The first two people to whom I showed Brian Dettmers ModernPaintersone woman in her thirties, the other in her late sixties—reacted with the identical cry: “How could he do that to a book?!”Dettmer’s Modern Painters appropriated the title and actual volumesof 19th-century Britain’s single most brilliant and influential workof practical criticism, polemic, and art theory. But that is where thesimilarities end, because to make his sculpture, Dettmer destroyedRuskins opus, digging into and tearing apart an 1873 edition inorder to make a three-dimensional form that, like all successfulsculpture, presents us with something new as we circle it. Fromone angle, we find a face composed of lines of text partially coveredby curvilinear cutouts taken from Ruskin’s drawings of vegetation.In contrast, the opposite side highlights linearity, with a three-dimensionalcollage of Ruskinian pronouncements. Dettmer alsotackled a 1987 condensed version, creating a shadow box of imagesincluding Gothic windows, cathedrals, and various saints all set offby phrases such as “external nature is,” “speaking of the sublime,”“seeking,” and so on.
Above all else, Dettmer’s sculptures deconstruct the book—not only the volumes of Ruskin’s Modern Painters that provide thesculptor’s medium but also our very idea and experience of the book.I do not use deconstruct in its now-common meaning as little morethan “destroy” or “analyze,” though, to be sure, Dettmer’s ModernPainters certainly does that. Jacques Derrida, who is best understoodless as a philosopher than as a Zen master doing away with impedimentsto clear thinking and feeling, made an important point whenhe coined his trendy term. For Derrida, an act of deconstructionreveals the illusory nature of the binary oppositions that clutter ourminds, such as male-female, red-green, Caucasian-black, and, ofcourse, the book-as-object and the book-as-text, the latter existingseparately from its physical instantiation.
Derrida attacked common binaries, such as presence and absenceand inside and outside, particularly as we use them in reference tobooks. In Dissemination (1972; English translation 1981), he useshis characteristically teasing, in-your-face method to pick apart ourfoggy ideas about such terms. Everyone knows books often haveforewords and prefaces, sometimes afterwords, too, but we all alsoknow that such things are not really part of the book. “Really?”asks Derrida, who gives his preface multiple titles: “Hors Livre”(outside the book), “Outwork” (as in a fortification), “Facing” (facade,something, one might add, Ruskin thought might lead architectsinto fakery), and finally the familiar “Prefacing” (note: an action,not a textual category).
Derrida playfully reminds us of something we all too often forgetor ignore: we don’t have very good words to explain how visualand verbal texts work. For instance, when Virgil, Dante, and Miltonallude to the Iliad, we can’t explain in what sense Homers text is inor inside these works, nor can we explain in what sense Greek andRoman statues are in (or not in) Renaissance sculpture. As recentcopyright lawsuits have shown, we have troubleexplaining the relationship of postcards and othermass-culture images to the images that reappear inartworks, such as those by Jeff Koons.
Our reception of Dettmer’s work depends onour ability to see books the way Dettmer does: asmaterial objects that promote specific cultural, economic,political, and philosophical agendas. Booklovers have long cherished their volumes as materialobjects, but it’s only since the rise of new, nonprintmedia—television and computers having the mostpowerful effect—that we have begun to see thebook without the assumptions of a long-dominantprint culture. In concert with our experience ofother information technologies, we have denaturalizedthe book: we no longer misconceive spokenlanguage, writing, and books as natural objects.Indeed, some decades ago Marshall McLuhansGutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Elizabeth EisensteinsPrinting Press as an Agent of Social Change(1979) revealed that the book was a machine, atechnology for preserving, disseminating, andaccessing text and images—a machine, moreover,that changed the way we think. In other words,these authors decentered the book (Derrida again),explaining that the transformative power of theprinted book derives from its combined qualities offixity and multiplicity. That is, having many copiesof the same book permits readers widely separatedin time and space to read the same text and therebybecome members of a virtual community.
Brian Dettmer’s Modern Painters appears tobe at the intersection of sculpture, information technology,the artist book, and art history. This workshares some qualities with Brig Laugiers dramaticdestruction and reconstruction of the book asobject, for like the French artist’s Dictionnnairegrec (1997) and Nouveau Larousse illustré, tome2 (1999), Dettmer’s work creates a sculpture fromreconfigured printed books. Nonetheless, weimmediately perceive obvious differences: whereasLaugier creates large simplifying forms by gatheringlarge numbers of pages into massive shapes, likethe quite beautiful waves crafted from a Greekdictionary, Dettmer emphasizes the minute, nervousdetail rather than the effect of large masses. Thinkof the Pre-Raphaelites or Hogarth rather than theclassical Poussin or Canova.
Moreover, Dettmer, unlike Laugier, respects andpreserves the book as a means of communicatingwords and phrases. In this, his work resembles TomPhillipss A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel(1970), for like Phillips he also preserves parts oftexts, working by subtraction as he cuts away ratherthan paints over the words he does not need. Butunlike Modern Painters, a sculpture emphasizingits presence in space, A Humument essentially worksonly in two dimensions.
Dettmer has carved through atlases and encyclopedias,but Ruskin’s five volumes, which popularized such radicallydifferent artists as Giotto, Tintoretto, Turner, and thePre-Raphaelites, provides fertile material for Dettmer—and a lens through which to consider Dettmer’s work anew.Ruskin taught readers how to see, with fluid, often protocinematicprose. He began by arguing that Turner’s visionsof mist and fire derived from close study of nature’s factsand ended with superb compositional and iconologicalanalyses—very rare, almost nonexistent, throughout 19th-centuryart criticism. Between his first and fifth volume,Ruskin, an artist and critic frequently miscast as an advocateof moral art, proposed that simply experiencing the beautiesof nature and art was itself an elevating spiritual act (elsewherewriting about fairy tales and fantasy, he emphasizedthat stimulating a child’s imagination had far more importancethan tacked-on moral statements, which he despised).
Like Ruskin, Dettmer masterfully picks out detail inother people’s work, and like the author of Modern Painters,he has several modes, each of which creates a kind ofspatial hypertext—hypertext that indicates connections bycontiguity rather than by links. Of course, to produce thissculptural reconfiguration of Ruskin, Dettmer destroyedbooks (to the dismay of the two women mentioned at thebeginning of this essay). In his gallery profile, the artist’sresponse to such reactions shows a rare awareness of theway we sentimentalize books even as we ravage them:“There is this idea that, if you are altering a book, you aredestroying something someone else made and somethingthat could still be read. . .. The flip side is that most booksare mass-produced objects and are often discarded.”
The truth is that many people no longer experience thebook as a particularly permanent or even aestheticallypleasing means of presenting text. College students moreoften than not read assigned course packets containingsloppy photocopies differing from the originals in size andpage configuration. They also encounter massive novelslike Great Expectations or War and Peace in paperboundeditions that fall apart long before they finish readingthem. These experiences destroy the book-as-object far moredrastically than Dettmer, Phillips, or Laugier ever have.These artists’ cut-up volumes perhaps remind us of what ourculture once thought of books—and what has become ofthe book as ideal."Hors Livre" originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2008 Table of Contents.