Review of the exhibit Richard Minsky: A 25 Year Retrospective
HarperCollins Gallery, 1992

From the Studio

by Rose Slivka

The East Hampton Star, April 9, 1992

Having watched Richard Minsky make books, bindings, and book arts for 18 of the 25 years included in his current retrospective at the HarperCollins publishing company gallery in Manhattan, I am surprised at the number of surprises the show reveals. The first surprise: The Sag Harbor artist has grown from youth to middle age. The work has progressed from being brash, brilliant, and provocative to being brash, brilliant, provocative and probing.

I am a friend of Mr. Minsky's and partisan to his causes, which does not, however, mean I am always a subscriber to his aesthetic. I consider him the outstanding American exponent of modern bookbinding as the art of amplification of the book, the container of language and ideas. He is both an artist advocate and a passionate practitioner of the craft and the art of book-making and binding.

"Egyptian Mummies"

In considering the total output of the 25-year period, I find Mr. Minsky started on such a high, with such metaphoric power, in "Pettigrew's History of Egyptian Mummies" a book published in 1834 and brought to him in 1973 for repair -- he has yet to top it for simplicity and mysterious impact.

He wrapped the book in linen strips, protecting, repairing, conserving, and, strangely, binding, in its white silence, its very ghost. It is the essence of mummification, itself a relic in the present, evoking the past.

With this book, at the time, he significantly changed the relationship of the book to its cover. On the other hand, I don't like the didactic sexual imagery tooled on the covers of "Holy Terror" -- high craft, low leather.

"From the Bowery to SoHo"

In 1974, when I first met him, Mr. Minsky had just returned from a tour of European bookbinderies, after apprenticing in the basement of the book conservator of Brown University and doing a stint as bookbinder to the Hirshhorn Museum.

He had taken a storefront on Manhattan's Bowery, where he seemed to be the only vertical body in a neighborhood at that time the last resort of the homeless alcoholic. But the rent was cheap. He opened a storefront bindery, printshop, and art gallery. There he started the Center for Book Arts, with a membership and clientele of one -- himself.

Since then, the center has grown to include approximately 1,000 members worldwide. It is now in a space six times its original size, in culture-chic SoHo.


Modern bookbinding, basically, is an ancient art in a contemporary context. When Mr. Minsky entered the field, it was still a quiet skill of conservation and decoration. From his classical bindings in tooled leather and cloth to the use of unorthodox materials that relate to the text in sculptural as well as functional forms, his innovations and temperament have effected significant changes in the field.

At times outrageous and overstated, at times austere and even awesome, he is an artist who swings the gamut, at one extreme a beast at a feast on a feeding frenzy, at the other, a skeleton in jail on a hunger strike.

No wonder the Guild of BookWorkers threw him out of its 1975 show at Yale University. His entry was a binding of "The Birds of North America" with a whole pheasant skin sewn to the cover.

"Living 'Fireworks'"

Last July, at the annual fireworks celebration at Boys Harbor in East Hampton, Mr. Minsky presented George Plimpton with a copy of Mr. Plimpton's 1984 book "Fireworks," newly bound and painted.

On the front cover are mounted a variety of live rockets in a decorative pattern, with a mortar shell in the center and windproof, waterproof hurricane matches tied to the attached fuse. The book can be exploded in any weather, should the owner/author wish to do so.

The back cover has an arrangement of firecrackers and the spine is a rocket.

"Minsky In Bed"

In some cases, Richard Minsky both writes and binds a book, as with the ongoing "Minsky in Bed (1989-1992), an autobiographical story of a modern-day Casanova in the form of a 15th-century book.

The text and inset commentary are decorated and illuminated with initial letters and miniature pictures of the events, replete with gold leaf. Only gradually does it become evident that the lavish illustrations are pornographic.

Written in a modern, conversational style, the book is printed in antique typography on handmade paper fed through a high-resolution computer ink-jet. The artist then works the pages with watercolors and gold leaf, a page at a time.

The covers are bound in purple-dyed calf and mounted with miniature figures sculptured in lost wax and cast into brass, in various positions of copulation.

"Chilling Beauty"

Mr. Minsky sometimes works directly with a writer in the development of a book. The culmination of this approach is shown in his collaboration with the English writer and painter Tom Phillips, on Mr. Phillips's translation of Dante's "Inferno."

A series of guest books have cover portraits of the houses for which they are made, painted by Mr. Minsky in a kind of naively realistic style that is characteristic.

A series of blank books with inlaid snakeskin covers makes the most of the natural patterning of the skin. These are chillingly beautiful.

The blank books are an exquisite contrast to the raucus edge of "Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up," written by Bob Colacello. Published in 1990 and subsequently bound by Mr. Minsky, it features a computer portrait of Mr. Warhol inset with 600 small diamonds.

"Political Commentary"

Mr. Minsky's new book, "Animal Magnetism"-- pages were shown last summer at the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton -- is basically a computer-generated series of twin images, kissing. The artist found the images in antique and ancient graphic works and adapted them for present use as a children's alphabet book.

Political commentary and social goals are frequent themes in Minsky bindings and published books. For example, his 1988 binding of Michael Brown's "Laying Waste," on the poisoning of America by toxic chemicals, features a hypodermic needle, crack-vial caps, and a condom, extending the book's message to include not only industrial desecration of the environment, but also acts of individual self-destruction.

HarperCollins is at 10 East 53rd Street. The retrospective, some 40 books in all, concludes on April 29.

To continue the exhibition, click one of the sections or a button. 
Each section has several thumbnail images and descriptions of the works. You can click on any image for a page about that work, with larger pictures and details. 

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