On Exhibit: Deconstructing and Reimagining the Book Form

November 25, 2015

Page detail from Faster Than Birds Can Fly by John Ashbery, with illustrations by Trevor Winkfield. New York: Granary Books, 2009. Courtesy of the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

In 2001, Granary Books, a small press based in New York, published an illustrated catalog of all its books titled, When Will the Book Be Done?. The answer to that question is never, according to The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books, an exhibition of works from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Granary archive, which was acquired in 2013.

Granary is known as one of the most important artist book publishers operating today. The exhibition celebrates the diversity, vitality and innovation of its exquisite volumes, which have limited editions of just 40 to 70 copies.

On display are books whose design is determined by typeface, books of images made entirely by hand, books with few or no words and works best described as sculpture. Objects range from Thomas A. and Laurie Clark’s single-sheet Nine Sentences on Friendship to James Walsh’s forthcoming The Arctic Plants of New York City, a collection of images of tenacious plants that grow both here and north of the Arctic Circle, which will be published in early 2016.

“The paper, the typeface, the binding, the printing, how the words and pictures are arrayed on the page, and how the book feels in your hands—all of these elements get pushed to the foreground in artist books,” said Karla Nielsen, a cocurator of the exhibition and literature curator at RBML.

The variety of formats in Granary’s production attests to how the interplay of verbal and visual elements will keep print publishing relevant and exciting in a world of screens and digital devices, Nielsen notes. The Book Undone is on view through January 29, 2016.

— By Eve Glasberg