The Walker Art Center celebrates the book as art

Boat made of books
Artist Kcho created "Obras Escogidas" (Selected Works), in 1994 using his Cuban school textbooks. The boat is an image of a tenuous freedom offered by his education to get him off the island. Books, metal frame, wood table, newspaper, twine Collection Walker Art Center Clinton and Della Walker Acquisition Fund, 1996
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Rosemary Furtak is the Walker Art Center's librarian. She started at the Walker in 1983, soon after the museum began collecting books by artists.

Dogma I am God
Daniel Spoerri and Kosta Theos, "Dogma I am God", 1987 offset lithograph on paper Published by Nikator Press, Dieterswil and Lebeer-Hossmann, Brussels Walker Art Center Library Collection
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

"I felt that if the artist was represented in the permanent collection with a work of sculpture or painting, that if that artist had made a book that someone in the museum should be collecting it," Furtak said. "And I thought that fell to me."

In the quarter-century since, Furtak has collected and collected. The Walker Art Center Library now has approximately 2,000 books by artists.

A smart, quiet woman, you can tell Furtak is used to being behind the scenes. The books in her collection are often used to complement exhibitions and provide some context. But this is the first time in 20 years the Walker has had an exhibition featuring the work she's amassed.

Painting is an open book
The Text/Messages exhibition at the Walker Art Center focuses primarily on books in the museum library, but also includes artwork inspired by the book. John Latham, Painting is an Open Book, 1961 books, plaster, wire, wire mesh, wood, ceramic tile, glass, burlap mounted on board Collection Walker Art Center T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1987
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

One of the first cases holds a limited edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali. It's opened to the page where Alice meets the caterpillar.

"You have one version of the caterpillar sitting on a toadstool, very carefully drawn, and then you have another version of the caterpillar, a sort of hallucinogenic... this is Dali at his best under the influence," Furtak said.

In addition to artist illustrations there are pop-up books, books turned into sculpture, and books disguised as something else entirely. There's a chess set with pieces in the form of identical black or white books. You can only know whether you're looking at a queen or a pawn by reading a poem inside.

Rein Jansma, Stairs, 1982 paper, ink, cardboard Published by Joost Elffers Books, New York Walker Art Center Library Collection
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Rosemary Furtak said she's delighted to have the chance to show her collection to the general public, but it's also a bit frustrating, because there was only room to display a fraction of what is in the library. Furtak said collecting books by artists was relatively easy at first.

"In the '80s there wasn't a huge push to have these things in the library," Furtak said. "Some librarians didn't know what they were or were rather mystified when they looked at these things."

Now, Furtak said, librarians in other museums are trying to catch up.

Richard Artschwager, Bookends, 1990 wood, Formica; ed. 36/50 Brooke Alexander Editions for the benefit of Printed Matter, New York Collection Walker Art Center T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1991
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Walker curator Siri Engberg worked with Furtak to install the exhibition, and added some paintings and sculptures from the permanent collection that are inspired by or made with books.

A Cuban artist made a fragile boat out of his schoolbooks, stringing them together with twine and wire. What appears to be a set of shelves covered in books is actually a sculpture that tricks the eye, making the viewer see books where there is nothing.

Engberg said in a world of MP3s and DVDs, books are only just now gaining recognition as a legitimate art form.

"Because so many more artists today are working in a cross-disciplinary way, I think it's important to look at all the work they do in all the media and see how that can represent an artist in depth and over time," Engberg said.

The exhibition includes a reading room with a couch, table and a selection of books that people can page through at their leisure. Engberg said the frustration of mounting a book exhibition is that so many of the items are behind glass.

"Part of the pleasure of reading an artist's book is that process of opening a cover or turning pages or extending an accordion or however the artist might have created the piece," Engberf said.

Text/Messages runs through April 19. On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Walker Art Center will host a panel discussion on the art of the book. The exhibition includes quite a few pieces by local artists, a fact that librarian Rosemary Furtak attributes to a healthy local art scene and the presence of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

Furtak dismisses the significance of her 2,000-piece collection. She said if you buy anything year after year for 25 years, you too can have quite a collection.

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