Something To Do: Artists' Books And Jasper Sebastian Stürup. Wrritten In Fur Drawn In Snow. David Senior. 2012
Since everything is good as soon as it is printed, and as one reads it and one thinks everything is good reading when print, so one can read it and see that everything is good when read even if not printed, but written, since everything, even print, is written, especially when one says everything is good as soon as one reads it, after one or someone has printed it or written it or published it as print or not print, it is good as soon as it is written or printed or print, simply.(1)
At the very least, the artist making a book exists with feet in two territories. In one territory, we have the more recent lineage of strategies that create new spaces for artworks to be encountered—a rearticulation of an aesthetic space. Another foot lurches down deeper into the stores of old things, a field that disperses across both space and time, encompassing a history of books, and in the 12th century words of Hugh of Saint Victor, “in the vineyard of the text.”(2) This sounds dramatic, and it is—even if it may not matter to the makers of artists’ books.
Bibliography, as a formal subject of study, is detective work, of following books around, tailing their movements. If we
speak of artists’ publications, movement is a primary aspect of their identity, a dispersion to and from various places. Is it the essential conceptual conceit of these little books—that they are built for travel? Slip them in an envelope and away they go. An argument could also be made that the relative affordability of these artists’ publications is the essential aspect of these materials. “Each artist should have a cheap line,” claimed John Baldessari in 1976 in the special issue on artists’ books by the magazine Art-Rite.(3)
Either way, these ideas are all a part of what we call bibliography. Also, the question of materials pertains to bibliography; that is, how a book was constructed and printed and finally presented to a public audience. The thing that the questions of bibliography do not ask is what a book means in regard to the text content. It is a big omission, but on the other hand, a huge relief. It is delusional though, especially in the context of artists’ books, to qualify these aspects as separate from the work’s semantics. In many cases, the prevailing messages of these books are their condition of being an informal, handmade object—affordable, mailable, and self-produced. Books get made to be in the hands of friends, to sit in lonely storage, to appear in a little book fair in Tokyo, to get cataloged in a library, to sit on a dealer’s desk, to get thrown out, to have coffee spilled on them. We have them in our homes, they are given as little gifts, they can be saved to phones, discussed in a blog, used as fuel for fires, ripped up to make other art. Books have these qualities and these
qualities are dynamic and they make their own stories.
I start in this way because the artist Jasper Sebastian Stürup told me that when he was first making books, he was also working in the library of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen that had a collection of very old books. He also had a memorable visit from Martin Kippenberger during his time at art school in Copenhagen. These two influences hanging together are an interesting pair. I don’t know what the academy’s library looks like exactly, but I have an image in my head. I have lots of images in my head of what Kippenberger looked like and often one particular image stands out in my head. This image is at night on a city street—and Kippenberger has a mischievous smile and there is a group of other people around him, making their way through another evening to morning. It looks like a band photo, it could have been a band photo. So, I have now put these two images next to each other, an old library with old things and Kippenberger going into the night. We can probably start here.
One of the facts of Kippenberger’s practice was that he made a lot of things, a continuous loop of integrating life into a practice and so on. Kippenberger made a lot of books. Can we speak of one Kippenberger piece? Yes—but it’s more interesting to think about the accumulation of Kippenberger things. This is how I think about his books anyway, the fact of value shifting from the signature of one thing, to the tableau of all books, to all the things that he decided could be books. Reductively, it is a persistence to make stuff, without that nagging little issue of whether something is
good or bad. In another way, it is a constant affirmation of a process that finds a lack of boundaries in terms of where to stop and where to begin.
A recognizable pattern in the stack of Stürup’s artist books is the repeated lack of faces. The numerous drawings of bodies do not have faces. And the pages of the books repeat the pattern with variation on facelessness. In accumulation, the bodies project a series of symbols achieved through gesture. Emptied of the face, the body signs a meaning—or at least signifies movement or activity. When you repeat something enough, when you utilize a specific formula enough, work takes on its own set of dense definitions and rules. With minimal patterns, a painter that has painted three lines
her whole life turns her entire artistic oeuvre on its head when she adds a fourth line to the work. An extended practice creates rules. With the often lack of face, I think of Stürup’s rules that he makes. It is always in some way related to a face, even if the face is not there. Was this figure from a face that we might have recognized? We wonder as he works from photographs whether it’s a famous figure. A calculus of forgetting or disappearing has already happened. In recent works, as in the pages of this book, the face is now appearing, shifting from avoidance to an embrace of this feature in regard to the figures in the drawings. This is one of those shifts in the rules that I just mentioned. In this
case, it is a flip, topsy-turvy—in some cases just the faces—facing us. Like they have been reclaimed from all the former bodies.
There are some skulls in and amongst the figures too. Here we come back to the conceptual image of the old library. We implicitly infer an Apollonian condition to our ideas of the library—ordered spaces with ordered taxonomies and the slightly-alive keepers of these materials pushing books back and forth. But, libraries are inherently Dionysian as well. They smell of rot, wholly combustible in terms of materials collapsing on themselves though the weight of time. Libraries eat themselves. My first job as a library worker was in a special collection library in Chicago, called the Newberry Library. When I think of the books there, I think of various editions of the Danse Macabre of skulls and skeleton figures inhabiting pages of illustrated printed books and the margins of manuscripts. The skulls and dancing skeletons implied something and so did the stacks of books themselves—the whole emblem of the Dürer Melencolia I (1514) figure and the black bile of the creative act. Did Stürup’s skulls really come from this kind of response to the library? I am not sure.
The little book, And Who Shall I Say Is Calling? (2008) is in front of me now—with a photograph of a skull printed in black-and-white on the cover of the book. I have gathered the books Stürup has given me on my work desk. This one keeps staring back. There is something really funny about this book. The printed title, “And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?,” coupled with the image of the skull, has the feel of a successful collage. A found phrase and a found image placed together, fortuitously cleaving to a whole string of associative meanings. The tone is a bit macabre—but it is also kind of that punk/metal/skater dark humor where death imagery is used in jokes and word play. Doom does not always equal gloom. The phrasing and graphic style of many of the titles of Stürup’s adds a pop element to the books. They are often direct quotes of lyrics or song titles and cut from their original contexts and pasted down as a point of entry to each book. The oblique poetic associations of the lyrics and the typographic references of the texts equally convey a specific tone and is a naming device that complements the feel of montage in the book works.
I like the size of Stürup’s books—the most repeated size is a slightly off-square six-by-five-inch pamphlet. They are generally under twenty pages long and simply sewn with one stitch in the middle of the slim spine. It is a familiar size for little Xerox zines of the past thirty-five odd years, a manageable size for the making by hand and cheaply printing yourself. If we get back to the ideas of bibliography, we can be quick to assume that this is for a reason. It is hard for me to not associate making a small book with a choice to align with one of the originary ideas of artists’ books—this ethic toward making an accessible, affordable work. Often with art students visiting the library I work at now, I harp on this idea, of this proposed space of the book as one possible way to have a public practice on one’s own terms. Stürup has been making books for almost twenty years now. His practice has evolved, but it is clear that the early books fit this described scenario. As a younger artist, he managed the task of circulating work by producing these little bound works. They found their way out of Copenhagen to shelves elsewhere, at Printed Matter, Inc. in New York and other such places.
Another thing about little artists’ publications is the idea that they often document a practice or process while also simultaneously being a practice or a process. Books like Claus Oldenburg’s Store Days (1967) or early Gilbert and George booklets are my common examples wherein performances or other ephemeral gestures are documented in the books. The publications are both an archival record of events and also works, in and of themselves. Within the medium of drawing, printed books that reproduce notebooks or sketchbooks of drawings take on the feel of a diary. In many cases, it is at once showing a process of failure, or a learning to execute something, as well as a presentation of a work itself. The structure of the codex leads you through and it’s hard to feel you are not learning something, learning about the hand where the image came from and the movements that lead to the forms.
Drawing, repetitive as a practice, may create an accumulation of repeated forms with developing and devolving tendencies. As I take a wide-angle look at the books in front of me the simple fact bears stating: the books contain Stürup’s drawing practice. They are public notebooks of conjured lines that often form animate actors and things; things make cameos as actors and sometimes actors turn into things. In the group of publications from the most recent past, there are roughly four phylum: tree, rock, hair, person. A broad, animated spectrum of turning mineral to plant to animal or vice-versa. They are notes toward something.
In Stürup’s case, he also makes drawings that are hung on walls and shown in exhibitions. One sees the same characters in the larger drawings—it is just that their plane is different, the way the figures relate to one another is different. Stürup described to me how each of the books come from exploring a working idea, and the books match up to a discrete set of images that he makes specifically for the book works. In this way, the books are not simply practice for the “real” thing, i.e. the stuff for galleries. They are worked to be a book, to circumscribe an idea that exposes itself in the reading. In this format, we see the substantive quality that exists in books of drawings. I think of this as a filmic quality of books of images, that each book of images is like a flip book, a paleo-moving image. In between the images—the turning of page—we have the message, an interrelationship of images playing themselves out. You then have a third meaning that is part of the simple procedure of passing between two pages. And these relations build up through
browsing further. It is a built environment, but it can contain its own world.
As it was mentioned above, conditioned by a pattern, slight changes in format may seem like a shifted axis in this built environment. In terms of Stürup’s little books, reproduced photos—often informal snapshots—are slipped into the sequence of drawings every so often. The effect is another complication of the message. The inserted images are strangely attracted to the drawings, inflecting resemblances of tone between the images and drawings that taken out of context may not be obvious. Inside From Afar It Was An Island (2009) we find a drawing of an unidentifiable rock-like form that shares an opening with a pixilated digital photo of a geologic specimen, looking molten and strange. In another opening, a drawing of a featureless bearded figure shares an opening with another low-fi photo of a molten rock. The books take on another level of surreality with the addition of the hard-to-fully-see photos. The coupling, the tripling, the quadrupling of surprising and weird images bears the expressivity of a non sequitur. Black Country Rock (2011) has a first opening where a faceless figure holds an orange. It is next to a picture of a bar, the counter with half finished drinks in the foreground. The narratives of the two images are separate—but we have their juxtaposition to deal with and revisit.
I have had Stürup’s books in front of me during the time of writing this little essay and I have had the idea that this pile of books would be an image I would want to conjure for the reader. Not just in and of itself, but as a figure for Stürup’s mode of working, of an expressiveness in the accumulation of these little book projects, and how, in their stacking up, they become for me another work. I dwell on this idea regularly as I look through other piles of books at work and rows of tomes in the library stacks. The groupings can have strange messages, spelling out weird visual poems, or they can crack jokes. Books make friends with other books, they socialize, forming little communities on desks and shelves. This is a more fanciful kind of bibliography, but part of the story here. And in the book where these words will go, it will intermingle and add another character to the tableau of artist books that Stürup has created.
(1) Roth, Dieter. Zeitschrift Für Alles. Review For Everything. Timarit Fyrir Allt. No. 1. Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1975. (2) Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1996. (3) Art-Rite. Artists’ Books, No.14. New York: Art-Rite Publishing, 1976.
David Senior is Bibliographer, Museum of Modern Art Library, NYC.