Reckless, Beautiful Things:
Contemporary American Poetry & The Artist's Book
In a 1968 lecture, the late poet John Ashbery remarked: “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful.” It is here that my book sets out. If Ashbery’s intuition is correct then what does it mean to create such reckless, beautiful things and where do we find them? At least one compelling answer to this question lies dormant in the many museum libraries, university archives, rare bookseller’s catalogs, and private collections where limited-edition, 20th and 21st century collaborative American artists’ books have found their way. Aesthetically “beautiful” and conceptually “reckless” – challenging conventional categories of analysis and classification – these inter-medial volumes by painters and poets do not simply belong to the rich history of modernist European livres d’artistes but comprise a tradition of their own. Magnificent fine-art publications done in sumptuous color on high quality paper with detailed attention to typesetting, binding and other material considerations, the books elegantly juxtapose word and image, inviting reader-viewers to an intellectual and a tactile experience.
Offering the first full-scale, interdisciplinary account of four representative volumes, Reckless, Beautiful Things: Contemporary American Poetry and the Artists’ Book traces the American collaborative artists’ book tradition from the late 1950s to the early 2000s. It focuses particularly on Frank O’Hara and Michael Goldberg’s Odes (1960), Robert Creeley and Robert Indiana’s Numbers (1968), Anne Waldman and George Schneeman’s Homage to Allen G (1997), and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith’s Concordance (2006). An additional chapter examines the fine presses responsible for such works – spaces like Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), Berkeley Street Press, and the Women’s Studio – and considers their overlap with the small literary magazine movement at midcentury. Exploring these volumes and presses, the study argues that collaborative artists’ books alter our reception of the lyric poetry and visual art found therein, especially compared to their appearance in other contexts, like collected works or museums. It considers the effects that new print technologies and evolving social conditions have on these books’ inception and objectives. Finally, it suggests that the artists’ books liminality bespeaks an anti-institutional politics of art and identity. Reckless, Beautiful Things not only enlivens the visual-verbal (and painter-poet) relationships that galvanized aesthetic innovation in the post-45 era but illustrates how these collaborative works challenge institutional, disciplinary, and social mores that began to crystallize in that period and remain with us today.