Traditions In A Bind
by Jerry Tallmer
Maybe if he'd been born Richard Smith and not with that crazy surname out of burlesque, none of this would have happened. On the other hand, one doubts it. Smith? The moment Richard Minsky saw a copy of Patti Smith's "Babel" lying on a counter in the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco in 1979 he knew what he had to do.
"It had this really lousy binding," says Minsky, meaning really unexciting, inappropriate. "It needed something more punk. I mean, I used to go down to CBGB's [right here on Manhattan's Bowery] to watch Patti Smith."
He picked out of its case in the HarperCollins exhibit on 53rd Street that very City Lights copy he'd rebound in ratskin and goatskin. "Look, see the little rat ears?" he said. And then, farther down the spine: "Here's where I drilled holes right through the whole book to put these safety pins in to hold the pages together. I think that's the punk way to do it."
Minsky has been upsetting the bookbinding establishment ever since 1973, when, as a 25-year-old disciple of Brown University's bookbinding classicist Daniel Gibson Knowlton, he suddenly "started going in a different direction" -- beginning with an 1834 copy of Pettigrew's "History of Egyptian Mummies" repaired and wrapped by Minsky in binding sheets of mummifying linen emblazoned with one single small turquoise like an ancient scarab.
A year later, in an empty storefront on Bleecker Street, Minsky started something there wasn't any of in America until then, a Center for Book Arts. Now, 18 struggling, thriving years later, it's very much a part of this city's creative web in its well- equipped, well-lit premises at 626 Broadway.
And its creator is nothing if not creative, as the show in the HarperCollins lobby, a 25-year Richard Minsky retrospective, certainly demonstrates. The older he grows, the wilder the bindings get. You can start with his early traditional work (Capt. James Cook's "A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean,' Virgil's "Georgics" ) and end up, perhaps, with:
"Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals," by Michael H. Brown, Pantheon, 1980. Rebound by Minsky, 1988, with hypodermic needle, crack-vial caps, condom
"just from one day's sweeping outside my vestibule on Bleecker Street" -- underpainted with a phosphorescent death's head that glows in the dark.
"The Biological Time Bomb," by Gordon Rattray Taylor, New American Library, 1968. Rebound by Minsky, 1988, with alarm clock, batteries, "Flying Dragon" gunpowder.
"Tradedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time." by Carroll Quigley, Macmillan, 1966, a book that includes material about German industrial cartel members who became naturalized American citizens and sat on U.S. corporate boards. Rebound by Minsky, 1988, in a lampshade vellum of kidskin from Porcelli Bros., his butchers on Elizabeth Street -- "they've been butchers since the 11th century." Under the skin, a semi- discernible collage of $5 bills shaped into swastikas on a world map.
"Fireworks," by George Plimpton, Doubleday, 1984. Rebound by Minsky, 1991, with -- well -- fireworks, a doorknob mortar, a 'Hurricane" matchbox to light the whole thing.
"Pages from "Minsky in Bed"," 1989-92, a work in progress that comes complete with handcuffs. "My love life, in the style of the 15th-century incunabula, printed on a computer. The handcuffs are because early books were chained to libraries. I thought I'd go along, chain the book to the bedrail."
Boom! Richard Minsky.