Monday, October 4, 2010

An Afternoon with Sandra Kroupa

Sandra Kroupa was recently interviewed for a series in her professional journal on “dream jobs”. She enthusiastically concurs that she has one. Her official job title is “Book Arts and Rare Book Curator” for the University of Washington’s Allen Library. Last Friday she met with a gaggle of photographers from the University of Washington Photographers’ Group (UWPG) to talk about and show examples from the library’s collection of art books emphasizing books of photographs and art books that use photographic processes. See:

for a wonderful interview with her.

Ms. Kroupa brought a heaping library cart full of examples from the collection, all in tidy archival boxes made by the library’s conservation department. She gave us an overview of the book arts and rare book collection, part of the “Special Collections” section of the Allen Library. “Special Collections” is best known for its superb Northwest Collection but has over 14,000 items in the book arts and rare books collection. She emphasized that the collection is much broader than she could begin to show us in a short program. It contains, for example, books that are important historically, or that mark milestones in the technology of printing and publishing. For instance, she showed us a first edition with dust jacket of “On the Road” and a first edition in English of “The Decisive Moment” with the dust jacket illustration done by Henri Matisse. Neither of these books are remarkable as art objects. “On the Road” is straight text and the catalog of the recent Cartier-Bresson retrospective shows HCB’s work to much better advantage. However -- in the world of jazz certain artists are referred to as “horn changers” – those whose playing changes forever the way in which a given instrument is regarded. For the trumpet, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are “horn changers”. These books are “horn changers” and there is something about seeing the original articles that I found very moving.

She then turned to books produced by conventional printing and binding technology that either are of photographs or that incorporate photographs into more complex images. The reproductions in these books are very high quality but are produced in fairly large quantities – tens, hundreds, or a few thousand – that are aimed at a connoisseur or collector market. Denise Wolf of Aperture did an excellent talk on this niche market at Seattle Art Museum earlier this year. One especially beautiful example that Ms. Kroupa showed us was of photographs of broken glass paired with poems by Silvia Plath. The rich warm blacks and open, slightly soft midtones of the photographs reproduced splendidly in offset printing on a creamy paper. Alas, I cannot remember the name of the artist.

Ms. Kroupa then moved on to her real passion – books that are art objects in themselves as well as in content. These are one-of-a-kind or are in very small, limited editions. Every aspect of them, from the materials to the printing to the binding, are part of the artwork. She refuses to enter into the debate about “What is a book?” that has been raging in the academic world for some time. She also refuses to enter the debate about whether a one-of-a-kind object belongs in an art museum or in a library. Instead she casts her net as widely as she can for materials that she feels are important in the development of book art. Only some of the unusual work that she showed us:

• A book of a few pages printed on cloth that combined cyanotype and brief texts with glass (perhaps acrylic) rods stitched together as a spine.

• A doll-sized bed with handmade stuffed mattress, quilts, coverlet and pillow. Each fabric surface was stitched with text taken from a historically important text by a 19th century woman author.

• “Panorama” – a pop-up book for grownups – that on alternated pages with fold up revealed text on the issues of climate change and species extinction and pages with exquisite, layered pop-ups that combined text and hand-painted art.

Ms. Kroupa is quick to point out that, while many of the items she adds to the book art and rare book collection are very expensive, her acquisitions budget is miniscule. Most acquisitions either are outright gifts or are heavily subsidized by generous donors.

She is a passionate believer in the importance of the physical object (as opposed to viewing on a computer screen) even for art books that could be scanned page by page. She feels that experiencing the object as the artist intended is an integral part of the experience. However, she does not disdain the notion of using computers to create work from scratch as book art.

She concluded by noting that if you called and described your special interests you could make an appointment to visit the Allen Library and view items from their collection (an invitation that I certainly intend to accept).

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