Amy N. Worthen: The World in Perspective, August 22 – December 17, 2017, Brunnier Art Museum, 295 Scheman Building, Iowa State University
Is there a book you’ve had a conversation with over the course of your life? Has its meaning changed each time you return to it? Has it influenced your own work?
Here is an opportunity to see such a conversation play out in the works of an artist.
About a year ago, I was contacted by Adrienne Gennett, Assistant Curator of Collections and Education at Iowa State University Museums, about the possibility of Special Collections and University Archives loaning some early printed books for an exhibition featuring a locally-based printmaker to help illustrate the history of printmaking. I had never been involved in an exhibition loan, but I was excited by the idea of our collections reaching an audience outside the library’s walls. As I met first with Adrienne, and joined later by the artist, Amy Worthen, the ideas for the book portion of the exhibit began to take shape.
Amy Worthen sent me a list of books with prints that had been influential to her–both as an art historian and as an artist. Since she lives for part of the year in Venice, Italy, she also listed some of our early books printed in Venice.
As Amy and Adrienne paged through books here in Special Collections, I got a peak behind the curtain, listening to their curatorial conversations as they determined the interplay of historical to contemporary prints.
After the final selections were made, other library staff contributed to getting the books ready for their exhibition debut. The library’s conservator, Sonya Barron, reviewed the items to identify any needed repairs. Preservation department staff member Jim Wilcox built the cradles to support the books. Finally, the books were ready for packing up and installation, completed by Sonya in collaboration with Museums curator Adrienne.
When I visited the exhibit, it was satisfying to see the final results. As Rare Books and Manuscripts Archivist, I was delighted to see some familiar faces in a new setting, and viewing the results of Amy Worthen’s “conversations” with the early prints was illuminating.
One of the first cases you see when you enter the room lays the foundation for the exhibit. Two volumes are displayed side-by-side in a case. One is entirely text–the entry from Denis Diderot’s French Enlightenment Encyclopédie on “Gravure,” or engraving. To its right is one of the encyclopedia’s plates volumes, opened to an illustration of engraving tools. When you turn to your left, you see a corresponding case of engraving tools and a copper plate, etched with fine lines by the artist. Hanging above it on the wall is Worthen’s framed artist’s proof of Strumenti d’ Incisione (Engraving Tools), 1995, a true counterpart to the Encyclopédie‘s illustration–she created it to illustrate her entry on printmaking for the Grove Dictionary of Art.
Another example of Amy Worthen’s prints in conversation with earlier pieces can be seen in the pairing of a print from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Le antichità romane (1756) (call number NA1120 .P664a), with the artist’s Catacomb. The accompanying label reads, “When she was in college Worthen first saw original Piranesi etchings. She was greatly inspired by his approach to architecture – part documentation, part exaggeration, and part fantasy.” Both of the prints feature Roman catacombs, or underground burial sites.
Some of my favorite pieces in the exhibition are those with elements of whimsy and humor, such as The Department of Agriculture, depicting a cow seated at a desk inside the State Capitol building addressing a group of animals including 2 pigs and a litter of piglets, a rooster, and a big-horn sheep. I laughed out loud when I saw Worthen’s Self-Portrait as a Pineapple:
This is only a sneak peek at the exhibit. You’ll want to visit in person to see the eight books from Special Collections and more than one hundred prints, sketchbooks, and printing plates.