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CHICAGO — The Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago is currently showing a fascinating series of collaborations between visual artists and writers such as Robert Creeley, Philip Guston, Larry Rivers, Karen Randall and Jim Dine. Poems and Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book (1946-1981) is a useful and concrete example of the most basic form of interdisciplinary art — combining words and images produced by the highest practitioners of those forms, to observe “the extraordinary occasions when these things and activities fuse, introducing a third element,” as the well-written curator’s essay puts it.
What is that third element? In my opinion, it’s when the pictures do more than illustrate the words and when the words complement the pictures instead of overpowering them. It’s the moment when all of the arts, including the form of the book itself, coalesce into an object that can be grasped as an abstract form, akin to the formal order of a Franz Kline painting, but in which the reader can still respond to the meaning of the poetry or prose.
There are some good examples of poetry and image work together in a sort of respectful, tasteful way. One of those is a 1967 collaboration between poet Robert Creeley and artist R. B. Kitaj, called “Silkscreen Portfolio,” which represents what might be called the classic combination of a poet’s words and an artist’s gestures. The juncture of Philip Guston’s drawing and Bill Berkeson’s words in “Negative,” from 1973, results in a tie, with neither work adding nor detracting much from the other. For me, the work that truly took me by surprise and fulfilled curator Kyle Schlesinger’s idea of the “third element” was a set of lithographs by Henry Miller — yes, that Henry Miller, the tropical master of the C-word. The loopy psychedelic-era title of the boxed offset prints, “Insomnia of the Devil at Large,” led the eye to a set of lithographs and ink drawings which combined figures, places from his travels and collections of words in different languages which were some of the loveliest objects I’ve seen in a while.
In a discussion in the same building as the Center for Book and Paper Arts last Thursday, a distinguished collection of guests took part in a conversation called “Text and Image: Seeing Narrative.” Of the five participants, the two who spoke most directly to the theme were Ivan Brunetti, the cartoonist whose mordant drawings have appeared on the cover of The New Yorker magazine many times and Audrey Niffenegger, author of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife who was a visual artist long before she took up the pen.
Brunetti talked at a gallop, entertaining the audience with anecdotes about his life (he arrived in the USA from Italy when he was eight, speaking no English), and taking us through the stages of making a New Yorker cover. It was no surprise to learn that he draws dozens of preparatory sketches in pencil, only working up to a final pen and ink drawing after a back and forth with the magazine’s cartoon editor. But I didn’t expect to hear that the final colors are added in Photoshop, because according to Brunetti “it would just take took long by hand.” He also talked about an exercise that he gives his cartooning students each year, in which he asks them to tell as much as they can about a famous work of literature in as few words and lines as possible. His own example was “The Catcher in the Rye,” reduced to a street-sign minimalist version of Holden Caulfield, a few background characters and the single word: “Phonies!”
Where Ivan Brunetti’s aesthetic is all about using words and images to convey a lot with a little, Audrey Niffenegger’s explorations in text and image tend more towards exposition and extended narrative. She showed examples from “The Night Bookmobile,” a graphic novel that was serialized in The Guardian newspaper in London. These images were produced in a very different way from Brunetti’s: Niffenegger staged scenes from the story with the help of places, props and willing friends; she made preparatory drawings from the photographs; and she gradually worked up to the finished panels, which included lots of hand-written text and hand-drawn color.
It was just a coincidence that this panel took place in the same building as the Poems and Pictures exhibition. But it’s no coincidence that they each took place in a city with a strong tradition in book arts, especially printmaking, that continues right up to the present. In future posts, I will talk about how Chicago has become a center for these explorations of text and image, both in institutions and in the work of entrepreneurial individual artists.
Poems and Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book (1946-1981) is on display at the Center for Book and Paper Arts (Columbia College Chicago, Center for Book & Paper Arts, 1104 S. Wabash Avenue, Suite 200, Chicago, Illinois) through April 7.