Gloria Helfgott, an innovative artist and curator who transformed her studio into a classroom for students of the genre known as book art and whose exquisite work has helped define that genre for audiences throughout the nation, died June 23 of scleroderma at her home in Pacific Palisades. She was 79.
Outside the artistic community, book art is sometimes confused with illustration, which is art that accompanies text and helps tell a story. But the work of Helfgott and other artists is by no means ancillary; the book is the work of art and the story. Sometimes the art bears little resemblance to the conventional definition of a book: Words and pages are not a requirement.
"They resemble books in form and, like books, they contain information," Helfgott wrote in a catalog for the exhibition "SO CALled Books: Diversity in Artists' Books from Southern California," which she curated in 2002.
"But they are visual and tactile, more than readable, and the viewer becomes actively involved.... I believe people should look at the artist's book as both fine art and sculptural literature...."
Though she began her career as a painter in New York, it was book art, a mixed-media art form, that propelled Helfgott to prominence. Her books can be found at the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford University Special Collections and University Archives, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York.
"Black/White and [Read]," an exhibition that Helfgott curated, is on display at the Center for Book Arts in New York through today. It will move to the San Francisco Center for the Book in August and to the Cerritos Library in January.
"What she's given the book art world is amazing," said Charlene Matthews, a book artist and owner of a bindery in Los Angeles. "Her life was dedicated to making beautiful books and beautiful things. There's not many people who recognize how difficult that is."
Some of the work Helfgott created is distinguished by its strong architectural element and "looks less like a book than any other book art that I've seen," said Lisa Deutsch, president of the Los Angeles Book Arts Center.
"They were very intricate and opened and closed in unusual ways and they were very moving, touching pieces," she said.
The 2004 piece "Wheels of Fortune" is made like a circular totem. Each of the six wheels stacked on top of each other represents languages used in telling the future. Helfgott described the work as a circular narrative -- figuratively and literally.
Helfgott relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1996 and joined a small but thriving community of book artists. From her Pacific Palisades studio, Helfgott offered classes that helped centralize the book art community.
But she wanted to create an organization that would "stress artists' books and books as an art form, as well as educate the public and open it up to outreach programs in schools," she told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 2002. That year Helfgott helped found the Los Angeles Book Arts Center.
"She insisted on the Los Angeles Book Arts Center being a nonprofit," Deutsch said. "She's largely responsible for pushing us to be an incredible resource for people."
Gloria Vida Wolff Helfgott was born May 25, 1928, in New York. Her father, Charles Wolff, was a butcher; her mother, Anna, a housewife. She received a degree in fine arts from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and married Roy Helfgott in 1948.
Helfgott did graduate work in printmaking at Penn State University from 1958 to 1960. But it was a show by a book artist in New York, 30 years later, that persuaded her to give book art a try.
"It was a new challenge to her and it enabled her to use her problem-solving approaches," her husband said. "How do you get the book to do this?"
She later studied with Timothy Ely, a leading book artist. In New York she was on the faculty of the Center for Book Arts and also taught at Art New England at Bennington College in Vermont.
As a curator in Los Angeles, Helfgott documented the art form's history in Southern California. As an instructor and mentor, Helfgott was patient, generous and "a bit tough too," Matthews said. "She didn't let you make bad stuff."
What she gave her students was the freedom to rethink the book, unbound by convention.
"The book is an object/The book is a passage/The book is a place ... /To be read or unread," Helfgott wrote.
She is survived by her husband and their son, Daniel Helfgott, both of Pacific Palisades; and her sister, Shirley Sollott of Bethesda, Md.