Spencer Collection Book of the Month: Kippenberger's Quixote

By Kathie Coblentz, Rare Materials Cataloger, Collections Strategy/Special Formats Processing
March 18, 2011
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Kippenberger's Don Quijote de la Mancha book object (detail)

When is a book not a book? For this month's Spencer Collection Book of the Month, I have a couple of answers in mind.

From the point of view of contemporary art, the answer might be, "When it's a book object."—"Art which makes use of the book format or the structure of the book; typically ... unique sculptural works that take the form of, or incorporate, books but that do not communicate in the ways characteristic of a conventional book." The Spencer Collection and the Library's other special collections possess a number of such works, and like snowflakes or unhappy families, no two are alike.

Stella Waitzkin, Filmmaker (1975). From the Stella Waitzkin website

The artist Stella Waitzkin, for instance, created sculptures in resin that incorporate book forms, like the ones displayed on the Stella Waitzkin website. The Library's Rare Book Division has a version of her Filmmaker. Other artists have taken actual books and transformed them into objects of contemplation, such as the Untitled work in the Spencer Collection that Ann Hamilton wrested (in our example) from a copy of Robert's Rules of Order (another copy is pictured here)—though such productions are, strictly speaking, better designated "Altered books," and contemporary crafters and hobbyists, as well as professional artists, have take up the genre with a vengeance.

Ann Hamilton, Untitled (1992). From the Akira Ikeda Gallery website

Another answer to the question "When is a book not a book?" covers objects that look just like books, but are intended not to dazzle with their art but to deceive by their appearance—basically, blocks or boxes that take the form of books, sometimes called decoy books, dummy books or (if meant to conceal valuables) "book safes." They can be commercially constructed or handcrafted, made from actual books or entirely from scratch. If they're hollow, you can store your treasures in them and shelve them among the conventional volumes in your library, to the consternation of would-be burglars.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917). From the International Dada Archive website

What do we get, then, when an artist happens upon such a pre-existing book object, and intervenes to transform it into a work of art? Theoretically, such intervention need be no more than a signature and perhaps a witty title, following the good old avant-garde tradition of the "ready-made," or "found object," like Marcel Duchamp's notorious Fountain—displayed here as it appeared in 1920 in the Dadaist periodical The Blind Man, signed with the pseudonym "R. Mutt" and photographed by Alfred Stieglitz. But a box calls for contents, and it is here that the artist's imagination can come into play.

Kippenberger's Don Quixote, "front cover"

Kippenberger's Don Quixote, "back cover"

And so we have Martin Kippenberger's Don Quijote de la Mancha, sometimes known as "Don Quixote de la Mancha de la Kipp," produced in an edition of twelve copies in 1989. In external form, it is a cork box in the guise of a book. Printed on the outside are polychrome depictions of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and his faithful Sancho Panza. Inside, there is a single page, the beginning of Chapter One of Cervantes's masterpiece in a crabbed Gothic font—remarkably, this page is also made of cork, sliced as thin as paper. Lift the page, and the contents of the "safe" in the cork compartment beneath are revealed: fifty snapshots, selected at random by the artist, mostly showing people at parties and gallery openings or relaxing on holiday. Included are several featuring Kippenberger's own rather sorrowful countenance. There should also be a folded sheet with the artist's design for a "book object pedestal," which the ideal purchaser of the Quixote would construct for the display of the masterpiece. Here we could meander off into the realm of conceptual art, but since this design is unfortunately lacking in the Spencer copy (it does contain a snapshot of the finished structure), we'll pass over that. The object bears the artist's signature on the inside of the lid.

Kippenberger's Quixote, opened, showing artist's signature

Kippenberger's Quixote, opened, revealing contents. A snapshot of the artist and one showing the "book object pedestal" are on top

Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) was the bad boy of the German art world of the 1980s and 1990s. His obituary in the New York Times called him "a dandyish, articulate, prodigiously prolific artist who loved controversy and confrontation and combined irreverence with a passion for art." A program note for a 2009 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art summarized his career as "a twenty-year commitment to unrestrained excess." For his first museum show, he commissioned a series of "self-portraits" from a commercial sign painter (specializing in movie posters) and merged the painter's and his own name in the title of the show as "Werner Kippenberger." Later, he nailed legs into a painting by a fellow artist, Gerhard Richter, transforming it into a banal coffee table. Among his last works was another series of self-portraits in several media, in which he cast himself as the various shipwreck victims in Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa. (Many of these works can be seen here and here.) He created a sufficient number of both "multiples" (including ready-mades and assemblages) and artist's books to have justified the existence of a catalogue raisonné for each genre (1, 2)—perhaps surprisingly, the Quixote is classed among the latter. Kippenberger would most probably have come upon the colorful "Quixote" boxes in Spain, where he lived for a time at the end of the 1980s—a few of the snapshots apparently document this sojurn. It's easy to imagine how his eyes would have lit up when he beheld the objects, at the same time book and non-book, ready-made and tabula rasa, conjured up by anonymous workmen from the spirit of Don Quixote and that other most celebrated Spanish export product, cork.

In the beginning, though, there really was an edition of Don Quixote printed on cork. In fact, there were several. In the Catalonian town of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, where cork is king, a postman's son turned printer named Octavi Viader i Margarit produced the first of them in 1905–1906, commemorating the 300th anniversary of Don Quixote; the first copy was the printer's gift to the King.

The first cork edition of Don Quixote (1905)

The small edition quickly sold out and was reprinted several times. Viader's son J.M. Viader carried on the family business and produced another cork Quixote for the work's 350th anniversary in 1955; his name appears in small print at the foot of the "back cover" of our Quixote box, so it seems likely that our work's cover pictures and single leaf of text were borrowed from it. All of the cork Quixotes utilized a special Gothic font designed by the editor, Eudald Canibell, in imitation of early Spanish printed books—an anachronism, because early printings of Don Quixote had in fact used clear, modern-looking Roman typefaces.

If you want to know more, see the 2005 article in the Madrid daily ABC, "How Don Quixote was turned into cork in Sant Feliu de Guíxols" (in Spanish) and especially the 2009 blog post by Galderich on his blog Piscolabis Librorum (in Catalan), from which these two pictures are taken. (Many more are available via the link given.) Of course, the cork leaves are so fragile that these editions were hardly reading copies; Galderich, interestingly, uses the term "book object" ("llibre-objecte") when describing Viader's intentions.

Octavi Viader in his printer's smock

Viader's grandson, Jordi, turned the family firm into a bookstore and souvenir shop in 1989 (it finally closed its doors in 2009), and it's tempting to suppose that it was on those very premises that Kippenberger discovered the objects he would turn into "his" Don Quixote. That's speculation, but at any rate, a copy of the pre-Kippenberger empty box is documented, listed among "other objects" in a bibliography of children's editions of Don Quixote by Ana María Navarrete in the blog El Cocodrilo Azul. The box is no. 76; of interest also is the illustration to no. 20 (the cover design for a 1950 Barcelona edition illustrated by Iñigo), which seems to be the model for the picture on our "front cover."

As an aside, Viader didn't invent the art of printing on cork, though he may be its most famous practitioner. The Library possesses a work from around 1851, titled succinctly Printing on Cork Cut at the City Saw Mills, Regent's Canal, London, by Steam Machinery, Antonio James Mayer, Inventor : exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was "Printed by F. Vigurs at the Office of Henry Lucas" in London, and contains forty leaves of cork supplied by the firm of Esdailes & Margrave.

So we have Kippenberger's Quixote—which isn't a book, doesn't tell the story of the Man of La Mancha, and in which Kippenberger's own share consists chiefly of a grab bag of snapshots concealed like a treasure within its hollow interior. "There is a detectable thread of revulsion that runs through Kippenberger's work," wrote critic Adran Seale. "It is a revulsion that is at once directed at the art world (in which he was a consummate player), at postwar German culture, at the pieties of other artists, at the meaninglessness of most art (of which his own work can be seen as a parodic example), and at himself." Perhaps these pictures could be read as fragments spun off from of the artist's lifelong Quixotic quest to produce meaningful art in a world slouching towards post-postmodernism.

Jorge Luis Borges, from Pájaro de fuego, no. 16 (June 1979)

At least, the work surely raises interesting questions of authorship, the nature of art and the very meaning of meaning, and in that it recalls another take-off on Don Quixote: Jorge Luis Borges's story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote." If you're not familiar with it, it's in many anthologies of Borges's works. Borges presents the fictional Menard as a twentieth-century French author who had recreated several chapters from Cervantes's seventeenth-century Castilian classic "word for word and line for line"; the narrator considers the results to be brilliant, more subtle and more profound than the original work—which "was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene deluxe editions." I will leave the question open as to whether Kippenberger, too, has surpassed Cervantes. But like the Spanish master's hero, he certainly was ingenious, and like the original Quixote, his work certainly is entertaining.

Postscript, April 14, 2011: About a week after I posted the above, something extraordinary happened. See this post for details!