printed on cream-colored pages in a fluid, Renaissance font designed by Claude Garamond.
Bonnard’s sprawling lithographs sometimes corral and always counter the boxy boundaries of italicized type. Often, it seems as if the women he portrays are being coaxed from, or are dissolving into, the paper’s humid sensuality, nude figures sparely drawn here, detailed there. Like a storm cloud, in a section entitled “Sappho,” a sweeping arc of dark, braiding hair from two embracing women further exhilarates their impassioned moment.
Off the Shelf is an intimate exhibit of small gems. The works spring from inspired painter/writer pairings of showstopper sensibilities, including Grace Hartigan/James Schuyler; David Hockney/The Brothers Grimm; Susan Rothenberg/Robert Creeley; and Jasper Johns/Samuel Beckett. With few exceptions, like the over-sized and weighty My Pretty Pony, a steel-covered undertaking by Barbara Kruger and Stephen King, these editions are not what, 30 years ago, my then-three-year old daughter would have referred to as “two-handed books.” But despite their mostly midsize proportions, these images and objects have a king-size impact, partly because creative combos are sharing the more private — but no less profound — sides of themselves. And we get to peek.
Few of the more than 130 artists’ books and related prints in this show are ever seen in public, yet they are decidedly social in nature. Visual artists team up with other visual artists, as well as with poets, novelists, fairytale writers, book designers, typographers, typesetters, and publishers.
Hands down, the biggest social event of Off the Shelf takes the form of 1 Cent Life (1964), a celebration of art and poetry that brought together the disparate styles of abstraction and Pop. Walasse Ting and Sam Francis invited 28 blue-chip artists, ranging from Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, to James Rosenquist, Joan Mitchell, and Tom Wesselmann. The boisterous affair included 172 pages filled with 62 lithographs and 62 poems (written by Ting).
In this exhibition, pages turn, hang, separate, and fold. When unfolded, the accordion books, Tidal (1998), by Kiki Smith, and Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), reveal elegant, elongated proportions with sleek, unique formats.
With computer screens replacing paper pages, a show like Off the Shelf is timelier than it would have been less than a decade ago. It remains to be seen whether tactile books become less important due to their cost and the diminishment of their practical necessity, or more important through their physicality and personality. Big money is on the former. I hope it’s the latter.
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Another show currently at the Baltimore Museum of Art is Timeless Weft: Ancient Tapestries and the Art of Louise B. Wheatley. Anita Jones, the museum’s Curator of Textiles, installed weavings from Wheatley’s more than 40-year career alongside a series of ancient Egyptian Coptic fabric works. The historical conversation that unfolds between the contemporary weaver’s works and the time-old textiles enriches them both.
Content, color, texture, and technique represent visible connections between the two bodies of work. And then there are invisible links that become an evocation of time. The Coptic weavings have missing — invisible — parts, which have been lost over the centuries. I’ve always been a sucker for fragments, where the harsh blade and the delicate patina of centuries reconfigure shapes and dimensions, add subtlety to surface, and glaze the beauty of age across pristine colors. Fragments lead to fantasy. What could have been depicted in the no-longer-visible parts surrounding the stylized hares racing through several borders of an Egyptian 10th-11th-century silk and linen textile? The fragment adorns a wall not much more than a vitrine away from its contemporary counterpart, Wheatley’s “Rabbit” (2014). From threads to shreds and back again, in my imagination I complete the story.
Although some of Wheatley’s finely crafted weavings are large, many are about the length of a long finger. But even the artist’s tiniest textiles deliver with the might of a fog that can erase a mountain, as we see in both her portrayal of a gangly insect, “Walking Stick” (c. 1995), and a biblical hero, “David” (c. 1991), as he kneels (in one panel of a pocket-size triptych) to look for the stone with which he will defeat Goliath.
One of the larger wall hangings, “Fruits of the Spirit” (c. 1991), struck me initially as being dominated by three vertical strips of flat black. The central strip backs a charming, light-toned portrait of a pear tree that grows on the artist’s farm in Maryland. Turns out, the dark strips aren’t black at all, or flat, for that matter, but rather — as a close inspection reveals — a blend of deep tones, textures, and colors.
This tapestry does with shade what another of her works, “Egg Collection” (2005) does with shine. Here, variations in the figure/ground relationships, the finely spun warm and cool off-white ovals, and the quivering grid containing the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t eggs create a slow, playful bounce to this fragile yet solid work. It’s as if the artist took a bunch of eggs, shook them up, and not only did not a one of ‘em crack, they all seem to revel in the delicacy of the dance of their white-on-white invisibility.
Wheatley’s range of subjects is impressive. With heft and weft, she is equally expressive — formally, psychologically, and spiritually — at addressing pear trees and eggs, darkness and light, bugs and the bible.
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For merging words and images, these are red-letter days on Baltimore’s Art Museum Drive. In a third show at the BMA, Front Room: Adam Pendleton, the words are the images. In Pendleton’s case, his ABCs are white, gray, and black — not red — sometimes spanning the walls from floor to ceiling.
Several works feature variations of the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter,” which has a trenchant meaning in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Grey. Gestural, sprayed, dripped, printed, broken, cropped, layered, rotated, and wiped-away, the letters simultaneously weave information, emotion, frustration, and hope into a powerful humanistic, social, and political message.
Like the BMA’s books, Wheatley’s textiles and Pendelton’s mixed-media ventures pack a punch (actually, hers is more of a lingering touch). With her, you don’t see it coming; with him, you can feel the vibrations down the block. Her mists/his missiles, resounding, both.
Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books continues through June 25; Timeless Weft: Ancient Tapestries and the Art of Louise B. Wheatley continues through July 30; and Front Room: Adam Pendleton continues through October 1.
All three exhibitions are located at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland).