When artists make books, they blur the line between craftsmanship and fine art. The result is often a very subjective definition of what a book is, or what it should be. The same can be said about art. After all, when we look at a piece of art, are we viewing it, reading it or both? What makes a sculpture with words on it different from a sculpture made from a book? What distinguishes a painting with text on it from a painting on printed paper? Currently on view at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), "Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists" raises these types of questions and more, with dozens of limited-edition examples of book art as well as more than 20 one-of-a-kind pieces that not only redefine the meaning of art but question the nature of so-called printed matter overall.
Some of the most progressive exhibitions to come through the Getty's sprawling hilltop campus are located inside the GRI, which houses its own exhibition space that's technically separate from the rest of the Getty's Brentwood-based mega-museum. Given that it's home to roughly 6,000 books made by artists, it should come as no surprise that the GRI is finally putting some of them on display in its own gallery.
"This collection is pulled from a very large collection of artists' books here at the GRI," said Glenn Phillips, GRI's head of modern and contemporary collections, at a press preview on June 25. "One of the challenges of these books is that they are interactive."
Phillips co-curated the show with Marcia Reed, GRI's chief curator and associate director of the GRI — who, incidentally, was a teen hand model. Together, the curators solved the interactive obstacle by creating several accompanying videos, such as the one in which you'll find Reed's professional hands gently manipulating a unique geometric polygon by German artist Barbara Fahrner called The Philosopher's Stone (1992), a book-inspired cipher that folds and unfolds like origami.
Many of the items in "Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists" include pages made from unconventional material, including flattened aluminum soda cans, as seen in Italian artist Mirella Bentivoglio's Litolattine (1998). In British artist Simon Cutts' Fo(u)ndlings, the pages come in the form of blank boutique-style price tags, while in American artist Tauba Auerbach's Stab/Ghost (2013), they're clear polycarbonate sheets. In American artist Alison Knowles' appropriately titled 1967 The Big Book, the pages are 8 feet tall. And then there are the mysterious substances in a pair of works by Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930–1998).
"Dare we call these funky volumes books when there is no paper?" Reed asks in the eponymous exhibition catalog. "The 'pages' of Poemetrie  consist of 21 envelopes of clear vinyl on which are printed the texts of poems. These envelopes contain urine, now desiccated and yellow green, that retains its characteristic repellant odor, which is possibly getting stronger with age." The same artist's Poetrie (1967), meanwhile, contains a mysterious substance that the curators have reason to believe is actually cheese — 50-year-old cheese, to be specific.
What makes "Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists" especially compelling is that each work is a reflection of its maker. For example, John Baldessari documents his endeavor to "draw" a straight line in a series of 12 photo-lithographs entitled simply Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) (1973). And speaking of documentation, Chris Burden's Coyote Stories (2005), a collaboration with master printer Jacob Samuel, includes handwritten accounts of Burden's encounters with coyotes in the Santa Monica Mountains.
"He writes about camping in tents and vans and sleeping under the stars as he built his house and made his life in Topanga Canyon, seemingly always under surveillance by coyotes, the signature urban predators of Los Angeles," Reed explains. "Burden records a series of sightings and momentous encounters with the scavengers, who play their traditional role as shape-shifters and tricksters. Emblematic illustrations drafted by Burden show the simple objects described in his stories: crushed potato chips, the favorite knives the coyotes stole and the blue wallet they marked like dogs, leaving a strong-smelling message."
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Other artists' books (or books by artists) raise a variety of issues, including pieces by Sandow Birk, John Cage, George Herms, Lisa Anne Auerbach and Sophie Calle, just to name a few. But with each piece as unique as its creator, listing them all here would be futile. You'll just have to go see them in person.
"Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists," Getty Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100, Brentwood; (310) 440-7300, getty.edu/research. Tue.-Thu., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; through Oct. 28.