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Julius Fried­man cel­e­brates the book

Pasatiempo - - RAMDOM ACTS - Jen­nifer Levin Pasatiempo. The New Mex­i­can

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.

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