Picking up a physical book these days can often feel, well, quite novel. Committing to a succession of pages set in advance by human authors and editors feels almost subversive in today’s culture of dopamine-quick-hit alternatives that evade drudgery and the need for a sustained resolve. Add to that the countless texts being banned at school libraries—combined with virulent anti-intellectualism borne by social media—and the outcome is rather bleak. Opening this weekend in New York, “Books” at Paula Cooper Gallery brings together nearly 50 works created by 31 artists between the 1970s and 2023, all of which all draw upon the material object of literature. Through pieces by the likes of John Baldessari, Sophie Calle, Theaster Gates, Rachel Whiteread, Walid Read, and more, the varied artworks on view—from sculpture to paintings and prints to installations of found objects—double as symbolic proxies of greater insight and knowledge to be gleaned in exchange of patience and time.
Artists not only recognize the “value” of the medium “to their own critical thinking,” notes gallery partner Alexis Johnson, who organized the show, but also understand the “object-hood-ness to them.” She adds: “Of course, artists are going to look at this and see it as a vital form.” Included in “Books,” for example, is Terry Adkins’ Credo, 1998. The late artist placed a Holy Bible inside the sculpture alongside several other bound books from centuries past—including The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade, Ancient, and Modern by William O. Blake—that are believed to have informed the thinking of 19th-century radical abolitionist John Brown. A bale of what looks like natural fiber pierced through with a sword sits on top of the aluminum shelf, certainly a nod to the ideological commitments that ultimately led to Brown’s execution for treason. Elsewhere, two wall-hung sculptures by Steve Wolfe—On the Road, 1991-2 and Untitled (120 Days of Sodom), 1987—offer more literal, one-to-one representations as aesthetic recreations of worn versions of the books after which the works are named. Rather than merely decorative, the objects—run-down as they are—are etched with the reverence of readers past.
“Books” is on view through February 10, 2024, at Paula Cooper Gallery at 521 West 21st Street, New York, New York 10011.