PHILADELPHIA — Long before the ubiquity of digital technologies transformed the book, artist Keith Smith was engaged in prescient redefinition and innovation. Though Smith has worked for decades and produced hundreds of innovative photo-books and artworks, he lives and works in Rochester, New York, and aside from occasional shows with his New York gallery Bruce Silverstein, largely shies away from the commercial art scene. It’s extremely fitting, then, that his medium of choice is the book, embodying the long held belief that books allow for a more intimate, personal, tactile experience. Intimacy is key to his works, which often feature self-portraits, images of his partner, and views of the interior of their home. An exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art featuring more than 70 artworks plays on this quality with its title, Keith Smith at Home, recognizing both Smith’s cloistered nature and the intimate themes present in his art.
Smith is a book artist, but his work delves into the realms of photography, textiles, printmaking, and computer drawings. One of the first objects in the exhibition is “Book Number 82, Keith Smith at Home” (1982). (Smith numbers all his books, which are now in the 300s.) Shown open-faced in a glass case with an iPad facsimile alongside it, “Book Number 82” includes hand-colored photographs of the interior of the artist’s home, inhabited by friends, family, and personal artifacts. He frames each page in decorative papers, giving the spreads a sense of craft and delicacy. In a public conversation with the exhibition’s curator Amanda N. Bock, Smith explained how his interest in photography led him to bookmaking. “I got so involved in photography and what I could do with it,” he said, “I thought, I could make a portfolio that was shown on a wall, but then if someone buys one, that would destroy the composition that I made with the total. So I thought, I’ve got to tie all the pictures together. And of course that’s a book.” He embraces both the utility of the book’s form and function, as well as its associations with craft practices and domestic spaces.
The sequence of a book is essential to Smith’s adoption of the form. “I had to use books because it would allow me to have flow and movement,” he told Bock. “I am not interested in the single pictures, I am interested in the totality of the thing. The individual pages have to give up their independence in order to form a union.” In “Book Number 82,” certain images are repeated throughout the book, each slightly tweaked with different coloring or collaged frames, causing viewers to flip back and forth, reconfirming and reorienting ourselves to what we previously saw. “Book Number 83” (1981), fanned open in a vitrine, is bound with an unsupported concertina that allows the pages to remain attached and fan outward. The book exists as a traditional photobook, with sequenced images on each spread, but it also exists as a diptych. When pulled into a fan, the combined bottom left corner of each page reveals a self-portrait of the artist. Smith plays with the ways pages create meaning, adding another layer that’s only viewable when all the pages work together as a unit.
Smith’s “one-picture books” similarly emphasize the whole over its parts. “Many people take great pains to compose the individual pictures contained in a book, but often neglect to compose the book,” Smith writes in 200 Books By Keith Smith, a self-authored annotated bibliography. “A realized book is a single experience. In taking structure a step further, the book can be literally a single picture.” Two examples of these one-picture books in the show are “Book Number 122, Alexandra Baby Claire” (1987), which renders a portrait of Smith’s goddaughter using ThunderScan technology that converts photos into dot matrices, and “Book Number 141” (1989), a photograph of Smith’s collaborator Philip Lange’s torso. Each is composed of vertically folded strips of paper that, when unfolded and lined up together, form one single image.
Smith often dictates the method of his books’ display. “Book Number 122” is marked for wall display, while “Book Number 141” is marked for table display. This in itself demonstrates an innovative way of thinking about the relationship between the reader and the book in physical space. For the institution presenting his work, this still leaves ample room for interpretation. The PMA shows “Book Number 141” in a standard glass case in the center of a gallery, while “Book Number 122” hangs folded in a corner. Viewing the latter work in this way places us between the strips of the folded image, physically enclosed by it in a way that evokes the traditional opening of a book. Another work, “Book Number 46” (1971–76), is displayed in a zig-zag pattern as it wraps around the protruding and recessed parts of the opposite wall. “Book Number 46” is a boxed set of repeated silkscreen portraits using different techniques that grew out of Smith’s demonstrations as a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. These presentations of Smith’s books play with our existing expectations of the book as a folding object. They force us to reconsider our physical space in relation to book space, and to redefine what “book space” even is when a book hangs on a wall.
However, not all of the exhibition design decisions at the PMA are successful. Throughout the show, enlarged decals of black-and-white snakes are fixed on the walls and along the edges of plinths. While this highlights a playful motif present in Smith’s books, it ultimately distracts from the delicacy of the works on view. The exhibition effectively activates the artworks by using the full gallery space, breaking the works into multiple cases at varying heights and using double-sided frames to show the front and verso, but the splashy wall decals and dark green wall color seem to overcompensate for the presumed simplicity of book works that cannot be held or engaged with fully because they are in cases. These choices betray a fear that books alone will not hold our attention, emphasizing the difficulty in mounting exhibitions of artists’ books, and the desperate need for new display methods beyond the facsimile iPad and vitrine approach. Smith’s work is certainly deserving of this type of major institutional attention and belongs in both library and gallery spaces, but the question of how best to display these intimate and tactile objects looms large over the PMA presentation. Though the design distracts, it does not overpower. Smith’s elaborate, genre- and format-defying objects could not be more engrossing. They provoke a palpable desire to run your fingers across their decorative papers and elaborate stitching.