criticismBooks
Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Working Together: A New Book on Words and Art


The cover of "The Art of Collaboration: Poets, Artists, Books," 2015, by Cuneiform Press.

The cover of “The Art of Collaboration: Poets, Artists, Books,” 2015, by Cuneiform Press.

The Art of Collaboration: Poets, Artists, Books (Cuneiform, 2015) delves into collaboration between visual artists and writers, and the production and publishing of artists’ books. The complex relationships between writer, artist and audience are inseparable here, in compelling essays that bear charmingly anecdotal voices. The collection was occasioned by a 2011 symposium at the University of Caen in France entitled Collaboration and the Artist’s Book: a Transatlantic Perspective. The book was edited by Anca Cristofovici and Barbara Montefalcone.

Although many of the writers and artists speaking are American, the essays venture to other parts of the world to show a more diverse sampling of works from this and the last century. It seemed it was then that painters quit scribbling signatures on their paintings, and today, artists and writers suddenly have more interfaces than ever to co-create. The inherited illusion of medium-specificity is being forgotten; artists are working alongside one another, sharing materials, duties, and authorship. This collaborative attribute of contemporary artists and writers distinguishes them from many of their precursors. As the poet Bill Berkson has put it, “such sociability is what puts the work in the world.” It’s maybe in identifying with others through the work (often from totally different, sometimes opposing positions) that we find our current zeitgeist.

Susan Bee, Recalculating, 2010. Oil on linen, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and A.I.R. Gallery.

Susan Bee, Recalculating, 2010. Oil on linen, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and A.I.R. Gallery.

Most, if not all, of the contributors to the book are regular collaborators, whose collections are often peppered with idiosyncratic, rare, livres d’artistes. Many of the more hard-to-find artist’s books were and are still made in small print runs for small, even niche, audiences. Working to “reaffirm a sort of Renaissance of the ‘book object,’” and point out what is now often central to us as readers — collaboration in its many guises — we hear from Gervais Jassaud, Vincent Katz, Bill Berkson, Susan Bee, Raphael Rubinstein, and editor Kyle Schlesinger, to name a handful.

It should be said that poet-painter collaborations are nothing new; the Banquet Years for some of the featured American collaborators took shape a half-century ago in New York (surprise, surprise). This period constitutes the classical moment of artistic collaboration in the 20th century — with Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and others providing a lasting effect on the poetry and art that has been written since these appearances. That all this is nothing new makes following generations’ collaborations, a great sampling of which is covered here, all the more thrilling. Collaborations by Bill Berkson and Joe Brainard, Berkson and Philip Guston, Ron Padgett and George Schneeman, sparked new and wilder joint works by artists who innovated with new technologies, and concomitant new opportunities. As Schlesinger notes, “Exquisite typography, printing, editing, binding, materials, etc. even when highly understated or reserved, are an equally important form of collaboration.”

Joan Mitchell and James Schuyler, Daylight, 1975. Pastel on paper, 14 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

Joan Mitchell and James Schuyler, Daylight, 1975. Pastel on paper, 14 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

Many of the essays do a good job of describing the nuances of collaboration outside of conventional norms, with a wide range of interactions between arts, and of considering how “visibility and new reading experiences contribute to the construction of figures of thought.” The book’s handsomely designed cover bears a photograph of one of the stranger works by Alex Katz: Edwin and Rudy, cutout (1968), a painting on cutout panel, of the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby and Rudy Burckhardt. The job of working “to produce non-identical books in a world of increasingly mass-produced, look-alike consumable products,” Gervais Jassaud nails in his essay entitled “New Aspects in the Making of Artists’ Books.”

Kyle Schlesinger, Cuneiform Press’s publisher and a contributor to this volume, emerges from a rich lineage of creative practitioners who’ve opted for a more collaborative mode in their work, with figures from Black Mountain College (John Cage, Robert Creeley, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, etc.) as a jumping off point. Schlesinger’s dictum, “Separate but equal. Together but not the same,” is worth repeating here or tacking up someplace at home. And his curious observation that “there are nearly as many horses in the United States today as there were one hundred years ago,” takes us by way of contextual analogy from the era of horseless carriages to one of new media. Despite certain traditional sensibilities, being a letterpress designer and a typewriter composer, Schlesinger wisely points out the necessity of adaptation to changing media forms. Collaboration is a “primal, and necessary survival instinct,” he says, “and as far as book arts is concerned, ‘here to stay.’” Schlesinger has published several collaborative books: one, composed mostly via text messages between he and James Yeary, called The Do How (Great Fainting Spells, 2014), and one between himself and Deborah Poe (GFS, 2015). He also co-edits Mimeo Mimeo, a journal that focuses on artists’ books, typography and the mimeograph format.

Katz discusses artists’ books and the tradition, which Black Mountain College had a large part in, “taking control of the means of production” so that one would be “able to put one’s own work into the world very quickly, and in the way that one wanted to.” This perspective sheds light on artistic view that seems more utilitarian, in that product was not only beautiful, but was often also useful, too. Katz’s collaborations with Burckhardt in the book Boulevard Transportation (Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1997) are shown here in a couple of black and white photographic spreads, one a quotidian cityscape, and the other depicting reeds in a glinting lake. The collaborators intended to describe or interpret scenes with their chosen mediums: for Burckhardt, the photograph, and for Katz, poems (which would also interpret Burckhardt’s photographs). “I often wonder if these poems could live apart from this book, because they are really so linked to the photographs,” Katz muses, and it’s clear by the samplings given here that the two were, as the best collaborations will evince, totally in tune.

Bill Berkson and Joe Brainard, excerpt from Recent Visitors, 1971. Published by Boke Press.

Bill Berkson and Joe Brainard, excerpt from Recent Visitors, 1971. Published by Boke Press.

Rubinstein’s essay reminds us that collaborations are often the best at their strangest. He gives the crazy anecdote of Jacques Derrida’s unlikely collaborator the Italian painter Valerio Adami, where the latter imitated former’s handwriting to offer friendship and spark cooperation. Can you imagine someone coming to you with a piece of art wherein they’ve imitated your handwriting? Nonetheless, the inspired “collaboration” turned out a success.

Looking at my favorite example of collaboration from this book, in Adami’s imitations and Derrida’s essay “+R into the bargain,” from the 1975 edition of Derrière le Miroir, Rubinstein comments “It’s hard to think of any other artist-writer encounter where the two participants have become so completely intertwined.” He goes on to mention collaborations and artist’s books of his own, which may be unfamiliar to some readers: with Enrico Baj, Shirley Jaffe, Fabian Marcaccio, and Jane Hammond. Rubinstein worked in a spirit that was “simultaneously collaborative and anonymous, which allowed us to surprise each other throughout the process.” His comment pins down what’s best about collaboration, and goes likewise for a reader.

Dick Higgins is quoted in an essay by Montefalcone, saying, “The hardest thing about the artist’s book is to find the right way to talk about it.” This is kind of a funny insight, because The Art of Collaboration goes to endless lengths to discuss the subject’s intricacies, but it manages to avoid sounding too scholarly or droning, to which we can credit the editors’ mutual eye for stellar contributors.

However easy it is to note the limitations of handling subjects like this, its authors present scenarios and constructions that were often hitherto unpublished, in an engaging, generous manner. The contributors are at their best when offering specific collaborative and artistic illustrations, and of course the examples are contagious. Like the memories of Marcel Proust or the inventions of Raymond Roussel, the coherent examples in The Art of Collaboration seem to produce like and better examples, to make for a read that’s pretty exciting.

Frances Butler and Alastair Johnston, excerpt from Confracti Mundi Rudera, 1975. Courtesy of Poltroon Press.

Frances Butler and Alastair Johnston, excerpt from Confracti Mundi Rudera, 1975. Courtesy of Poltroon Press.

Cristofovici, Anca and Barbara Montefalcone (eds.) The Art of Collaboration: Poets, Artists, Books (Victoria, TX: Cuneiform Press, 2015). ISBN-13: 978-0-9860040-5-6. 198 pages, $40


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