Monday, August 2, 2010

The Breathtaking Book Art of Richard Minsky

Three Poems of Love and Death by Lucie Brock-Broido
Richard Minsky, 2009
73" x  26" x  24"

One day, once upon a time in 1960, young Richard Minsky confidently strode down the hallways of his junior high school, entered the guidance counselor's office, nodded to his advisor, pulled up a chair, and sat down with the aplomb, sangfroid, and radioactive self-assuredness usually associated with grown men who know what's what, who's who, and exactly where they're going.

"Well, Minsky," the counselor wearily exhaled, "what's going to become of you?"

And without a nanosecond necessary for reflection Richard Minsky, as if a proto-Anthony Robbins, recited a goal that had become his mantra:

"Fifty years from now I will be internationally acclaimed as the most gifted and influential book artist of my generation, and renowned as a scholar of bookbinding. My artist books and bindings will  often feature political themes and cry out for social justice and civil liberties. Museums and collectors will vie for my livres d'artiste and bindings. I will be shown in galleries throughout the world, and from August 2d through November 29th, 2010 Yale University will present a retrospective exhibition of my work!" 

The guidance counselor's eyes rolled to the heavens, rolled back to earth, and then the pastrami sandwich and sauerkraut he had for lunch two hours prior begged for help.

"Oh, boy," he refluxed, sourly. 

The Geography of Hunger
by Josue de Castro. New York, 1952
Bound by Minsky 1988
9" x 7" x 3"
"Friendly Plastic," acrylic, endpapers of food and dog food labels.

That tableau vivant, however imaginary, is surely the only explanation for an astonishing career that Yale University is now, indeed, celebrating with a wondrous and extraordinary retrospective exhibition, Material Meets Metaphor: A Half Century of Book Art by Richard Minsky, at its Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library.

But the fact that Richard Minsky began his own letterpress printing business when he was thirteen years old and has remained intensely focused on books and their creative possibilities as an object-medium for artistic expression may have had something to do with it.

A half-century later, his influence has been incalculable.

“Minsky’s work as an artist and as founder of The Center for Book Arts in New York changed the way people see and make books,” said Jae Jennifer Rossman, the Haas Family Arts Library’s Assistant Director for Special Collections.

The exhibition covers Minsky’s work from its genesis - a 1960 sample book, used when he started his printing business in 1960, through “Self-Portrait 2010,” a book that documents the evolution of a canvas, from pencil sketch through many layers of oil paint.

Deluxe Edition, limited to 5 copies
copy No. 5

9" x 12"

Many of Minsky's limited edition works will be on view in the exhibition, along with unique works that have become iconic in the world of book art. These include his 1975 binding of The Birds of North America and The Crisis of Democracy, bound in sheepskin, gold and barbed wire.

The Birds of North America, 1975.

The Crisis of Democracy
by Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki for the Trilateral Commission
New York University Press, 1975
Binding by Minsky 1980
Sheep, gold, barbed wire.
8 3/4" x 6" x 11"

Yale University Library acquired the Richard Minsky Archive in 2004. It includes maquettes, molds for castings, and correspondence, as well as holographic manuscripts and early versions of select works. It documents Minsky's exploration of printing technologies from the mimeograph and spirit duplicator to his early use of inkjet printing on handmade paper.

A Reliquary To Hold the Ashes of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.
From The Bill of Rights Limited Edition Set, The First Amendment, 2001."
.A slipcase containing:

Minsky fell off the path of the printing press and received a masters in economics. He began work toward a Ph.D. but could not resist the magic of books and print and so left the dismal science to return to and pursue his true muse, studying bookbinding in Providence, Rhode Island with master binder Daniel Gibson Knowlton.

,,,A burned copy of Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

by George Orwell
Secker & Warburg, London, 1949
First Edition
Binding by Minsky 2003-2006
7¾" x  5" x  2½" + base

The Philosophy of Umbrellas, an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson published as an umbrella.


...In slipcase.

Yale Installation set-up, July 29, 2010.
Photo: Richard Minsky

Yale Installation set-up, July 29, 2010.
Photo: Richard Minsky

 Minsky's artist books are amazing. His bindings are divine:

Sappho's Leap
A Novel
by Erica Jong
Norton, 2003
Bound by Minsky 2003
12" x 7" diameter
Chateau Guest Book, Normandy, France
Blank book of various vintage handmade papers and sheepskin parchment.
Designed and Bound by Minsky in 1994.
20" x 16"
Snakeskin Binding
Blank Book
Bound by Minsky 1988
18" x 14"
Inlaid snakeskin covers and doublures, handmade paper, linen endbands.
Collection of the Allan Stone Gallery
The Hamptons
by Susan P. Meisel and Ellen Harris
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000
Bound by Minsky 2000
Acrylic, sand and shells from the Hamptons
Above: The book installed on its base. 11" x 15" x 11"
Pettigrew's History of Egyptian Mummies
London, 1834
Bound by Minsky 1973
Linen, turquoise.
12" x 9"

Minsky's deep and ongoing scholarship of bookbinding led to American  Decorated Publishers Bindings 1872-1929, an artist's book, an exhibition catalog, and an exploration of art history seen through publishers' book covers.

Above: the cover of the Limited Edition
Foil stamped Hahnemuhle Bugra-Butten paper wrapper

Typical of stamped bindings of the period, changes in the angle
of the light cause the stamping to illuminate in different ways.
The technique for creating the stamping die was developed by
Minsky from study of the bindings in this collection

Above: the same cover with different lighting.

Of this, what became an instant essential reference, Sue Allen, the author of many books and articles on publisher's bindings, and foremost authority on 19th century bindings, says: 

"Inside this book is gathered an astounding collection of turn-of-the-century bookcovers. Though beautifully produced, it is no mere coffee table book, but comes with full bibliographical descriptions. Grouped together under headings such as 'Automobiles' or 'Trees,' the covers play against each other in a dramatic way. It is as if you were privileged to go into a number of libraries and bookstores and lay one book beside another. In one leap Richard Minsky has put himself in the forefront of collectors and scholars of this period when each cover was a work of art."

On or around the day of his Bar Mitzvah in 1960, Richard Minsky put aside the rubber stamps of his childhood, bought a printing press, and became a man. 

Fifty years later, Richard Minsky is a national treasure.

Images courtesy of Richard Minsky, and Jae Rossman of Yale, with our thanks.


  1. He is indeed a national treasure! How great to pursue ones own dreams and thoughts - there is a rare genius here. Thanks for bringing it to us!

  2. There is no one who has a greater influence on my understanding of book art than Richard Minsky.

  3. Pinsky is truly a genius. Great exhibition.
    Sid Chafetz


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email