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TAKING A SLICE OUT OF MODERN ART: THE ARTISTS’ BOOKS OF NORIKO AMBE

January 17, 2013  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Taking a Slice Out of Modern Art: The Artists’ Books of Noriko Ambe

Noriko Ambe. Current - A Private Atlas: Gerhard Richter. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe.

Noriko Ambe. Current—A Private Atlas: Gerhard Richter. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe

The collection of MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books includes a much broader range of material than the term “prints” can convey: in addition to the single-sheet prints that most viewers think of and the multiples I highlighted in my last post, the collection includes a multitude of books produced or illustrated by artists. In contrast to the type of mass-produced “art books” and catalogues that one might buy in a book store or museum shop, many of the artists’ books in MoMA’s collection are unique or limited-edition objects that stand as works of art in their own right. In her series キルArtist Books Project, Tokyo- and New York–based artist Noriko Ambe complicates these categories by taking conventional art books as her source material, and turning them into unique artists’ books that are something entirely new.

To date, Ambe has produced over 30 books for the キル (“cut”) series. Each iteration of the project starts with Ambe selecting a commonplace monograph or catalogue of work by a well-known modern or contemporary artist. Interestingly, the roster of artists (which includes towering figures such as Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons), is entirely male. Curious about whether this was a conscious choice or merely a reflection of a larger bias in the art world, I asked Ambe about her choice of artists. “To be honest, it was just [a] coincidence,” she replied. But upon further consideration, she added: “I am a woman, and so working on other female artists’ books might be too close to me.” By altering the books of male artists, she finds that she can be “more objective.”

Noriko Ambe. CUT: Egon Schiele. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe.

Noriko Ambe. CUT: Egon Schiele. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe

After selecting each book she will work with, Ambe studies it closely in order to form a deep respect for and understanding of the artist’s goals. Finally, she begins to cut into each page of the book, a painstaking process that usually takes months to complete. As a result of her careful consideration of the artist’s work, the cuts in each book have their own distinct character. For example, the gentle and fluid shapes Ambe creates in Current—A Private Atlas: Gerhard Richter communicate the same sense of melancholy and loss that the artist felt in her source material, Richter’s Atlas. CUT: Egon Schiele necessitated an entirely different approach: “Even though my cutting intertwined with the details in [Schiele’s] drawings,” Ambe writes, “the cutting lines were absorbed into the strong and chaotic images of death and eroticism in his drawing. When that happened I extended my cutting lines toward the blank background to free [them].” The result is a dramatic arc of negative space that sweeps across the book, interacting with Schiele’s figures in surprising and satisfying ways.

Noriko Ambe. CUT: Egon Schiele. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe.

Noriko Ambe. CUT: Egon Schiele. 2009. Artist’s book. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2013 Noriko Ambe

While her practice might seem like a subversive or irreverent way of engaging with the canon of modern and contemporary art, Ambe emphasizes that she approaches her source material from a place of profound respect. “I am not trying to express myself or insert myself into the other artist’s work by cutting their catalogue,” she writes. Rather, she views her modifications to these books as dialogues or collaborations between herself and other artists. Nevertheless, the more Ambe subtracts from other artists’ books, the more strongly her presence is felt. By carefully cutting away at the work of art historical titans, Noriko Ambe creates poignant works that are entirely her own.

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