Literature and Visual Art Intersect

01/23/07
“100 Artists’ Books” and “The Face of Poetry” open USC Libraries’ 2007 programming series.
By Bill Dotson
Artists' books from the USC Libraries' special collections

Photo/John Livzey
Two exhibitions one featuring selected artists’ books from the USC Libraries’ special collections, the other a group of photographic portraits of acclaimed and emerging poets will open at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library on Jan. 26.

The dual opening marks the beginning of the USC Libraries’ spring series of exhibitions, readings, public lectures and other cultural events.

Curator Andrew Wulf and Tyson Gaskill, USC Libraries’ director of programming, scheduled the dual opening event in part to raise the profiles of the types of work included in both exhibitions.

“These exhibitions present two underrepresented aspects of arts and letters today,” Wulf said.

“Artists’ books and contemporary American poetry are challenging modes of expression, and perhaps because they appear to be less immediately graspable than a painting or a drawing, they often don’t get the attention they deserve. Our exhibitions make them more accessible to arts patrons and bibliophiles alike,” he added.

“100 Artists’ Books” reveals the history of the medium from the surrealist experiments in the early 20th century to ongoing explorations by contemporary practitioners. Challenging accepted notions about the purpose of books, artists’ books function as art objects in their own right, often working more like visual art than traditional forms of printed storytelling.

“The Woman With 100 Heads,” Max Ernst’s first collage novel from 1929, will be on view, as will Ed Ruscha’s 1966 survey of Los Angeles’ signature boulevard in “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”

“Dean Ruth Weisberg of the USC Roski School of Fine Arts was instrumental in helping us include works by current and former faculty, staff and alumni alongside the pieces by titans of the art world,” Gaskill said.

Prominent USC fine arts alumni Laura Stickney, Pamela Zwehl-Burke and John O'Brien who collaborated with English lecturer Molly Bendall contributed to the exhibition. Additional highlights include works by USC fine arts professors Bob Alderette and Robbert Flick and USC graphic designer Howard Smith.

“Artists’ books pose unique design challenges that many faculty, students and alumni have explored over the years,” Weisberg said. “I’m particularly pleased that they’re being celebrated at Doheny Library.”

Weisberg added that fine arts faculty have created special assignments for their classes, enabling students to learn firsthand about the craft, design and production of artists’ books in conjunction with the exhibition.

Inspired by the 2005 anthology of the same name, “The Face of Poetry” presents portraits of 46 American poets with their written work, inviting viewers to investigate the relationships between the visual aspects of the photographs and the literary characteristics of the poems. The portraits, by photographer Margaretta K. Mitchell, include writers who came of age in the World War II era as well as those emerging in the current poetry scene.

Among the poets in “The Face of Poetry” are former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky; David St. John, USC English professor and recipient of several National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; Tony-nominated poet and performance artist Ntozake Shange; and Marilyn Hacker, two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award.

Mitchell’s photographs do more than simply accompany the poems, St. John said. “When you look at Margaretta’s portraits, you notice how the light radiates from her subjects’ eyes, giving each of them a sense of dimension. As a result, you come away with a prismatic appreciation for the poets’ faces as well as their characters.”

Recalling what it was like to sit for a portrait with Mitchell, he said, “She allows her subjects to move into a space where they feel most comfortable. Her genius is making small adjustments in order to capture revelatory details. We are exceptionally fortunate to have this exhibit at USC.”

Gaskill added, “Professor St. John helped us shape the fabulous lineup of readings we’re hosting here this spring.”

The complementary readings will include events with poets Galway Kinnell, Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, all of whom are featured in the exhibition.

The combined opening reception for both exhibitions will take place on Jan. 26, at 5:30 p.m., at Doheny Memorial Library.