An exhibit of fine-press books is most tempting to lovers of that particular craft. These hand-set masterpieces, sumptuously inked on fibrous paper from France and Italy, on oversized pages whose covers are swathed in raw silk and whose box cases are lined in velvet – to book-lovers they are art in and of themselves, independent even of the prose they present.
But an even wider audience will appreciate the books of the Limited Editions Club, which use original art to illustrate the prose, publishing, for example, the poetry of Langston Hughes with silkscreen illustrations by Phoebe Beasley, or stories by Zora Neal Hurston with pulls from the press of Elizabeth Catlett. These books are breathtaking, art that pleases on several levels.
Such books are coming to Hearne Fine Art, 500 President Clinton Ave., on Saturday, April 17, when it opens “The Limited Editions Club: The African-American Influence,” an exhibit of 11 books from the famed letterpress series. Accompanying each book will be a separate portfolio of the illustrations alone, signed and numbered prints. Works from three of these portfolios – by Beasley, John Biggers and Dean Mitchell – will be hung for the show; the others will remain in their portfolio boxes.
These are Hearne’s own books she’s exhibiting. She doesn’t expect to sell many portfolios or extant Limited Editions Club publications of her books – they’re quite expensive. But the show is the culmination of several years’ desire to show the words and art of African Americans in the exquisite and prestigious form that Limited Editions Club publications – known as livres d’artists – take.
A reporter donned white gloves to inspect two books in the gallery last week as a preview of what’s to come – “The Book of Genesis,” with eight silkscreens by Jacob Lawrence, and “Sunrise is Coming After While,” poetry by Langston Hughes with six collage-like silkscreens by Beasley.
In his eight silkscreens, Lawrence portrays a preacher, a rose always at his side, gesticulating to a small congregation. The view from the windows of his church changes as the creation story is told, from darkness to creeping things to the garden. Only 400 copies were printed of “The Book of Genesis,” on 17-by-22 1/4-inch pages between midnight blue cloth coverboards. “The Book of Genesis” was published in 1989; the last copy sold by Limited Editions publisher Sid Shiff went for $10,000; he expects others that come on the market to cost more. Its portfolio, signed and numbered prints by the late artist, is worth a staggering $75,000.
Maya Angelou selected the poems included in the Langston Hughes volume and wrote a tribute to the black poet in a preface. Set in the 1920s typeface Perpetua and illustrated by Lawrence and Bearden’s aesthetic heir Beasley, it is stunning. Beasley’s bright collage-style silkscreens are a perfect match for the musical cadence and clarity of Hughes’ poetry – like this verse from “Dream Variations”:
“To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening …
A tall, slim tree …
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.”
On 17-by-21-inch printmaker-coveted Arches paper and covered in purple raw silk, “Sunrise is Coming After While” is beautiful visual and literary printmaking, sinuous poetry matched by the fine bones of the letterpress.
Hearne herself has played an important role in two of the club’s editions. She and husband Dr. Archie Hearne knew Shiff from parties the publisher gives when it puts out a new edition, and at one point, Shiff said, Garbo Hearne suggested he look at the work of Dean Mitchell, contemporary printmaker and watercolorist. Shiff did, and chose him to illustrate Maya Angelou’s “Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul,” for which jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis composed an accompanying piece. The book is one of the 11 included in the show.
Later, over lunch, Shiff said, Hearne asked him if he was familiar with Southern scene painter Benny Andrews of Georgia. Shiff gave Andrews a call, asked him what he’d like to illustrate, and – to Hearne’s surprise – Andrews chose a story by white Southern author Flannery O’Connor. The book should be out next year.
The Limited Editions Club, founded in New York City 1929, publishes its books in runs of 300 and sells one to four titles yearly to subscribers who pay $5,000 a year for membership. Nonmembers may buy books individually. Shiff said the club’s most valuable books are probably copies of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” illustrated by Matisse and signed by Joyce, now worth $30,000 each.
Other books in the LEC pantheon, which includes 600 titles: Aristophanes “Lysistrata” illustrated with drawings and etchings by Picasso; Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” illustrated with photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt; poems by Octavio Paz illustrated by Balthus woodcuts; and poems by Frank O’Hara illustrated by abstract works by Willem de Kooning.
It wasn’t until 1983, after Shiff bought the press, that the club began featuring African American artists. That year it released “Poems of the Caribbean” by Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott with lithographs by artist Romare Bearden, and “Hiroshima” by John Hersey and gouache paintings by Jacob Lawrence.
Shiff said his move into African American letters and artists wasn’t particularly conscious: “I wasn’t thinking that way.” He was friends with Bearden, and after “Hiroshima” was published, he was approached by famed black sculptor and artist Elizabeth Catlett, who wanted to illustrate Margaret Walker’s “For My People.” Then Maya Angelou proposed “Our Grandmothers,” a special edition of her poem “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and chose printmaker John Biggers to illlustrate. Painter Lois Mailou Jones, who’d once been relieved of a prize after the group awarding it found out she was black, did silkscreens for Leopold Senghor’s “Poems.”
All these and more will be on exhibit at Hearne’s “White Glove Champagne Reception” from 5 to 7 p.m. on the opening Saturday. (Hearne will provide the white gloves required for those who want to touch the books and turn the pages. Champagne drinkers will have to forego the bubbly while they’re in the exhibit area.)
Artist Phoebe Beasley will give a gallery talk at 3 p.m. the next day, Sunday, April 18. Coming on Saturday, May 1, is Fine Book Association founder and Limited Editions Club historian and collector Carol Grossman, who’ll give a talk about the LEC at 2 p.m. at the gallery.
Other books in the exhibit: “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” with engravings by Allan Rohan Crite; Zora Neale Hurston’s “Bookmarks in the Pages of Life” with serigraphs by Betye Saar and Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” with color aquatints by John Wilson. Marsalis’ CD, which includes Angelou’s own reading “Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul,” will be playing at the opening.