Do books matter anymore? It was hard not to think about this question on recent visits to the Cantor Arts Center to see The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses, through August 28, 2011, and the San Jose Museum of Art to ponder The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis, through September 25. During the week I attended these shows, Borders announced it would finally shutter its doors. A few days later, a movie based on a book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, sold roughly half-a-billion bucks in tickets worldwide.
Clearly we prefer noisy spectacles to clean, well-lighted places where we're invited to curl up with a good book. On the other hand, I've read more books in the past couple of years than at any time in my life, but I have a Kindle to thank for that. Sorry, Borders; sorry Kepler's, Cody's and all the other independent bookstores either hanging by a thread or already gone. Print is dead.
No doubt the artists and printers represented at the Cantor would take issue with this statement, but they have the luxury of not having to concern themselves with mere cultural trends, let alone selling their work on a mass retail scale. These presses typically produce less than 100 copies of their hand-bound, hand-set, elaborately packaged books, whose pages are called leaves by people in the know. At best, their books are works of art, more like sculpture than prints even though they are printed. At worst, they are precious, insignificant indulgences.
Turkey Press, "The Standard," 1997, Stanford Library Special Collections.
The Cantor show, which is beautifully presented -- with the exception of a distracting video that drones on endlessly from one corner of the gallery -- gives us a bit of both. On the plus side there are pieces like 33 1/3: Off the Record which consists of LP-shaped rubbings, prints, drawings, and paintings by Harry Reese of Turkey Press. As with many books in the show, the binding on this one is designed so pages can be removed and framed like traditional works of art. Also by Reese is a marvelously Duchampian work called The Standard, whose glowing gold box encases a slender vertical book, plus a rat trap.
In addition to numerous examples of books whose pages resemble accordions (The Real World of Manuel Córdova by W.S. Merwin from Ninja Press is printed on handmade persimmon-washed-and-smoked paper that extends for 15 feet), there are plenty of titles whose complicated engineering and attention to detail are marvels to behold. Peter Rutledge Koch's UR-Text vol. III features covers of acid-etched zinc on one side, oxidized brass on the other. The book's pages, whose edges are tinted black, are sewn to the book's brass-and-aluminum spine with braided Dacron thread, while the covers are attached with braided silk. Naturally the portfolio protecting this exercise in magnificence boasts a hidden magnetic flap.
Peter Koch Printers, "UR-Text vol. II," 1994. Courtesy of Peter Rutledge Koch.
You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, though, which in this case is good advice since Koch's text consists solely of the word "words" repeated without spaces on every single page. While the juxtaposition between the book's richly detailed presentation and its despairing content is obviously the point of the piece, UR-Text vol. III, I fear, is just one more book that does not matter, regardless of its beauty or price.
R. Crumb's pen-and-ink drawings for all 50 chapters of the Book of Genesis at the San Jose Museum of Art presents a different problem. They deliver too much information, but it wasn't until I was several chapters into the thing that I realized there was no way I was going to read and absorb all of Crumb's 207 pages in one sitting. Besides, while Genesis begins and ends well, its middle chapters, with all their smiting, begetting and occasional daughters-on-drunk-dad action (see Chapter 19), would likely make A Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin, blush.
"The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb," 2009, Chapter 8, page 24; Courtesy the artist; Paul Morris; and David Zwirner, New York
We get sucked in, though, because the content of Crumb's Genesis is less about the word of God than the line of Crumb. I could look at his rain all day, and Crumb has no equal when it comes to depicting a woman's thigh. Not important, I know, and it's probably Crumb's refusal to be high-minded that will keep his work from commanding the same level of academic respect as some of his peers at the Cantor. But I think Crumb's correct to put his energy into the content between the covers of his book rather than preoccupying himself with questions about what those covers are made of.
The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses runs though August 28, 2011 at the Cantor Arts Center in Palo Alto. For more information visit museum.stanford.edu. The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis runs through September 25, 2011 at the San Jose Museum of Art. For tickets and information visit sanjosemuseumofart.org