Some Thoughts on Working with Students to Organize an Exhibition of Artists’ Books

By Rena M. Hoisington
September 2016

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Every Monday this past spring, I met with a group of eleven students at The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and invited them to consider an often misunderstood and underappreciated medium: artists’ books. Because the medium is tenaciously hard to pin down, our discussions were anchored by the students’ learning how to talk about the specific experiences that various artists’ books afforded. In opening the cover of a book, touching and turning the pages, viewing the dialog between image and text that unfolds sequentially as the discovery of each spread lingers and builds in one’s memory, we were prompted to ask, what does this multi-faceted “reading” of the book enable artists to explore?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The course, “Paper Museums: Exhibiting Artists’ Books at The Baltimore Museum of Art,” was organized through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) for undergraduates drawn mostly from JHU, but also from Loyola University Maryland and the Maryland Institute College of Art. The students and I worked together to research and envision an exhibition on late nineteenth-century, modern, and contemporary artists’ books from the BMA’s collection that will be on view from March 12 through June 26, 2017.1 This two-part collaborative project between the BMA and JHU was modeled on an earlier collaboration that yielded the exhibition Print by Print: Series from Dürer to Lichtenstein.2 In both cases, it was exciting to introduce young people to the collaborative and complicated process of organizing an exhibition of works on paper, but here I wanted to see how students, in our increasingly digital age, would engage with books physically as well as conceptually.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Even before the first “Paper Museums” class began, the project had already harnessed energy and interest from outside the BMA’s walls. After the 2016-2017 time frame was finalized, Dr. Elizabeth Rodini, the founding director of the Program in Museums and Society, initiated a series of meetings to brainstorm with colleagues in Baltimore who work with books in different capacities—librarians, curators, art historians, artists, archivists, and book dealers. We wanted to not only make people aware of our project but also see if we might link it with other book-related courses, exhibitions, and programs. The enthusiasm and great ideas that our colleagues brought to the table helped to create the informal partnership of Book Arts Baltimore.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 After a late start because of the historic blizzard that crippled Baltimore, my students and I met weekly in the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Study Room of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, where they had the opportunity to work directly with a group of late nineteenth-century, modern, and contemporary artists’ books from the BMA’s collection. For most of the classes, either a guest speaker or I would lead the discussions, though the students regularly took an active role through their participation and presentations. (An article on the course was published in the spring 2016 issue of Johns Hopkins’ Arts & Sciences magazine, complete with a photograph of one of the classes in action.) What sorts of students were drawn to the course? There was a wide range of majors, though several students had taken classes in art or art history, if not also on books; two were, in fact, book artists, and one worked part time in Special Collections at The Sheridan Libraries at JHU. I was hopeful that the students and I could work together and grapple meaningfully with the elusive definition and distinctive characteristics of artists’ books with the end goal of our exhibition in mind.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 From the beginning we confronted the difficulty of explaining artists’ books even in the most basic terms.3 According to one common definition, they are “works of art in the form of a book,” though this conception assumes consensus on what a book’s “form” is. For books in the BMA’s collection, most take the form of the traditional codex, a bound sequence of pages enclosed between two covers. (In recent decades, however, artists’ books have assumed a diversity of forms—including sheets of pasta, wine bottles, and Chinese take-out menus—as the students were reminded when they examined some of the books published by Flockophobic Press with Dr. Gabrielle Dean, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in Special Collections at JHU.) Considering the collaborations behind many of the publications we were studying further complicated these discussions. What were the exciting and unexpected outcomes that resulted from the melding of perspectives when artists worked with writers, printers, and publishers?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Artists’ books played a significant role in twentieth-century art, and yet they are less appreciated than they should be. As light-sensitive works on paper, they may be shown only for short periods. They often require knowledge of art history, bookmaking, and literature—if not different languages—to be fully understood. The greatest impediment to grasping their significance is that those very characteristics that distinguish artists’ books make them inherently challenging to display. The reader’s activation and experience of an artist’s book through intimacy, tactility, duration, and sequence are lost when the book is open to one representative spread and placed in a case. Having had an entire semester to gain an understanding and appreciation of artists’ books, how could the students make these works accessible and engaging for various audiences, particularly those encountering artists’ books for the first time?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Over the semester, the students were assigned at least three artists’ books, for which they had to give 10-15-minute presentations as well as write 100-150-word label texts and 300-500-word blog posts. They were required to visit the study room independently to examine their books. Here our Curatorial Assistant, Morgan Dowty, was instrumental in introducing students to the books, showing them how the books were bound, how to rest the books in their cradles, and how to use bookworms if need be to gently hold the pages open. This time spent in the study room was integral, of course, to their experience of the artists’ books, but also provided a starting point for them to think about how to most effectively present these books to our class and eventually to BMA visitors. Students were encouraged to propose at least one spread that could serve as a stand-in for the whole book when it was installed in the exhibition.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 During the students’ oral reports and our subsequent class discussions, Morgan patiently turned the pages of each and every book. Although we could not read the books in their entirety during class, we usually tried to read at least one passage out loud. For books in foreign languages—and we had many, especially in French but also German and Russian—this also meant procuring available translations. With regards to the materials and techniques of bookmaking and printmaking, students heard from conservators at both JHU and the BMA; they also made their own pop-up books through a workshop with book artist Paul Johnson.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Whereas the talks allowed students to address a range of points, the label texts and blog posts had to be informative and concise, written in their own voices, and accessible to someone who had not had much exposure to artists’ books (or printmaking, for that matter). Although we did not have time to go through the BMA’s usual editorial process, in which a label text goes through multiple revisions after different colleagues read it, I did ask the students to write three drafts for each set of texts, each time working through my suggested edits. My challenge was to help the students better articulate their ideas without getting bogged down in sentence-level copy-editing. The students’ challenge was to push themselves to rethink, rewrite, refine, and perhaps undertake more research; it was heartening to see the progress they made over the semester. Taken together, all their texts have provided the “raw material” for our exhibition labels. This fall I will review and edit these texts to ensure a degree of consistency among them while preserving the students’ individual voices. We hope to post some of the blog posts on the BMA’s website during the run of the exhibition.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If the first half of the class was weighted toward educating the students about artists’ books, the second half emphasized various aspects of organizing the exhibition. I asked the students to review the show Outside the Margins: Artists’ Books from the Betty and Edgar Sweren Collection at Loyola University (whose collection we had the pleasure of visiting in March) to encourage them to think critically about the layout, themes, and wall text. This assignment was followed by a tour of our large-scale, cross-departmental, 100th-anniversary exhibition, New Arrivals: Gifts of Art for a New Century with Karen Nielsen, Director of Exhibition Design & Installation, who shed light on various installation issues, from vitrines to space flow to wall color to sight lines. Standing in the May Galleries, the very space where their exhibition would take place, enabled the students to start visualizing what it might look like. One of their final assignments was to create their ideal exhibition checklists based on the works we had studied in class; the objects had to be grouped according to at least five themes and be prefaced with a 200-word introductory text. I collated these lists as best I could into one document that we discussed in class to determine the checklist and the exhibition’s thematic organization. (Two favorites are “Animals” and “Not Just for Kids.”)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Throughout the semester, but especially toward the end of it, our class discussion returned repeatedly to the challenges in displaying artists’ books and how we could best make them come alive for the exhibition visitor. For unbound volumes, we can show multiple spreads from one book; this is an exciting possibility for collaborations among multiple artists, such as Walasse Ting’s 1¢ Life. For certain bound books, we can feature different spreads over the course of the exhibition. Another option is to display books with related prints; fortunately, we can show individual plates from several of our books, including Pablo Picasso’s Natural History. We can also provide visitors with facsimiles of some of the books; Chronicle Books, for example, recently published a color facsimile of Henri Rivière’s Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Finally, digital technology allows a virtual experience of looking through books. Although it is not possible to photograph every page of every book in the exhibition—there is simply not enough time, and many books are bound so tightly that proper photography of their pages is impossible—a selection of images will be made available on iPads in the exhibition for visitors to use.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 There is still much to do before the exhibition opens next March, but what I most look forward to is seeing the students’ reactions when they witness the results of our collaboration and hard work.

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  1. 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  2. We are grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts for generously providing funding for this project. []
  3. The timeline, however, was much tighter for this two-part collaborative project. The exhibition Print by Print: Series from Dürer to Lichtenstein, which included twenty-nine series of prints ranging from the late fifteenth to the early twenty-first century (more than 300 works!), opened in October 2011, less than six months after the course ended. []
  4. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the historical use of and distinction between the terms “livre d’artiste” and “artist’s book.” There are numerous sources to read on the subject. For the course, I asked my students to familiarize themselves with the following: Riva Castleman, “A Century of Artists Books,” in A Century of Artists Books (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 11-80; Johanna Drucker, “The Artist’s Book as Idea and Form,” Chapter 1 in The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995), 1-19; Carol Hogben, “Introduction,” in From Manet to Hockney: Modern Artists’ Illustrated Books, eds. Carol Hogben and Rowan Watson (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1985), 8-36; and Donna Stein, “When a Book is More than a Book,” in Artists’ Books in the Modern Era 1870-2000: The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, ed. Robert Flynn Johnson (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2001), 17-45. I should add that the students and I benefitted from hearing a lecture given by Stephen Bury, the Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library, “Gaining/Losing Control: The Artist and the Book Format,” at JHU on February 2, 2016. []
Some Thoughts on Working with Students to Organize an Exhibition of Artists’ Books

Rena M. Hoisington

Senior Curator and Department Head, Department of Prints, Drawings & Photographs – The Baltimore Museum of Art

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