Birds, Bones, and Books by Judith A. Hoffberg

From “Episodes of The City – New York as a Source Book, Wallworks and Artists Books of Joyce Cutler-Shaw” Exhibition Catalogue. Published by Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University, 2007

Her muse is a bird, but not an ordinary one, a fossilized one, the oldest fossil of bird in the world, the archaeopteryx, of which there are six examples. Her muse, this fossil, led to an extended factual/metaphorical journey in search of “the world’s first bird.” Through extraordinary efforts, she succeeded in seeing the museums where the six examples reside as well as the original quarry where they were found. And often time, the circumstances were extraordinary to see them. Yet she created works of art about that bird—a metaphor for the freedom of flight—for humans as well as birds. She dipped into the lore about that bird, the mystery of that bird, and the anatomy of that bird and discovered creative roads into understanding the freedom of art.

Never at a loss for documentation, Cutler-Shaw has always insisted on creating testimonials or bookworks of some form for each and every one of her actions, installations, exhibitions, or projects. She always has a pen at hand, for she draws – her drawings being extensions of her train of thought about a subject, as well as her on-site observations. She has consistently been developing a printed oeuvre as much as her installations, exhibitions, and public and private commissions. In so doing, she has become an environmentalist, a bookmaker, a dynamic conceptual artist, but there has always been the book. Even before computers, there were black-and-white images, a statement by the artist, and a distribution system to libraries, collectors, and museums.

As a messenger, emulating her bird, she has consistently created artists books for the delectation not only for those who see her exhibitions, but also for those who have not. Her readers are everywhere in the world, for Joyce Cutler-Shaw has been a global artist before it was fashionable. In the piece, “How Many Wing Beats from Beirut to the Jewel of the Sea” it was following a latitudinal band (shared with a minor offset) by Beirut and La Jolla as a tale of two cities, where the pigeon, Columba livia, is a connecting link among others (Beirut even has bird-shaped rocks visible from their shore called “Pigeon Rocks”) of these two coastal cities with contrasting conditions, one war-torn and ravaged (what has changed?), and the other a serene resort that was Beirut, an international crossroads and coastal playground. Her works have indeed been messengers back to her and her interests in science, the environment, and humanity.

Her books reflect the projects that they document, for they are works in themselves, structured for each project in a very distinctive manner. Thus, her bookworks are extensions of herself, of her thoughts and meditations on human foibles and accomplishments. As a conceptual artist, the book gives her leverage in communicating with many “viewers” and “readers” at the same time. Her work is meticulous, metaphorical, and quietly dynamic. What more can one ask of an artist?

From the United Nations Plaza to the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego where she is artist-in-residence, Joyce Cutler-Shaw’s works mingle poetry and positions on the environment and us. Her Alphabet of Bones, an original calligraphy inspired by the hollow bones of birds, has developed into a copyrighted typeface that has been widely published and honored. I introduced her to my friends, Kretschmer and Grossmann, at the Frankfurt Book Fair who decided to publish her alphabet in a foldout edition, the beginning of an alphabetical saga of artists books. From Hungary to Spain, from Holland to Austria, Cutler-Shaw has spread the word of books and science, environmental issues mingled with performative work that almost dictates silence being interrupted by poetry, the poetry of the wings of birds fluttering in the winds of peace and understanding of humanity in all its manifestations.

— Judith A. Hoffberg

Judith A. Hoffberg is an artists books exhibition curator and the publisher and editor of “Umbrella,” a journal of artists books.