By the Book

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Winter/Spring 1998

Heading for Soho? Bring a book. I always do.

I do not mean that I expect dull shows downtown, although I do. In fact, I always will, until they have all left for Chelsea. I am not talking about excitement, however. I mean that artists love books—and not just the second-hand volumes on Prince Street. Across New York, galleries are going by the book.

Good books are a work of art, but artists have their own way with words. Like Maureen Conner, Ronald Jones, and Peter Sarkisian, they fashion installations from cheap novels. Like Hanne Darboven and so many others, they pile up signs as exhaustively as an encyclopedia. Like Anselm Kiefer and Mark Sheinkman, they recreate a book's intimate weight. Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)

People think of art as pictures, an experience beyond words. They may never know how recently painting grew apart from text. Not to mention how strange art then became.

Picture books

Right into the Renaissance, manuscripts teemed with images. In the world between two hands, shared by only a reader and an anonymous artist, art held individual experience rather than public spectacle. In fourteenth-century Italy and beyond, books may have shaped the conventions of Renaissance art. Way up north, Le Livre de la Chasse and others did the same. Jan van Eyck may have illuminated manuscripts, too.

All over the world, images grew apart from the architecture of a page, but very slowly. Islamic art was still in its greatest age, when half the fun is finding where the page begins and the represented space ends. A diagonal line may stand for receding perspective, the sloping edge of a fountain, the picture's frame—or all of them at once. Like Chinese painting, art need definitely not leave calligraphy to the printers.

The change came in fifteenth-century Europe, and it took people getting used to painting, from portrait panels and altars. Book illustrations at last turn into windows, rectangles conceived apart from the text and marginal decoration. I imagine the image loading a couple of minutes later, as in a Renaissance Web browser.

Even then, painting remained all about text, much like what a show of contemporary art has called "Drawing Time, Reading Time." It told stories about God or mortals, and its method had a lot in common with a rebus. A broken wheel could label Saint Catherine or show what happens to idle laborers. The background could foretell the city of God or an independent Dutch nation. A whole discipline in art history, iconography, puzzles out the rebuses.

So painting started out as a kind of animated gif, and it can still approach poetry. The genius of Vermeer or Monet lay in slowing the story down. As light and form carried the meaning, painting changed again, for now the text grew irrelevant or unspeakable. Reduced to a single frame of the gif, the storyteller found a glorious silence. That silence for its own sake is what the average person today means by fine art. Picture books like the very adult products of Tomi Ungerer and Andy Warhol are for children.

Thanks to Postmodernism, however, art is once again becoming child's play even while playing, as a group show has it, "By the Book." Is it a matter of stories, words, or nostalgia for the handmade? Is it an allegory, and of what? Or perhaps Barbara Kruger with advertising or Matthew Brannon with his evocations of a product that long since spun out of control? Any way I look at it, art speaks volumes.

Tara-ra boom

Maureen Conner has the most polite videos I know. Her books reach out to me and the masses. Like Maddy Rosenberg (who later has opened Central Booking, a gallery devoted in no small part to book art, as well as to connections between art and science), she even turns the pages for me. Now that is pandering.

Conner fills a room with projected curtains and pillars, like a set for Rhett and Scarlett. In tribute to them or a woman's independence (you decide), one's expectations are broken by a lack of sex. Just in case one does not get the fakery, she also leaves the dialogue unspoken; one has to read it. A book appears on two monitors, where an unidentified hand turns the pages.

I had to be considerate in return. As a feminist reader myself, I understood the obvious, and I feel much better prepared now to tell my own stories. In my first act of sexual freedom, I left the installation as fast as I could.

Ronald Jones goes for nonfiction, but he should put the book down now. He ought to get a good night's sleep.

Jones displays empty beds. They claim to be Ethel Rosenberg's from the night before her execution, Neil Armstrong's on his return from the moon, and Lee Harvey Oswald's before killing the president. Yes, I know: every death, every moment, is part of existence. Yet I could not even get annoyed at the obvious sentiment—or whatever irony is deflating it. Mostly I kept sizing up the alleged beds. These people cannot have been that short.

I could not stop for death. I preferred to move on.

Pulp fiction

Peter Sarkisian, too, knows about fiction and nonfiction, and his impressive videos could make anyone lose sleep. Like Bill Viola, Sarkisian leaves one stumbling in the dark, but he does not pretend that one will find oneself in the end.

Around a bed, water drips slowly to the floor. (Sarkisian loves private rooms, darkness, and water.) The pillowcase, a projection from above, trembles in an unseen wind. My eyes fixed on the light, until I felt it as something stirring within the pillow, like the pulp of pulp fiction. The bed had become emptier.

In the next room one hears sounds from passing cars. Another light from above plays on a discarded hat, resting on the bare furniture of a remote hotel. Frightened, lonely, or comforted by sleep, one has entered a refuge from the night. With a show like this one (and with Erzstbet Baerveldt not long before), I-20 gallery may get a reputation for new video.

Sarkisian, too, treats installation as writing that one must never speak aloud. Like Conner and Jones, he imagines text, but text of his own imagining. Like them, he equates books with stories—familiar stories, half on their way to genre films. Like them as well, he may begin with text, but only to boast of a complexity that words cannot describe.

Yet books refuse to let go. They compile, interpret, and catalog signs; they describe and contain a world. For the French Enlightenment, they grew into an encyclopedia of the past. The old Encyclopedists knew the power of gathering signs, like me in fourth grade, copying papers out of the Britannica. When I had enough words, I once stopped right in the middle of an article. My teacher noticed only the lack of an ending.

A painter's brushwork has the same aspirations to writing. For a popular audience, images stand as signs on the door to life. In the myth of Vincent van Gogh, as in his portraits, each painted gesture is a signature, the trace of a suffering individual. Artists today leave their sign as well, even when they starve to create it, but instead to transcend personal expression. They are out to create a picture encyclopedia.

Encyclopedia salesmen

Hanne Darboven with her personal trove may be best of all, and it rests on a shelf right as walks into her installation. The twenty volumes, labeled Stein der Weisen (or "stone of wisdom"), hide a system of her own that would only explode if given enough space. It allows Darboven to cover the walls, from floor to ceiling, with framed sheets of numbers. They form an encoded calendar of 1996. Her scheme uses simple enough arithmetic to be transparent, arbitrary enough rules to be personal and hermetic.

Darboven is not alone, for some very different artists share the impulse to label, sign, and catalog the world. Just look how different. Jodie Manasevit abstracts from her handwriting, until a fragment resembles clouds. Less helpfully, George Condo plays at Keith Haring repainting Richard Pousette-Dart. (All this irony directed at fine art and the graffiti craze of fifteen years ago! Where will it end—if not with yet more street art today?)

Even Jenny Holzer belongs here. Holzer's crawl screens animate words, so that others will look past them to political freedom, and her stenciled text may suffer her own or censor's obliteration. In her own way, she helps me get lost in the clouds.

Glenn Ligon too has ironic confidence in his signature. He labels two dozen photographs, mostly men having distinguished erections, with his own name. So do images create a man's life, or can a man have a meaningful identity apart from what other see? Must gay black men like Glenn Ligon or Cy Gavin be reduced to their sexuality? A proper postmodernist knows that the answers are yes, no, and no. Meanwhile, work this cheap answers no, yes, and yes.

Good and bad alike, these artists do more than just label things. They repeat their sign, and Matt Mullican and Robert Longo carry on that drive to accumulate. Mullican's New Edinburgh Paintings strew his childlike scrawls amid images from an actual nineteenth-encyclopedia. The obscure signs span enormous wall grids until one can no longer read them.

Last, Robert Longo papers the wall less effectively, as calendar art. His photo album shows off 366 things he just happens to like. Longo's twisting dancers turned me on to art of the 1980s, but he should clean out his closet. I hate my friends' vacation photos, too.

Toilet training

Video artists may love stories, but they have lost faith in signs. My collectors have kept the faith, but they too are outgrowing a romance. It is a romance with art and words together. For them, the Enlightenment began with the tools for understanding oneself, but it ended in advertising. They look for art in themselves, and they find a vocabulary of signs fixed by others. Unsure whether to trust words or works of art, they can only pile them on.

It is one of those love-hate relationships. They hate what they read, and in answer they write more. For all their ardor and irony, they remind me of Gary Hill, who videotaped a girl stumbling over Wittgenstein. They want little girls to stumble again, maybe onto life. They want what one show called "The Feverish Library."

I wanted much the same myself, facing one more old-fashioned compilation. I was walking by a gallery showing Jason Middlebrook. Peeking in, intending to keep walking, I saw five-foot-tall canvases. It was not their soft-focus photorealism that stopped me, for photographers themselves, such as Thomas Struth, have done that better. Rather, it is what fell through the cracks of another accumulation.

Middlebrook paints warehouse or storeroom shelves. The two-dimensional subject matter puns on trompe l'oeil and Andy Warhol, and the painted racks to the my left stocked toilet seats. The ones in front of me filled with . . . frames, cartons, whatever. Robert Rauschenberg had once made art out of shipping boxes from his gallery. Nothing here, I have to add, meant half as much to me.

And then I had to slow down. A cardboard container, flattened out, leaned up from the floor. This just had to be an installation. I scoured the left wall, hoping for a toilet. Somebody missed a good bet.

Duchamp's urinal stands for conceptual art, but it is also a nasty object that has entered a museum. One hope of salvaging text for art, too, may lie in its physical presence. Darboven and Mullican look altogether different if one sees their work as handmade books. Still other artists care enough to take the encyclopedia down from off the shelf.

Factory fresh

Anselm Kiefer takes the handmade book for civilization's forgotten history, as if twentieth-century drawing could never be enough. He produces large-leaf tomes of pale, near monochrome photos. To give each photo the tactile imprint of a painting, he brushes over it with sand.

The books monumentalize a brick factory by turning it into a ruin. On the pages of this ancient history and in wall-size canvases, Kiefer projects an edge of the factory forward, so that the structure recedes dramatically. Like Sol LeWitt, who earlier this year built a ziggurat out of cinder blocks, Kiefer pursues conceptual art into a totem of the artist. The painted surface slathers on acrylic, more sand, and fragments of clay.

For Clement Greenberg and his account of modern art, abstraction triumphed by opposing art's material reality to representational illusion. Kiefer wants it both ways. The image's distortions cast doubt on the fumbling, almost abstract handiwork visible up close. Meanwhile, the artist's hand reminds one of the ancient burden he imposes on an ordinary modern factory.

Adding a layer of irony—not to mention a dozen layers of sand—Kiefer and the factory are making much the same thing, bricks. Call the factory a plant: it has become as organic as the artist and a nation's history. For Kiefer, a German, history stopped in 1945, and it is only slowly blossoming again.

My friends think of Kiefer as the Stephen Spielberg of fine art, ever-so stagy and way too accessible. He wants the kick of Abstract Expressionism, realism, and Schindler's List all at once. All his canvases use the drama of linear perspective, dense surfaces, and found materials. In the past, they have tackled what the Holocaust ought to mean for Germany and Jews. Knowing Kiefer's past work, one looks at the factory and thinks right away of a crematorium.

He manages to push my buttons, too. I have liked his shows less and less for some years now, but this one is my favorite yet.

Water from a stone

Like Sigmar Polke, Kiefer learned about history books from Joseph Beuys, the most prominent postwar German artist. Beuys's displays of felt and fat may look quite different from Kiefer's grand-old paintings, but they taught Kiefer plenty. Both depend on images that others would never recognize. Then they do their best to publicize the references, so that the personal becomes collective.

For both Kiefer and Beuys, a personal history has to be entwined with World War II. In this way, both ask about the relation between public and private. For Germany collective memory is not a lot of fun, and they insist on recovering it. They force the past on a country that has turned history into terror.

For both, conceptual art depends on an imposing physical presence. In the country that spawned Wagner, both engage in myth making. They want to tell a book by its cover.

If Darboven's counting games mock all that ambition, she shares the pretensions in her own way. All three keep on collecting, and all three return too much glory to Germany after all. Did Kiefer choose a factory in India for his handmade ruin? The East gets to play primitive all over again, even as it looks west, as in his pseudo-poetic titles. I recall something profound about the ages, and the ages are restless. I cannot draw water from a Stone of Wisdom.

I still cherish, however, those handmade books. The artist's book stands for a civilization creating its record. Its pages that a gallery-goer cannot touch add to the sense of accumulation. In returning art to the illuminated word, these artists recover the silence of images.

Do they all take themselves too seriously? They also take very seriously the display of art. Remember those volumes on Darboven's front shelf? They look awfully like the gallery's typical records and artist photographs stacked behind the desk.

Art history in thirty seconds

For artists in love with the handmade, text is again something fearsome and yet something to be transcended. It made me wonder again about Western art and private readers. They grew up together and grew apart, and what happened then? Why did the metaphor of art as text catch on recently, and why do artists keep returning to its limits? Artists have combined even such metaphors and materials as accounting and calligraphy.

Modern art already recovers a love of text. For Russian art, words meant a revolution. For Dada and Hannah Höch, art learned happily to mix propaganda posters with Cubism. René Magritte, before and after Surrealism, stuck all the wrong words into the modern still life. Art history, meanwhile, invented iconography to uncover the rebuses of the past. But Modernism is only the start of a change.

Starting in the 1970s, text took on moral overtones, like a return to Bible class. Michel Foucault and feminist critics have given art a social context, and recovering it takes documents. Deconstruction treats text as a metaphor for pretty much anything, because everything is subject to reinterpretation. One recent group show styled itself "Word to Word."

Artists who grew up on TV commercials feel the same way. They have to look for work in advertising, and they know that museums play to the same wealthy sponsors. In postmodern life, there is no medium unless the message pays for it.

The critical trends I mention reached literary theory before art history, and it makes sense. Art history cannot afford to take chances, because works of art cost more than best-sellers. Besides, images appear to connect naturally with what they represent. Words do not. Books were postmodern before their time.

But the trends did reach art, because postmodernists are also taking apart the distinction between images and words. When a language finds a history, it is caught up in the power of nations. It becomes less abstract. When art does the same thing, in contrast, its images grow less natural. They need interpretation, without their values necessarily getting arbitrary and relative. Conner's installation might make a flashy thirty-second commercial.

Turning a new leaf

Art's new-found wordiness will not go away. Can art, like text, acquire meanings that the artist did not consciously foresee? Certainly, and if artists do their job, it will acquire only more in succeeding ages. Art gives complexity to the relation between artist and viewer and between past and present. But are all interpretations equally good? Certainly not. Mine are always better.

So with images now that messy, no wonder books came back in fashion. I only wish someone were reading them instead of using them as metaphor. The problem is that pictures do differ from words, because they got that way. If textual critics give art back its history, that history leaves art at odds with the text. All of the artists I have described move away from fine art, but not all that far. Like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, they want to put down their book after they have cast its spells.

One book maker accomplishes more by saying less. Mark Sheinkman paints on long canvases, like scrolls, in broad, careful strokes of black or gray. Mostly horizontal, they rest partly rolled up at each end, on cardboard tubes. Text here cannot regain its authority, because it can never become legible. The layering of gray on gray adds shimmer and depth, and the horizontal format invites one closer. Since Abstract Expressionism, a vertical format has stood for a titanic human form. It throws one back, whereas Sheinkman asks for the respect of readers.

Maybe Peter Sarkisian, too, did best putting down his book. I want to end in Sarkisian's first room, while I was still confused by the extreme darkness. A small, bright box sat far away on the floor. Forms swirled about it, over it, or within it. I could not be sure, and I had to strain to make out a distant voice.

As I found my bearings and came closer, I saw two naked forms projected onto the cube, partly obscured by blackness. They could be freeing themselves from the dark or hiding behind it, groping for their own nakedness or for each other. As the bodies shifted and blended, I imagined many more people coming and going, exchanging places. I was watching a video of two people and no more, cleaning soot off a surface.

Perhaps all this stuff about books really is more than a little silly. So I am glad that I brought a book to Soho after all, a dusty, portable paperback. I needed the excuse to turn the pages of art and history. The past has left plenty of soot for each generation to clear away.

BACK to John's arts home page

Maureen Conner at Curt Marcus, George Condo at PaceWildenstein, Robert Longo at Metro Pictures, Hanne Darboven at Sperone Westwater, Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian, and Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper ran during the winter of 1998. Ronald Jones at Metro Pictures, Peter Sarkisian at I-20, Matt Mullican at Brooke Alexander, Jason Middlebrook at Steffany Martz, and Mark Sheinkman at Morris Healy continued into the spring.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME