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Will Heinrich: "What to See in N.Y.C. Galleries in January"

Installation view, Books: A Group Exhibition, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, January 6 – February 10, 2024. Photo: Steven Probert.

A group show with as literal a premise as this one is always a gamble because it’s all too easy for the literal to slip into the superficial. What saves this one, even gives it a strange, fascinating energy, is the knotty tension of a subject, “books,” that doesn’t exactly translate into visual art.

Some artists make their materials fit by shoving them aside or cutting them up: Seung-taek Lee uses dismembered typewriter keys to print a hazy, black, ink-on-canvas cloud around an emptied book; Jane Benson carefully slices the letters “e” and “a” out of polyester pages; and Terry Adkins, building a memorial to John Brown, sticks an oversize Bible as a prop under a Crusader’s sword jammed into a cage full of wool.

The strongest pieces take the visual or conceptual qualities of books just as they are, like Sarah Charlesworth’s photo of an open blank book; Steve Wolfe’s meticulously painted replicas of “On the Road” and “120 Days of Sodom”; Theaster Gates’s “Nump,” a free-associative poem rendered as a series of gold-embossed book titles; and especially a 1994 Carl Andre piece, “The Birth of Knowledge,” which is a weathered Hebrew prayer book screwed into an old-fashioned wooden tennis racket frame. It’s a cunning way of highlighting the fact that books and conceptual artworks are, in fact, very similar: They’re both devices designed to bind together sheaves of disparate ideas.

– Will Heinrich