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Books that put viewers in a bind

Artist-designed tomes at the Getty must be judged by their covers or a couple of pages, which is fitting for this inaccessible genre.

June 07, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

"The Artist Turns to the Book" is a pleasant-enough sampling of 30 works from the nearly 5,000 held in the research library at the Getty Research Institute. Installed in 11 glass-covered cases and deep picture frames in the coatroom-size gallery off the institute's main entrance, this selection of books made by artists presents a little of this and a little of that. But big questions -- about the relationship between art and books, looking and reading -- are raised by the odd hybrids, whose neither-fish-nor-fowl ambiguity invites speculation about public access to art.

Some of the artists have made books that aspire to be hand-held footnotes to art and literary history. Albert Dupont has reprinted a poem by Stephane Mallarme on unbound transparent pages, meant to be rearranged by readers. Mikhail Karasik imitates the look of Russian Dada and Constructivism in four books housed in slipcovers that are enlarged versions of old Soviet-era matchboxes. And Charles Hobson's folding, accordion-style book takes the shape of a metronome, which Surrealist Man Ray made famous in works about love, loss and remembrance.

Others artists have immersed themselves in the present, making books that gather contemporary data and preserve it for posterity. The best in this category are the most straightforward: the 1967 second edition of Ed Ruscha's 1963 "Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations," and Sophie Calle's 1984 interviews with famous and anonymous Angelenos. The oldest work on display, Ruscha's picture book, presents 26 black-and-white portraits of gas stations between Oklahoma City (where Ruscha was born) and Los Angeles (where he became an artist). Bound in pink leather, Calle's "Los Angeles" features transcribed interviews that respond to the French artist's question: "Since LA is literally the city of the angels, where are the angels?"

The least engaging works in this group are over-produced fetishes. They don't document the present for future interpretations so much as process it through the artist's consciousness, emphasizing personal touch, style and expression.

Examples include Don Glaister's polished aluminum book that pays homage to the Brooklyn Bridge's steel cables; Robin K. Price and Emily Larned's collaboration on a metal and wood volume of overprinted pages; and Stephan Kohler and Clemens-Tobias Lange's production of an artsy coffee table book filled with romanticized images of Yucatan farm life.

Preciousness also plagues Mary Heebner's scrapbook of visits to the caves of Lascaux and Rouffignac, which includes semi-abstract paintings made of ochre, mica, graphite and carbon pigments on handmade abaca paper. The same goes for Rebecca Horn's abstract etchings on fragile chine-collee paper, which are printed with inks made from bark, seeds and litchi nuts.

A third group of artists looks to the future. Building on the format of children's books, their wide-ranging works suggest that adults have a lot to learn from kids and that imaginative play is essential. It's the largest and liveliest of the categories and includes Lois Morrison's "Mexican Dog-Tosser," a dark yet whimsical tale of a one-man road-kill cleanup crew; Diane Jacobs' similarly Grimm-inspired alphabet lesson; and Kara Walker's pop-up book in which delight and dread interbreed. All three can be read on numerous levels, from the personal to the political and back again.

Kids of all ages are the audience for Ronald King and Roy Fisher's four big books, which contain pockets for 13 beautifully designed puppets that allow the stories to spring off the page. Julie Chen and Barbara Tetenbaum's homage to Erik Satie's "Ode to a Grand Staircase" unfolds like a dollhouse screen to make a world of its own. Claire Van Vliet's accordion book of bright patterns is accompanied by a CD.

The biggest problem with the show is that visitors can't touch the books, much less thumb through their pages. Instead, we are too often forced to judge a book by its cover, or a pair of pages to which it is opened. Sometimes the only access to a volume's mysteries is by way of a wall label, a dissatisfying practice, especially for readers who want to see things for themselves.

This drawback is not limited to the Getty exhibition. It goes to the heart of artists' books, a subgenre that is deeply conservative.

Many avant-garde artists have flirted with the medium but few have kindled romances, much less sustained them. That's because artists' books appeal to the most exclusive, least public aspects of art and reading: ownership, one-on-one delectation and too-expensive-to-be-mass-produced snobbery.

Artists' books are almost always handmade, in small, often self-published editions. Most go out of their way to distinguish themselves from paperbacks, which make great literature available for a pittance. And no matter how expensive a painting gets, a museum can hang it so that many people can experience it up close and in person.

Artists' books function differently. In a sense, they provide the worst of both worlds, replacing the cheap accessibility of books and the readily shared pleasures of publicly presented art with the fetishized preciousness of collectibles.


'The Artist Turns to the Book'

Where: Research Institute Exhibition Gallery, the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays

Ends: Sept. 11

Price: Free; parking, $7

Contact: (310) 440-7300,

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