Making Book The Hard Way

Being a bibliophile has its privileges. You might even be recommended for membership at the prestigious Grolier Club in Manhattan. (One does not simply join, old chap.) Founded in 1884 and snuggled into a Georgian-style town house in 1917, the club describes itself as "the mainstay of American book collecting." Its premises contain a 90,000-volume library of books about books and a large, decoratively correct hall for exhibitions on the ground floor. Named after the 16th-century bibliophile Jean Grolier, the club has put together hundreds of shows, ranging in subject from John Donne to Japanese prints. The latest is "The American Livre de Peintre," open to the public through May 15. Curated by two club members, Elizabeth Phillips and Tony Zwicker, it's as visually lively as anything in a Soho gallery.

A livre de peintre is a book containing original prints by a fine artist, issued in very limited editions-usually from 10 to 300 copies. In such books, the visual art, while not quite autonomous, is far more assertive than common illustration. The form was concocted by poets, painters and art dealers in late 19th-century Paris: Manet's illustrated edition of Poe's "The Raven" (1875) was an important early volume. After Manet, European modernists from Bonnard to Miro contributed to a golden age of painters' books that lasted right up to the mid-1970s. With many European artists exiled to America during World War II, the phenomenon took hold here. This show displays a delicious example of the transatlantic hybrid: "Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares" (1946). In it, poems by Andre Breton and drawings by Arshile Gorky are wrapped in a cover by Marcel Duchamp which has Breton's face peeking through a hole to become the Statue of Liberty's.

The American printmaking boom of the '60s intensified interest in the painter's book. Young rebels like Californian Ed Ruscha started self-publishing what was called the "artist's book"-cheap offset litho editions of art jokes, such as deadpan images of gas stations. In 1983, this sort of livre de goofball met the livre de peintre in John Baldessari's appropriately enigmatic photocollage version of "Tristram Shandy," the prophetically nonlinear 18th-century novel by Laurence Sterne.

Baldessari's book was published by Andrew Hoyem's Arion Press, founded in San Francisco in 1976. Hoyem is still in the business, inviting the artists, with a particular text already in mind for each one. "A measure of trust in us is required of the artist," Hoyem says. "Not so for most of the authors, who are dead." Painstaking craft, however, not lack of trust, limits Arion's yearly output to about three books, ranging in price from $350 to $4,500. Their highest price at publication was $7,500 for James Joyce's "Ulysses," with 40 etchings by Robert Motherwell. Sidney Shiff, who acquired New York's venerated publishing concern The Limited Editions Club, in 1979, gives the painter's book a different twist by inviting artists, as the Grolier show puts it, "to freely interpret a text of their own choosing." Jacob Lawrence, the great African-American painter, selected John Hersey's nonfiction narrative, "Hiroshima." In this heavily bound volume, made in 1983, Lawrence's prints add heat, but not hysteria, to the text's searing spareness. Then there's Francesco Clemente's large, color-soaked 1986 lithographic interpretation of Alberto Savinio's diary, "The Departure of the Argonaut": this is as good as the painter's book gets.

Which is not to say that they're always good. Sometimes the collaborations seem a little cloying. A poet sends a painter some poems inspired by the paintings. The painter sends back some drawings inspired by those poems, and out pops the cozy "Her Story" (1990), by Anne Waldman and Elizabeth Murray. Sometimes the art looks irrelevant and the book merely announces that, say, Sean Scully likes Joseph Conrad. And, with expensive books shown under glass, open to a single spread, you realize their full splendors are available only to collectors. The rest of us must be satisfied with knowing all those other precious pages exist. But after this show, a little knowledge can be a pleasure.