Center for Book Arts

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 34 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A book turned into a fantastically eroded landscape by Guy Laramée. Google that dude, his work is amazing.

Center for Book Arts, Anthropocene Show, Manhattan
Guy Laramée, “Archaeology,” 2010, altered book

The Center for Book Arts is one of those quixotic organizations whose unlikely existence helps make life in New York worthwhile.  In this digital age, the idea that an organization will teach you how to letterpress print, how to bind a book, how to marbleize paper, seems hopelessly, charmingly, vitally anachronistic.  In addition to classes, the Center for Book Arts also offers memberships; join and you can go and hand-set lead type to your heart’s content.  Just don’t lick your fingers while you do it.

A good friend of mine used to work at the Center for Book Arts.  I’ve gone to many of their benefits and openings, and I took a class there where I made an extremely limited edition set of Gothamjoe business cards last year.  So I know the place pretty well.

In addition to everything else they do, the Center also maintains a modestly sized gallery space, open to the public, where visitors can see contemporary work focused on printing, books, and the various other arts of manipulating paper.

The Gallery Space

The current Book Arts show is called “Our Anthropocene:  Eco Crises.”  So, it’s upbeat and cheery.  Lots of prints and books and other works on humanity’s general eco-awfulness.  Corporate logos printed on handmade paper, rather convincing faux logs crafted from painted and epoxyed magazine pages, a glacier-sized book of photos of glaciers… that sort of thing.

It’s beautiful and diverse in media and techniques, even if it’s not a show that a visitor leaves feeling all that optimistic about the fate of the world.

Other Things to See

The Center’s its desire to exhibit things overwhelms its dedicated gallery space, and spills over into some of the working spaces.  Which I like a lot; it’s good sometimes to combine seeing art with seeing the tools and people who make art. (That’s one of the things I really liked about the Living Museum in Queens, too.)

In addition to the Anthropocene show, I saw a small show of works by Emily McVarish, selections from the Center’s permanent collection, and some work by students participating in the Center’s scholarship for advanced studies in book arts.

 And of course the big old iron contraptions that people used to make marks on paper, some dating back to when our most sophisticated communication devices consisted of dead trees mashed flat, rather than silicon and glass.  The presses and type trays are not artifacts, and the Center could arguably use more signage describing itself to casual visitors.  It’s a little like the Mossman Lock Collection, if people still made and used locks like Mr. Mossman’s.

Should You Visit the Center for Book Arts?

New York offers several fantastic museum venues for bibliophiles. The Center for Book Arts provides an interesting complement to the Grolier Club.  The former focuses on creating works related to paper, printing, and books, while the latter celebrates collecting those works.  And of course book lovers of all stripes should count the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library (three Gutenberg Bibles *ahem*) as must-visit institutions. As the scrappiest venue on that list, the Center for Book Arts feels in some ways most alive.  

The Center for Book Arts puts on solid shows of contemporary work, generally both interesting and beautiful.  It’s perhaps not a general-interest art destination, and it can’t pull of shows as grand as its compatriots.  However, anyone with an interest in books, bookmaking, and printing will find it well worth a visit.

Final note for planning purposes, the Center for Book Arts is close to the Museum of Sex, the Museum of Math, and the Museum at FIT.  I’m not sure I can come up with any rationale for combining those venues, but proximity sometimes rules over theme.

For Reference:

Address 28 West 27th Street, 3d Floor, (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  Free
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