Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"The Book Arts Legacy of Leonard Baskin," 23 September. Neilson Library Browsing Room and Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

One cannot fail to take note when nearly one hundred-fifty people relinquish the outdoor pleasures of one of the most beautiful afternoons of a sunny New England autumn in order to pay homage to the makers of books and art. The occasion was the unveiling of a plaque to mark the site of Gehenna Press, sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and Historic Northampton. Although Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) founded his publishing enterprise at Yale in 1942 and operated it in a variety of locations, including Lurley, in Devon, England (1974-83), and since 1983, Leeds, Massachusetts, the location in what was arguably its classic or most influential era was at 51 Clark Avenue in Northampton, from 1955 through 1974.

Sharon Shaloo, Executive Director of the Center, opened the ceremonies by explaining the origins of the event as an offshoot of one of her organization’s major initiatives, the Literary Map of Massachusetts, part of an evolving process intended to call the attention of the public to our literary heritage and stimulate cultural tourism. Kerry W. Buckley, Executive Director of Historic Northampton and the editor of an acclaimed cultural history of the town, in turn spoke briefly about the mission of his organization and the role of the plaque program in raising public historical awareness.

As Book Arts Specialist at the Mortimer Rare Book Room and editor of Paradise Printed and Bound: Book Arts in Northampton & Beyond (2004) as well as a book artist in her own right, Barbara Blumenthal was the perfect person to provide an overview of the local book culture. Although she began with the origins—The Daily Hampshire Gazette, founded in 1786, is the ninth-oldest continuously published newspaper in the country—her emphasis was on the evolution of the recent past and the trio of figures who not only guided the Gehenna Press but founded what became a thriving book-arts community in the Pioneer Valley, and mentored today’s practitioners: bookbinder Arno Werner (1899-1995), printer Harold McGrath (1922-2000), and artist-polymath Leonard Baskin. After surveying their careers, Barbara focused on the past two decades, bookended on one side by “Form and Content,” the first retrospective and contemporary show of local book arts, organized by “bibliotect” (as he likes to call himself) David Bourbeau in 1987, and on the other, by today’s ceremony—the first such permanent public acknowledgment of the place of the book arts in the life of the Valley. Barbara’s presentation reminded us not only that we live in an extraordinarily rich book-arts community, but also that its full history has yet to be written.

Martin Antonetti, Curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, moderated the entire event and introduced the keynote speaker, Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book Division, Library of Congress, as “the most knowledgeable, certainly the most affable curator of rare books in the nation,” “indeed, the nation’s curator.” Mr. Dimunation lived up to the resultant high expectations.

In his address, “’Strange & Marvelous Books’: Leonard Baskin and The Gehenna Press,” he managed to attain two elusive goals: to provide an intimate portrait of an artist and his vision, and to explain how that vision changed his own, without blurring the distinctions between the two. Mr. Dimunation began with a provocative declaration: Leonard Baskin “has altered my view of how to read a book and how to view life.” The rest of the address was in effect commentary and elaboration on that theme.

He carefully outlined the evolution of the press and its distinctive aesthetic. The key was an unerring sense of design coupled with a dauntingly fertile imagination. As Baskin himself once put it, "People like me, who care about printing -- the architecture of the page -- constitute the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation."

In Mr. Dimunation’s words, “It was as if the page had been liberated.” Baskin taught us how “to reimagine the page” and think in new ways about “the dialogue between image and text.” “Gehenna books,” Mr. Dimunation said, “are humming with that conversation.” As examples of that dialogue, he cited works based both on Baskin’s own writings and on the words of others, notably his long collaboration with poet Ted Hughes. That collaboration displayed such “tremendous depth” he said, because each artist inspired the other to embark upon new routes. Baskin thus “taught that collaboration is not merely about parts contributing to a whole, it’s about learning to speak and relate to another language.”

In part for this reason, Baskin continually returned to tradition, including his beloved Renaissance. (As many of us know, he was not only a great artist, but also a great teacher and collector, amassing a vast range of prints, books, and even early medals. He himself rather modestly called printing only a “secondary passion.”) Rather than merely copying an older aesthetic, he had the gift of being able to extract from it the essence, which he applied in ever more innovative ways to his own radically different tasks and contexts.

Concerned as he was to trace the evolution of Baskin’s work in its intellectual and technical dimensions alike, Mr. Dimunation did not fail to dwell on the later period, marked, among other things, by smaller pressruns and greater prominence of Baskin’s own texts. Among the characteristic traits were the predilection for shaped text and portrait multiples. There were new manifestations of Baskin’s long-standing interest in the animal kingdom (e.g. the works on insects) and his famously dark vision of the human fate and body, as in A Book of Demons (posthumous; 2001). In addition, there was the equally important playfulness: for example, in the triptych of fantastic biographical collections: Vnknown Dvtch Artists: Etchings & Biographical Notices (1983), Icones Librorum Artifices: Being Actual, Putative, Fugative & Fantastical Portraits of Engravers, Illustrators & Binders (1988, 2000), and Jewish Artists of the Early & Late Renaissance (1993). After picking up works such as these, in which one cannot always disentangle the real and the imaginary, Dimunation said, one is inevitably left “feeling both delighted and gullible.”

Alluding to the title of his talk, Mr. Dimunation managed to capture the genius of an aesthetic that remained at once consistent and endlessly fresh and provocative: “When you open a Gehenna Press book,” he said, “You know what to expect and you have no idea what to expect.”

Twice in the course of his remarks, Mr. Dimunation had to slow or halt his delivery as he was moved to tears. The first time was in the middle of his talk, when showing images from Gypsy & Other Poems by James Baldwin, texts that had had deep personal meaning for him. The second time was when, after putting a photo of Baskin on the screen behind him, he uttered the closing words: “I remember the very first time I opened a Gehenna Press book.”

There is no higher tribute possible. Honos alit artes.

Following the presentations and a reception, visitors explore a special “hands-on” exhibit of Gehenna Press books in the Mortimer Rare Book Room.


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