Art has always been an integral part of bookmaking, at the very least as a design element in the way type is put on the page. Usually, though, art is a supporting player.
An exceptional reversal comes to us in "visualKultur.cat," an exhibition of books as art at the Salvador Dalí Museum and the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. (The show is that big.) All were made in studios and print shops in Catalonia, Dalí's birthplace.
For centuries Catalonia, on the northeast coast of Spain, has been a cultural hub. Barcelona, its major city, was mentioned in Cervantes' 17th century novel Don Quixote de la Mancha along with a printing shop the hero visited there. Today Barcelona is an international incubator of contemporary design.
The books in this show date from the 1960s to the present, beginning at a time when art and thought were muzzled by Franco's authoritarian government and avant-garde artists such as Joan Miró and Antoni Tapies fought constantly against censorship. Franco's death in 1975 brought a loosening of political strictures and a flowering of creativity, evident in books after that time.
They are varied in their beauty, 100 examples that often push the definition of a book to its conceptual limit. Some are meant to be read, collaborations between poets and artists, and others are created more as contemplative pieces that explore an idea through design elements. The books are under glass and can't be handled, but to forestall the frustration of such an arrangement, multiple copies are usually displayed so we can see the covers and some inside pages. Most are the work of Spanish artists, and most are written in Catalan, different in many ways from Spanish, and our lack of fluency in it may be a benefit. The pure aesthetics of the books can be appreciated without literal readings, especially since most are so tactile.
These are, of course, made in very small editions (some no larger than 20) by leading artists, designers and writers, lent by museums and private collectors. So many of them vie for favorite status that I can't describe them all. But here are a few standouts memorable in some cases for their cerebration and in others for their whimsy.
Joan Brossa (1919-1998), an important postwar writer who pioneered the visual poetry movement, is represented in several books, paired with the taut, colorful art of Miró and with abstract expressionist Tapies.
God, Science and Freedom combines the poetry of Vicenc Altaió (one of the show's curators) with art by Joan Fontcuberta, a glass triptych on which the artist has three bloodlike impressions (like big microscopic slides) of each idea.
The Book of Water by Ernest Altés and Matsuo Basho is superbly and minimally crafted with a bamboo cover and brass engravings.
Carlos Pazos' 2004 Cupito. . . . And Why Not? celebrates Snowflake, the famous albino gorilla at the Barcelona zoo who died in 2003. The book binding is fashioned like a white inflatable raft, and it includes photographs of the artist with an inflatable version of Snowflake posing around the city.
There are pop-up books, one made to be manipulated like origami, cartooning (several by Javier Mariscal who created Cobi, the mascot for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics). Some have three-dimensional objects packed into containers like treasure chests.
The work at the Dalí also includes shelves of smaller books, publications and Cave Canis (Beware of the Dog), an influential arts journal. It only published nine issues during its run in the mid 1990s, the number of letters in its name, and each came with nine individual elements in a box, sort of like today's McSweeney's.
That all the books were made in Barcelona affirms its reputation. That the collection is here, before a visit to the Morgan Library in New York, is good for ours.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.