The following essay, “The Gallery and the Book” by Thomas A Clark, was first published in THE CORACLE: Coracle Press Gallery 1975-1987 (London, 1989) on occasion of an exhibition at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, from 7 Nov 1989 to 14 Jan 1990.
It is reprinted here with the intention to insert into contemporary art writing debates and practices its clear working through of relations and questions of art and writing, publication and exhibition, how all parts of that relationship propose and enact forms of (architectural) space, order, and hospitality.
It also invites us to conceive of those debates via a working concept of pastoral. Thanks to Thomas A.Clark for permission to reprint. More information about his work can be seen here. For information about CORACLE see here.
Often the most subtle and affecting pleasure of an exhibition occurs around and between the exhibited works, in the space the exhibition brings to life. As a glade is something other than the trees but which would not exist without the trees, so the pieces in an exhibition may make a clearing in which they are at last present to themselves, in which relations between works become more evident, in which natural light can come to play. Since the moment when pictures stepped out of their frames and sculptures came down from their plinths, this sylvan idyll has been common and artists have understood that an exhibition should be something more than a gathering of finished works. To compose a living, changing space, a charged context, is part of the strategy of contemporary art.
This orchestration of space aims at something extra, an added grace. Yet the result may be so convincing as to seem the very condition of the works, their natural air. In a sympathetic space, a work may suddenly come into focus, with all its details, its tones and overtones, sharp and clear. The movement from one work to another, the dialogue between them, the extent of wall or floor they are able to hold, the light that falls upon them, all these factors begin to be felt as the exhibition takes shape. Where the artist or curator is insensitive to such considerations, the exhibition will remain inert, a number of separate pieces. Where such care is taken, the gallery is made new.
The exhibition, in this sense of a bright glade, is not for sale. It exists only for those who can perceive it. It is real but immaterial, comes into being when the works are hung and is dismantled when they are taken down. It may be more lovely than the works themselves. The finite nature of such a space, its lack of commercial motive, the way it often occurs at the farthest reach of the artist’s intentions, is a guarantee of its purity. It may be as fine as a quality of air or as tangible as a challenge. It may be a test for which the artist has long prepared himself or the element in which he moves, a part of his regular practice. Just as we can turn our attention from the particulars of a landscape to breathe the air ,so the visitor can turn aside from individual works to appreciate the surrounding space.
Those galleries are best which allow their spaces to be modified in interesting and adventurous ways. Those galleries are best which are capable of such modifications. An exhibition which moves to different venues is seldom successful in the terms I am trying to indicate. It is either too loose, a mere number of pieces, or too tight, a constructed environment to be placed within another environment. A resonant space, which is the result of a sensibility responding to a particular set of circumstances, to a place, is seldom managed with travelling exhibitions.
If the gallery is not seen just as a place to present work (or to exploit it) but is respected as a space with its own discretions and possibilities, then the chances of an inventive use of space are more likely. How light enters a room, for instance, its shifts and moods throughout the day can be of constantly changing interest. An exhibition visited at different times of the day, or on different days, can change dramatically in its colours and tensions. The relative size of walls, the sight-lines, corners and alcoves, may suggest solutions in hanging which are specific to particular works. All this can be held and understood within the space created by an exhibition. Another exhibition in the same room will work differently with the given conditions.
Although considerations of space are now a commonplace of good artistic practice, I have teased them out here because I believe that perceptions arising from these considerations, or analogous to them, have been carried over valuably into the making of artists’ books. The best book works show an understanding of book form as acute as the artist’s awareness of gallery space. As in ill-conceived exhibitions, the least interesting artists’ books treat the book as a portmanteau for the housing of separately conceived works. Where the form is handled well, the movement within the book and its integrity as an object are as satisfying as felicitous space in a gallery.
The first, and in some respects the most incisive, conception of the artists’ book is that it is an exhibition which can be taken away. Where the energised space of an exhibition lasts only for a certain time, where it is unique to a particular gallery, in a book everything stays in place. A book is a permanent exhibition. Its dimensions are specific, its imaginative space boundless. It can be bought for a small sum of money and owned by many people. The aura and prestige of unique works are broken to allow a freedom and idealism more associated with poetry than with fine art. The lightness and flexibility of the form, like the openness of space, tempts the artist closer to the edge of risk.
Whatever its size, a book may be give the status within an artist’s work equivalent to an exhibition. It will usually receive the same care and consideration. It is not a minor work, an accessory to the artist’s involvements in more conventional forms. A book may realise aspects of an artist’s work which cannot be adequately contained in a gallery. The major works of some artists may appear in book form and may or may not be translated later to a gallery space. For many artists, the opportunity to make a book is considered no differently from the chance to show in a gallery, each project being worked out according to its possibilities and circumstances.
At this point it is, perhaps, necessary to distinguish artists’ books from other publishing ventures. The artists’ book is not a catalogue. It may bear little or no relation to an exhibition. It is a new work and not a record of previous works. Artists’ books are quite definitely distinguished from livre d’artiste. The latter is essentially an aspect of printmaking and bears the same evidence of authenticity as does the original print: edition number, fine paper, expensive price, traces of the artist’s hand. etc. In contrast, the artists’ book is often cheap, mass-produced, and seldom involves the artist in its printing. Where the livre d’artiste exploits notions of rarity, expertise and connoisseurship, the artists’ book usually subverts such notions.
Just as an understanding of language nurtures the sense of space, book works are most successful when the conventions of book-making are respected. It is within these conventions that innovations are made and an improvisatory freedom is enjoyed. Good artists’ books look matter-of-fact rather than extraordinary. However beautiful their production, they tend to neatness and control rather than extravagance. Eccentricity is usually precisely that, the departure from a carefully defined centre. It is when the genre becomes invisible that the work is most revealed. As in all post-modernism, there is an awareness and enjoyment of materials and styles but these are worn lightly, treated as natural concerns rather than indulgences.
The page, for instance, might be thought of as an area of white wall on which a text or image can be located. As a picture would most probably be hung at eye-level, so the classical situation for a single word on a page is somewhere just north of centre. Once this is appreciated, any departure is felt as such. It becomes meaningful in its relations to the convention. As pictures hung near the floor or in an asymmetrical arrangement will be read in a particular way, so typography also has its topography. By movement away from the classic proportions, the wall or page is made evident.
There are, of course, further conventions which govern the sizes of books, the binding, paper, continuity of pages, etc. These can all be used or avoided in the making of a book work. Reading through Simon Cutts’ “odeon ocean“, we come across the title page in the middle of the book. It is a surprise! Has the book been collated wrongly? What would happen to the order of the pages were we to reassemble the book ourselves? This is, of course, an example, of the sort of humour we expect in Cutts’ poetry, the sort of game that he usually plays with language, although in this case the language is that of book production. The device is made possible by, and draws attention to, the fact that the book consists of a single sewn gathering which has simply been reversed to create this deliberate mistake. It is less of an avant-garde gesture than the risk of someone who is playfully at ease with the conventions.
A more pervasive but no less acute sense of the book’s properties and possibilities is shown by Richard Long in books such as Twelve Works and Sixteen Works. The format of these books is characteristically restrained and workmanlike. Text works are set in sans-serif type in black or, occasionally, red ink. Yet, within the austerity there is considerable variety and movement. The ideas and contents of the works vary a great deal and the lay-out of the words on the page is consistently inventive. Each work is isolated by the left-hand page being left blank. This gives them an outdoor clarity or the emphasis of works on a gallery wall. All is in accordance with Long’s preference for an impersonal, geometrical art. Long works within the space of a book in exactly the way that he works in a gallery; in an alert, professional manner, the context allowing the work its full power, the clarity of the work ordering the space around it.
In Hamish Fulton’s Song Of The Skylark, a similar confidence is carried through a single long work. The book consists of a number of texts annotating short walks or runs round Fulton’s home near Canterbury, each walk or run taking up one page and the pages accumulating to make a complex, many-faceted work. As each walk was complete in itself, so each page is self-sufficient but the discipline of running and walking regularly over the same territory provides a rich collection of periodic or intermittent occurrences. To read through the book is to absorb an amount of similar and dissimilar information, the recurring experiences providing a firm structure for Fulton’s lyrical perceptiveness. It seems perfectly natural when a sequence of two-mile runs is interrupted on the seventh day of the seventh month, when he takes just seven pages. There is no need here for the production to draw attention to itself, since the idea of an artist making a book is perfectly assimilated.
I have chosen these few examples from books published or produced by Coracle Press because, although their output is varied and often eccentric, they have consistently understood that a complete assimilation of the book form may well result in a modesty of production. They have no so much insisted on the book as an object as allowed it to function as a space. Just as Coracle’s gallery space was informal and welcoming, so they have welcomed the artist into the production process, often to achieve a remarkable balance between the format and the work. More generally, the freshness and idealism, the disinterestedness and tact that we may find applied to the orchestration of space in a gallery, is characteristic of the whole enterprise of artists’ books. I think they come from the same source, an awareness that the creative process is a vocation that extends beyond the production of separate, self-enclosed, unique works.