THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

15 March 2019

My Life is a Book: Escape from Coney Island at the British Library

a guest blog by Rafael Klein, a native New Yorker and artist.  For more information about Klein and his work, click here, and to learn more about the upcoming event at the Library, where Rafael looks back on Lost Americana - artist’s books and short films with Dr.Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections British Library, click here. The Story of a Family Man is available to read here

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Coney Island book, 2002. Silkscreen hand printed

Who doesn’t love a book? How great to lose yourself in the inner world of an author. Turning the pages and revealing previously unknown thoughts and dreams.Turning more pages and finding surprises, unexpected emotions, unimaginable plot twists. Such pleasure also in the tender physicality in holding a book, in finding the corner of the delicate page, leafing over trying not to fold or tear. But this tiny physical movement is all in service of the thoughts being formed. A book is a journey for the reader as well as the writer. We are connected with someone else’s experience and therefore connected in a new way with our own experience.

Alphabetland
Alphabet Land, 2001

The Artists Book

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il benzinaio, 1992, Hand-tipped colour photocopy, cutouts, bronze embeddd in cover

Art is full of seductive surfaces, enticing details, intriguing techniques – but you mustn’t touch! However the appeal of a book is that it asks to be held, touched, for its pages to be turned for its ‘skin’ to be peeled back and to look inside. Not really surprising then that artists are drawn to the book as a form of expression.

Plus for an eclectic artist like myself, it is an opportunity to cross disciplines and unify very diverse approaches into a single entity. I am someone who makes sculpture, painting, prints and films. In the artist book, all of these impulses can be effortlessly combined and given voice. I have always seen the branches of my art as chapters in a book. The gentle physical reality of the book form is outweighed by the much large interior intangible aspect of its meaning. There are echoes of the nature of art itself. The artist book has has a physical form. But unlike the sometimes large, heavy and impressive form say, of a massive sculpture in heavy metal, the book has a tender physicality, and its meaning lives solely within our minds. The perfection of a brilliantly realised painting, exhibiting great skill, can feel closed and uninviting. But the artist book always has a more tender living aspect, the continuous invitation to ‘open me, fondle me’.

The Story
And who doesn’t love a good story. Not necessarily a story with the scope and grandeur of a Tolstoy novel. But maybe just the weird occurrences of everyday life, soon forgotten but sometimes narrated to friend or lover, maybe even entered in a diary. These insignificant fragments are the stuff of life. Are they connected, do they add up to a tale of grand wealth and power? Maybe not, but they are true to life.

Fun fair sketchbook

Tales of New York, 1998

A trip to the supermarket
A holiday trip
A visit to the fun fair
Visiting my parents in Florida
A walk in the country
Getting robbed while driving a taxi cab in New York.

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Tales of New York, 1998. Silkscreen print

Maybe not earth shattering events, but when lodged within an artists book they have resonance and seem like the stuff of personal myth.

The Book
And then there are the seductive techniques which make the artists book richer visually than a simple catalogue or ordinary book. The range of approaches are endless, but I have followed my own instincts. I have used cutouts, which coerce the reader into interacting and reveal hidden threads of story beneath. The popups, which hint at a third dimension. Diverse printing techniques – screenprint, monotypes, digital print, hand colouring, lithography. So many approaches are possible, many more than I myself have explored. And then there are the sculptural elements. This is a great pleasure to me as a sculptor. The tactile physicality of the production is an added satisfaction. The cover might have a small bronze sculpture inset, or a supermarket trolley embedded in it. The paper will be robust, textured, and rich. And the colours – none of that simple offset reproduction. No, it will be hand printed and hand bound, giving just that extra sense of an occasion.


It is simply the best medium an artist could choose to work in!

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Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms

The British Library Collection
In addition to rare and historically important works, the British Library has a wonderful collection of artists’ books. Here are some desk references for some suggestions.

  • Lexicon is an altered antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary by South African artist William Kentridge – General Reference Collection YF.2012.a.4228

  • Nine swimming pools and a broken glass by Edward Ruscha does exactly what the title says, with the artist’s usual wry humour.  General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.56

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, gets the artists’ book treatment by Peter Blake  -  General Reference Collection LC.31.b.13492

  • and a personal favourite, full of pop-ups and cutouts, is Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms  –  General Reference Collection YD.2005.b.1635

  • and two of my own works –  Coney Island  –  General Reference Collection YD.2007.b.1355 Florida – or you can’t fight progress  –  General Reference Collection RF.2007.a.68