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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.

Beyond the Walls and Pages: Collaborations between artists and poets | Fragments of the Delta of Venus (2004, Powerhouse Books), with text selections by Anais Nin,

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)

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