For the next several weeks, the Art Library is privileged to present to the Vassar community an exhibition of artists’ books, entitled “Misbehaving: Artists’ Books by Women Artists,” on view through April 20. All but one of the works in the exhibit are from the personal collection of librarian and curator Rosemary Furtak, who helped to establish the artists’ book as a significant art form. As a former Walker Art Center librarian, Furtak worked hard to cultivate a wide variety of art for the public. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2012.
Among these are works by many artists who have contributed to conversations about the role of women in art and society in recent decades, including Ida Applebroog, Barbara Kruger, Joan Lyons, Laurie Simmons, Jessica Diamond and Kiki Smith. Collectively, these works provide a window into the development of the artists’ books from its early days in the 1960’s and 70’s through to the present.
They also illustrate the medium’s gradual incorporation into mainstream museum culture and its literature, thanks in part to the efforts of a small handful of art librarians who followed Furtak’s lead as a collector and early proponent of the genre.
The curator of “Misbehaving,” Grace Sparapani ’16, wrote in an emailed statement, “I gained a real interest in the artist’s book as an alternate form and I was really curious about the challenge of displaying a form that really does beg the reader to physically interact with it a lot of the time.” The feminist critic Lucy Lippard defined this art form in “Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook”: “Like performance art, artists’ books are best defined as whatever isn’t anything else.”
Librarians and museum curators both found artists’ books strange, and were perplexed as to what to do with them. To curators, although many were being produced by artists who worked in traditional genres, such as Ed Ruscha and Sol Lewitt, the works seemed unexhibitable and, produced in editions of many copies as multiples, purposely designed to undermine the cult status of the art object and the economics of the art market in their low-cost and modest formats.
To many librarians, these books seemed difficult to use and presenting a challenge in integrating them into conventional collections. Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations,” for instance, was often classified and shelved with books about highway development and trucking. Furtak herself captures something of the crux of the problem in her own definition of an artist’s book: “An artist’s book is a book that refuses to behave like a normal book (as you can hear her say in the brief Youtube video that accompanied the Walker’s 2009 “Text/Messages” exhibition).”
Furtak also began adding to the collection. Beginning with a check of $500.00 given to her by Sol Lewitt as a start-up stimulus, Furtak gradually built up one of the most important museum collections of artists’ books in the world. And as Walker curator Siri Engberg describes the buildings importance ., “Though the Walker’s library occupies a quiet corner of the building, she made it a nerve center, often buzzing with curators, researchers and tour guides,” she said.
During the same period, the Walker gained a reputation for being one of the most dynamic and influential exhibiting institutions devoted to modern and contemporary art in the United States, and a nursery for innovative, risk-taking curators and directors who would go on to become forces in the art world generally. Some of these well-known names include Kathy Halbreich from the MoMA, Peter Eely from PS1 and Philippe Vergne from L.A. MOCA, who once stated he got his best ideas in the Walker library.
In recent years, the artists’ books has come to acquire a kind of celebrity status in the museum world, with modern and contemporary museum exhibits regularly including vitrines with examples of the genre, and with so many established artists producing them.
Sparapani commented on her experience with this art form, “The books are amazing, and I hadn’t had the chance to really curate anything other than my own senior exhibit in high school, so I loved getting to try something new.”
She continued, “I’m a huge frequenter of galleries and museums, so it was awesome to be able to actively influence people’s experiences with the work, rather than just experience something that has been set up for me. It has definitely made me more sensitive to the way that gallery spaces interact with the viewer.”
Many, if not most of the works in “Misbehaving” testify to a conscious identification between the early outsider status of the artists’ book and the outsider status of women in the art world, and in the culture in general. Furtak’s own piece, “Assemblage,” which forms the centerpiece of the exhibit, is emblematic of this circumstance.
Noting this distinction, Sparapani said, “The Tauba Auerbach in the middle of the display is definitely the most immediately visually striking and will bring viewers in first, but I’m most excited about the Assemblage we have by Rosemary herself, the previous owner of the collection. It’s amazing to be able to see how she interacted herself with the form, as well as how completely the piece really stands its own amongst works by some very well-known artists.”
A ready-made composition of found objects, the work consists of an otherwise empty cigar box containing an invitation to an Ellen von Unwerth exhibition depicting two fashionable and bare-shouldered young women. The piece more than holds its own with the other works in the exhibit, and silently speaks volumes about those works, about the place of women in the world in general and the art world in particular, and about Furtak’s own professional practice.
Sparapani continued on about her excitement in featuring Furtak in her exhibit, “It was also amazing to be able to do this kind of tribute to Rosemary, who really just sounds like she was the most incredible woman, through a form that she really helped bring to recognition, in an art library–her usual haunt, as well.”
Sparapani highlights Furtak’s interest in works by women artists, under-represented and so often, like herself, practiced in hiding their accomplishments in plain sight. Collectively, the works in this exhibit remind us that we can aid and influence others and accomplish much good even in the context of such limitations. And the cultural conversations that determine how we engage the world and one another can be carried forward, even if spoken in low tones and in spaces we occupy only marginally, perhaps toward the eventual unraveling of these constraints.
Most of the works on view in this show are destined after its closing to go into the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., an institution devoted to deploying and promoting art by women toward just this outcome.
Sparapani closed with a testament to the female-dominated theme of “Misbehaving,”. As she explained, “I’m also excited for viewers to see an all-women exhibition. I think the artist’s book, as a newer form that has so much freedom, does lend itself well to female artists who may feel either overlooked or stifled—or both!—by more traditional and established forms, dominated canonically by male artists.”