Engberg brings “Text/Messages” to her Alma Mater

Alicia Bones

Lewis Carroll’s fantasy story “Alice in Wonderland” and Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s gouache paintings using a technique similar to watercolor seem uniquely well suited to working together in a 1969 illustrated edition of the classic tale. Lawrence grad and curator Siri Engberg’s majors in art history and English seemed similarly well suited in her lecture “Text/Messages: Books by Artists,” presented Feb. 10 in the Wriston Art Center auditorium.
Engberg graduated from Lawrence in 1989. After graduation, she interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She was a curator in the visual arts department of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1990 to July 2008, when she took over as the curator of prints and editions. She is now a Lawrence distinguished alumna. She also has written for contemporary art publications and exhibit brochures.
Engberg’s presentation began with a quote from the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé that said, “Everything exists in the world to become a book.” Engberg illustrated this point with her examples of art books, primarily works created after 1960, which take everyday things such as buildings and brick walls and de-familiarize them in forms such as pop-up books. Works in this genre can also be sculptures, magazines or collages. Engberg focused on these mediums, or art related to books outside of more traditional illustrations.
One example is American artist Andy Warhol’s 1967 book “Andy Warhol’s Index Book.” This book, fashioned in the style of a children’s pop-up book, was the first of its kind to be mass distributed. Unlike its form, the book tackles seminal images of the ’60s such as Nico and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and acid tabs, as well as Warhol’s iconic soup can.
A example of blurring the art-with-text genre is Swiss-German Dieter Roth’s “Tonbild,” or “Sound Picture,” created from 1975 to 1988. The work, part of the permanent collection at the Walker, is, at first glance, a nontraditional sculpture made from photographs, Plexiglas and wood. Attached cassette players add another dimension to the work, however. In 1978, Roth said, “I sometimes fasten a tape recorder onto paintings or objects. those who look at the art don’t realize how bad it is when they hear the music. For the music is even worse. Two bad things make one good thing.”
Engberg said museums often don’t know how to handle these art books, which simultaneously in touchable and untouchable media. Today, museums are more accustomed to such mediums and interested patrons can often make appointments to come and handle the books.
The Walker’s current exhibit “Text/Messages: Books by Artists,” curated by Engberg and librarian Rosemary Furtak, runs through April 19. Along with Dali’s “Alice in Wonderland,” other highlights include works by Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly and Karen Finley. The collection was pieced together with Furtak’s library collection and with permanent exhibits from the museum.
Despite books and newspaper moving into a digital arena, Engberg seems to have faith in the longevity of the art book genre. She said, “[Some artists are changing to digital media], but just as many cling to craft of book-making, of creating something by hand.