June 15, 2016
Artist who recreated classic books for the gallery dies
by Kait Howard
Last week, we wrote about the contemporary craze for visual art made from the pages of old books. While we didn’t mention the work of artist Steve Wolfe, whose death last month was reported this weekend, it would have been interesting to compare contemporary trends in bibliophilic art to the inverse approach Wolfe first honed in the ‘80s.
As the New York Times’s Margalit Fox writes in an obituary, Wolfe recreated classic works of literature as “paintings—playful, thoughtful one-offs designed to be hung on gallery walls.” Using board, paper, paint, and other materials, he paid homage to works like Farewell, My Lovely, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Speak, Memory by meticulously crafting reproductions that—ironically—couldn’t be opened or read.
His trompe l’oeils were labeled by some as purely nostalgic, even precious, but New York Times art critic Holland Cotter read a subtlety in them, writing in a 2003 review that the work is “saved, even elevated, by its conceptual smarts…Mr. Wolfe offers us work of 20th-century giants of fictional self-scrutiny, James Joyce and Proust among them, but as blocks of unopenable matter.”
Cotter also indicated that some of the works’ power came from technical precision of Wolfe’s cover reproductions—which, as the artist insisted in an interview with the Houston Chronicle quoted by Margalit—were quite different from Andy Warhol’s mimimalist Brillo boxes.
As Margalit notes, “the relentless advance of the digital frontier, [Wolfe’s works] became unanticipated, elegiac commentaries on the waning of print.” Unlike artists making bibliographic work today, he was making his book sculptures before the dawn of digital. And, at least as far as I can tell as a less-than-amateur observer, Wolfe didn’t so much rely on the suggestive power of certain books as he did disrupt them. Which may well be a sounder justification for bringing them into the gallery.
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.