‘A sea of torn pages’

For artist Spector, books are both subject and medium

Franklin “Buzz” Spector, dean of the College and Graduate School of Art, critiques student work at the Vernon Street Graduate Studios. “Buzz is an extremely elegant and sophisticated artist as well as a talented academic leader,” says Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

Books can define a life — books read, books written, books collected, books forgotten.

Over the past 30 years, books in all their permutations have served as both subject and medium for Franklin “Buzz” Spector, an internationally recognized artist and critical writer, who joined the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts last summer as dean of the College and Graduate School of Art.

Spector, who also holds the Jane Reuter Hitzeman and Herbert F. Hitzeman, Jr. Professorship in Art, rips, stacks, tears, sews, bends and otherwise alters both found and custom-made volumes. The process can result in an installation, a photograph, an individual object, an editioned artists’ book or even a collage of the torn-away pieces.

“Much of my art consists of removal or excavation or excision,” Spector says.

Yet, paradoxically, these systematic demolitions also become acts of creation. Indeed, the virtuosity of Spector’s destruction challenges the very idea of random harm in the world.

“I’m really good at tearing pages,” he quips. “At this point, I’ve torn hundreds of thousands, and I know how they’ll behave just by grasping an edge.”

The process has become so ingrained, it’s almost meditative.

“It’s a kind of bliss.”

‘This was not art’

Spector was born and raised in north Chicago, where his parents ran a small knitting shop. It was a neighborhood business, catering mostly to locals — until the wife of a former governor wore a dress designed by Spector’s mother, Harriett, to an inauguration. The press took notice. Women’s Wear Daily published an extensive profile.

“Overnight, the shop was transformed into a cult destination,” Spector says. “People were flying in from Montreal, Mexico City, the West Coast — even London and Paris.”

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Spector initially enrolled in the design program, led by famed architect Buckminster Fuller, for whom he interned. One ill-fated mission involved locating a bentwood rocking chair, which Fuller wanted for a film interview. Spector finally found one in a Makanda, Ill., antique store.

“I bought the chair, strapped it to the roof of my Volkswagen and drove to campus like the cavalry arriving,” Spector says. “It was a beautiful chair. We set it under a tree, positioned Fuller and miked him up. And then he rocks back. And the chair creaks.”

Fuller, then in his late 70s, stood for the interview, which took several hours.

“Afterwards, he was aggravated with me,” Spector says with a laugh.
“ ‘Spector, what is it we teach here? Comprehensive anticipatory design science. I know the chair looked good, but did you ever put your butt in that seat?’ ”

Another lesson arrived via Artforum magazine, which published an influential essay on Robert Ryman’s minimalist “white” paintings by critic Robert Pincus-Witten.

“I was confident that this was not art,” Spector says. “I was wrong in that, but supremely, productively wrong.”

If an all-white painting was art, he reasoned, so was a drawing that consisted of nothing but gray shading. Spector set out to make such a drawing.

“It was harder than I thought,” he says. “Every time one row of graphite marks overlapped another, I’d get a visible band. It was frustrating and difficult, but I persisted, and when I was done, I realized it was much more interesting than the still lives and figure studies I’d been doing.

“The next 10 years of my art were all drawings,” he says.

White Walls

Spector graduated in 1972 and spent several years working in graphic design for companies such as McGraw-Hill and in a succession of freelance jobs. Chief among these was a special “anti-object art” issue of Northwestern University’s literary magazine, TriQuarterly.

“For the first time, I was working with artists like Joseph Beuys, Robert Barry and Adrian Piper,” Spector says. “The work was completely enthralling. I thought, ‘There should be a journal devoted to this.’ ”

And so, in 1977, while pursuing a master of fine arts degree at the University of Chicago, Spector co-founded White Walls, a journal of art and language, with classmate Reagan Upshaw and Upshaw’s wife, Roberta. To pay for printing, the Upshaws drained their savings account. Spector contributed scholarship money intended for rent.

“The Upshaws used to joke about how broke I was,” he says. “They’d come over for dinner and open the refrigerator — and there’d be a lemon and a jar of mayonnaise.”

Over the next decade, White Walls attracted many notable artists, ranging from Agnes Denes and Vernon Fisher to Christo and Pat Steir. Christopher Wool’s first published work was a White Walls cover. Other highlights included the first published poem by photographer Richard Prince and the first published story by bestselling author David Sedaris.

Meanwhile, Spector earned an MFA in 1978 and took a job as assistant publications director for the university’s business school. There, he edited manuscripts and worked with faculty authors, including Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler — an experience that led, ironically enough, to Spector’s first curatorial outing.

“I was struck by similarities between the protocols of conceptual art and the ways corporations manufacture identity programs,” he says. In particular, the work of minimalists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and Donald Judd resembled nothing so much as modern corporate logotypes.

“Objects and Logotypes” opened at the university’s Renaissance Society in 1980. Despite incurring the wrath of one prominent gallery owner, the exhibition received national attention and helped establish Spector as a theorist and critic.

‘Chapman’s Homer’

It was around this time that Spector altered his first book. Intending to make a suite of drawings based on John Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” — which deals, in part, with European explorers encountering the Pacific Ocean — he conceived a volume in which each successive page would be slightly longer than the page before, thus mimicking the lapping of waves.

As a model, “I decided to take a regular old book and tear pages out,” he says. “And, as I’m doing this, I become more and more enthralled — it was almost hallucinatory. So I chose another book and tried the process again.”

Though Spector never completed the project, the episode was a breakthrough. He soon filled his loft with several thousand volumes, not for reading, but rather as material for artmaking — tearing some, drawing or painting in others, piling hundreds more into large-scale installations.

Eventually, he began to “reverse-engineer” the process, working with printers and bookbinders to design letterpress editions specifically intended for alteration.

“When I’m producing the book myself, it can be any size I want,” he says. “I’ve made some quite large, up to 30-by-40 inches. At that scale, the gestures are much more visible, and I can make the conceptual problem of what’s being torn more interesting.”

To date, Spector has editioned more than 30 artists’ books, broadsheets and other multiples. Examples range from “Time Square” (2007), a book based on Google searches relating to time, to “Unpacking My Library” (1995), a 12-foot accordion fold book depicting the artist’s personal collection, arranged by height.

‘Active Voice’

Spector’s first teaching job, at Chicago’s Columbia College in fall 1982, soon was followed by appointments at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he lectured from 1983-88.

He then spent several years out west, teaching at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and at University of California campuses in Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Barbara.

In 1994, Spector became a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was appointed full professor the following year and remained until 2001, when he was named chair of Cornell University’s Department of Art, a position he held until 2007.

All the while, Spector continued to exhibit in dozens of one-person exhibitions and scores of group shows. Today, his work is in major public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

In addition, Spector’s essays and criticism have appeared in a long list of exhibition catalogs and periodicals, including Afterimage, American Craft, Artforum, Art Issues, Art on Paper, Dialogue, New Art Examiner, and Visions. His first collection, “The Bookmaker’s Desire,” was released by Umbrella Editions in 1995. A second collection, “Active Voice: Essays on Artists’ Books, Books as Art, and Art as Language,” is forthcoming from Granary Books.

‘Sophisticated artist

Spector settles comfortably into his Givens Hall office.

“I love it here,” he says. “There are so many gifted artists and designers.“

In 2009 alone, art faculty had 20 solo exhibitions or major public commissions as well as more than 50 group show appearances.

“The level of activity is extremely high,” he says.

Spector’s own work can be seen in “Buzz Spector: Shelf Life,” a small retrospective on view through March 6 at the Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Blvd. The exhibition features more than two-dozen pieces — including prints, drawings, books, photographs and handmade paper — created in the past 10 years.

The dryly humorous self-portrait “My Fiction” (2000) depicts the artist peering out from behind volumes stacked in tall piles. “(All the books in my Library) by or about Ann Hamilton” (2001) is a stately still life collecting 17 monographs, arranged by height, spines turned away from the viewer. Another piece, from 2005, finds Spector returning to the theme of “Chapman’s Homer,” using blue yarn to represent words flowing off the page and pooling in a corner of the frame.

“Buzz is an extremely elegant and sophisticated artist as well as a talented academic leader,” says Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts.

“Though his practice centers on the book, he has created strong work in a wide variety of media — all of which he manages to make his own,” Colangelo says. “In many ways, Buzz’s versatility speaks to the interdisciplinary mission at the core of the Sam Fox School.”

Spector’s most recent project is “White Insistence” (2009), a letterpress book based on a poem by Michael Burkard. Completed last fall, the volume — printed and bound in an edition of six by graduate student Mason Miller — also is featured in the traveling exhibition “Somewhere Far from Habit: The Poet and the Artist’s Book,” now at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Virginia.

To create the piece, Spector had Miller print Burkard’s poem — a Kafka-esque parable about obsession — in its entirety on every one of the book’s 128 pages. Spector then spent hours tearing away portions of each sheet. Yet because the poem is the same on every page, the text remains in perfect register.

The effect is at once violent, elegiac and surprisingly respectful.

“Nothing at all compromises legibility,” Spector says. “You read the words through a sea of torn pages.”

Fast facts about Franklin ‘Buzz’ Spector

Education: B.A., art, 1972, Southern Illinois University Carbondale; MFA, 1978, University of Chicago, Committee on Art and Design
Awards: Artist’s Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts (2005); Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship Award (1991); Visual Artist’s Fellowship, Illinois Arts Council (1988); Fellowship Awards, National Endowment for the Arts (1982, 1985, 1991)
Family: Wife, Njara Stout; daughter, Naomi Spector; and sons Ben and Andrew Spector
Links: buzzspector.com; brunodavidgallery.com; somewherefarfromhabit.net

Slideshow images courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery.