Jan. 11, 2007

'Big Red C': Alphabetic sculpture of Cornell books decorates New York City loft

More than 800 works of literature and arts and humanities scholarship at Cornell add up to a single letter in a new installation by book artist and Department of Art chair Buzz Spector.

The structure, "Big Red C," is Spector's first major book installation in New York City. On display Jan. 11-19 in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning's loft space on West 17th Street, in the heart of the arts-rich Chelsea neighborhood, it will be reconstructed on the Ithaca campus in April in Olin Library.

Books spanning the years 1953 (M.H. Abrams' seminal "The Mirror and the Lamp") to late 2006 (astronomer Jim Bell's pictorial "Postcards from Mars") ascend, ziggurat-like, from end to end to rise 37 inches from the floor, though the height has been a work in progress.

"The weight of the books above pushes the air out and it shifts," Spector says of the structure. "My first big piece, when I finished it, was 68 inches tall. When the [Chicago] Tribune review came out, they said it was 60 inches high."

The installation is accompanied by a display of large-format Polaroid photographs of the completed sculpture.

Authors from across the Cornell community loaned nearly 300 books for the Humanities Book Art Project. The first donation, logged in late October, was Michael Kammen's "Visual Shock." Abrams and many others hand-delivered their own books. An additional 500-plus titles were pulled from the stacks of Olin, Kroch and Uris libraries.

The smallest book, placed at the lower tip of the "C," is a German translation of Jonathan Culler's "Literary Theory: A Short Introduction." Culler was the leading donor among the humanities scholars, lending 37 of his publications, including translations of his works in Korean and Croatian.

Spector also borrowed 2,000 books slated to be sold or discarded by the New York Public Library. This enabled the 15 students taking "From Inspiration to Exhibition," a three-week Winter Session course, to create their own book installations in the loft's large windows and completely wrapping a large column with books stacked nearly seven feet high. The students not only learned about the different properties of the books but also explored the possibilities of working with text. More than mere building blocks, books offer countless opportunities for commentary and subtext when used in sculpture, Spector says. "It's a sea of language."

Carolyn Funk, Spector's graduate teaching assistant, says, "He had all of the students write poems -- sonnets -- from the titles of the books."

Spector led the studio component of the course; Todd McGrain and Maria Park, associate and assistant professors of art, respectively, each led a weeklong session, taking students to artist studios, galleries, museums and other sites.

"A big part of this course for me is the fact that it's actually in New York City," says Madeleine Corbett '09, an art and physics major. "Being exposed to galleries and the role of curators, getting a bearing on what is going on in the art world right now and being involved in that experience, I think is very meaningful in my development as an artist."

The titles reserved for the top layer of the "C" show a range of scholarship and a variety of colors, jacket designs and typography. Spector purposely placed one title in the piece to read upside down. And Culler's "On Puns" occupies a place on the bottom of the structure, "so that entire section is built on puns," Spector says with a smile.

Sometimes, it's just about what fits. "Alice Fulton is a great poet, but her book is a quarter of an inch thick, and that's what I needed," Spector says, after placing a copy of her "Dance Script with Electric Ballerina" in the structure.

"It's so interesting that there are so many great books here. I could pull any of these out and teach. I could do an afternoon on Jonathan Culler."