Life's Work

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Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary, (detail), 2009 © Courtesy of the artist & Mass MOCA
Life's Work

87 Marshall Street
North Adams, Massachusetts 01247
March 23rd, 2013 - January 19th, 2014
Opening: April 6th, 2013 5:00 PM - 7:00 PM

United States
Wed-Mon 11-5
prints, video-art


MASS MoCApresents the work of two artists -- Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera-- who throughout their careers have focused enormous artisticenergies onto a single work of art, built around existing tomes.Spanning both decades and generations, the exhibition Life’s Workre-interprets and re-invents books, offering insight into two artists working methods, but also inviting viewers to re-imagine their relationship to books, images, and the nature of time itself. 

Tom Phillips: A Humument

In 1966, Tom Phillips set himself a task to find a second-hand book with which tocreate an entirely new series of works by meticulously altering every page through painting and collage. He settled uponan obscure 1892 Victorian novel titled A Human Document, purchasedfor 30 pence,in a South London junkshop. He titled his altered book A Humument (a title arrived at by removing letters from the original title). The first version -- all 367 treated pages -- was published in 1973.  The original volume has been followed by four revised editions, each of which can be read as a new text birthed from the original. AHumumentis now one of the best known and highest regarded of all 20th-century artists books and is considered a seminal classic of postmodern art.

Phillips explains, “Like most projects that end up lasting a lifetime this had its germ in idle play at what then seemed to be the fringe of my activities. A liking for text plus the related influences of William Burroughs and John Cage with their use of chance had led me into casual experiments with partly obliterated texts…By the date of theencounter with Mallockl I had already begun to toy with the idea of working in this way on a book. Now the die was cast, the dice thrown: chance had become choice and a notion grown into an idea.”

The Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary

In 1996, thirty years after Phillips’ experiment, Johnny Carrera discovered a copy of the 1898 edition of The International Dictionary, which included an illustrated section that was, in effect, a concise pictorial representation of the body of knowledge that its editors at The Merriam-Webster Company felt important to 19th-century Americans. The images intrigued Carrera, and he set about to find and re-categorize the engravings, which had been given to Yale University in 1977.Carrera’sresulting volume of over 400 pages is printed with the original wood engravings and copper electrotypes arranged alphabetically.  In re-sorting the imagery, Carreraalso added his own, creating new relationships between images that can be turned into narratives.

Carrera explains, “I believe a person instinctively tries to find the connection between things when they are grouped together, and so when confronted by combinations of two or more images the mind looks for a link to give their grouping meaning. My hope is readers will ‘read the text’ by relaxing their minds in studying the pages to allow their subconscious-ness to supply the connective meaning between images. New ideas don't spontaneously generate themselves, but come from the new combinations of old ones.”

The Exhibition

For the exhibition, both epic projects will be presented as never before. MASS MoCA will show over 1,100 individual prints from Phillips’The Humument,including the original untouched book alongside the first and fifth editions. In the same room,Carrera will print images from the Pictorial Webster’son massive boat sails. Adjacent rooms will feature smaller works by Carrera including a video, prints, a giant flip book, Carrera’s HumumentiPad app, and a recent recording he completed of the text he created in the work. Both presentations will give viewers the sense of walking into and exploring these life’s works in total.

About the Artists

Tom Phillips's first one-man exhibition in London was in 1965,though at the time he was possibly better known for his activities as a musician. In the course of his teaching career, he introduced his best student,Brian Eno, to the ideas that helped Eno develop ambient and generative music. Since the mid-1970s, Phillips has received many commissions for site-specific artworks and portraits, including Samuel Beckett and the Monty Python team. In 1989, he became only the second artist to have a retrospective of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Now retired, Phillips remains an occasional broadcaster and public speaker of wit and vision.

Johnny Carrera is based in Maryland and works as a printer, bookbinder, artist, and maker of fine-press books. He is the founder and proprietor of Quercus Press letterpress and bindery and has taught and lectured extensively in the areas of book arts. His work is held in the special collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University, Boston Athenaeum, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution Library, Stanford University, and many others. He is a member of the Letterpress Guild of New England and the Society of Printers.