Abelardo Morell, Ted Muehling, and Oliver Sacks, The Island of Rota, Fall 2010
The Island of Rota unites the work of the photographer Abelardo Morell, the designer Ted Muehling, and the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks in a limited-edition publication that considers the unique natural history of a particular island in Micronesia. The most recent in a series of artist’s books produced by the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art, The Island of Rota will be published in the fall of 2010.
Sacks’s text is excerpted from his book The Island of the Colorblind, which takes its name from its study of a Micronesian island population that harbors an extreme form of color blindness—a handicap for which the islanders are compensated with a heightened perception of pattern, shadow, texture, and tone. While visiting this community, Sacks took a botanical side trip to the island of Rota, home to an astonishing array of ferns and cycads. Both groups of plants were common some 150 million years ago and survive today, in particular profusion and variety in this geographically isolated place, long after many other species of that era have become extinct. Plant life, evolution, and the formation of oceanic islands are subjects that have fascinated Sacks since childhood, and his discussion of them in The Island of the Colorblind also has a bibliophile side in the affection the author lavishes on the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century illustrated natural history books that first shaped his passion for science.
Inspired by Sacks’s observations on color blindness as well as by his description of the plant life of Rota, Morell and Muehling have created a tactile volume in black-and-white and sepia that reconceives the author’s text and responds to his sense of deep geological and botanical time. Morell has made thirteen cliché-verres, images made by hand in ink and plant matter on glass and then digitally printed as photographs. Twelve are bound into the book; the thirteenth is placed loose in the book’s box. Morell is best known for images of books, illustrations, and architecture that transform preexisting works of the imagination into magical new works of art, and for photographs that assess the fall of light on simple objects. He has also experimented extensively with the camera obscura and other prephotographic techniques of capturing light. To make each cliché-verre, Morell arranged cuttings of the primordial ferns and cycads that inspired Sacks (these specimens were supplied by the New York Botanical Garden, of which Sacks is a Trustee) in a layer of ink on a glass plate, manipulating them with his fingers to make leaf patterns in the ink and allowing opaque chunks of plant matter to become fixed to the plate as the ink dried. Each glass was then digitally scanned for over an hour to capture the light that passed through it.
Muehling’s contributions encompass almost every aspect of the book, including the typography, the papers, the structure, and a pair of altered historical maps. A master of metalwork, porcelain, and glass based on organic forms, Muehling designed the covers of the book, the box, and castings of cycads and sea fans in handmade paper for the interior. He also designed a pattern of small apertures for two leaves of the book, to be seen at different angles as the pages are turned. The play of light and dark in and around these cutouts (burned through the paper by laser) may suggest the night sky, coral sands, dust, or an archipelago of islands.
The production of The Island of Rota was organized by May Castleberry, editor of Contemporary Editions for the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Leslie Miller and Brad Ewing printed the text by letterpress at the Grenfell Press, New York. The graphic design is by Leslie Miller, with Muehling. The text was printed in Walbaum type on Magnani paper. Jonathan Singer scanned the cliché-verre originals and printed the photographs digitally at Singer Editions, Boston. Mark Tomlinson bound the edition in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Paul Wong, Artistic Director of Dieu Donné (Papermill), New York, handmade the papers and castings, in abaca, cotton, and linen, especially for this edition.
Sacks’s text in The Island of Rota was originally published as a chapter in his book The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997). The maps were reproduced from M. F. Maury’s “Chart” (s.l., 1848; Collection of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division) and Philippe Vandermaelen’s “Atlas universel.” (Brussels, 1827; Collection of the New York Public Library Map Division). The maps were lithographically printed by Deborah Chaney, Brooklyn, New York.
For their support and assistance, special thanks go to Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; Kate Edgar; Agnes Gund; Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives, The Museum of Modern Art; Robbin C. Moran, curator, The New York Botanical Garden; and Loring McAlpin, Muehling Studio.
About the artists
Abelardo Morell was born in Havana in 1948 and lives in Boston. He holds degrees from Bowdoin and Yale, and has taught at Princeton and the Massachusetts College of Art. His publications include A Camera in a Room and A Book of Books. The Art Institute of Chicago is currently organizing a retrospective exhibition of Morell’s photographs to be held in Chicago and at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2013. Morell’s recent work, including a copy of The Island of Rota, will be on view at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York, October 7–December 18, 2010.
Ted Muehling was born in New Jersey in 1953 and lives in New York City. Working primarily in metalwork at the Muehling Studio, New York, he has also designed crystal and glass in collaboration with Steuben Glass Works, Corning, New York, and Lobemeyr Glass, Vienna, Austria, as well as porcelains with Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg, Germany. He recently curated an exhibition of Lobemeyr glass at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York.
The Island of Rota has been printed in an edition of one hundred and thirty-five. Seventy-five copies are reserved for the members of the Library Council and thirty for the artists and collaborators. Each copy is boxed in a paper box and is signed and numbered. A deluxe edition of twenty-five copies, including six for the Museum and collaborators, features covers and a wooden box covered with additional handmade papers designed by Muehling. Each copy is signed and lettered.