Monday, November 15, 2010

The Bombshell Book Art of Werner Pfeiffer

By Nancy Mattoon

Explosive Subject: A "Book-Object,"
Created By Artist Werner Pfeiffer.

(All Images Courtesy of Cornell University Libraries.)

"The book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented." This is the mantra of Artist Werner Pfeiffer, who has spent over forty years creating--and ironically destroying--books to prove their strength and importance.

Fold-Out Book #1.
Artist Pfeiffer says reading this book involves
bursts of manipulating, arranging, feeling and touching

Pfeiffer's childhood in Nazi Germany exposed him not only to censorship and book burnings, but also to the use of the written word as a tool to build a society based on hated, violence, and genocide. At the same time, as a boy Pfeiffer cherished books as "an escape from the harsh realities of a disintegrating world."

Difficult to Fit.

He became obsessed with the complexities of the book: an everyday object that could be a magnificent work of art; a symbol of enlightenment and learning that could spread intolerance and evil; a spiritual sanctuary that could carry the recipe for a living hell; a symbol of truth and a transmitter of lies. With his art he expresses every aspect of this amazingly conflicted cultural chameleon.

Fold-Out Book #2.
"Here the interaction is based on a visual language and
on the experience of manipulating elements into different settings."

Pfeiffer was born in Stuttgart in 1937. His boyhood home was obliterated by Allied bombing raids, and he was internally, if not externally, scarred by "the trauma of World War II and its tumultuous aftermath." He remembers his first schoolbooks were "leftovers" from the Nazi regime, "with words and sentences blackened out...chapters deleted and entire pages missing." Ideas which he had been taught six months before were worth dying for, were now concealed as so evil they were "unfit to be read about." Pfeiffer never forgot how the Third Reich used and abused the book. "The power of a book to spread free and unbridled thought," he learned, "renders it equally vulnerable...when political or religious fanatics are troubled by challenges to their orthodox rhetoric."

Original Chip.

As a young man, Pfeiffer discovered that, "With the passage of time I found myself ever more seduced by books, captivated by their content. But I became equally intrigued by their structure, their making, their d├ęcor, their design, their history, their politics." He enrolled in Stuttgart's Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, to study art and design, and found himself specializing in book arts.

One Of Three Flexgons That Make Up Abracadabra.
"A book about magic. Not the illusory trickery of a conjuror,
but the magic of an artist’s work."

In 1961 he emigrated to the United States, and spent a decade as a freelance designer and art director, building a portfolio of award-winning graphic and commercial art. In 1969 his hard work, talent, and creative devotion to typography and the written word, were recognized by the prestigious Pratt Institute, which named him Director of the Adlib Press, which produces limited edition artist books and letterpress publications for students and faculty. He subsequently became the head of Pratt's Book Arts program, and held both of these position until retiring in 2003.

Literary Salvo.

But despite the demands of his academic career, Pfeiffer continued to produce his own artist's book and what he came to call "book objects." As might be expected from a man with such a conflicted history with books, the two threads of his artistic work are diametrically opposed. "In creating my Book-Objects," he explains, "I deconstruct books, dismantle them and assemble whatever fragments remain into new composites. The opposite is true when I make Artist Books. Here I carefully plot, make thorough investigations, and spend plenty of time mapping out concepts to build new volumes from scratch." The unifying theme of both types of work is, of course, the inherent power of the book.

Woodcut From: The River.
"Structured as a long accordion fold (fully extended it measures 26½ feet),
the book echoes the rhythm and flow of a river."

Pfeiffer's Book-Objects are a modern take on the idea of the book as a vulnerable and imperiled technology. These "are made with real books. They are not casts, nor are they sculpted imitations. At its core each piece has bound, printed pages. Glued together and painstakingly covered with gesso, they are silenced and sealed for good. I practice this destruction, this obvious censorship, simply as metaphor. It is to visualize, to demonstrate, to provoke. For these acts of violence are not about the damage done to stacks of paper, to books. The objects are about the harm inflicted on the human spirit. The ropes, the nails, the clamps, the hooks and knifes are real as well. They are symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act."

Difficult Chapter.

By contrast, Werner Pfeiffer's artist books incorporate printing techniques that have been used in book production for centuries, including woodcuts, linoleum block-prints, lithographs, etchings, handset typography, and letterpress printing. He uses both handmade and archival quality papers, and cuts, sews, and decorates his fine bindings. Produced in limited editions of 10 to 50 copies, these works demonstrate the artist's respect for the book in its "elemental simplicity...deliberately low-tech, cumbersome and slow. It is private. It challenges the imagination. It is a conversation between the author and reader...a dialogue of minds."

A 27-foot-long canvas scroll housed in a bullet-shell casing,
the text and images are set against a chronology
of war, conflict, and genocide in the 20th century.

Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections is the last stop for a traveling exhibition of Werner Pfeiffer's book art. Previously on display at Smith College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Toronto, Werner Pfeiffer (censor, villain, provocateur, experimenter): Book-Objects and Artist Books, will be on view at the Hirshland Gallery of the Carl A. Kroch Library through February of 2011. An online exhibit featuring highlights of the show is available on the library's website.

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