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From Charlie Parker to Potato Chip Portraits: Exhibition of Recently Acquired Artists’ Books

American Art & Portrait Gallery LibraryThe Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library is pleased to present an exhibition of some of its recently acquired artists’ books in the Library’s Reading Room.

The books, all acquired in the last two years, range from mass-produced publications to unique, hand-made book works. The artworks show a range of subjects, from the very personal, family stories, to the cult of celebrity.

AA/PG recent artists' books exhibition
‘Paired for Life’ by Josephine Stealey, ‘Decoration’ by Karen Hanmer, ‘Bird’s Bar Mitzvah’ by Michael Peven.

Bird’s Bar Mitzvah” by artist Michael Peven is a double ‘coming of age’ story. This accordion fold book tells of the artist’s discovering his love of jazz on one side, and the personal story of preparing for his bar mitzvah on the other. The jazz narrative describes the artist meeting his hero Thelonious Monk, when the elderly musician literally fell into his lap. The pages show the young artist’s face morphing into the face of Charlie Parker, another jazz hero, and the artist has interleaved movable ‘ribbons’ of paper with colorful jazz record covers that one can pop out and move.  The reverse of the book consists of black and white images from the artist’s bar mitzvah photo album, with Hebrew text along the ‘ribbons,’ incidentally where he received his first jazz album as a gift.

There are two works in the exhibition by Washington D.C.-based artist Kerry McAleer-Keeler, “Gifts from Our Elders” and “Running After Time.” Both are box structures, similar to the shadow box works of Joseph Cornell, but aim to fit within the artists’ books genre by maintaining the book ‘cover’ and codex shape. McAleer-Keeler uses found objects, collage, pop-ups, print-making techniques, and handmade paper in her unique mixed media assemblages. Among the themes she explores are family, love, heritage, and time. “Gifts from Our Elders” is a deep-set box with multiple layers of materials that describe the body: old medical diagrams of brains or hearts, papier mache hands, eyeglasses. The story told within explores the gifts and traits one receives through heredity and family, like intellect or beauty, and chance, such as the playing card. “Running After Time” also explores familial themes, though through a more personal story. Using laboratory vials of sand, a stopwatch and an image of her own young son, the artist evokes how fleeting the moments of childhood can be.

‘Font study (TIME)’ by Mungo Thomson, ‘Miracle chips ® guaranteed fresh’ by John Baldessari, ‘Asperity’ by David Stairs.

An example of a recent mass-produced artist’s book, “Miracle Chips ®: Guaranteed Fresh” is a playful book of celebrity portraits super-imposed on potato chips. Conceptual artist John Baldessari, became interested in the anthropomorphizing of uninteresting subjects, seeing a trend of popular news stories in which people saw images like the Virgin Mary in their toast. Baldessari’s interpretation of these contains a series of photographs of potato chips in which Baldessari has morphed the faces of noted figures and characters, such as Gandhi, Frankenstein, the Mona Lisa or Anne Frank.

The AA/PG Library has been collecting artists’ books for many years, and continues to grow. Many of the recent acquisitions were only made possible by the very generous donations of books and purchasing funds from friends of the library.

The exhibition will remain on display through Summer 2016.


Works currently on view are:

[Yearbook] by Sophie Arnold
[Yearbook] by Sophie Arnold
David Stairs

Paired for Life
Josephine Stealey

Bird’s Bar Mitzvah
Michael Peven

‘Marriage Matters’ by Cheri Gaulke and Sue Maberry, ‘C(a[e{I}o]u)P’ and ‘Autobiography #5’ by Scott McCarney.
Sophie Arnold

The Soul Lives On
Mar Goman

Running After Time
Kerry McAleer-Keeler

Gifts from our Elders
Kerry McAleer-Keeler

‘Hansel & Gretel’ by Virginia Flynn and Joe Freedman, ‘Amalgam’ by Emily Chaplain, ‘Gifts from our Elders’ by Kerry McAleer-Keeler.


Marriage Matters
Cheri Gaulke
Sue Maberry

Autobiography #5
Scott McCarney

Karen Hanmer

Self-portrait in sixteen pieces
Beata Wehr

Emily Chaplain

Hansel & Gretel
a shadow theatre book
Virginia Flynn and Joe Freedman

Font study (TIME)
Mungo Thomson

Miracle chips ®
guaranteed fresh
John Baldessari

Brains & spines
Jessie Nebraska Gifford
Esther K. Smith

To find out more about the Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books Collection across the branches, please visit:

One Comment

  1. Stephen Murphy

    I create one-of-a-kind artist books. I was recently just juried to represent the US (along with a few others) in an international traveling exhibit of artist books. I wondered if you periodically review artist books for acquisition? If so, could you please furnish the details.
    Thank you,

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