On the Unpacking of Libraries

by Susan Tallman

November 2013

The flirtation between word and image has been a frequent presence in these pages: authors have written on concept-driven artists’ books, opulent poetry-and-print portfolios, pictures that are all words and books that are all pictures. The current issue returns to this theme, but moves beyond tidy integrity of the book to embrace the crazed plenitude of the library.

To its owners, the 15th century Biblia Pauperum discussed by Emily Peters in this iteration of “Treasures from the Vault” would have seemed a library-between-two-covers. Interweaving text and image on each page in order to demonstrate the echoing of Old and New Testaments through typological resemblance, its makers tried to demonstrate how earlier narratives foreshadowed of the story of Jesus. Produced during the infancy of the printed book, it offered a vast, confident, closed loop of knowledge. Everything fit. Everyone was accounted for.

Two centuries later, when a collector named Paulus III Behaim von Schwarzbach appended printing instructions to the inventory of his holdings, people still aspired to such complete knowledge, but—thanks to printing—the odds had shifted. The store of available materials had exploded. Behaim owned some 38,000 prints. Such profusion is the enemy of the tidy typological circuits on which projects like the Biblia Pauperum depend; it is the haven of loose threads. Behaim’s printing manual, translated and analyzed by Anja Grebe and Ad Stijnman,1 attempted to fix with clarity some practical aspects of the medium, but it was itself the tip of an iceberg: Stijnman’s recent book, Engraving and Etching 1400-2000 (reviewed by Andrew Raftery here) runs to 658 pages, nearly 200 of which are dedicated simply to listing prior intaglio printing manuals. (Karen Kunc’s review of the relief printing manual The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking certifies that even in this pragmatic domain, there is always more to be said.)

By the 20th century, the library had become a metaphor for the certainty of uncertainty, proof that any system of understanding, no matter now intricate, will always prove incomplete. In its heroic reach, its echoing and foreshadowing, James Joyce’s Ulysses can be seen as a cousin to the Biblia Paupurum, but the truth it illuminates is not one of cosmic coherence but of the fractured and incomplete nature of life lived. Kit Basquin’s survey of the Ulysses editions illustrated by Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell and Richard Hamilton demonstrates that every reading is in fact a new invention. The same principal undergirds the current publishing project Edition Ex Libris, profiled here, through which artists pick one book to be reprinted with a cover and bookplate of their own design.

In the 21st century we take it as a given that perfect knowledge is a vapor. The taut melancholy of Luc Tuymans’ graphic work (gathered together in book form, it is reviewed here by Charles Schultz) points to the moral hazards of selective reading. The Planthouse print salon reviewed by Elleree Erdos offers a more benign view of abundance, and of the complex relationship between image, thought and object.

For no recent artist, however, was the library—repository of inquiry and inconclusion—more central than for the painter, printmaker, bibliophile and literary exegete R.B. Kitaj, whose career is discussed here by both Catherine Bindman and Julia Beaumont-Jones. Kitaj’s greatest print project (and arguably his most important work overall) was In Our Time Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part (1969), a set of 50 screenprints that painstakingly reproduce the covers of books he owned.

In Our Time is a self-portrait by gathered metonym. It was Kitaj’s answer to Walter Benjamin’s tender paean to book collecting, “Unpacking my Library,” an essay in which the line between the text (immaterial, mobile, immortal) and the book (an exact set of molecules travelling through space and time) is clearly and poignantly drawn. For Benjamin, as for Kitaj, the book was a thing of promise rather than of conviction, something valued not for the information it held, but for the connections it tendered—past, present and future.

A book collection builds those connections into a four-dimensional web with the owner, momentarily, at the center. But libraries are ecosystems; they survive not through stasis but through endless exchange and adaptation: ideas are absorbed, broken down into new components, used to build something similar but slightly mutated (for better or worse). Some bodies decay and others are fossilized.  Some offer windows into deep structures of being. Some are simply loved for their shells.