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Poison America: Sharon Gilbert Bookworks Exhibition June 4-September 28, 2007  

Essay by Courtney J. Martin

Sharon Gilbert, Poison America

“My work incorporates the language of media, science and statistical jargon. I attempt to make more visible issues of public significance. My books are collections of information that focus on the relationship between political data through a combined use of text and image.”

-Sharon Gilbert (1944-2005) [1]

1982 ushered in a quiet transformation in the genre of artists’ books, or bookworks as they are often called. In 1982 the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) convened to award one major fellowship and six smaller fellowships to artists whose primary medium of production was artists’ books. The artists’ book panel, composed of Benny Andrews, Ed Ruscha, and Esther Sparks, made modifications to the category that would significantly alter the reception and perception of the field. Due to confusion over the definition of artists’ books, the committee limited their selection to the review of books as discrete objects, regardless of edition size, thereby excluding books about artists work, publication proposals, or books that functioned as sculptural or decorative objects. Though the latter category was a slight variant from the idea of a discrete object, it served to distinguish artists’ books from crafts, while elevating them, along with the new category of video, to the level of painting, sculpture and photography. By doing so the panel framed all future discussion and consideration of artists’ books at the national level. Additionally, the panel decided to review artists’ books in their original form. This was a considerable concession made to affirm the definition of an artists' book, one that differed from every other category in the Visual Arts Program that reviewed artwork in reproduction, usually in slide form. [2]

Perhaps the NEA’s decision would not seem so compelling were it not for the composition of the panel. Sparks, an art historian and curator, is well regarded for her academically-focused exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ruscha is one of the most acclaimed book artists of the twentieth century and is, arguably, the most successful conceptual artist to have a robust artists’ book practice equal in merit to his painting. And Andrews, a noted artist, teacher, and writer who would assume the directorship of the NEA’s Visual Arts Program that year, was a leader of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC). Through the BECC, Andrews maintained a highly skilled offensive against art world and institutional racism. In sum, the panelists’ personas lent a specific gravity to the parameters that they set for the field of artists’ books. By implication, the nation sanctioned their decisions, which circumscribed bookworks with methodological, aesthetic, and politicized criteria.

Many in the field closely monitored the NEA’s actions regarding artists’ books, due to the import of their funding as a critical endorsement. Roughly concurrent with the NEA’s decision, Sharon Gilbert turned her attention to conditions in America. Positing concerns about nuclear power, government corruption, the environment, and women’s work experiences, Gilbert probed the nation’s ills, and its eccentricities, in her bookworks. She engaged forms of modernism – notably, repetition and collage – with one of the nation’s most democratic devices, the photo-copy machine. The presence of her hands in her books, as seen in the environmental exposé Poison America (1988) [image], cast her as a concerned citizen who is exacting her right to confront her nation and inform its population. When she examined international concerns, America provided a base from which to measure the world. In a questionnaire given to people in Freiburg, Germany in 1980, she asked, “Freiburg means free city, what particular freedom do you value?” [3] Often the national focus of her bookworks seemed to propose a version of this question: America is a democracy, what particular democratic forms do you value? Her answer was provided in her practice of making “visible issues of public significance.”

 

“Waste, water, wind, weapons, worry”

Gilbert’s A Nuclear Atlas was produced in 1982, coinciding with the year of the NEA panel’s deliberation about artists’ books. Published by the Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) in Rosendale, New York, A Nuclear Atlas [image] is a black and white offset-printed book with thirty pages, produced in an edition of 500. [4] After seeing her work at Printed Matter and the Franklin Furnace, WSW invited Gilbert to submit a proposal to produce a book. Along with artists Jenny Snider and Susan King she received the inaugural Artist Book Production Grant. [5] A Nuclear Atlas expanded the aims of her first artists’ book, the self-published 3-Mile Island Reproductions (1979) [image]. 3-Mile Island Reproductions was inspired by the nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. [6] It is a collection of single sheets of paper Xeroxed with images, text, and newspaper clippings. Unbound and gathered into a folder, the bookwork resembled the various official documents that came to the public’s attention following the accident, including the numerous press statements from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meant to assuage public fears about nuclear power. 3-Mile Island Reproductions also referenced the dossier of imagined documents withheld from public view that recounted the numerous breeches in nuclear safety that occurred throughout the country and internationally, later to be reignited by the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April of 1986.

Gilbert joined other book artists, like Mariona Barkus (Illustrated History, 1983), Lisa Lewenz (A View from Three Mile Island, A Calendar for 1984), and Dona Ann McAdams (The Nuclear Survival Kit: They're Juggling Our Genes, 1982/1985), who used nuclear sites as a metaphor for the nation’s environmental, political, and social problems. Following on the heels of the end of the Viet Nam War and the waning of the cold war, the discourse surrounding nuclear power (actualized in the form of large power plants across the country) encompassed the previous decades’ climate of secrecy and military aggression and the divide between forms of authority and civilian interests. 3-Mile Island Reproductions, which was originally planned as a poster, is graphically organized like the street posters that were common in New York in the 1970s. [7] Moreover, the use of a single sheet is a structural motif that Gilbert re-worked in the Waste and Mull bookworks. [8] Each was made from a single sheet of paper, then stapled and folded. The books were produced in an edition of 555, which was the number of active nuclear reactors in the world. The edition number draws attention to the hazardous instability of nuclear reactors. The number could increase if more were built, or it could decrease in the event of an accident, resulting in the closure of a reactor, as was the case with Three Mile Island. In either instance, Gilbert’s edition number highlights the fact that reactor fluctuation is not a neutral action of expansion or reduction.

The typeface and the cut and paste photo-collage, achieved by using a photocopier, makes 3-Mile Island Reproductions stylistically similar to 1970s announcements for political and environmental rallies, punk rock concerts and tabloid newspapers. If its form aligns it with other politicized models, the form also betrays Gilbert’s training as a formalist and her interest in early modernism, skills she honed as a student at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Sciences.

It is possible that Gilbert’s interest in nuclear power had a familial root. Though born in Brooklyn, Gilbert spent a part of her childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, due to her father’s employment with the Manhattan Project, before returning to New York for High School. [9] Some of the thumbprints that appear in A Nuclear Atlas are her own. Her print functioned like a self-portrait, associating Gilbert not only with the subject of her book, but also with its composite matter. Her friend and colleague, Susan Kaprov, described Gilbert as an “artist of conscience” rather than a political artist due to actions like this. [10] Her ethical stance extended to her community involvement as well. She was the Affirmative Action Officer for the Women’s Art Caucus and a member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) from its inception in 1979. [11] Additionally, she curated socially engaged exhibitions, like The Future is Ours: Art for Action and Change at the Arsenal Gallery in New York in 1982 and, in 2003, Open for Action: Political Book Art (with Richard Minsky) at the Center for Book Arts in New York.

Between the publication of 3-Mile Island Reproductions and A Nuclear Atlas, Gilbert installed a large-scale installation at Printed Matter, entitled A Nuclear Alphabet.[12] A Nuclear Alphabet transformed Printed Matter’s plate-glass front windows into a 6x10 foot diptych [image]. The left side of the diptych covered the left windowpane and featured an approximation of the northern hemisphere traced out in curved black lines. Traced lines on the right window appeared like a shattered glass, radiating out from a deep crack in its surface. Oversized notebook pages were placed over both sides of the diptych. The pages contained an alphabet of nuclear-related terms listed from A-Z, like the entry for W: waste, water, wind, weapons, worry. A Nuclear Alphabet harvested the indexical quality of texts like Waste and it was a model for the way in which she conceptualized the visual and performative aspects of her smaller bookworks.

Written in Gilbert’s own hand, her script rendered the words approachable and personal, just as the scale of the installation strengthened Gilbert’s discomfort about the ease with which nuclear power, and its attendants waste and weapons, passed through our environment. The juxtaposition of the rendering of the northern hemisphere on the same scale as that of a cracked window reiterated the variable degrees of fragility that was a component of much of Gilbert’s work. The installation was also witty. Just as the diptych could be read as oppositional breaches, the cracked right window was a sort of domesticated local to the catastrophic hemispheric global of the left window. Together, the two mimicked a spider web or a transatlantic telecommunications diagram, which suggested the potential for organic and constructed change, growth and renewal amidst the worry of the Alphabetic index. [13]

 

Xerography and the fragment

Gilbert’s textual wit and visual puns were enhanced by her preferred medium, the photocopier. One of copy-art’s early proponents, along with Louise Neaderlander, Barbara Hero and others, Gilbert embraced the medium of the photocopy for its ability to reproduce static images in the manner of a camera. Gilbert, however, engaged the photocopier’s capability to record multiple fields of depth, limited action, and various media. In many bookworks she combined collaged newsprint, photographs, her own body, and isolated words, in a process that she described as gathering and isolating “…fragments or bits of events…” These fragments and bits were a composite of texture, text, and pictorialism that could be visually disassembled to reveal informative news items, statistical figures, surface lines on her skin or the time on her watch. [14] Such is the case with the three books devoted to environmental concerns: Chemical Ways (1997), Green the Fragile (1989), and Poison America (1988). [15]

In the latter, Poison America, Gilbert’s fingers pointed to bits of news items –“Kerr-McGee executives dismissed reports of deformities in animals…” – as a demonstration of her interest in creating the book to simplify the facts of environmental destruction. In medium contrast against the deep black of the page’s background, her hand mediated several tonal variances between the black and the bright white of the text blocks. Here Gilbert utilized the machine’s, likely a black and white Xerox 1090, reproductive action to convey formal qualities as well as cross media relationships, whereby the presence of her hand, fingers, and arm implied motion, a tool of her performance. [16] The Xerox‘s three-pass scan allowed her to photograph and montage images over the plate glass. [17] Aided by her physical motion, the copier functioned like a cinematic lens. The resulting pages conveyed filmic transitions between light and dark, disrupted only by the individual page breaks. The narrative provided by the news articles intuited the plight of an unimaginable mass besieged by toxic waste, yet the presence of her hand distilled the excess of the horror into a single, quantifiable figure for the viewer’s comprehension. Her tactic was enhanced by the book’s small size (4 ½” x 4 ⅛”). Gilbert positioned herself as the narrator of the text, rather than its subject by proffering herself as the conduit for the horror of the information exchanged.

Gilbert’s ability to mitigate her own authority within her work points to the acuity of her control over her production. So too does this authority demonstrated her desire to use art as a form of public service. Whether through alternative processes, like the photo-copier, or creative methods of dissemination, Gilbert’s skill in conveying a rigorously aestheticized platform of civic education is laudable. Equally compelling is her success with the low-tech practicality of the xerographic medium. Though her dissemination might have been limited to specific art and artists’ books venues, her aesthetic strategeteies lent themselves to a range of complex strategies, not the least of which was social change.

 

Acknowledgements:

Though I only met Sharon Gilbert briefly, I was privileged to have had the opportunity.

I am extremely indebted to Vyt Bakaitis for his kindness and generosity. I would also like to extend thanks to Jae Jennifer Rossman, and the Arts of the Book Collection, for allowing me to work with their significant resources. Thanks also to Dona Ann McAdams and Susan Kaprov for sharing information on Sharon Gilbert’s work and bookworks in general. Thanks to Phyllis Segura, Max Schuman at Printed Matter, Inc., and the Museum of Modern Art library and archives. Thanks, as always, to James H. Dickerson II, Nannette Carter Martin and Nina Spensley.

Endnotes:

1. Sharon Gilbert’s artist statement June 1990. This statement accompanied her solo exhibition, Neverland, at the Barrett House Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York.

2. Catherine Lord. “NEA Announces 1982 Fellowships for Photography, Video, Artists’ Books…” Afterimage (October 1982): 3.

3. Sharon Gilbert. Book Proposal for a Photocopy Machine (4): A Scrapbook of Freiburg, 1980. Estate of the artist.

4. Correspondence with Ann Kalmbach, Executive Director and co-founder of Women’s Studio Workshop March 15 and May 9, 2007. A Nuclear Atlas is also cited in Lucy Lippard. “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artist Books” in Joan Lyons, ed. Artists Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985): 52.

5. Correspondence with Ann Kalmbach, Executive Director and co-founder of Women’s Studio Workshop March 15 and May 9, 2007.

6. On March 28, 1979 one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, located just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial nuclear core meltdown due to equipment failure and human error. To date, this is the worst nuclear plant accident in the United States.

7. Conversation with Vyt Bakaitis, May 25, 2006.

8. Waste was published in three editions. The first, entitled Mull, a German term for waste, was published in Freiburg, Germany on June 19, 1980 in German. It was constructed and published with an IBM III copier. The second edition was also published in Germany in Frankfurt using a Toshibafax BD-727. Its text is in both German and English. The third version is in English and was published in New York on September 27, 1980 using a Kodak Ektaprint. All three books were made from an 11 x 8 ½ inch sheet of paper, cut down from European A4 paper, which Gilbert then folded and stapled on a diagonal in the upper left hand corner. The books are in an edition of 555, which was the number of active nuclear reactors in the world in 1980. Waste and Mull were conceived and produced during her residency at the Carl Schurz Haus in Freiburg, Germany in 1980. Upon her return to New York, she staged an event at Printed Matter, Inc. in which she distributed copies of Waste for free. Proceeds from the sale of Mull were donated to Germany’s anti-nuclear movement.

9. Conversation with Vyt Bakaitis, May 25, 2006.

10. Interview with Susan Kaprov, May 18, 2007.

11. Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) was a politically charged artists collective founded by Lucy Lippard in 1979. PAD/D was active until 1988.

12. Founded in 1976 by artists, Printed Matter, Inc. is an alternative space devoted to artists’ publications. In 1980, it was located in Tribeca at 7 Lispenard Street in downtown Manhattan, near the Franklin Furnace Archive on 112 Franklin Street, which was a repository for many of Gilbert’s books.

13. It is likely that Gilbert was aware of Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp’s experimentation with telecommunications and satellite television, which began in 1977 with interactive 2-way transmissions between New York and San Francisco and became an artist cable television show in 1982. Bear and Sharp were active in the same downtown Manhattan art communities as Gilbert, including Franklin Furnace and Printed Matter, Inc. They publicized their work through their periodical, Avalanche, which was in circulation from 1970-1976.

14. Sharon Gilbert artist statement (nd).

15.Poison America was included in Betty Bright’s Completing the Circle: Artists’ Books on the Environment. Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA), Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 7- May 23, 1992.

16. Conversation with Vyt Bakaitis, May 25, 2006. According to Bakaitis, Gilbert initially used public photo-copy machines in the late 1970s, later moving onto rented Xerox machines. Until her death she owned a Sharp SF-8500, though she often experimented with Epson and Hewlett models before working with digital reproduction.

17. Conversation with Susan Kaprov, May 18, 2007.

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