Category Archives: Off the Shelf: Modern and Contemporary Artists’ Books

Team Work: Poets and Artists of the 1960s

This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission to reproduce this work of art must be granted in writing. Third party copyright may also be involved.
In the spring of 2016, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs Rena Hoisington taught the course “Paper Museums: Exhibiting Artists’ Books” to 11 students in Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Museums and Society. The students’ work resulted in Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books, closing June 25. In addition to determining the exhibition’s checklist and organization, Rena’s students wrote descriptions of the artworks featured for wall labels as well as blog posts that explore individual artworks featured in Off the Shelf. This post in the blog series is by Taylor Alessio on Salute, Odes, Permanently, and The Poems.

A set of four books entitled Salute, Odes, Permanently, and The Poems printed by the Tiber Press in 1960 offers a look into the artistic and intellectual culture of New York City. Publisher Floriano Vecchi and businessman Robert Miller ran the Tiber Press, which worked almost exclusively with artists of the second generation of Abstract Expressionism, a movement defined by its spontaneity, materiality, and dedication to non-figurative art. The Tiber Press spared no expense in the making of this series, allowing the artists to create distinctive textures in their screen prints. The variety in textures was made possible by new technology in screenprinting that allowed for the layering of textures through the combination of gloss and matte inks. The poems shine equally as they were immaculately hand-pressed text on stunning hand made papers.

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Odes is a collaboration between poet Frank O’Hara and artist Michael Goldberg, both of whom drew inspiration from the New York City arts scene.  (O’Hara would eventually become a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and Goldberg a Professor at the School of Visual Arts.) O’Hara dedicated each of the poems in this book as an ‘ode’ to something or some one, including a poem written for his collaborator. His informal, diary-like style draws the reader into his world without the heavy burden of uncovering the ‘deeper’ meaning of his poetry. The prints Goldberg created for this book are reminiscent of the graffitied walls of the New York City subway. One of the odes was a collaboration between artist and author, and the short poem appears within Goldberg’s screen print. The poem reads, “Well. / it is better / that / SOMEONE / love them / and we / so seldom look on love / that it seems heinous.” The poem is integrated into the print. Layers of color that appear to be brushed on the page in spontaneous motions are layered together with the text which are not printed in letterpress but are in the artist’s hand, and are a part of the print.

This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission to reproduce this work of art must be granted in writing. Third party copyright may also be involved.Another interesting and influential pair brought together by the series are the Pulitzer prize winning poet and art critic James Schuyler and the acclaimed artist Grace Hartigan.  (In 1960, the same year Tiber Press published this volume, Hartigan moved to Baltimore and soon began teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art where she eventually became the Director of the Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting.) Their book, Salute, takes on the themes of the city and nature. Schuyler’s poem, “A HEAD,” contemplates angels, life, and death, he also considers the small annoyances in life, “fulfilled plans that no longer suit the hour / appetites that sicken and are not slacked / (such as for milkshakes), / lost or stolen handkerchiefs / invisible contagion / (like the common cold).” The image accompanying the poem, later entitled Salute: This So-Called Angel yellow and black color scheme is reminiscent of city streets. While the poet and artist do not directly confront the city in this opening, they take up some of the relatable bits of everyday life and express them through poetry and art.

These two examples demonstrate the web of artists and poets involved in creating this set of books. All of them, drawn together by Vecchi, may have already been influencing and critiquing each other before they were brought together for this collaboration. The freedom given to both the artists and poets by Vecchi allowed for the creation of four books that push the medium of screen-printing to create incredible new textures and allow poetry and art to interact across the page.

Images:  Michael Goldberg. Odes. 1960. Illustrated book with images on the cover, title page and 3 pages by the artist. Text by Frank O’Hara. Bound volume with five color screenprints (including image on the cover and title page) and text. Book: 453 × 363 mm. (17 13/16 × 14 5/16 in.). The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Floriano Vecchi, New York, in Memory of William Richard Miller, BMA 1991.50. Copyright Michael Goldberg Estate; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Grace Hartigan. Salute. 1960. Bound volume with five color screenprints (including image on the cover and title page) and text. Bookcover: 453 x 363 mm.; slipcover: 463 x 370 mm.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Floriano Vecchi, New York, in Memory of William Richard Miller, BMA 1991.51. ©Estate of Grace Hartigan

Die Scheuche: Avant-Garde for Children

Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz, and Theo van Doesburg. The Scarecrow. 1925. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed to Celebrate the 90th Birthday of Beatrice Levi; Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Fund; and Art Acquisition Fund, BMA 2009.114 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In the spring of 2016, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs Rena Hoisington taught the course “Paper Museums: Exhibiting Artists’ Books” to 11 students in Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Museums and Society. The students’ work resulted in Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books, closing June 25. In addition to determining the exhibition’s checklist and organization, Rena’s students wrote descriptions of the artworks featured for wall labels as well as blog posts that explore individual artworks featured in Off the Shelf. This post in the blog series is by Grace Golden on Die Scheuche:

I’ve been assigned to read dozens of books throughout my college career, but before this course I have never been assigned a children’s book.

Die Scheuche, or The Scarecrow, is not a normal children’s book. A collaboration between the German artists Kurt Schwitters and Kate Steinitz as well as the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, Die Scheuche presents avant-garde concepts to children and adults through a series of typographic illustrations. Kurt Schwitters is often linked to the modernist movement of Dada, which rejected reason and embraced chaos. Theo van Doesburg was a member of the De Stijl movement, which limited expression to abstract, geometric forms and primary colors. Die Scheuche clearly presents the influences of these movements.

The farmer (represented by an uppercase B) threatens and kicks the scarecrow (represented by an uppercase X).

The farmer (represented by an uppercase B) threatens and kicks the scarecrow (represented by an uppercase X).

The story focuses on a scarecrow that owns a top hat, cane, and silk scarf. He feuds with a farmer, a rooster, and chickens, who hack at the scarecrow until he loses his belongings to the ghosts of their former owners. The story is radical and undoubtedly silly, but it successfully packages modernist concepts and design into an entertaining children’s book.

Each spread of Die Scheuche is made up of a red and blue page, each displaying sans serif illustrations and text. The narrative text is integrated into typographic illustrations, with the layouts growing increasingly complicated with each turn of the page. An uppercase letter represents each character, transforming the alphabet into a set of anthropomorphic figures who interact with the dialogue and narrative text directly.

The Dada and De Stijl movements both focused on destroying the future in order to usher in the future, the main theme of Die Scheuche. The scarecrow is literally a straw man, representing the past. His fanciful clothing links him to the bourgeois culture that Dada aims to destroy. The farmer, the rooster, and the chickens hack away at his accouterments until they reveal that he has no substance. Although less direct than most children’s books, the complexity of Die Scheuche reflects the movements from which it is derived. The overlap of De Stijl and Dada concepts is paired with the overlap of visual narrative and illustration, creating a fully integrated and experimental children’s fable.

Bibliography: Atzmon, Leslie. 1996. The Scarecrow Fairytale: A Collaboration of Theo Van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters. Design Issues 12 (3). The MIT Press: 14–34. doi:10.2307/1511700.

Schwitters, Kurt, Annja Müller-Alsbach, and Heinz Stahlhut. Kurt Schwitters: Merz—A Total Vision of the World. Wabern/Bern: Benteli, 2004.

Image credit: Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz, and Theo van Doesburg. The Scarecrow. 1925. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed to Celebrate the 90th Birthday of Beatrice Levi; Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Fund; and Art Acquisition Fund, BMA 2009.114 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn