Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art

Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art

by Garrett Stewart


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“There they rest, inert, impertinent, in gallery space—those book forms either imitated or mutilated, replicas of reading matter or its vestiges. Strange, after its long and robust career, for the book to take early retirement in a museum, not as rare manuscript but as functionless sculpture. Readymade or constructed, such book shapes are canceled as text when deposited as gallery objects, shut off from their normal reading when not, in some yet more drastic way, dismembered or reassembled.” So begins Bookwork, which follows our passion for books to its logical extreme in artists who employ found or simulated books as a sculptural medium. Investigating the conceptual labor behind this proliferating international art practice, Garrett Stewart looks at hundreds of book-like objects, alone or as part of gallery installations, in this original account of works that force attention upon a book’s material identity and cultural resonance.

Less an inquiry into the artist’s book than an exploration of the book form’s contemporary objecthood, Stewart’s interdisciplinary approach traces the lineage of these aggressive artifacts from the 1919 Unhappy Readymade of Marcel Duchamp down to the current crisis of paper-based media in the digital era. Bookwork surveys and illustrates a stunning variety of appropriated and fabricated books alike, ranging from hacksawed discards to the giant lead folios of Anselm Kiefer. The unreadable books Stewart engages with in this timely study are found, again and again, to generate graphic metaphors for the textual experience they preclude, becoming in this sense legible after all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226773919
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 11.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the Department of English at the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous previous books, many published by the University of Chicago Press, including The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.

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Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77391-9

Chapter One


Book-works are objects that don't make for usable works in any textual oeuvre. Rendered unreadable, the book form works against itself when isolated for display. It subtracts meaning from its own vehicle. In so doing, it sacrifices text on the self-imposed rectangular altar—the reductive material slab—of geometric form. In this utter occlusion of belles lettres among other textual modes, the sculpted book may further deflect the tradition of beaux livres to that of faux livres. For what kind of aesthetic thinking does the neutered textual shape that results offer a conceptual platform? In answering this kind of question, we look to a proliferating but so far only vaguely categorized mode of museum object, whether solo or lodged in installations or tableaux. This is an objet d'art for which there is as yet no good, or at least no going, term. That may in itself be good trouble, though. For in search of designations, one might get closer to the conceptual instigation at hand. Or not at hand: that's more like—held off like no book typically is, often permanently shut tight, its language in every sense shut up.


Book art, book sculpture, book objects, not-books, dummy books, book-works; books found, appropriated, altered, distressed: their name is legion. In the nomenclature of one contemporary book "surgeon," these book "adaptations" become "autopsies"—their contents operated upon under the knife in Brian Dettmer's work, hence no longer operable as text. In a piece from 2009, for instance (plate 1), black-and-white illustrated sculptures from H. W. Janson's 1959 Key Monuments of the History of Art, as originally printed both horizontally and vertically, have had their figures "carved" out in turn by Dettmer. With enough pages entirely removed in between these isolated, photo-duplicated forms, their recessed stacking produces a new sculptural "monument" in a crowded bas-relief all its own. In work of this sort, the found book, once adopted from the archive of print circulation, is then "adapted" to some new protocol of museum display. This happens as well when the found cover in Dettmer's work is retained intact around the edges, providing its own frame to a sculptural excavation in regress, as in his selective highlighting of line-drawn illustrations from the several inches thick Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, a mining of the sporadic graphic image from within a depth of sheer typography.

In another "altered book" by Dettmer, a volume on the history of set design called The Theater, enough textual phrases remain nested at random within the 3-D palimpsest framed by the binding's own carved-out proscenium—like the receding perspective of stage flats—that the surviving textual snippets seem to anticipate and even perform the book's own fate in dismemberment: "adaptation in ... found drama ... here again bound up ... representation of space between." For a further sense that such "book autopsies"—or perhaps vivisections is more like it—achieve something beyond just a "sampling" of graphic material, more like a spatialized skimming of the illustrated text all told (a cross section temporal as well as spatial), see another of Dettmer's works, in installation form, that returns temporality to his typical process. This happens in three time-lapse digital videos that "read" every page in its partial or total disappearance, over 3,000 shots each, of a three-volume world history. Thus "cutting" not only into but between pages, and with the adapted books themselves mounted on the wall across from the three rapid-fire projections, Dettmer's race through The Chronicle of the 20th Century is summed up in its speed and deletions, at the lexical as well as paginal level, under the pared-away titles on its three adjacent spines: Chronicle, Chronic, Con. The result, in Dettmer's sculptural as well as moving-image précis, is three "conned" books surveyed with a care no less than incisive even as they are committed to selective and compressed memory traces.

Not just old dictionaries and old histories, even old technical storage systems in phonographic rather than typographic form come into play when Dettmer turns from the sculpting of out-of-print volumes to the melting down and remolding of defunct white audiocassettes into the weirdly convincing shape and texture of a bleached skull: the memento mori of storage and mediation at once. And when not a plastic skull, a cellulose mask, for the style of Dettmer's usual interior book carving is adjusted when a stack of found volumes is shaved away one by one so that their only intact remains—their cantilevered covers—serve to subdivide, like surgical cross sections, a sculptural update of Arcimboldo's famous Librarian (fig. 1.1), the man made of books. You are what you read; but seen from the outside, this is sheer opacity. In Dettmer's version (fig. 1.2), fashioned from the interior of such books rather than their stacked binding, and with a personifying title that plays on the thumb indices common to such reference works, we see-shown here in detail from the virtual mummification of a full-length white body-the shape a young life fashioned only from collective data, Tab, aka The Boy Who Knew Too Much.

In a comparable book sculpture, or call it sculpture with book, the same German artist who offered us at the start that quintessential trope for the organic text in Book Wheat (fig. 0.1), Wolfgang Nieblich, re verses Dettmer's composite procedure with his own version of the book-constituted human subject. In his ironically titled 1987 Still Life, Bookobject (fig. 1.3), in fact a kind of "portrait with book," Nieblich arranges various laminated abstract profiles in wood of a human head and then inserts an untitled book deep into the layered cranium, its outer edge emerging where the eyes should be. The inextricable book is bisected there by a bronze band that offers the hint of binocular optics as the outward manifestation of a brain that is all internalized text. Not only do books make the man, as in Arcimboldo and Dettmer, but they constitute the mental scope—and the very oculus—of human culture.

Pursued closely in the case of such varied evidence, terminology may unfold a certain logic. As a museum rubric, "book sculpture" can't quite suffice, though it's a fair-enough starting point if broadly understood. As such, the phenomenon would include three chief manifestations in the works I keep seeing. Bookwork is something done to a book, done with it and others like it, or done in place of it: alteration, assemblage, or simulation. To have missed noticing at least some of these museum objects is as unlikely as it would be to miss in any one of them its typifying mix of the comedic and the demonic, a levity in their materialist levelings.

All three reworkings of the book are represented in a single show at London's Tate Modern, from the summer of 2007, to which this book's fourth chapter will take us once we are better positioned to honor the exhibit's own imperative title, Learn to Read—and to do so even in the absence of legible text. Attached to some works of this sort, the term "altered book" is common enough, or "treated book," often designating in fact a kind of appropriated and distressed shape. But this doesn't get at the fundamental transformation involved in bringing the text object into museum space, where it may in fact, though unchanged in itself, be reconceived in some composite installation as part-object in a configuration not its own. And even there one wants a term that would capture more directly—better at least than "sculpture" does, or even "assemblage"—the latent affront to even a capacious museum practice posed by such interlopers from verbal culture.

The book: a text on offer. Singular or composite, the book-work: an object or objects on exhibit, reduced in the usual case to a format of canceled text—at least mostly canceled, whatever words may lie open on the sampled surface. Bookwork, then: the mode of materialization for such reduced textual circumstances. An apt formulation of the basic distinction between text and its suspended operations comes from one of the altered book's most active current practitioners, New York artist Doug Beube, who in a 2003 interview—under the punning title (given his frequent severing and scoring-out of found pages) "A Cut-Up and a Book Artist"—stresses the difference between the "paginated artist's book" and its sculptural counterpart. Not just unnumbered but often entirely depaged, book-works are what is left of bibliographic culture without the cultural transmission itself. Though not identifying themselves as such, "bookworkers" often set about reworking a found volume rather than fashioning a new one for publication or display. The vast spectrum of book arts is thus roughly split between two abiding and rather different fascinations: the ramifications of design and graphic layout, on the one hand, and the heft and texture of raw materiality, on the other—a materiality either appropriated or at times recomposed from another medium. Across the resulting divide between publication and installation, the difference emerges most vehemently when comparing the high-concept print volume—all design flair, no prevented textual pleasure-with the reworked conceptualist object, which displaces reading entirely onto material reconsideration.


In Beube's bookwork practice, there is an appropriated book on the CIA whose own textual disclosures are returned to secrecy and oblivion through a word-by-word gouging out of the text by hand-drilled effacement on the visible recto as well as through terraced excavations of the full text block to the right (fig. 1.4)—like the Arena of its title as cramped amphitheater. Seen otherwise, the appropriated bureaucratic exposé becomes merely the empty crypt of its own covert operations, its secrets buried again in illegibility. And in an earlier work of Beube's, a black-and-white picture book on Paris is pulverized by a belt sander—in diminishing elliptical holes—in a way that calls out the very rings of the tree from which the book itself was pulped in the first place. Then, too, on one of the recto pages (fig. 1.5), by sheer accident, the footprints of two figures walking close together in the snow are seen to disappear in their own receding distance, and perhaps the invisible couple with them, into the different recessional layers of defacement burrowing into the deep space of the book itself.

Bookwork of this sort regularly seems to be distinguishing itself, by allusion and refusal at once, from the livre d'artiste tradition (associated, for instance, with works for left or right hand by such high modernists as Picasso and Matisse). With the interplay of their lineages explored more fully in chapter 2, along with the rise of artisanal or craft books, all three traditions still cohabit in museum displays, of course, yet distinctions remain. Rather than being elaborately worked, or in other words beautifully wrought, the book-work is often ironically worked over, battered or defaced, if not composed of indifferent multiples. In 2008 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a small show representing mostly the output of a single commissioning "publisher" (Lady Elena Foster's Ivory Press) was called Blood on Paper for its included display of the 1969 Ed Ruscha twist on the livre d'artiste. This is his 70-page Stains portfolio, where the volume's leaves are treated not with fine craftwork but with everyday discolorations like Hershey's Syrup, including further—in a parody of aesthetic self-laceration—the artist's own blood. And in a send-up of another DNA signature effect, his authorial semen. Even the subtitle of the Blood on Paper show suggests its departure from the canonical artist's book, for it is given as The Art of the Book—and includes, for instance, among the new work, a huge open volume by Anselm Kiefer in "lead and cardboard." Also presented there are four elegantly curved futuristic-looking book forms in various metals by sculptor Anthony Caro, models in fact for potential public works at a Claes Oldenburg-like scale. Grouped together under the title Open Secret, their apparent "covers" are molded in softly contoured waves like the bending of self-turned pages into whose secrets we are already in the process of being initiated.

Another overscale example elsewhere, already built and installed: Oldenburg's own 21-foot-high sculptural assemblage called Torn Notebook (1996), done with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, implanted outdoors at the University of Nebraska's Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (fig. 1.6). Cursory incisions are etched into and through its white-painted metal surface, while its spiral binding is bent and stretched out of shape in a fateful dismemberment. With two of its metal pages torn loose and discarded at some distance on the museum ground, as if swept away by the very currents of history, the demolished bound form serves as relic for a passing era of nonelectronic jotting. Implications accumulate. Change seems in the very air itself, where the opposable human thumb can now execute, rather than merely facilitate, the work of annotation as well as of text-messaging. Notepad has been eclipsed by touchpad. Before our eyes in the gross magnification of this valedictory book sculpture, the most rudimentary codex shape has become terminally unwieldy. As with Oldenburg's antiquated gargantuan typewriter eraser, dispensable technologies—like the typewriter itself, like the book, like in fact handwriting even-are concretized as pure dysfunctional image when no longer determined by the efficacies of human scale, inflated to monuments rather than instruments. Or at least deactivated, elegiac.

Caro's models for similarly scaled monuments in that London show are sculptures of the book that take its own form in representation. So with the overscale Kiefer tome. They are displayed alongside a sculpting of the book in the other sense, a slicing into it, called Wound, by Anish Kapoor, which involves a laser cutout, hundreds of blank pages deep, in the shape of a jagged, gaping scar. More than just "stained" in this case, as with Ruscha's blood or semen, the impressed page opens us to its depths only in the form of a bloodless textual injury—and in the shape either of a twisted vagina or a grimly wincing mouth forever swallowing its own textual pain in the mute vacuum of the unwritten, ungestated page. Either way, whether modeling and molding books or disfiguring their paper manifestations, there is no reading to be done.

So a first axiom. Unlike the facilitating art of the book (as with rubrication and illumination in the decorated medieval codex, or the manifold graphic and pictorial devices in the artist's books that flourished over the whole last century), book art, in the sense of book sculpture, begins in disuse. This is its primal wound, the injury done to transmission. Such suspended reading can, in the more experimental cases, be extreme and immutable: a total voidance of legibility, a purge of mediation. Hence the linked emphases of this study: bookwork as an assault on mediation. The goal is to define, and in part by naming, a general process of medial negation by selecting out, and again by naming, a specialized but widespread instance of it: the codex form discarded or tampered with, submitted to materialist reduction, undone as reading, disused and detexted—in a word, and en route to a general principle, demediated.


In the field of book studies, the altered rather than enhanced book is often marginalized. It seems cordoned off as tacit antithesis to a history and aesthetics of use value concentrating by turns on typography, illustration, and binding. No accident, then, that a "textual" or literary scholar instead should have offered, some years ago now, the most compelling brief treatment of the bookwork phenomenon. And not only because such a professional reader would perhaps sense most urgently what is missing from the abrogated textual form, but because he would find in the arsenal of rhetorical analysis the terms for what is persuasively there instead. Reprinted from his 1993 catalog essay for a show called Books as Object (at the Comus Gallery in Portland, Oregon), Thomas A. Vogler delivers in this way a sharply articulated effort to register the inferences of book art in its mode of canceled literary use.


Excerpted from BOOKWORK by GARRETT STEWART Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue/Catalog: An Exhibit in Mind

1          The Thing of It Is
2          Readybound
3          Demediated Means
4          Object Lessons
5          Anarchives
6          Politics and the Bibliobjet


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