Tag Archives: Spector

I Stack Things, I Tear Things Up

By way of introduction I offer as my own an explanation of my artistic methods provided by a student attending a lecture I’d just given about my work. “So,” he paused before asking his question, “your art is tearing stuff up or stacking things?” I paused myself before replying, “well . . . basically . . . yes.” I tear stuff up; always paper, mostly pages. I stack things; mostly books, but sometimes more organic materials. On occasion I cut printed papers up and paste some pieces down. From time to time I stack things up (again, mostly books) in front of a camera and make photographs. In recent years I’ve sloshed paper pulp around in vats, lifted masses of it up in screens, deposited the wet sheets on tables and festooned them with strands of string or yarn before pressing and drying them. On other occasions I’ve painted on paper or pages (not, so far, on canvas). Before, during, and after all of this, I’ve made drawings, or else written words that sometimes can be read as art.

I tear pages. I stack books. On given days these processes, or others that seem similarly inane in summary, occupy me in the studio. I assert that I am an excellent tearer of pages or stacker of books, but what then constitutes my virtuosity? Look at one of my altered books and you can see the torn edges of every sewn or perfect-bound sheet that formerly comprised its text block. My systematic excising of pages leaves a form whose organization in itself challenges the suggestion of random harm within the word, “tear,” commonly used to describe what I’ve done. As for my stacking, it’s the ordinary work of aggregation, whose oddness arises from what it is I’m building up with. Books in a row could be on anybody’s shelf, but books in a stack raise some interesting questions.

As an art student I acquitted myself well enough in the sculpture, printmaking, and painting studios. I could do a very good job of drawing the elements of a still-life. I enjoyed sketching the figure or a landscape. Indeed, the first ten years of my exhibiting career consisted almost entirely of drawings, although of a more process-oriented kind. In a sense I became the artist I am now through an act intended as a negation. Let me explain: In 1972 I read about the work of Robert Ryman in an essay, by Robert Pincus-Witten, in the June issue of Artforum. Looking at the black and white reproductions of Ryman’s white paintings, my thoughts ran something like, “This is not art. This is just white paint. It’s not even white in these pictures. They’re white paintings that look gray in reproduction because halftone images can’t ever be completely white.” Irritated and fascinated, I decided that if a white painting was art, then a pencil drawing which was merely shades of gray was also art, and I set to work straightaway. This exercise in shading was easier said than done. Wherever my crosshatching overlapped, a darker band emerged in the graphite, and after many hours of working and reworking the paper, my field of gray was visibly traversed by many horizontal bands. It was beautiful, at least to me, and also a way to understand something of what Ryman was doing with that white paint.

When you tear pages out of books, you accumulate a great many torn pages. Now and then I would make collages out of this material, at first by carefully cutting away the text on one or several pages, but saving the strips of the spaces between lines of type. Since I had cut the words out at what type designers call “x height,” the tops and bottoms of some letters were left behind. The bowl beneath a lowercase “g” made for an especially evocative graphic residue. Little fragments of letters, still almost readable, peppered my otherwise blank Page collages, and thinking of my cutting away process as a form of erasure led me to think about erasing images. The exemplary object for such erasure was the postcard. Souvenir par excellence, the postcard is writing for from one to another, and putting one into the mail validates both the experience of the place pictured on the front and the bonds of whatever nature joining the sender to the recipient. I make grids of old postcards, whose images I have partly or almost completely sanded away, into arrays of ghost images ─ windmills, bridges, castles, and flowers are among my assortments ─ over which I sometimes paint the silhouettes of stacked books.

In 1999 I was invited to spend a free day in the studio with a Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. One of the small number of these special large-format cameras was then on loan to Columbia College Chicago’s photography program, and invitations were being made to artists unfamiliar with the machine and its capabilities. I’d previously used film cameras mainly to document my work, but was familiar with the exceptional physical and chemical attributes of large format Polaroids from seeing the 1979 installation, at the David and Alfred Smart Gallery (now Museum), of a life-sized Polaroid photographic reproduction of Raphael’s The Transfiguration of Christ, from the original oil on wood painting in the Vatican Museum. I decided to make my own version of a transfiguration by photographing all of the books in my library by or about Dieter Roth, whose extraordinary work with artists’ books had greatly influenced my thinking about the book as art. I loaded a cardboard box of Roth books into my car and drove to Chicago. Once in the studio I realized that the accidental arrangement of the books in that carton was at least as visually appropriate to the image I had in mind as any of the sketches I’d made, so the finished work includes that box, upended and still filled with books, plus a few more stacked on top or leaning against its sides. All of the books are placed with spines turned away from the camera. The titles are unreadable, but slightly open pages can be seen here and there.

“So how might things proceed from here; how to stall a sentence so that it lingers over a nothing-in-particular in order to make the duration of its reading stand in for a silence of some sort.”

This sentence, writ large, is the text of Sentence, a pencil drawing of mine from 2003. Here’s another, from an ink wash drawing, Life Sentence, I made the same year:


Another invitation, in 2002, brought me to papermaking. In January of that year I was invited by the College Art Association to contribute an editioned work to their ongoing series of commissioned artists’ prints, benefitting CAA’s Professional Development Fellowship Program. The edition was to be produced at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper (now the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions) in the Mason Gross School of Art on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Most of my work as an artist has been on, or of, paper, yet I’d never made paper until my visit to the Brodsky Center. My initial impression of the paper studio was of rank, fecund aromas. Anne Q. McKeown, a master papermaker with the MFA from Yale, presided over this area. My first thought was of making a little book with handmade paper pages, but I was enthralled by a small paper piece Anne had made to show me, consisting of strips of abaca fiber and linen over cotton, in which lengths of string had been embedded. Pulling the strings out created torn edges in the paper strips that resembled the torn pages in my altered books. I tugged at one string and then another, enjoying the process but not especially liking the look of the tears. It wasn’t until that evening, over dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, that it occurred to me to use lengths of string to form words in script. But what was there to say? I thought about recycling the last sentence from some writing of mine, “only the text is total,” but that line, which so neatly closed my essay, seemed pretentious by itself. I dropped the vernacular “as if” into the dinner conversation at some point and immediately realized I’d found my phrase: “as” to be torn out from the sheet; “if” to remain as a string capable of being pulled. The next day Anne and I quickly worked out a procedure for making the edition: first a layer of black cotton, then white string spelling out “as,” in cursive, then a layer of overbeaten abaca, then a red string cursive “if” (except for the dot over “i,” made from pigmented overbeaten linen), and a topmost layer of white overbeaten hemp. I let the ends of the strings emerge from the left margin of the sheet. Once the proofs had dried, I tore the white string away, revealing the sheet’s black interior. The red string remained, dangling from the side of the work, inviting viewers to give it a little tug.

Much of my art consists in removal (all those torn pages), occlusion (all the books inside those stacks), or excision (the rest of the images in those collages of photographic details). What I’ve taken away from view could be seen as metaphors of forgetfulness, but I am more interested in acts of taking away that are also transmogrifications of the object. I remove such stuff as could make visible the remainder as armature of a different value.

This essay first appeared in the exhibition catalog for Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: Selected Work at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis, MO in 2010.

Buzz Spector Bio
Buzz Spector Interview
Buzz Spector Artwork


Buzz Spector Interview

MH: You work through multiple media–drawing, painting, the sculptural construction of books and pages, collage, and sometimes end your process with photography. For example, your piece My Fiction begins with a sculptural process and ends in a photographic one. How does the procession of media filter the ideas you wish to convey? Does this metamorphosis alter concepts or suggest their malleability?

BS: Most art today applies more than single mediums to the task of its making. This is more a question about the role of photography as one of the mediums I use. I’m interested in the way photography replaces the object with its image; in how reading the photograph—both for its mise en scène and as a thing in itself—makes a space for us to associate what we know of the books whose titles we can read with what we remember of our own experience of reading some of them. In My Fiction, the fact of my ownership of those books is unconfirmed by the composite image. Neither, of course, is my having read any of them. All that’s certain there is that I stacked the books. Unlike the actual structure, however, the focal plane of the photographs makes books further back into blurs. I’ve exhibited My Fiction several times over the years and on each occasion the conversations among viewers about the books they see in the work and their own histories of reading comes up against the indecipherability of those stacked books receding into the distance, a distancing into space as well as time.

MH: In works like Red C/Red Sea, your acrylic painting of a boat is coupled with a more conceptual presentation of the scattered or stacked post cards. How does painting, with its conventional implications of “originality” and “creativity,” converse with the “cheap and easy” images in postcards?

BS: To be specific, the framed pair of postcards in Red C/Red Sea is one component of a work whose other portion is a stack of printed postcards of the same passenger ship on blue and red water. The cards in the frame are identical vintage postcards. I carefully painted the ocean red on one of those cards, while the other is unaltered, except for an “X,” applied by a previous sender of the card, indicating where her stateroom was located on the cruise she’d taken in that liner. The several thousand postcards I had printed to make this work are both from photographs of the first card— the one without the “X”—before I painted on it. The “red sea” in half of the printed cards was made by switching around the cyan, magenta, and yellow plate assignments of the four color offset press run. The red cards, then, are as “original” as the vintage card I painted because they are not reproducing the appearance of their photographic subject. Instead, they convey the consequence of my intervening in the conventional method of their printing.

MH: In many of your exhibits you display books in unconventional ways, either as scattered parts of a conceptual piece, as in Malevich (with Eight Red Rectangles), or as sculptures, as in Toward a Theory of Universal Causality. Could you speak to your fascination with books, both their content and their physicality?

BS: I had the eight oversize books built for use in my Malevich installation. Actually there are four sets of books, two of which are now in institutional collections while the other two sets are stored in my studio. The Malevich books need to be seen in conjunction with the wall element, whose apertures are in the same spatial configuration as in the 1915 Malevich painting to which my title refers. What’s “wrong” about the situation is that the equal depths of the apertures won’t accommodate any of the books on the floor, each of which contains a different number of blank pages and, hence, a different depth.

My book stacks are, in sum, a commentary on the lives of books in libraries; on their connection to ideas of archives, vaults, or institutional memory as something distinct from individual recollection. Alberto Manguel refers to the spatial aspect of this in his majestic book, The Library at Night, “. . . when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but the space of books remains in existence.” I usually stack my books on the floor rather than the shelf. Books on floors are unusable for browsing purposes, since only the outermost titles can be read. I have a further ambition to “randomize” all the books of a library—a private one, of course—to demonstrate how little effect on browsing such reconfiguration would have when the volumes are still shelved.

MH: You mention in an interview with James Hyde of the Journal of Contemporary Art that your work is meant to be understood “in terms of the excavation or displacement of its objects from their situations.” Could you give an example of a work that operates in this way and then speak to the concepts that result from this displacement?

BS: At the time of that conversation, I thought of my book altering as excavations and my book stacking as displacements. The displacing aspect of my stacks is apparent, but I’ve come to think of my page tearing as more a graphic exercise than a sculptural operation. A former student of mine, Ted Lowitz, once told me my procedures turned books into more of themselves, and I’ve stayed happy with the idea that my excising of successive leaves of a book could supplement the symbolism of the resulting artifact to such an extent that my lessening made for more meaning in what’s left.  

MH: In your 1993 interview with David Pagel, for BOMB: Artists in Conversation, you said that you believed that people often take reading more seriously than they do in viewing a piece of art, because of the shorter amount of time one can spend looking at a piece of art in comparison to reading a book—regardless of its quality. Do you use the forms of books to lampoon the glibness of looking? Or, do you use the forms of books to lampoon the pompousness of reading as a serious pastime? If so, how does this parody operate?

BS: I don’t think of my work with books as being parodic. The differences in attention span I point out aren’t a means of discrediting books or artworks themselves but rather a way of drawing attention to armatures of absorption we apply to reading much more so than for gazing at art. As I’ve said in another context, “We dress up and go out to look at art. Undressed, in bed, we read.” Pierre Bayard points this out in his How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “When we talk about books . . . we are talking about our approximate recollections of books . . .” and he goes on to note, “What we take to be the books we have read is . . . an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these [other] books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.” 

MH: Why do you think spending time with art is so difficult for many people? And, do you think reading is taken as seriously in a visual culture as it used to be prior to the internet and digital/media culture?

BS: This arises from the same assumption as in the previous question, that conditions of viewing art are neutral so what’s “difficult” must be something within the objects. I sometimes ask audiences at my public lectures to tell me the longest interval of time they have spent looking at an individual artwork. It’s a trick question of a sort, coming as it does after my having projected images of my art in installation views or studio set-ups. A typical response would be in the range of five-ten minutes because the assumption is being made that art is something you see in a gallery or museum. So far, nobody responding to my question has included time spent with artworks on their own walls, tables, or floors. When domestic space—that space where most reading takes place—is considered, the differences in timespan between reading and scanning are obviously mitigated.

MH: Do you try to make your work accessible to those who take reading seriously or to those who take looking seriously?

BS: I think accessibility in my work is more a matter of its material and procedural affects than the self-identification of my viewers in relation either to reading or looking.

MH: Books might be called physical containers for ideas. The way you make art, you appear to use the containers to create another container (the artwork) for new idea. Does this layering of container and concept parallel the simple idea of books as layers of text and subtext—as a hidden place that must be mined or explored?

BS: The books I’ve altered haven’t stopped being books. They are as present and available for handling as any other books, except when the institution owning them prevents one from touching. The physicality you refer to is of embodiment beyond shelf life, so to speak. When I touch my beloved, the expression of care is directed toward the inner life of a mind but the application is of hand to skin. Looking and holding are simultaneous in reading print books, but also in e-readers. Even reading from a desktop screen requires a mouse or keyboard at hand, so some vestige of touching continues to accompany most situations of reading today.

MH: We have to ask, where do you get all your books? Are you a fanatic reader? Do you keep every book you acquire?

BS: My library is being acquired volume by volume. The books I use for installation purposes are borrowed from local sources. At first I kept a material inventory of some 2,000 books in my studio, but I learned over time that public library systems and used bookstores have thousands of discarded books they’re very willing to give away for my purposes. I no longer transport any books-as-material to the site of an installation project. There are always plenty of books nearby. I’m really less of a reader now than in years past, in part because I can make use of my history of reading in developing the lecture or discussion courses that comprise at least part of my teaching. My love of fiction and poetry continues unabated, but I more frequently check such books out from the library, buying a copy after one reading if I am particularly moved, or else if the book I’m curious about isn’t yet available in my university or community library. I do not keep every book I acquire, and am now thinking about dispersing parts of my library as gifts to special collections libraries or, in the case of certain older rare books, to auction where selling them covers my studio rent. I will never sell a book inscribed to me.

MH: Tearing, cutting, stacking, pasting, arranging and rearranging, inhabiting: all are physical and perhaps spontaneous activities. What is the place of physical action in your work?

BS: We’re all acting physically as artists. Even when our art is about ideas someone has to apply the letterforms to the wall. I believe in thinking with my hands as well as my head.

MH: How much planning vs. improvisation happens in your work?

BS: Every artist has a plan; otherwise it’s impossible to even start. But the negotiation with one’s materials is where one makes a better or lesser work of art. This is the substance of teaching art; helping students to see the difference between their intentions and what they’ve made.

MH: You sometimes depict yourself within or surrounded by arrangements of your books (and your books sometimes seem to be a stand in for yourself). Can you talk about “inhabiting” an idea and a world of ideas?

BS: As long as I’ve been constructing book stacks, now more than thirty years, I’ve been aware of the place I occupy in relation to my books. That is, within them.

MH: The Soap Bubble Set section of Mistake House is partly where we wish to connect the student with the professional. Naturally, we have some questions of interest to student artists and writers:

Was there a moment where you felt like your work started to move from the student state to that of the professional?

BS: I can almost pinpoint the date in April 1972. I’d been working on a graphite drawing at home as part of my participation in an advanced drawing studio. It took many hours to complete it according to the protocol I had set for myself. When I brought the drawing to class my instructor immediately asked me if I was interested in trading for it. My confidence in the work I’d made was confirmed by that request. I said “no” to the trade, by the way, and I still have that drawing.

MH: You’re a busy man—juggling teaching at Washington University in St. Louis with critical writing and ongoing art projects in multiple media. What advice do you have for the busy about how to maintain a work ethic and a creative practice?

BS: Everybody’s busy yet some people get more done in whatever sectioned-off interval of time, than others. Students are all familiar with the imposed deadlines of semester’s end and often, after graduating, they think they’ll begin treating their studio work as a continuum rather than episodes of one semester in length. This is a mistaken idea that can lead to, in my case, staying home on a New Year’s Eve in order to finish a drawing that I could sign and date for the year I graduated so as to say I’d finished at least one artwork in the six months since I’d left school. No, the best way to get stuff done is to keep your calendar going. Mark off studio times for each week or month, and when things come up, remember to block in “replacement” time later.

MH: How do you feel about your earlier works when you compare them to your current works?

BS: What I can say about my concern with this issue is that it has kept my standards high in judging whether any just-completed work of mine has succeeded or failed before I let that work go out to the world.

MH: What do you value most deeply as a teacher?

BS: Teaching artists teach by demeanor as well as demonstration, and assessment of particular studio pedagogy is as much a matter of students recognizing attentiveness on the part of their instructor as it is the learning of art techniques. It is a general characteristic of great teaching that heartfelt enthusiasm for the subject and those who study it is joined to thorough knowledge of the field. There’s more to it, though, when studio art is the subject. It is at best a minor pedagogical virtue to teach the making of art in such a manner that the work of one’s students mimics one’s own. I think about how the traces of the attention paid by a dedicated teacher can subsequently flourish in students’ own work, helping them to see what they’ve made outside of the shadows they themselves cast by their ambitions, their anxieties, or their ideological bent.

MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a derive?

BS: How long is “playing hooky”? I take a few minutes off every morning I sip my coffee and work the New York Times Crossword puzzle. It used to be said of me, by people I love, that I don’t know how to take vacations. For this question I will propose that a vacation must be the long form of playing hooky. That criticism was true enough when I was still employed in academic administration, but nowadays I am happily (all) there when I am ensconced with family and friends in a cottage by a lake in the Adirondacks, especially when the annual Friends of the Schroon Lake Library summer book sale takes place.

Buzz Spector Bio
Buzz Spector Artwork
Buzz Spector Essay

Buzz Spector Bio

Buzz at Z-L opening_2010

Buzz Spector was born in Chicago and was educated at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and then the University of Chicago, where he received the master of fine arts from the Committee of Art and Design. Internationally recognized as an artist and critic, his work has been exhibited in museums throughout the United States and Europe, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Mattress Factory Art Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Luigi Pecci Center for Contemporary Art (Prato, Italy). Spector is also a highly accomplished teacher who received the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award in 2013. Having taught previously at Cornell University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is currently Professor of Art at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

The subject matter of Buzz Spector’s art typically involves an exploration of the idea of the book, the text, and the individual experience of perception through wide-ranging media including sculpture, photography, the artists’ book, printmaking, and installation. In 2012 Sara Ranchouse Publishing issued Buzzwords, a collection of new page art and interviews with Spector spanning thirty years of his work and ideas.

Buzz Spector Interview
Buzz Spector Artwork
Buzz Spector Essay