Accessible Texts: Exhibiting Ruscha
“Publications like Edward Ruscha’s were not meant to be displayed in glass cases,” said Jennifer Quick, Research Assistant in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, and PhD candidate at Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture Department. Quick, who is writing her dissertation on Ruscha, has been hard at work with curatorial staff developing strategies to best display the artist’s groundbreaking photo books for installation in the new Harvard Art Museums.
Ruscha, a conceptual artist, printed 16 books in the 1960s and ’70s (editions of which are in the Harvard Art Museums collections) with the goal of producing and selling fine artist books cheaply, and making them accessible to all. He even produced advertisements for the books, offering them for only a few dollars through the mail. For exhibition purposes, however, the books present more than a few challenges. Paradoxically, these books that were intended to be easily available are now quite valuable—and fragile—and need to be protected under glass. Exposing the paper to light, which damages it, is just one issue.
Take Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, his 1966 accordion book, which contains a composite photographic panorama of the mile and a half long strip, with one side of the street on the top and the other on the bottom. When unfolded, the book is 25 feet long (the Walker Art Center shows every page here). Quick’s task was to figure out first how much of the book to display, and if it was possible to show the cover, to reflect the artist’s interest and training in commercial design. She also needed to find a way to support the book sufficiently so as not to further wear the delicate paper.
And finally, Quick needed to think about how Ruscha’s books fit within the context of other objects in the gallery, called the ’60s Experiment, and the modern and contemporary galleries as a whole. She sought curatorial guidance from Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; Lynette Roth, Daimler-Benz Associate Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum; and Maja Wismer, Renke B. and Pamela M. Thye Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum.
“We wanted to show the messiness of ’60s art, while still making the display in the gallery accessible and legible,” Quick notes. She wanted to connect in provocative ways Ruscha’s use of commercial art and technologies of reproduction with that of other artists of the period, such as Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and Richard Hamilton. Though not part of a definitive movement, these artists were inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s readymade. She also wanted to convey the process of transatlantic cross-pollination, one of the “big ideas” woven throughout the modern and contemporary galleries. “After all, German artists like Gerhard Richter were in dialogue with Americans like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.”
After many drawings and mock-ups and more drawings, Quick is getting very close to the final plan for the display case of the Ruscha books. With the help of Karen Gausch, Exhibitions Production Manager; Penley Knipe, Philip and Lynn Straus Conservator of Works of Art on Paper; and Anne Driesse, Conservator of Works of Art on Paper, Quick devised a plan to fold books over a glass wedge, a solution that provides both stability and greater visibility.
But the display is just one way to see the books. Visitors to the Harvard Art Museums’ Art Study Center will be able to handle some copies. Also, Quick and Wismer are working with the Division of Academic and Public Programs to develop digital tools for visitors to access this material. The digital route is an excellent alternative in many ways. Not only does it preclude any concern about conservation, it allows users to see every page. More important, it resolves the paradox and provides a key link to Ruscha’s overall concept behind his books: to make art accessible.