I have been here in New York for around six weeks now which means I am finally feeling settled and kind of know my way around. As a tourist, you go to the landmarks, the big galleries and such. However with a little more time on your hands you can go wander the places that are a little more off the map. That’s exactly what I did the other day.
I wanted to go somewhere quiet (NYC is not a quiet place) and so I decided to check out the public library. Also because the building looks pretty epic and apparently it’s beautiful inside… I can tell you now that it was!
So after scanning the shelves for a few books I was curious about but that were long out of print I asked where the art books (and in particular books about printmaking) were. I was sent to a room in the corner of the top floor away from the main collection. When I got there the room was closed off and locked behind a security door. I figured I had the wrong place so I asked again and was told to go back and ring the buzzer to be let in. I did that and a friendly but curt lady asked what I wanted. I explained I had been sent to that part of the library to look at printmaking related art books.
She looked me up and down and then opened the door to let me in…
Holy Shit! Looking back I am glad this part of the Public library is not just somewhere any kid with dirty fingers or haphazard person can wander through. The thing is, I work in a bookstore and a pretty fucking great one! It’s in an art gallery and so I see impressive art-related things more than most. But this room was something else!
After taking down all my details, looking at my passport and signing me in, a fellow asked what I wanted to look at. I instantly realised that every book in the room was locked behind glass cabinets. I explained I was a printmaker, new to New York and figured this might be a good place to find interesting materials. He nodded and asked again if there was anything in particular. Off the top of my head I rattled off the couple of rare books that are at the top of my list of things I would love to someday find. He asked me to take a seat and then wandered off.
He returned a few minutes later with everything I had asked for. he placed them down, showed me how I should handle the books and said to let him know when I was finished. I was kind of stunned for a minute. Beautiful books/wordless novels by Lynd Ward – all first edition, some signed and all printed directly from the original blocks. And in particular a novel by Otto Nuckel that I had seen exerts of but never actually read the book. It was so great as over the next hour and a half, I scanned, read, studied and felt the books, the paper, the imprints of the images and the age that befalls a publication older than your parents. Total book lovers heaven.
Obviously too, I started to also think of other artists I had wanted to read about and when done I asked if there was anything by German artist Otto Dix? In particular the publication Der Krieg? The clerk asked if I wanted to look through a bound or loose leaf copy of the work. Not knowing what he meant exactly I said “loose leaf please”. He nodded and walked off. It was a good five minutes later when he returned with a very large pile of matboard. He asked me to be careful in handling but to take all the time I wanted. It was only then I realised this wasn’t a book at all. It was an original edition of the entire print collection of Der Krieg – the kind of thing I would have to go to a gallery to otherwise see.
I spent the next two hours going over each etching. The details, the rough scrawled lines of copperplates scratched in first world war trenches and on the frontlines of battlefields. It was strong, powerful and definitely a little upsetting to look over these prints but it was also very inspiring! And to think that some guy could walk in off the street, sit down and ask to see and handle these artworks was full-on!
When I was done, I was drained. I listen to heavy music and see a lot of associated artwork that attempts to be scary or confronting or even offensive but none of it had anything on these works. This shit was heavy!
Anyway, I took a few minutes, scanned the shelves of the room and made a list. I let the clerk know I was very grateful and would be returning again to look at more once I had worked out specifically what books and artists I was interested in. He handed me my coat, unlocked the door and let me out.
I am going to try to go back each week and look at more books and works. Take notes, study and try to apply what I see and learn back into my own work. I was grateful that places like this still exist and especially when there is still art that exists in books but not on the internet. For me it was a room of hidden treasure, free to anyone who simply asked.