Artist's books defy easy categorization. They are works of art in book or book-like form, or, in some cases, art that simply incorporates books but would be difficult to, say, read. The Walker pays homage to this enigma with Text/Messages: Books by Artists , a new show that draws from the center's sizable collection of artist's books.
Upon entering, the very first artist's books to meet the eye seem to confirm that this will be anything but a polemic about the relationship between the literary and the visual. Two works stand like sentries: Salvador Dali's take on Alice in Wonderland and David Hammond's "The Holy Bible: Old Testament," the gold embossed letters against the textured leather unable to conceal the "Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp" just beneath the cover. The playfulness and reimagining of the familiar speaks volumes.
Jim Dine, Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Dieter Roth, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Duchamp, the list of notables represented in the show is long. Ruscha and Roth--both giants in the realm of the artist's book--get plenty of attention in Text/Messages , and rightly so. But the show offers up lots of unexpected delights, too.
Kara Walker's "Freedom: A Fable" revisits the same territory covered in the Walker Art Center's 2007 survey of her work. The black, cut-paper silhouettes hold the gaze despite the difficult subject matter. The figures, with their eye-catching details and evocative postures, tell a story about slavery that feels oddly like a fairy tale.
Perhaps the most unexpected "artist's book" in the exhibition is Cuban artist Kcho's "Obras Escogidas," a decidedly unseaworthy vessel made of old textbooks in oranges and greens and blues with titles like "Lenin y el Partido" and "Atlas de Cuba." The interior of the boat is lined with open books. In the middle (and impossible to miss): a black-and-white photo full of drab midtones, Fidel and Nikita smiling broadly.
Speaking of seafaring, James Joyce's Ulysses inspired more than one artist: abstract expressionist painter and printmaker Robert Motherwell's "Cyclops," a one-eyed monster composed of the artist's signature thick black strokes, and Margery Hellmann's "Wavewords," a latticework of paper "waves" with Joyce's text floating on the swells. "Listen: It flows."
One of the extra pleasant aspects of the show is the adjacent "reading room" stocked with scholarly works and some examples of artist's books in print. (See "Blinky, The Friendly Hen" by Jeffrey Vallance.) It's a perfect analog to the timeless feeling of a day at the library, but with a much better view.
Text/Messages: Books by Artists continues through Apr. 19 at The Walker Art Center