GUESTCRITIC

Fifteen People Select Their Favorite Book

Fifteen People Select Their Favorite Book, 2017, Spoleto, Italy. Image courtesy Jo Melvin.

These pages stem from a project I developed with the Mahler & LeWitt Studios in Spoleto, Italy on the subject of artists’ books. It began in September 2017 when I organized an event titled Fifteen People Select Their Favorite Book, in part to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Lannis Gallery/ Museum of Normal Art’s seminal exhibition, Fifteen People Present Their Favorite Book (1967). Since Sol LeWitt was one of the original participants, and its exhibition space was beneath his studio, it was natural to use his presence in Italy as a trigger for the exhibition’s re-staging. 

Portrait of Jo Melvin, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

The Lannis Gallery was founded and directed by Joseph Kosuth and Christine Kozlov and though short lived, it had a radical program. They asked for books from a mix of fellow students and more established artists; some were their teachers at the School of Visual Arts including Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, and Sol LeWitt. Germano Celant used this show as a touchstone in his introduction to The Book As Art Work (1972), held at Nigel Greenwood Gallery in London, remarking, “This idea, which involves the problematic question of art as an object or as a physical-aesthetic symbol uses the book as content and written language as a means of intervention.” The idea of a book as art, or a publication as exhibition, is as open to interpretation now—fifty years later—as it was then. It makes us reconsider platforms, situations, and contexts. It also brings together a set of variable conditions and spirals of interconnections between the different books’ temporalities, their presenters, and the exhibition’s particular locale. Exhibiting books is deceptively simple but it plays with concepts of curation and authorship over both the works and exhibition. 

What we encounter in an exhibition of books is multi-layered: the strata of displayed books and how this group of curators make connections and overlaps; what dialogues occur that may seem transient but are absorbed and might become significant in their thinking about practice. These are substrata and elusive. I am interested in the way an anecdote may initially appear inconsequential, but its casual lightness reveals attitudes and depths of thinking that transform our sense of the present.

Stratospheres are constantly being opened up and placed before us. Books and ephemera are the tip of intersections, between artists. Then there is the consideration here as to how the town of Spoleto, itself and its peoples, exists as a point of intersection: layers of interactions, invitations, and provocations to thinking. Exhibitions, artists’ books, recent habitations, and consequent conversations are traced to contemplate the specificity of the place. Not knowing what might ensue creates new possibilities for the production of meaning.

When Sol LeWitt gave a lecture at NSCAD in Halifax, Canada in March 1970, he was preparing for his solo exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum Den Hague. LeWitt asked artists, curators, and critics to contribute to the catalog by affinity, not description. For one page, LeWitt selected the line: “Don’t lose your head, your ass goes with it” from Chester Himes’s The Heat’s On. This book was LeWitt’s choice for the exhibition Fifteen People Present Their Favorite Book. In Spoleto in September 2018, I came across a copy of Chester Himes’s selected writings Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography, published in 1992. Inside was a postcard sent to LeWitt from a friend in Scotland. The knowledge that Himes’s writing was important to LeWitt over an extended period speaks to us in an openhanded, honest, and generous way. 

Fifteen People Select Their Favorite Book, 2017, Spoleto, Italy. Image courtesy Jo Melvin.

I asked the participants to respond by thinking about the book/publication as a site for exhibition, how books speak, and the presence of books in shaping work; or LeWitt's strategies, work, attitude or thinking.  Or, alternatively, to reflect on projects in Italy with publication as an extension of the site. These contributions could be visual and/or written. What determines my curatorial approach is finding ways to excavate exchanges and crossovers between artists’ practice via archives as well as my conversations with the protagonists. The finding and retelling of these stories and anecdotes, positions the archive itself as a generative mode of production, and forgotten moments become the medium to create a fusion of something new.

Contributor

Jo Melvin

JO MELVIN is a curator and writer based in London.

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