The Painted Book
Lately, a handful of well-read visual artists have looked to book design—specifically, the classic covers of the 20th century—as a source of raw material and inspiration. Some paint book covers straight up, carefully replicating type and illustration, as well as the marks of wear and tear on particular copies. Others alter existing designs or invent their own jackets and titles. It’s surely no coincidence that artists are choosing the book as a subject in this era of new reading technologies. But these paintings are too joyous and affectionate to be memento mori for the printed word. “I think books as objects are beginning to mean more to people,” says artist and designer Leanne Shapton. “Their covers and the way they look—not just their contents—are part of our collective histories, with references, moods, and personal implications all their own.”
A few years ago, Richard Baker revisited some of the dog-eared paperbacks—by Celine, Gide, and Henry Miller, among others—he had loved in his youth. “Something about the way my life progressed,” he says, “the existential flavor of my twenties had somehow diminished.” No longer able to read them, he decided to paint them. In each of his book portraits, a secondhand store-quality edition from the 1960s or ’70s is centered on a white plane and rendered with creases and coffee rings intact. Satiny, light-absorbing gouache makes the paintings “lush and deadpan at the same time,” he says.
For Baker, books are “pneumonic devices that recall whole periods of time.” His paintings are deeply nostalgic, and his viewers often describe, he says, “a sense of loss or a euphoric memory.” What began as a personal homage to his one-time favorites evolved into a communal project when friends began to suggest titles—the series now encompasses everything from a Signet paperback of Octopussy to a board book of Good Morning, Miffy. “I feel like a conduit,” he says, “allowing the social conversation to blossom in what books I’m painting.” Meanwhile, Baker’s portrait sitters—the actual books he uses as models—keep hanging around. “I thought I could get rid of them once I painted them, but I want to keep them even more.”
Simon Morley, a British artist living in France, describes taking the “traditional road” from figurative to abstract painting. “The work got more and more minimal until there was nothing there,” he says. “I found myself falling asleep in front of these empty paintings.” Looking for a way to fill his canvases back up, he realized that a book cover shares certain affinities with a painting’s surface. “By painting a book cover, you could evoke the feeling of something that’s present, in front of you, that evokes something that’s absent, the content inside.” The result is a ghostly image of a typographical book cover or a title page faintly legible under layers of monochrome acrylic. “The monochrome is an escape into a pure experience,” he says; “the language side keeps pulling you back to culture, implicates you in a history.”
Morley groups his book paintings into series, many of which relate to places where he has displayed his work. For a show in the historically radical city of Bologna, he painted WWII-era Italian Communist Party pamphlets under shades of red; an exhibit in Tokyo featured Japanese novels in translation coated with colors drawn from Hokusai. Morley points to the Eastern tradition of incorporating text into painting, and hints that his attraction to Zen Buddhism has influenced his work. “I’m particularly interested in the Eastern idea of void and the full emptiness, a kind of nothing that is a something.”
English Education: 1942, from The English Series, 2007
The Wild Geese, from A Short History of Japanese Fiction, 2004.
“I’m known for a sort of romantic, slightly peculiar narrative painting,” says Duncan Hannah, a Minneapolis-born Anglophile—his recurring subjects include vintage sports cars tooling around the English countryside, the reclusive British film star Nova Pilbeam, and his invented group of adventure-book heroes, the Shipwreck Boys. “Most of the things I paint are things that I’m sort of in love with or have a desire for,” he says. Hannah’s collection of early Penguin paperbacks numbers in the hundreds. “I found myself staring at how beautiful they are—it’s the best graphic design I’ve ever seen—and thinking, I wish I could do something with this,” he says.
Inspired by R. B. Kitaj, who created a series of pop-art screen prints of book covers in the 1960s, Hannah began making oil paintings of timeworn Penguins, framed head-on—a natural extension of his fascination with the English past. Having painted a number of classic Penguin titles—Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mysteries, Adrian Bell’s Corduroy—Hannah has begun taking liberties. For an exhibition at the office of a poetry press, he created nonexistent Penguin covers for such poet friends as the late Joe Brainard. Hannah was recently commissioned to create a cover for a friend’s imagined memoir. Hannah’s friend told him, “This could be a great new industry for you: doing people’s portraits of the books they never wrote.”
The Great Gatsby, 2008
Art in England, 2008
Leanne Shapton’s doodly hand-drawn lettering has appeared in the opening title sequences of Noah Baumbach’s films and on book covers for Roddy Doyle and Chuck Palahniuk; her sweetly primitivist illustrations frequently pop up on magazine pages. But you can own a sample of Shapton’s work for a modest sum. Her wooden books, smooth slabs of board painted with made-up covers of literary masterpieces, are sold at John Derian, an eclectic New York furnishings shop. (Shapton is refreshingly frank about why she decided to make her painted books commercially available: “I was broke and needed money at the time,” she says.)
The titles Shapton chooses draw heavily from English and French fiction and belles lettres. “Many are books I’ve read,” she says, “many are books I want to read. I’m often drawn to the cadence of a title or the images it suggests.” Her use of bright colors, abstract patterns, and simple iconography recalls such classic book designers as Alvin Lustig, Edward Gorey, and Vanessa Bell. Shapton turns out roughly one wooden book a week, and takes custom orders through John Derian.
An assortment of painted wooden books. Courtesy John Derian.
In the early 1990s, the British artist Harland Miller was living in Paris, unable to speak French. He haunted the city’s bookshops but, he says, “I had no idea what the titles were. That’s when I started making up my own titles.” Using the horizontal three-part grid from the faces of old Penguin paperbacks as a template, he painted his own enormous book covers, swapping in made-up titles that related to his autobiography or that tweaked famous literary figures. A series that Miller refers to as “The Bad Weather Pictures” re-imagines the blue and white covers of old Pelican books with titles borrowed from the working-class Northern towns where he was raised (i.e. “Bridlington: Ninety Three Million Miles From the Sun”). An orange and white Penguin cover boasts a new Ernest Hemingway title: “I’m So F—ing Hard.” “They came first as a joke,” he says. “But the funniness is transient. The paintings revert to a melancholic state.” The Bad Weather pictures recall Turner masterpieces, romantic, rain-washed seascapes complete with seabirds, the publisher’s colophons.
After making Penguin-inspired paintings for over a decade, Miller is moving on to other projects, including co-writing the screenplay for his 2000 novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty. Still, he can’t stop coming up with titles of imaginary books. “It’s become a habitual mindset,” he says. “I’ll hear something and isolate it from a conversation, and it’s hard not to go and paint it.” Meanwhile, the chain of appropriation has come full circle. Penguin recently commissioned Miller to design a series of books by Edgar Allan Poe and writers of fairy stories—in other words, to create book covers based on Miller’s paintings of other book covers.
Dirty Northern Bastard, 2009. Photographer: Stephen White. Courtesy White Cube
“Don’t Let the Bastards Cheer You Up,” Baltic Gallery, Gateshead, 2009. Photo: Colin Davison, Courtesy White Cube.
Melbourne artist Victoria Reichelt says that her paintings—of books in piles or on shelves, arranged neatly or in a jumble—present a paradox. “In a painting, books serve a very different purpose from their intended function. They are purely objects like any others, with histories and narratives of their own, quite separate from the text inside them.” Still, she says, the viewer is drawn into the painting through his or her affinity with titles, author’s names, and illustrations.
Reichelt’s earliest book paintings are of tattered vintage editions. Represented singly or in arrangements of four or five against pristine white backgrounds, they emphasize the books’ history and fragility. More recently, her paintings of shelves packed cheek-by-jowl with volumes pitched at precarious angles draw attention to our ambivalent relationship with the physical book. (“I listen to a lot of audiobooks,” she admits, “as I can do this while I paint.”) For her 2008 exhibition “Bibliomania,” she made oil-on-linen “portraits” of fellow Australian artists by painting their personal libraries. Each collection, she says, reveals the artist’s interests and inspirations. For her latest project, Reichelt has pushed the book toward pure abstraction. Last fall, she exhibited a series of bookcase paintings modeled on Piet Mondrian’s networks of primary color; each shelf is filled with books that share the same color spine. “The titles and what they represent are no longer the focus,” she explains; “rather, they act as structural tools in a bigger picture.”
Possession Obsession, 2008
Roula Partheniou calls her book paintings “decoys.” The Toronto artist recreates the covers of works as diverse as To Kill a Mockingbird and Heidegger’s The Question of Being on small, pre-stretched canvases. She then exhibits them sculpturally, in a stack on a coffee table or in a row on a bookshelf. “Frequently,” she says, “people think the books are real and actually pick them up.”
Partheniou began the series—which she calls “Handmade Readymade,” a nod to Duchamp—by collecting books with intriguing titles or graphic imagery and hoarding them in her studio. She soon began to make associations between them. For a work that she named “Nothing to Infinity,” for instance, she created a pile of painted books with titles like “Infinity in Your Pocket” and “The Theory of Absence.” “I have stacks and stacks of books that I have bought but have yet to paint because I am still hoping to find their mates,” she says. In a recent installation, she repurposed a library’s new release display case with her own trompe-l’oeil paintings; each was a copy of a book with an arrow as part of the cover art. She arranged the books so that the arrows form a pattern that directs the viewer’s eye around the case. Almost exclusively Partheniou paints books that she hasn’t read. “I think it’s key to the project that I judge a book by its cover,” she says. “Occasionally, I get drawn in, of course.”
Nothing to Infinity, 2008
Art and Sociology, 2009