Arion Press, now in its 38th year, is well-known for having revitalized the livre d’artiste tradition in the late 20th century, bringing together significant contemporary artists and important literary texts: among its 96 publications are Poetry of Sappho (2011) with prints by Julie Mehretu [see Art in Print, Vol. 1, No. 5], Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (1991) with relief prints by Mel Bochner, and John Baldessari’s addenda to Tristram Shandy (1988). This past year brought Stone from Delphi, a collection of poems with classical references accompanied by ink-jet reproductions of watercolor drawings by an American artist resident in Rome. Described like this, the project may sound dusty and unpromising, the kind of contemporary art loved by people who hate contemporary art. It is not.
To begin with, the poems are by Seamus Heaney, whose earlier project with Arion, Squarings (2003), matched 48 of his poems to 48 drawings by Sol Lewitt. Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, is very much of the modern world, but he had a strong classical education and his touchstones include Virgil, Aeschylus, Horace, Ovid and Homer.
The drawings are by Wendy Artin, whose practice of plein-air drawing may be venerable, but whose hand and sensibility are distinctly post-photographic. The subjects are all classical statues, rendered in sepia with the overblown highlights of over-exposed film. Reproduced at a 1:1 scale on watercolor paper with astonishingly high resolution, it is easy to read them not as prints but as actual drawings: the ink seems to puddle and bleed before your eyes, its placement offering indexical evidence of the rapt concentration of an artist at work.
In this sense the drawings function much like the poetry—not because they both refer to ancient Rome—but because of the kind of attention that both demand, the necessity of moving between the pleasure embedded in the sound of the phrase or the shape of the shadow, and the kind that arises when those phrases and shapes snap together into a clearly visible but somehow unexpected whole.
Helen Vendler, who selected the poems and wrote the introduction, describes Heaney as “reclaiming, for modern ears, works inaccessible in their original language to the common reader”; Artin’s drawings do much the same thing for modern eyes. It may even be that for some “common readers,” a book like Stone from Delphi, with its beautifully set type and haptically inclined paper, reclaims the codex form itself.