[Alyson Kuhn] As a writer and editor, Barbara Alexandra Szerlip has had a hand in dozens of books on a range of subjects. She is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow. She is also a sculptor — but instead of working in marble or metal, she “destroys” throwaway books.
I recently had a chance to chat with the artist about these two aspects of her love of books: creating them on the one hand and, as has been asserted, destroying them on the other. Having seen Szerlip’s sculpture in its native habitat, I’d say she makes a compelling case for elegant transformation.
I love the idea of tidying up all the crumbs in my brain with this book-brush. What was your thinking behind this piece?
BAS: The pieces work in one of two ways, at least initially. I’m inspired by materials I find, or I begin with a concept and then go looking for materials that might help me flesh the idea out. With Brush, it started with the vintage silver handle.
Did you feel tentative or daring or subversive when you started altering books?
Yes. When I began, in 2004, I did so with hesitation and not a little guilt. I’ve always had a tremendous respect for books — more so, arguably, than publishing houses that routinely choose to mulch rather than warehouse stock that isn’t moving fast enough. But I only manipulate volumes that have no intrinsic value, usually tracked down at flea markets and estate sales. That said, I’m very particular. Some are chosen for their dimensions and quality of paper, others for their titles, which can be intrinsic to a piece — in which case they remain legible.
I’m curious whether, in a piece like Reliquary, you are showing books to be precious and also suggesting that knowledge may not be static.
I subscribe to the theory that people should form their own connections to a piece of art. Sometimes I have a specific concept in mind, sometimes not. There are times when I’m simply following my instincts and the piece ends up surprising me. It’s witty! It’s political! Whatever. And I think: Where did that come from? But I don’t believe that should color your enjoyment or appreciation. If it works for you, that’s what matters.
What was your motivation for So Pleased to Be a Sea Anemone? I love the title, by the way.
I was informed by a self-proclaimed book arts expert, an academic, that my work is not book art. By the way, I’ve always referred to them as “book sculpture.” Book art must be readable, she insisted, and there must be an edition, i.e., more than a single copy. So I created a tongue-in-cheek, nose-thumbing response — written in rhymed,”first person sea anemone” — just to prove that I could. For the record, I never bothered to notify the expert of its existence. A friend of mine calls the poem “very Rosalind Russell.” I love that.
And did you make more than the one I’m looking at?
It had to be an edition, right? So I made four. To my astonishment, they sold for $300 apiece. I kept one, just to have it. It was a lot of fun, but not nearly as challenging as my other pieces.
Out of Africa, 16 x 22 in., mixed media, 2007. The base rotates to reveal the spines of two copies of Out of Africa, one by Karen Blixen, the other by Isak Dinesen.
Have you had other controversial experiences with “book people”?
Several years ago, I was invited to make a presentation in my home studio to the Artists Book Council, which is no longer in existence. It was an affiliate of the prestigious Achenbach Foundation. It was an honor to have been chosen. I spent a long time preparing for it. One of the members — a scion of “design royalty” — arrived midway through and proceeded to interrupt me mid-sentence. How could I possibly justify destroying books?! Her barrage continued on for what felt like a very long time. Everyone just sat there, slack-jawed, until the council chairperson finally stepped in.
That said, I’ve had two successful solo shows mounted by Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books. And several professional librarians have described my work as “extremely reverential.” I consider that a badge of honor.
Do you feel that being a writer has informed your choice of artistic medium?
This isn’t my first visual foray, but there’s definitely a literary thread. I created two lines of note cards for Pomegranate Publications that were distributed internationally, one of which, “Written Kisses,” was based on love letters of the famous and the obscure. There were 36 “Kisses,” now long out of print and, I’m told, very collectible. In 2010, I researched and designed an annotated map charting Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s adventures in San Francisco throughout the 1930s. There’ve been a few other things.
How would you describe your process in the abstract?
There’s a tension created by taking an object designed for a very specific purpose — reading — and using it for an entirely different one … using something flat, linear and abstract — dark lines on pages — to create something three-dimensional. If I’ve done my work well, that tension can harbor mystery, even wit. It can seduce.
Alex Szerlip has conducted in-depth interviews with several people who are very good at what they do: W.S. Merwin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and recent U.S. Poet Laureate; Chilean novelist Isabel Allende; and, Academy Award-winning costume designer Aggie Rodgers. Szerlip is currently immersed in writing a biography/design history focusing on Norman Bel Geddes. An excerpt, “Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity,” recounting the unknown backstory of Geddes’ Futurama exhibit for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, appeared in the The Believer magazine. The full text is available here.
Photos: Don Felton