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Book Review: The Book as Art – Artists’ Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts by Krystyna Wasserman

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The National Museum of Women in the Arts opened in 1981 and is a private, non-profit museum in Washington, D.C. In addition to an extensive collection of works by women, the museum specializes in collecting artists' books. The artist book is an object where the artifact is the art, "a work of art that is conceived and executed as a book and does not exist in any other form or format," according to Wasserman. The object does not exist to simply convey information, but to engage the viewer/reader in a multi-sensual fashion. In that, it is similar to other contemporary art forms that seek to combine multiple mediums. The museum has a wide international collection, containing some of the foremost craftspeople in the field.

The NMWA released a series of monographs detailing highlights of the collection. These short booklets were printed on thick, handmade paper but the reproductions were in black and white and gave little detail, especially to the viewer who did not attend that particular showing. The NMWA recently published a beautiful book about the collection The Book as Art.

The Book as Art is organized into seven thematic sections and some of the highlights of the museum's collection are represented in each. While nothing can substitute for actually touching and reading the books, the high-resolution photographs in the book as art convey a sense of the texture and layering of the pieces.

Because all of the artists are women, some of the works have distinctly feminine interpretations. In the section "Food and the Body," for example, artist Emily Martin created the work "Eight Slices of Pie," which is a work contained in a pie pan with eight pie-shaped books. Each book contains a pie recipe and reflections. The artist created this work immediately following 9/11, a time when many Americans were seeking comfort. What is more comforting than pie?

Also, Lori Morrison's "Endangered Species" is an accordion pop-up book which, at first glance, appears to be images of orchids. If you take a deeper look at the flowers, however, you will see images of children. Each flower illustrates dangers in the environments of these children that are causing danger and early death: infanticide in China, drug addiction in the U.S., etc.

On the other hand, more universal themes are explored that do not rely on a gendered interpretation. Kazuko Watanabe's "The Diary of a Sparrow" is based on journals created by her grandfather, stories of a long-gone Japanese village life. Watanabe translated the journals into modern Japanese and English, and illustrated it. The book itself is a modified accordion style: two accordions joined to allow illustrations on both sides, and multiple text pages where the accordion folds are joined.

Many of the books are in standard styles, such as accordions, scrolls, and flag books. More sculptural pieces include Lois Morrison's "After Water Aerobics," which uses a pop-up toy technology, Elisabetta Gut's "Book in a Cage," which is literally a book in a cage, and Linda Smith's "Inside Chance," which is a Rubik's cube-like die that can be turned completely inside out, and in fact has to be if the reader wishes to completely read the story. But the simpler styles are also inventive masterpieces. For example, Sande Wascher-James' "How Long?" is a standard flag book style. Each flag contains an image of a well-known American woman framed by quilts, like a Faith Ringgold painting in text.

Bestselling novelist Andrea Niffenegger is also a book artist and has several pieces in the NMWA collection. Her work is also represented in The Book as Art. The museum's website contains a podcast interview with her, as well, where she discusses her writing and art careers.

If you are a book artist, The Book as Art will inspire you. For any reader, it will have you booking a trip to DC to visit the collection.

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