To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Robbin Ami Silverberg’s Dobbin Press, 68 books, 3 videos, and 3 installations representing work from 1992 to 2019 were selected by Silverberg for this exhibition at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn Campus Library.
Besides the exhibition, Silverberg created a definitive catalogue including three critical essays as well as extensive reproductions from the show. She also produced a state-of-the-art website that should serve as a template for all future book exhibitions. Silverberg printed barcodes on exhibition labels so that a cell phone shot could open to further information. This comprehensive retrospective reflects the mature work of a key artist who continues to make a major contribution to the book arts and papermaking.
Silverberg has been a practicing artist and scholar since her student days making sculpture and studying history and philosophy of science at Princeton University. After a book-making workshop with Keith Smith at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she moved to Europe and settled in Vienna to hone her book skills with Michaela Komlósy while learning hand papermaking. When she returned to New York City in 1984, she was completely immersed in the book arts and soon connected to colleagues at the Center for Book Arts, Dieu Donné, and David Russell’s papermaking studio. Throughout this period, she made unique books and advanced her papermaking skills but it was not until 1989 and the founding of Dobbin Books that her identity as a book artist and papermaker coalesced. Fittingly the retrospective was exhibited in Pratt’s landmark Renaissance Revival library. Most of Silverberg’s books and paper art were shown in display cases but true to her vision and definition of artist books, some of her work interacted with the space itself as art installation. Silverberg designed the exhibit to make use of the grand center stairway which connects the three floors as well as the stacks of Pratt Library. The elegant stacks were designed by Tiffany Glass & Decorating company with floors made of glass and bookshelves of oak and copper-plated iron. Silverberg cleverly inserted five custom-made book installations into the rows of library books as surprising bookends. Silverberg expanded the physical footprint of the show by using the grand staircase as a book experience. She attached printed lines of her prose to the risers so that each step served as a poetic connection between the floors of the exhibition.
To guide the viewer, Silverberg created a map with case labels as a means of defining the themes that run through her art. The viewer was greeted on the ground floor with “transformative reading” on one side of the doorway and “mapping” on the other, and towards the back was a “posting wall” installation. The next floor displayed cases referred to as “interlinearity” and “memory” as well as “identity & the senses.” The third floor cases were labeled “politics of place” and “all about women & language of misogyny.”
Silverberg’s books are rich in texture and meaning working on many conceptual and experiential levels as objects and as performance. Rondo (2009) exemplifies Silverberg’s ability to combine obsessive social commentary, as in the drudgery of secretarial typing, in an elegant book of repetitive text and imagery alongside an iPad performance of a drummer “typing” on crisp abaca paper. On the personal level, there are joyous examples of her private life with her mother, her sisters, her husband, and her daughter such as Spun Into Gold, a book of her daughter’s first 100 words. Most of Silverberg’s art is conceptually based on her writing or text selection as well as her imagery. She also designs and produces all aspects of each book project, making custom handmade paper and printing text and images using her ink jet printer. However a third of her projects are collaborations which involve other writers, artists, and printers. “Politics of Place” play a role in her collaborative book projects, such as Kakistocracy (2017) and Walls of Kakistopia (2019) with South African artist Kim Berman. Each limited edition conveys in pulp painting, embedding, drypoint, and monoprint, the two artists’ response to their own country’s unscrupulous governments and leaders. Silverberg has a close relationship to the art community of Johannesburg and has interacted extensively with South African artists in the book and paper arts. Domestic location plays a role in the “Mapping” group which includes both fantastical and real geography that describe in game-like precision the “built spaces” that are Silverberg’s cityscape, especially her home town of New York City.
Silverberg wrestles with contradictory concepts from project to project but also within a given book. For example, one of her concerns is the limits of language. Just 30 Words (2005–06) addresses the word limit imposed on Auschwitz prisoners in postcards sent home from death camp. The “Interlinearity” section highlighted work whose meaning can be inferred between the lines. Silverberg’s sense of negative space in this context is conceptual, “what were the prisoners trying to communicate that they couldn’t write out.” In Thoughts in the Form of a Letter, (2003) Silverberg cut out the negative space from pulp-painted script, then preserved “the negative space shards” in a plastic bag bound into the center of the book. The negative space is reused as a physical element in the book rather than a blank space on the page. Silverberg is neither a type designer nor a graphic designer by training, so her use of letterforms and space is not traditional but critical to her unique style, suggesting a sense of freedom from conventions.
Silverberg’s wide-ranging intellectuality is firmly grounded in the materials and craftsmanship she brings as a fine artist to each project. Her interest in an expanded idea of book as structure is evident in objects such as a series of industrial bobbin books as well as various paper casts that are components of three-dimensional book projects. Her refinement of the papermaking process and commitment to using paper to express her voice, especially with sheets of abaca, is most eloquently represented in books such as Solomon’s Wisdom (2011) I and installations such as Simulacrum. Her irreverent playfulness is always evident in what she calls a book, be it a unique object, an edition, an installation, or a performance. The intellectual quality of her curiosity is far ranging and her mastery of the book arts as an expressive medium is distinctly her own. Each of the 68 book projects in this show is a mini-exhibition in multiple dimensions highlighting Silverberg’s vision as an artist. It is a tour-de-force presentation of thirty years of book making.