"Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture" and NMWA’s First Artist’s Book

This month, NMWA celebrates the opening of Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture — a new exhibition of artist’s books organized by NMWA’s Krystyna Wasserman, Curator of Book Arts. On view through January 17, 2010, the exhibition features 16 artist’s books in non-traditional media. In Krystyna’s own words:

“Book as sculpture expands the concept of the book, taking it into new territory where it becomes that unattainable ‘object of desire’ to be admired from a distance.  Hard Copy plays a game with the viewers. The works are tactile but they cannot be touched. The pages of books cannot be turned. The exhibition challenges  viewers’ expectations and questions the distinction between book and sculpture.”

Mirella Bentivoglio, "Mirella Cinderella", 1997, Marble, china, and paper; featured in "Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture" at NMWA through January 17, 2010

Mirella Bentivoglio, “Mirella Cinderella”, 1997, Marble, china, and paper, 5 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 8 in.; featured in “Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture” at NMWA through January 17, 2010

While organizing this exhibition, Krystyna had the opportunity to reflect on NMWA’s role in researching, collecting, and exhibiting artist’s books by women.  With over 1,000 artist’s books, NMWA is home to one of the premier collections of artist’s books in the world. Below, Krystyna recalls how  NMWA’s first artist’s book (Caroline, 1985, by Meret Oppenheim) came into the collection.

“I have been fascinated by Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) since my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The fur-lined tea cup was so wonderfully absurd that I felt instantly seduced by the Swiss Dadaist who created this work, officially titled Object.

“In February 1984 I went to Cleveland to attend the conference of ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Society of North America), and present a paper on the development of NMWA’s Library and Research Center.  Between the sessions, I ran to the Cleveland Institute of Art where I discovered an exhibition of artists’ books. Enchanted, I spent most of the afternoon in the galleries and returned to Washington determined to present equally exciting exhibitions of artists’ books in our future library. From the outset, NMWA founder Mrs. Holladay embraced the idea of collecting and exhibiting artists’ books.  An early trip to New York to visit Tony Zwicker, the late dealer and a knowledgeable enthusiast of artist’s books resulted in the acquisition of Meret Oppenheim’s book Caroline, the first artist’s book in NMWA’s collection.

Meret Oppenheim, "Caroline", 1985, Letterpress, colored etchings, embossing, 5 1/2 x 11 in.

Meret Oppenheim, “Caroline”, 1985, Letterpress, colored etchings, embossing, 5 1/2 x 11 in.

“Although quite different from Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea cup that I first encountered in New York, Caroline had all the exquisite qualities of the artist’s unique style. Not everybody knows it, but Oppenheim wrote beautiful lyrical poems in French and in German and was an accomplished printmaker. Caroline includes twenty-three etchings and embossings, and honors the memory of Caroline [Karoline] Von Günderode, the romantic German poet (1780-1806) who took her own life with a dagger at the age of twenty-six because she was unalbe to reconcile her literary ambitions with the upheavals of her emotional life. ‘I have no taste for women’s virtues, for women’s delights. I like only what is wild, great, glorious,’ Von Günderode  wrote in 1801 in one of her published letters. Oppenheim’s poems and abstract etchings in Caroline are not specifically related to the tragic life and death of Von Günderode; rather, they are fleeting impressions of landscapes where surreal encounters occur, where roses consume marzipans and hunters ask deer for a glass of water.

“Caroline was the last work created by Meret Oppenheim. On her 72nd birthday on October 6, 1985, the artist announced to her friends, ‘I will die before the first snow.’ Five weeks later, she died of a heart attack after signing all the 89 copies (including our copy #48) on November 15, the day of the scheduled publication party at the Edition Fanal in Basel.

“The grand opening of NMWA’s Library and Research Center on  September 21, 1987 included our first exhibition of artists’ books, The Book as Art.  Meret Oppenheim’s Caroline was the star of that exhibition.”

About the Author: Krystyna Wasserman is Curator of Book Arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  Since 1987, she has carefully assembeld NMWA’s outstanding collection of artists’ books and has curated numerous exhibitions.