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NMWA Celebrates 20 Years of Book as Art Displays

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is a unique and singular place on the Washington landscape because of the very reason for its existence—the promotion of and focus on women in the visual arts.

Out of this mission, which has enriched the museum experiences of countless art lovers, came another unique and singular body of work: the annual exhibitions that examine books as a distinct genre of art in and of themselves—a form that has no locus of regular exploration anywhere else in the country.

Given this fact, it’s more than appropriate that the major exhibition “The Book as Art: Twenty Years of Artists’ Books From the National Museum of Women in the Arts” is a spectacular, wide-ranging survey that celebrates the 20th anniversary of this NMWA tradition.

An astounding array of more than 100 works is on display, all created by a group of women as diverse, remarkable and individual as the art on hand. The result is a must-see show for anyone with a passionate or even passing interest in books.

For all of this we have to thank Krystyna Wasserman, the persistent, soft-spoken, intellectually scrupulous and brave curator of book arts at the NMWA. For 20 years, she has mounted, with ever increasing complexity, individual, thematic and group shows around the idea of book as art, building the definition of this genre and revealing its diverse aspects that are at once creative, imaginative, fantastical and practical.

This year’s anniversary display is a kind of climax to all of her previous efforts, although, if the exhibition gets the kind of critical and popular attention it most surely deserves, it could just as well be a jumping-off point for more widespread showings of this genre.

The exhibit isn’t exactly a history of books as art—some form of which has been around since travel journals, calendars, illustrated books, field drawings and so forth. Rather, it’s an almost encyclopedic collection of works by multitalented artists who set out to create books specifically as objects of art—and not just containers of words and information—becoming singular kinds of artists in the process.

All of the creations here—there are not yet official terms for them—are contemporary, with the oldest stretching only to 1983. But many also give off ageless, dream-like qualities. They reflect an urgent desire to know and experience the elements in these books, recreating them with potent vividness in forms that are impossible to pigeonhole.

Through these books, all sorts of different disciplines and talents emerge, including the writing itself. One of the difficulties of this genre is that it’s almost impossible to describe in terms of rules, dynamics and parameters, of which there truly are none. The world of book as art is a kind of carnival of wonders, displaying all sorts of temperaments, motivations, patience and bursts of inspiration.

Let’s take one example: Audrey Niffenegger, probably one of the best-known women in the exhibition, although she is known more so for her novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” of which there are 2 million copies in print. In one sense, she said the success of her novel has helped with her work in creating books as art. Her first such creation, “The Adventuress,” began as a series of drawings and features 68 aquatints on Japanese paper. It is, in many ways, a book that’s the sum of its physical parts, and that’s only one form of book as art—one that resembles a “real” book.

But this is just a starting point. The exhibit hints at its diversity through its many sub-categories of themes, such as “storytellers,” “food and the body,” “autobiographers,” “dreamers and magicians,” “historians,” “mothers, daughters and wives,” “inspired by the muses,” “nature” and “travelers.”

The artists are women who are also writers or who work with writers, such as the collaboration between artist Rosemarie Chiarlone and Susan Weiner, whose poem “Residue” provides the text for Chiarlone’s creation, a book of pillowcases, pillows and thread chronicling an affair. The line, “It is always morning here/in this secret hiding place,” becomes both text and texture among the folds of the pillows, which contain a world of memory and interpretations that cry out to be read and explored.

These women are also performers, political activists, environmentalists, champions of gender work, wives, friends, lovers, mothers, daughters and professionals of all stripes, which is reflected in the eclectic pieces. The materials, text and physical projections that they use are very germane—everything from bird wings and butterflies to silkscreen cloth and toys.

These works are “felt” and “experienced” in ways that go beyond merely reading books, as evidenced by Yani Pecanins’s hanging dress, which, upon closer inspection, becomes a riff on writing, with copied photos and the ragged folds of the hanging dress representing a testament to Anne Frank.

I was often moved and sometimes dazzled by many of the works—even out-loud amused, such as with Pat Oleszko’s “Glove Story,” a punster’s delight in the form of a shadow show that’s just sheer fun and provocative, as it should be given Oleszko’s day job as a performance artist.

A warning: The effect of this exhibition—one visit is not enough—is hypnotic. It makes you re-think traditional ideas about reading, books, men and women. In short, let people know where to find you in case you forget all about time, which is very likely.

The Book as Art: Twenty Years of Artists’ Books From the National Museum of Women in the Arts through Feb. 4 National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit


About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.