Julius Friedman celebrates the book
Julius Friedman is a graphic designer, photographer, and artist in Louisville, Kentucky, whose highly recognizable works from the 1980s are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Among his best-known images is Fresh Paint, a poster showing several rows of perfect white eggs behind three cracked shells and their yolks, which have spilled onto an inky black foreground to become circles of vibrant primary colors — red, yellow, and blue. They glisten like new squeezes of pigment on a palette, waiting for a brush. Fresh
Paint is crisp and clean, even stately, yet it exudes mystery about the collision of art and nature, a theme that followed Friedman into the next millennium.
A few years ago, an art librarian and friend of Friedman’s gave him a collection of books from the 1920s and ’30s, with the suggestion that he make collages from them. Because he wasn’t a collage artist and usually worked at the behest of clients, he didn’t take the challenge seriously until a few months later, when he started wondering what books would mean to his five- and six-year-old grandchildren. “Everything now is digital,” he told “It’s not hands-on. They’ll probably read most of their books on Kindles. I started thinking about texture and surface and about how books have been banned and burned. The sacred word — how did that survive?” He went into his studio and tore apart the books his friend had given him — carved into them, folded the pages, and otherwise treated them as we are told never to treat books. Then he photographed the results. Colleagues encouraged him to put together a book of this work.
“The whole thing started by trying to celebrate the book and say goodbye to it. In celebrating the book, I felt we had to go back to Gutenberg times. Everything had to be hand-set, the paper handmade, hand-bound like secondcentury Coptic binding. A furniture designer would have to make cherry wooden boxes to put them in,” Friedman said. He created a limited run of 20, featuring essays by artists and writers on the topic of “the book.” They were sold to libraries and collectors, but Friedman had caught the collage bug by then. He was getting books from a collector in Louisville that dated to the 18th century, and he couldn’t stop producing new work. So he decided to make The Book, a mass-produced collection that was published this year by Old Stone Press. It includes a foreword by novelist and essayist Pico Iyer as well as essays by artist and writer Dianne Aprile and Jill Gage, bibliographer of British history and literature at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
In the foreword, Iyer describes The Book as “the art of the book, in short, as opposed to the art in a book or from a book. The beauty of the pages, the font, the illuminated margins. The expression of care in a raised capital or the watermark, the way in which a volume could be a fluttering of leaves, a sheaf of sheets, an eyeopening spiral of symbols and whorls even when mildewed, foxed, or defaced.” This is an economical way of saying that The Book is more than the sum of its parts, because all the pieces of a book that he lists, once deconstructed, connote whole other art forms. Some of Friedman’s images resemble dancers bent over themselves, while others read like poems, and still others inspire a political reaction.
“My theory as an artist is that it’s not what you look at; it’s what you see,” Friedman said. “I start with an idea, and it’s not that important for me to make it that obvious to the viewer, because people will see things I never saw or intended. I want to get a response, but I don’t want to control the response.”
The Book contains no page numbers, and the photographs are not named or captioned because Friedman didn’t want it to have a beginning, middle, or end. “You could pick it up, meditate on four images, and then close it — and five days later, pick it up again and see something completely different,” he said.
Some collages are flat and others more sculptural. Visible words act as texture and pattern rather than
content, though how much people care to read is up to them, and the more languages they know, the more meaning they might pick up. There is text in English, Hebrew, German, and Arabic, among other languages. “I wanted it to encompass a lot more than one kind of typography, so that viewers would be able to read something other than ‘Fun with Dick and Jane’ or ‘Donald Trump is a douchebag.’ Most of the stuff that’s in The Book isn’t driven by the remaining words. It was more about the totality of the collage — and the deconstruction — that interested me. I put a book in water, and I thought it would completely dissolve, that the words would wash off. It was rag paper from 1810, but even after sitting in water for 40 minutes, the words stayed intact.”
In this work, books immersed in water are followed by a book entangled in barbed wire and a book screwed shut, both gunmetal gray. On the opposite page, books are on fire. Within the flames, the books seem to be stacked like a cross. A partially burnt book is next; its edges, that same hard pewter as the barbed wire, look like fabric. In some photographs, Friedman has lit the sculptural collages from within or underneath, turning books into abstract cities of softening layers, portals, and pathways.
Friedman said that books have a life cycle parallel to that found in nature. “We’re all on that life cycle. We decompose at different times. I love the idea that your boyfriend wrote you a love note and gave you a daisy, and you stuck the letter in a book and crushed the daisy in a book, and then 10 years later you can pull the thing out, and it’s all still there — the memory, and the scent of the flower. We don’t have that in the digital, electronic age. What’s going to happen later with historians? Are they going to dig up old email files? We’re not teaching cursive handwriting anymore. Our communication is changing.”
In her essay, Gage writes of asking children at the Newberry Library what they think a book is. At first the children laugh, because the answer seems obvious, but soon they realize “book” has many meanings. It’s the text of a novel that may be reproduced many times in many editions; it is also a single copy of one of those iterations. It can be an illuminated manuscript, words on a scroll, or drawings, and it often contains more than what was originally printed because people write in margins and on endpapers and put ribbons or other mementos between pages. “Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both overt and secret,” she writes. “We read books, touch them, smell them (not always a good idea) — in short, we ask books to tell us their stories. We are transformed by the books that have altered our own culture, our own lives.”
“The Book” by Julius Friedman is available from Old Stone Press.