Impossible Object, n.

An object which, due to the problematic nature of its display presents significant challenges to the structure of exhibition; esp. artists’ books



In the spring of 2008, artist Ed Ruscha donated a selection of his artists’ books to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.  As a graduate fellow, working as an assistant curator at the Ransom Center, I organized a small, one-case, exhibition of these books to celebrate the donation. 

The books were placed in locked, glass vitrines, which allow for only two modes of presentation: closed (displaying the cover only) or open (displaying one page opening).  Each book or grouping of books had a label text that provided the basic bibliographic description of the books and then a short, four or five sentence commentary discussing, for example, the contents, materiality, or context of the work.  For this exhibition, the label text of the books Various Small Fires (1964) and Nine Swimming Pools (1968), read as follows:

In these two works, Ruscha manipulates the expectations of the reader by playing with the relationship between title and content.  The titles of these works differ from the covers to the title pages.  The title Various Small Fires, on the cover, becomes Various Small Fires and Milk on the title page.  Whereas the reader may expect to find images only of fires, Ruscha confronts her with a glass of milk as the last image.  The linear quality of the book allows him to pull off this ruse.  This self-conscious use of the book form situates these works in the realm of the artists’ book, and not books of photography. 

This extremely common mode of display for artists’ books presents the following problems:

·      The experience of the work is lost by the viewers’ inability to physically read/view the book.  The viewer has limited sense of the materiality of the book (i.e. the tactile nature of the spine and the pages, the weight of the book, the size of the book, etc.).

·      The linear and temporal nature of the work is lost.

·      The work is mediated by its label text, which acts as a surrogate, or perhaps even a stand-in for the work itself.

Once inside the traditional museum and gallery setting, the artists’ book runs the risk of becoming an Impossible Object.  This difficulty of display and mediation of experience (or very flawed and incomplete experience) is the burden of the Impossible Object. 

The goal of this exhibition is to take one work, one that often exists as an Impossible Object, Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires, and create a display that allows for an open experience of the object. 



The ways one can experience a book are multiple.  The artist works to dictate this experience through design and the manipulation of materials.  The reader, however, can follow the dictates of the artist, the dictates of custom, or determine their own experience.

Engagement with an artists’ book is a process that is visual, tactile, and temporal.  Each book can include many possible features such as typography, type and stock of paper, binding, quantity of pages, and more. It is important to remember, especially when considering display, that all of these features may change from one page to the next.  One trait that is common to almost all artists’ books is that the object is created to be held, allowing the book to be opened and closed and the pages to be turned and then turned again.

While artists’ books have a long history, which includes the field of handmade and deluxe books, it was Ed Ruscha’s first artists’ book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1963, that is considered the first modern artists’ book.  Twentysix Gasoline Stations was a rejection of the auratic, one of a kind bookwork.  It is intentionally plain, inexpensively created, and at the time of its publication, inexpensively sold. 

Discussing the price and distribution of his books, Ruscha said in a 1969 interview, “I could print a hundred books each and sell them at $50 apiece as great works of art.  But I don’t want to do that.  I want to get the price down, so everyone can afford one.  I want to be the Henry Ford of book making.”    By creating artists’ books, one could subvert the traditional art market and potentially open the works to a larger audience. 

Initially priced around ----, a first edition, numbered copy of Twentysix Gasoline Stations now sells for close to $30,000. These copies can be found in the homes of private collectors or in rare book and museum libraries.  When displayed for the public, they are viewed through glass.  While considered necessary for the protection of the books, this practice results in a limiting of the experience of these objects.  Perhaps this most clearly demonstrates the transformation of the artists’ book into an Impossible Object.  How do we protect the object, while simultaneously protecting the value of the object, without compromising the work?

Museums and libraries have attempted a variety of strategies for display such as the creation of facsimiles, digital surrogates, the tethering of the book to a display case (allowing the reader to turn pages while wearing gloves), and the turning of pages over time.  Unfortunately, none of these tactics measure up to the ability of a reader to experience the book as physical object.  We accept a practice for the display of artists’ books that we would find, under most conditions, unacceptable for paintings or sculpture. 



In that we consider the norm for the display of artists’ books to be inadequate, we posit this show “Impossible Objects: Various Small Fires” as an alternative.  Instead of a locked vitrine, there is a table and a chair.  Instead of gloves, a computer screen, or a tether, there are hands, fingers, and the book. 

We acknowledge that the book will most likely decrease in value due to its use.  In this way, we reconsider the traditional nature of the gallery.  Whereas objects ordinarily enter the gallery and acquire value, in this instance, we expect the opposite result.  However, people will also have the freedom to tactilely and visually explore this single copy of Various Small Fires, a book that helped define the nature of the modern artists’ book.


Second Edition. 1964/1970. Unpaginated (48 pp.), with 15 yellow-toned plates, and one black and white plate, printed by Anderson, Ritchie & Simons, Los Angeles. 7 x 5-1/16 inches. This second edition was limited to 3000 copies.

Possible things to think about when reading Various Small Fires (in alphabetical order):