Elements and Unknowns


This exhibition features a group of artists' books published since the late 1960s that share a fascination with contradictory information, elemental, unexplored, and overlooked spaces, and the narrative capacity of the book form. These works, selected from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art Library, closely observe elements of nature that lie at the periphery of human consciousness—dust, icebergs, a patch of sky, countless stars or stones, and endless waves. Incalculable portions of an indefinite whole, these aspects of nature evoke the enigma of a physical world largely beyond human control.

The artists bring their various individual working processes and mediums to the sequential and narrative format of the book. Uniting image and text, they have slowed, stilled, or altered the time-based or systematic approaches of photography, video, and film, or shifted the observational and notational techniques of drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Assuming the impersonal authority of a textbook or atlas, these artists' books conjure—and subvert—the appearance of scientific publications from diverse fields, including natural history, astronomy, and geography, proposing logical systems only to unravel them.

Offering minutely detailed views of a segment of seemingly boundless space, the books distantly echo the expeditionary literature of bygone centuries, in which terra incognita and geographical and scientific frontiers loomed with the most power. Spanning forty years of art and ideas, they project a sometimes studied consciousness of the ongoing force of natural phenomena, simultaneously suggesting the limits and the possibilities of modern observation and documentary techniques.

The exhibition is organized by May Castleberry, Editor, Contemporary Editions, The Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art.

Diamond Sea Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Diamond Sea
London: Book Works, 2000

This project is Aitken’s photographic exploration of the topography and altered landscape of the vast, corporate-owned regions of the Namib Desert, in southwestern Africa, known as Diamond Area One and Two.

Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Write-in Jerry Brown President
New York: Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art, 2008

This book-object is a meditation on the passage of time and of a life lived in politics. One side of the book features grainy press photographs from Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr.’s political campaigns of the 1970s. (Jerry Brown was secretary of state in California between 1971 and 1975 and governor of California between 1975 and 1983, and he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, unsuccessfully. He is currently California’s attorney general.) The other side features Aitken’s photographs of skies, shown with clouds or vapor trails, overpasses, trusses, and other seemingly peripheral features of an undefined, unpeopled contemporary California landscape.

Brigida Baltar (Brazilian, born 1959)
Brick Works
Colchester, England: firstsite, 2006

Marcel Broodthaers (Belgian, 1924–1976)
A Voyage on the North Sea
London: Petersburg Press, 1973

The Stars Vija Celmins (American, born Latvia 1938)
The Stars
By Vija Celmins and Eliot Weinberger
New York: Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art, 2005

Offering a consistent, undifferentiated level of detail across an image, Celmin’s printed etchings in this book and in other of her projects over the last forty years suggest an incidental segment of a geological and astronomical survey; yet the works, created by hand, belie a first impression of photography accuracy. The Stars, inspired by the worn binding of an early-twentieth-century Japanese book, serves as the volume’s cover. The text is a group of descriptions of the stars from around the world, cataloguing the human imagination’s response to a vast and unknowable space.

Tacita Dean (British, born 1965)
Disappearance at Sea: A Book of Blackboard Drawings
Limoges: Editions Adélie; Bourges: ENBA, 1997

Part of Dean’s series of artworks inspired by encounters at sea, this book considers the fate of Donald Crowhurst, a competitor in a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race who was lost at sea in 1969.

Tacita Dean (British, born 1965)
The Green Ray and Other Suns
Porto, Portugal: Museu Serralves, 2001

Book of Dust: The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter
Agnes Denes (American, born Hungary 1938)
Book of Dust: The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter
Rochester, N.Y.: The Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1989

Denes, an environmental and Conceptual artist, spent over fifteen years compiling facts, ideas, and images for this scientific and philosophical meditation on cosmic dust. Found and manipulated photographs of laboratory equipment, telescopic views of constellations, and a graphic design style associated with technical and scientific publishing underpin the sense of a grand cosmological scheme that this book embodies.

11 Bilder Hans-Peter Feldmann (German, born 1941)
11 Bilder
Hilden, Germany: Hans-Peter Feldmann, 1972–73

Composed of original, borrowed, and found photographs, Feldmann’s works present fragments from the visual world—one thing, one view, or one action, seen in a series or juxtaposed with one another. His staple-bound books of the 1970s often allude to common conceptions of distant scenes—an Egyptian pyramid, a dirigible over mountain peaks, waves breaking on unidentified shores—although some images that appear on the surface to be familiar and shared turn out to belong in a unique grouping of their own. By categorizing common observations, Feldmann traces the process of representation.

Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946)
Toronto: Art Metropole, 1987

Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946)
Hamish Fulton
Milan: Franco Toselli, 1974

Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946)
Nepal, 1975
Eindhoven: Municipal Van Abbemuseum, 1977

This book, like many others Fulton has made over the past four decades, records actions, events, sensations and locations that this “walking artist” has experienced in the course of a journey.

Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946)
Touching by hand one hundred rocks: seven days walking seven nights camping, June full moon, central Hokkaido Japan 1989
Tokyo: Kanransha, 1991

Geoffrey Hendricks (American, born 1931)
100 Skies
By Geoffrey Hendricks and Henry Martin.
Worpswede: Barkenhoff-Stiftung Worpswede, 1986

Roni Horn (American, born 1955)
To Place: Arctic Circles
Denver, Colo.: Ginny Williams, 1998

Roni Horn (American, born 1955)
To Place: Lava
New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1992

To Place: Verne’s Journey Roni Horn (American, born 1955)
To Place: Verne’s Journey
Cologne, Germany: Walter König, 1995 

Horn’s ongoing series To Place focuses on Iceland. The books consider identity, site, and nature through photographs of landscapes, ice, rocks, swirling water, and people; most of the images are accompanied by descriptive, classificatory, or literary texts. To Place: Verne’s Journey, the fifth in the series, refers to the North Atlantic island where the book Journey to Center of The Earth (1864), by Jules Verne,began. Horn’s volume opens with a series of aerial geographic views of Iceland, continues with multiple images of the island’s geological formations, and concludes with images of crashing waves.

Roni Horn (American, born 1955)
Still Water
Santa Fe, N.M.: SITE Santa Fe, 2000

Another Water (The River Thames for Example) Roni Horn (American, born 1955)
Another Water (The River Thames for Example)
Zurich: Scalo; New York: DAP, 2000

Horn defines water as a kind of mirror, both in a physical sense—the dark water of the Thames often reflects the clouded skies of London—and in a metaphorical sense: the lightlessness of the river inspired the artist to consider the historical “darkness” of the Thames as a place of suicide and crime. The river’s hypnotic surfaces suggest a variety of reveries and observations, which the artist captures in the notes appended to and overprinted on her photographs, projecting, she says, “whatever I was thinking of at the time, what the river provoked in me and what was in the river itself.”

Bread and Water Alison Knowles (American, born 1933)
Bread and Water
Boulder, Colo.: Left Hand Books, 1995

Noticing the similarity between rivers and the patterns of cracks in homemade bread, Knowles matched photographs of bread to the lines of rivers, atlas texts, and other geographic sources.

Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007)
Sunrise and Sunset at Praiano
New York: Rizzoli, 1980

LeWitt photographed sunrises and sunsets over the sea in Praiano, Italy, and arranged the images in grids, four per page, on thirty pages.

Sunrise and Sunset at Praiano

Richard Long (British, born 1945)
A Hundred Stones One Mile Between First and Last. Cornwall, England, 1977
Berne: Staempfli, 1977

Richard Long (British, born 1945)
“Rain Dance.” August 24, 1969. The Rift Valley, East Africa. (A 3/4 mile travelling piece documented by 4 photographs.)
New York: Multiples, Inc., 1970

Bruce Nauman (American, born 1941)
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, 1968-69
Gift of May Castleberry

Rectangular pages in varying shades of blue may be read as documentary images when they are collected in a book titled CLEA RSKY. The book provides a contradictory set of finite specimens—or partial views of infinite space.

Bruce Nauman (American, born 1941)
New York: Multiples Inc, 1970

L A AIR complements and extends the sky-blue pages of Nauman’s earlier book CLEA RSKY. The artist photographed the polluted air of Los Angeles. Contextless, glossy variant hues describe a perverse color-field theory—one in which the purity of color is corrupted by the toxicity of the air.

Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence: an Appointment to Watch Falling Stars Olaf Nicolai (German, born 1962)
Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence: an Appointment to Watch Falling Stars
Berlin: Galerie Eigen + Art Leipzig, 2005

This catalogue lists locations and times for observing falling stars in August 2005. As a published proposal or a kind of platform for an aesthetic and natural experience, the falling stars (or the catalogues, at least) were the artist’s contribution to that summer’s Venice Biennale.

Gerhard Richter (German, born 1932)
Rome: Galleria Pieroni, 1981
Copy two: Collection of Philip E. Aarons

This small book mimics the monotonous design of scientific textbooks and technical “gray literature” of the 1960s. A series of black-and-white photographs, displayed in grid fashion across multiple pages, reveals mutating icebergs. In this special edition, the cover is a fragment of an original abstract oil painting on canvas. In intense contrast to the contents of the book, the painted cover suggests the jagged peaks and veins of vivid colors of a nineteenth-century painting of the Arctic, a piece of the romantic sublime.

Royal Road Test Edward Ruscha (American, born 1937)
Mason Williams (American, born 1938)
Patrick Blackwell (American, born 1935)
Royal Road Test
Los Angeles: Mason Williams and Edward Ruscha, 1967

A series of captioned photographs depict a drive in which a Royal brand typewriter is thrown out of a speeding car into the desert. The artists examine the physical effects of the impact, in deadpan style. The design evokes typing and automotive manuals of the 1960s.

Torn Photograph from the second stop (rubble): second mountain of 6 stops on a section Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)
Torn Photograph from the second stop (rubble): second mountain of 6 stops on a section
New York: Multiples, Inc., 1970.

Consisting of four loose leaves in a glassine envelope, this work on paper acts as an abstract container for the Earth, which itself cannot be contained or exhibited. By tearing the photograph, the artist further fragments his creation, in an act of decomposition.

Joëlle Tuerlinckx (Belgian, born 1958)
la-plus-grande-surface-au-monde scale 1:1/the-biggest-surface-of-the-world scale 1:1
New York: Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art, 2006

This edition was generated from a sheet of paper covered with a thick layer of powdery gray photocopier toner. Accompanying each piece is a seemingly scientific, highly technical description of the project, written by the artist, with computer-generated diagrams of atomic spheres.

la-plus-grande-surface-au-monde scale 1:1/the-biggest-surface-of-the-world scale 1:1

Tadanori Yokoo (Japanese, born 1936)
Waterfall rapture postcards of falling water: my addiction, my collection, my edition
Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1996


This exhibition is supported by the Library Council and the Trustee Committee on Museum Archives, Library and Research.

Special thanks go to Sheelagh Bevan, Assistant Librarian, for her suggestions, descriptions of selected books, and capable organization of the installation. For their support and ideas, thanks are due to Allegra Burnette, Creative Director, Digital Media, Department of Information Technology; Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist, The Museum of Modern Art Archives; David Frankel, Managing Editor, Department of Publications; Sarah Ganz, Director, Interpretation and Research, Department of Education; Julianna Goodman, Graphic Designer, Department of Graphic Design; Peter Huelster, Department Assistant, Library and Archives; Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives; James Kuo, Senior Graphic Designer, Department of Graphic Design; Rebecca Roberts, Senior Assistant Editor, Department of Publications; David Senior, Bibliographer, The Museum of Modern Art Library; Jennifer Tobias, Librarian, The Museum of Modern Art Library; Rachael Morrison, Library Assistant; Mia D'Avanza; Chiara Bernasconi, Project Manager, Digital Media, Department of Information Technology. Outside the Museum, the same thanks go to Taina Carago and Joan Weakley.