Books unbound 

Going to an art museum or gallery to look at books is a rarefied, almost exotic, if not somewhat contradictory experience. But it’s one that’s at the core of a series of extraordinary exhibitions currently on view in greater Southeast Michigan, all related to livres d’artistes, livres de peintres or, in plain English, artists’ books.

At center stage of all of this activity is “Splendid Pages: The Molly and Walter Bareiss Collection of Modern Illustrated Books” at the Toledo Museum of Art. The romantic but urbane story of the Bareiss collection — and how this international couple’s gift was transferred to the Toledo Museum — is a good one. But it’s better to spend a day with the artistic production of their virtual who’s who in modern art. Masterfully organized by Toledo’s curator of works on paper, Julie Mellby — with profound insight into the nature of the hyperspace of artist-poet collaboration, as well as artists’ manipulation of the forms of books — “Splendid Pages” is an elegantly designed, beautifully realized piece of scholarship.

El Negro (Black), the collaboration between Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the great American abstract painter Robert Motherwell, is the place to start. It illustrates what a truly symbiotic exchange between an artist and a poet can achieve. Motherwell’s signature murallike, lateral-moving abstract forms and marks have never been more palpably readable than in this “illustration” of Alberti’s poem. The poem mourns the victims of the Spanish Civil War, while it obliquely engages another group of Motherwell works, the beautiful “elegies” that he painted in response to the writings of Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish poet.

El Negro is the ultimate collaborative union of language and image coalescing into a syllable-by-syllable, brushstroke-by-brushstroke unity of prayer and image.

Because the Motherwell-Alberti collaboration, exceptionally, is shown in full at the Toledo Museum, it illustrates what the remainder of the exhibition can only teasingly suggest. Literally scores of the greatest poets, writers and artists of the 20th century have devoted themselves at various times of their careers to the “artist’s book,” and most of them are here to be seen in the Bareiss collection.

In seven beautifully designed sections, Mellby has lovingly explored the various forms that artists’ books have taken. In the first section, “The Book Beautiful,” we’re confronted by a whole wall of Henri Matisse’s famous Jazz, a series that the artist cut out with scissors. The dynamic but transparent colors of the wildly dancing shapes open the exhibition on a celebratory note and it only gets better.

Famed Italian artist Francesco Clemente’s illustration of Alberto Savinio’s The Departure of the Argonaut is opened to a page with a huge red disk that deliciously overlays Savinio’s text.

American artist Richard Tuttle has created images for Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s collection of poems, Hiddenness. The book is opened to a poem that suggests that the origins of the color of crimson leaves on a tree came from the mercurial river nearby. Tuttle’s corresponding and equally magical image has somehow silk-screened a handmade red tissue into a luminescent wash.

In another display case, three delicately small books are collaborations between Romanian-born poet Tristan Tzara and painters Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy, respectively. While it was only 50 years ago that the books were published in editions of 200 copies, their quiet presence in the glass box is a painful reminder of a time when the handling of word and image was still an intimate process.

While it’s frustrating to be unable to handle the books and to peruse them the way a book is meant to be touched, there’s a certain tense desire that grows as you walk through the exhibit. As visitors bend over the glass vitrines filled with sacred books, they begin to look like strange, stately birds stalking rare fish in an untouchable world. However, many of the books, or sections of them, are hung on walls and can be appreciated simply as works of art. “Splendid Pages” is clearly the result of years of teamwork and can be visited over and over, affording the viewer brilliant new discoveries with each visit.

A much more modest venue altogether is home to the wonderful exhibition “I can read: You like a book.” Some 35 artists in the show at the Arnold Klein Gallery in Royal Oak comprise a virtual encyclopedia of artists’ book forms. And in distinct contrast to the Toledo exhibition, white gloves are provided to gallery visitors so that they may delicately examine each book.

Among the great discoveries of the Klein Gallery exhibit are the handmade, often one-of-a-kind books of the poet Jean Buescher who teaches bookmaking in Ann Arbor. Under the project title of the Bloodroot Press, she produces books that contain one small poem each. While it’s otherwise rare for one poem to fill a book, Buescher’s works fill them amply. Her publications are modestly designed and united with the smart, sensuous but delicate texts, forming a distinct union of word and image.

Karen Klein’s offering to this exhibition is based on the druidic calendar, which is composed of 13 months of 28 days each, plus one day, the winter solstice — thus its title, Thirteen x twenty-eight + one. In the druidic calendar, each month is designated by a tree — and Klein has composed her book with images of the particular trees or their leaves, and pieces of historical text, along with her wonderful drawings and contemporary poems from a variety of writers about the different trees. The poems were composed specifically for Klein’s project, all of which makes for a sturdy yet magical book. It’s an unexpected treat to discover Detroit playwright Bill Harris’ homage to the holly tree — “Golly, the Holly” — and local writer Cindy Frankel’s fine poetic assessment of the noble ash.

Detroit artist Nelson Smith has often used words in his paintings, but it’s a rare treat to discover his book A Man at His Desk. This project is presented in cartoon-storyboard form and conceived as a series of three-minute television episodes, with each episode presenting a Dadaistic recipe for deconstructing life in the office. The book is done as an unlimited edition, because Smith prints them digitally, one at a time, as they’re purchased.

For anyone passionate or obsessed enough to do a little traveling, the arrival of spring coincides with a whole itinerary of fascinating artists’ book shows.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail

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