There are books, and then again, there are books. Most of the time, it’s the words that matter. Other times, words take second place to pictures. But for an exceptional few, words and pictures are just the beginning, and the book takes on an artistic life of its own. Called livres d’artistes (artists’ books) these deluxe editions are the product of a creative dialogue between artists, writers, typographers, designers, master printers, and the craftspeople who produce the superior materials from which these lavish books are made.
“Inspired by Literature: Art and Fine Books,” on view through July 5 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the Rutgers University campus in new Brunswick, serves as a rare opportunity to see and enjoy the complex range of artistic possibility that is the hallmark of the artist-illustrated book. The graphically diverse array of individual pages and bound volumes, produced in recent decades by the Limited Editions Club, functions as a virtuoso demonstration of the genre’s richness and range. Culled largely from the holdings of the Zimmerli with a few inclusions from Rutgers University Libraries Special Collections (housed in the Alexander Library) the assembled works are among the finest examples of their genre.
Illustrated with original prints by such art world notables as Balthus, Henri Cartier Bresson, Leonard Baskin, Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, and Faith Ringgold, these lavishly produced books and individual pages are the result of a happy marriage of image, text and materials.
The main body of this collection was given to the Zimmerli in honor of Ralph Voorhees by Sidney Schiff, publisher of the Limited Editions Club, who grew up in Highland Park. The assembled works are but a modest sampling of the output of the club, which has been publishing literary works of artistic distinction for over 75 years. Established in New York in 1929, it was originally restricted to 1,500 members. Subscribers received 12 fine press books each year with special attention to design and illustration. While many were the work of noted professional illustrators, the best known and most valuable of these early editions were illustrated by a star-studded list of fine artists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Edward Weston.
After the founder’s death the club fell upon hard times. Several owners later it was rescued by Shiff and reconfigured into a more exclusive undertaking. Targeting print connoisseurs and contemporary collectors, Shiff, whose background was in finance, raised the overall quality of the books, offered members signed artists’ portfolios, cut the publications to four annually, dramatically reduced the size of the editions, and raised the membership fee. He also gave the painter’s book an additional dimension by inviting artists, including many African-Americans, “to freely interpret a text of their own choosing.”
Although the exhibition is relatively modest in size, a star-studded list of illustrators and the diversity of publishing style combine to offer an embarrassment of viewer riches. There is much to think about here. To begin with, the collection functions, importantly, as fine art. In looking at these works thought must also be given to the graphic weight of typography, the affect of paper quality, impact of page size, the roles played by placement of the image and sequencing. The interaction of format, content, and illustrative style also provides an opportunity to seriously consider the variety and complexity of connections between image and word, the impact of the works of great writers on contemporary artists, and the important aesthetic role played by materials and scale.
The range of graphic possibilities alone is sufficient draw the viewer back again and again. Some of the featured works — Faith Ringgold’s illustration for Martin Luther King’s, “Letters from Birmingham City Jail,” and the high-key prints that Jacob Lawrence created for John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” — are presented in the traditional book form. Sean Scully’s non-objective illustration for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a telling example of the way that color and pattern can be used to support a work of fiction.
In a dramatically different format which stretches the definition of the book, Motherwell’s tonal and linear lithograph interacts importantly with type in a poem by Octavio Paz to create a unified image on a heroically scaled single page. And a series of 12 poems by Frank O’Hara, illustrated by Willem de Kooning, are presented on large single sheets of handmade paper, organized to be viewed as unique works of art. Especially worthy of note is the 15-page series illustrated by Balthus for “Wuthering Heights,” in which the artist deftly traces the psychologically complicated relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw using himself and his then-girlfriend as models.
With some 53 images by 13 artists, this exhibition serves nicely as an introduction to the range of possibilities of the book that few of us ever get to share.
A special note to working professionals: A great way to see this exhibit and other exhibit at the Zimmerli is to go on Wednesday evenings, when the museum stays open late, until 9 p.m. (through May 6), with live music, complimentary snacks, and special programming.
Inspired by Literature: Art and Fine Books, Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick. Through July 5. Exploring the inspiration of great writers on artists, this exhibition features a selection of Limited Edition Club publications, including works by Emily Bronte, Joseph Conrad, Martin Luther King Jr., Octavio Paz, and Frank O’Hara, illustrated by Willem de Kooning, Sean Scully, Robert Motherwell, Edward Ranney, and Dean Mitchell, and Duane Michals. 732-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
The museum is open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays through May 6, with live music, complimentary snacks, and special programming.