May 16, 2011  |  Library and Archives
An Island Observed in Black and White

Oliver Sacks, Ted Muehling, Abelardo Morell. The Island of Rota. 2010. Photograph by Lauren McAlpin

I have the privilege and challenge of working with artists and other collaborators to produce artist’s books for The Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art.  These limited-edition publications are intended to explore the art of the book as they benefit and shed light on MoMA’s research collections. Upon seeing the most recent publication in the MoMA Library, Lily Pregill of the New York Art Resources Consortium asked me to write about the Library Council’s most recent book, The Island of Rota by the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, the designer Ted Muehling, and the photographer Abelardo Morell, published in November, 2010. While I was very happy that this book had moved through the best of audiences (art librarians), I had to think twice when she asked me to write something that had not already appeared in our prospectus. The online prospectus is something like an expanded announcement, with a summary of the contributions and intentions of the artist as well as a detailed description of the physical qualities of the book.

A submerged chronicle of an artistic and collaborative process lies iceberg-like under the surface of most press releases, prospectuses, and book announcements. Quite often, the proceedings leading up to a publication involve false starts, long pauses, indecision, and inefficiencies, as well as bursts of inspiration or useful problem solving. We spare ourselves—and others—a full accounting of this process when the book is finished and mind and printed matter seem to have met.

All publications have their untold complexities, to be sure. As contenders for the dubious distinction of the most time spent on visual contributions, books made by artists as works of art (as opposed to books that reproduce preexisting works) occupy a special niche. For our series, artists are invited to work with writers, printers, and binders. We ask them to reflect on the rich collection of artist’s books in MoMA’s collection, to consider, if not reinvent, the narrative form of the book, and to create a coherent whole of many parts (or a meaningful collision of parts). (Almost) no amount of thinking about the interaction of text and image, the sculptural dimensions of the binding, the typeface, ink, or paper can be begrudged when every element is a means of artistic expression.

There are no preordained forms or printing processes for this series; we’ve produced books in almost every print media imaginable, from block printing in China to laser cutting in Germany to trophy engraving on Canal Street in New York City. Because these are small editions of fewer than 200 copies, we can offer to produce the book in odd formats and to use handwork unavailable in trade editions. (We can make larger editions of our limited edition books when the book lends itself to a larger audience, a square or rectangular shape, and offset printing, but only once since we began the series in 2001 has an artist opted for such a format.) Although the options are not limitless—it’s the job of the publisher and editor to listen carefully and help an artist choose what is right for a particular conception—they can put wind in the sails of certain visual ideas.

Given how personal most of the Library Council projects become, it may be surprising that they are usually initiated in an impersonal way. Before we ask an artist to participate, ideas are researched and vetted. Choices are discussed with my colleague at the Museum, Milan Hughston, Chief of the Library and Museum Archives—as well as with relevant curators in the Museum. A rough budget is determined before we begin to invite additional writers and collaborators.

The Island of Rota began in a different way than previous books in the series. I had met the designer Ted Muehling many years ago. He was a close friend of the artist Vija Celmins, whose book The Stars was published by the Library Council in 2005. Both Muehling and Celmins share a fascination with the natural world. Muehling, who is best known for his jewelry, porcelains, and glass, makes works that are based on the close observation of natural forms; many of his objects are cast from plants. In his studio, he assembled a marvelous natural historical collection filled with rock, gem, coral, fossil specimens, and curiosities from across the world. His many interests suggested great potential; I wondered if he could work with another artist to create a book as a kind of cabinet of wonders. Still, for several years I had no concrete ideas of how we might make a book with such a scope and a co-collaborator appropriate for MoMA’s Library Council program. This changed one day when Muehling, always passionate about ferns, mentioned an unassuming, charming piece in The New Yorker by Dr. Oliver Sacks, about the little-known Fern Society of New York.

Bookbinding by Mark Tomlinson. The Island of Rota. 2010 Photograph by Lauren McAlpin


I knew from friends that Dr. Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, had to deflect dozens of worthy requests every week to conserve time and energy for his chosen projects. I made further inquiries. We were very fortunate that Agnes Gund, a founder of The Library Council (and a person like no other in her support of artists and cultural organizations in New York) could send a word of encouragement to her friend Oliver. After a few weeks of thinking about the project, Sacks and his associate, Kate Edgar, suggested The Island of Rota—a study of the plant life on a remote island in Micronesia that was originally published in The Island of the Color Blind. The piece is filled with Sacks’s reflections on deep geology, 19th-century scientific publications, and archipelagos. The book in which it originally appears concerns a community of the color-blind with a heightened sense of texture, tone, luminescence, and black and white. These ideas were catnip for a photographer and a designer enamored with visual, literary, scientific, and geographic lore. Though we usually ask authors for new pieces of writing, we were more than gratified with Sacks’s continual contributions to the project. Dr. Sacks guided us through the New York Botanical Garden, putting us in touch with curators there who provided cuttings and ideas. He responded to samples of photographs, materials, and design with an enthusiasm that kept all of the collaborators excited about the project over several years. He generously gave a public reading of The Island of Rota at MoMA, sponsored in association with the Museum’s Department of Education—a magical event that can now be seen on MoMA’s website.

With a designer and a writer on board (normally a backwards state of affairs), I then looked for a photographer who could work as a co-collaborator, one whose work could coexist with Muehling’s design, who would respond to Sacks’s text with enthusiasm, and whose work was collected by the Museum and made sense to its ongoing program. Abelardo Morell, known for his camera obscura images of images within books and his experiments with light and photographic processes, seemed ideal. I knew him, through personal encounters many years ago, to be extraordinarily warm and interested in others—an important asset for an artist asked to collaborate with another. Peter Galassi, former Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Photography, enthusiastically endorsed this choice.

Abelardo Morell. The Island of Rota. 2010

Abelardo Morell and Ted Muehling met with Oliver Sacks and with each other and exchanged ideas, fossil rocks, and old books. When Morell visited Muehling’s studio and collection of curiosities, he even proposed to photograph it at a later date.

Abelardo then disappeared down a rabbit hole, it seemed (actually, he went to Boston, where he lives, but that’s what you get when you leave New York collaborators). He emerged with black-and-white cliché verres prints, made with the printer Jonathan Singer, depicting fossil-like images of ferns and cycads that were scanned directly from glass covered with ink and plant matter, evoking Sack’s primordial, color-blind world of ferns and cycads. Morell’s cliché verre photographs were unlike what we had first expected. We, and especially Ted, had imagined camera obscura illusions of 19th-century books, plants, or fossils. Muehling, a professional designer accustomed to responding to outside circumstances, changed tack. He was thrown by the glossiness of the only photographic paper available for the kind of printing Abelardo wanted. It took him months to reconcile himself to a new set of textures for this highly tactile book. He even came to like the photographic paper, after spending many days looking for just the right interleaving to cloak or add mystery to these images within the book. The relationship between Muehling’s own visual contributions with the photographs—plant cuttings cast in paper, ferns pressed on to paper as watermarks, pierced sheets of paper—became closer and deeper. All were as close to the original “subject” of plant life as possible, even when they appeared as shadows, fossil-replicas, or abstractions of the original.

Ted Muehling’s work was done in several stages, each involving the support of designers and artisans, including Leslie Miller at the Grenfell Press, a graphic designer who also hand-printed the text by letterpress; Paul Wong, artistic director at Dieu Donné Paper Mill; and the bookbinder Mark Tomlinson.

Muehling researched and gathered possible source material for over a year before he began working. He selected paper samples from across the world (many of which are found at New York Central Art Supply). He considered typefaces from his numerous nineteenth century books. He spent days at the New York Botanical Garden Library. With the aid of MoMA librarian Sheelagh Bevan, he located dozens of 18th- and 19th-century maps for the project, two of which were ultimately altered and reproduced in the book. He even visited Micronesia, taking up a coincidental invitation from the Nature Conservancy, doing double duty for the Museum as he looked for inspiration in the corals, beetle nuts, rocks, and plants there.

The Island of Rota. 2010 Photograph by Loring McAlpin

If sedimentary layers of the earth suggest a book in stone, The Island of the Rota book evokes stratification in paper. Muehling achieved this effect with semi-transparent interleaving papers placed over the photographs on highly tactile handmade papers. Morell’s photographs were sequenced to heighten a sense of flat, cartographic abstraction, the last of which was seen in close relationship to an early map of the Mariana Islands. Trying to locate a semitransparent interleaving paper with just the right crackly sound, feel, and plant-based fiber, Muehling, as a true obsessive, found something close. He “improved” this almost-right paper by personally ironing every sheet in the edition. To enhance the book’s resemblance to an older scientific book, and to suggest a historical cabinet of wonders, he worked for days on the title page, even cutting and redesigning several of the letters of the Walbaum typeface to suit the eccentric spacing he and Leslie Miller devised. Finally, after we completed the book, he could not resist creating a “bookmark” for each book, cast in bronze from dragonfly wings and ferns.

To say more would be to create the proverbial map of the world as large as the world. In any case, this may give a sense of how one project progressed, however erratically, from idea to finished book.

For more information about MoMA Library research projects and activities please visit The New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) website. NYARC consists of the research libraries of The Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, and The Museum of Modern Art. Visit Arcade, NYARC’s catalog, for your art research needs.