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With that sly conceptual intervention, these books obviously now tell a much different story. What once was composed is now decomposed. The book is both objectified and doomed by pickling, and the jar becomes a tiny theater into which we can gaze and watch, if we have infinite patience, its slow progression to oblivion. White seems to be saying that books, life-affirming vehicles though they are, are subject to the same erosions of time as all material things and, by extension, so are the ideas that books contain. As a partial counterirritant to this gloomy view of the life of books, White presents his jars as unimpeachable domestic objects, secure in their humble appearance and reliable functionality. Their plain-faced, even nostalgic presence leavens what is at heart an absurdist take on books and reading.

The Oresteia
Leonard Baskin; translation by Ted Hughes

Leonard Baskin, renowned sculptor, printmaker and illustrator, and the late British poet Ted Hughes collaborated on some 30 volumes, among them this stunningly beautiful version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, completed shortly before Baskin’s death in 2000.

Close friends for many years, Baskin and Hughes had a remarkably harmonious partnership in which artist and poet shared a mutual inspiration. Baskin, central to the mid-20th century revival of fine press printing with his pressman, Harold McGrath, created an open and unadorned book aesthetic that was punctuated by his dramatically compressed woodcuts. As it turned out, Baskin’s elegant sense of design and page layout was the perfect vehicle for Hughes’ Greek translations, which themselves favor simplicity and reserved tone over ornamented rhetoric and stagy effects.

Stories change over time. They are retold and reconfigured and altered depending on the teller’s memory, motive and viewpoint. Before the introduction of moveable type, the fixing of a tale in time was limited to oral repetition – an inexact method at best – or the arduous task of hand inscription. Over time, the preservation of particular versions of treasured stories gathered its own rich history, ultimately following in sync with developments in printing technology. No matter the changes, there still remains many ways, old and new, of preserving a text: by the aforementioned oral tradition; in printed or hand-written text; in physical or digital archives, or, in the case of artist Tony White, by…pickling.

In 1992, White placed four paperback books, three of which are shown here – Abstract Painting: Fifty Years of Accomplishment from Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock, Set the Trumpet to Thy Mouth and Stormy Surrender – into Kerr canning jars containing a solution of pickling brine, garlic and dill. Pickling is a fine method for preserving food, not so much for books. In the 11 years since, as might be suspected, the books have disintegrated at varying rates. He titled the work From the Literary Kitchen of Tony White.

From the Literary Kitchen of Tony White
Tony White

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