Beyond the Walls and Pages: Collaborations between artists and poets
“As cultural objects, these curious (artist/poet collaborative) books — not to say these curios — represent actual laboratories in which much of the current creative thinking is being synthesized in terms of art-making and circulation of art forms, history of writing instruments, printing and bookmaking…[independent] from commercial institutional and academic constrictions and [allowing] artists and publishers to subvert conventions of though and of artistic practices…perceptions of artists’ books vary, what we read may pass into oblivion, the experience of reading however endures…” — Anca Cristofovici, “Unfolding Possibilities: Artists’ Books, Cultural Patterns, Forms of Experience” in The Art of Collaboration: Poets, Artists, Books (2015)
In 1919, Walter Gropius (1883 — 1969) (founder of the famous Bauhaus school of art and design) published Cathedral of the Future, a manifesto to unify all artistic disciplines, illustrated by Lyonel Feininger (1871 — 1956), with architectural prints and text radiating their futuristic vision. The Bauhaus published several collaborative books, in a quest for the “total work of art” by multidisciplinary artists, challenging conventional ideas about art and the function of the book, bringing a hybrid form blending and recognizing diverse perspectives. In 1911, Pablo Picasso (1881— 1973) collaborated with writer Max Jacob (1876 — 1944) to create Saint Matorel, Picasso’s prints exuding his transition from figurative to cubist style. In 1913, Swiss writer Blaise Cendrars (1887 — 1961) collaborated with French artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk (1885 — 1979) to create Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, featuring a poem by Cendrars about a journey during the 1905 Russian Revolution interlaced with a abstract print of Delaunay-Terk, now considered, along with Saint Matorel, as a milestone in the evolution of books, modernist poetry and art.
Andy Warhol’s hand-made illustrated books from the 1950s demonstrate the pop art use of the text-with-art form, as do collaborations by Joel Oppenheimer (1930 — 1988) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925 — 2008) on The Dancer (1951), Norman Bluhm (1921 — 1999) and Frank O’Hara (1926 — 1966) on Hand (1960), Joan Mitchell (1925 — 1992) and James Schuyler (1923 — 1991) on Daylight (1975), Robert Creeley (1926 — 2005) and Jim Dine on Mabel (1977), Allen Ginsberg (1926 — 1997) and Francesco Clemente on The White Shroud (1984), Enrico Baj (1924 — 2003) and Maryline Desbiolles on Les Chambres (1991), Katharina Grosse and Barry Schwabsky on Hidden Figure (2007) and so many more. Susan Bee is an artist who favors the collaborative; her 2015 book with Johanna Drucker, Fabulas Feminae (2015), recalls the feminist roots of collaboration, with artists such as Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Carolee Schneemann, the Guerilla Girls, Judy Chicago among the many. Chicago’s Fragments of the Delta of Venus (2004, Powerhouse Books), with text selections by Anais Nin (1903 — 1977), evokes the wonderful combination of intimacy and accessibility of art not achieved on distanced gallery walls.
Such collaborations between artist and writer, in a way, have been around since Japanese scrolls and medieval books, but these alternative structures remain a significant yet overlooked form for experiencing art and writing not to be underestimated, especially as digital formats evolve.
Juxtapositions of art and writing change and challenge the reading of visual work beyond itself as an artwork on white walls or the writing alone on white pages. Both art and text are observed anew when outside their usual confines. To conclude, let us quote Peggy Phelan: “I want less writing about art, and more writing with art.” (Art and Feminism, 2001)