At the Saint Louis Art Museum, artist Buzz Spector considers literature by playing editor

At the Saint Louis Art Museum, artist Buzz Spector considers literature by playing editor

The contemporary conceptual artist Buzz Spector explains his process like this: “I stack things. I tear stuff up.” But those terse sentences belie a much more complex process of destructive creation. On display now at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Buzz Spector: Alterations” considers the book and the page as objects of collection, touchstones of human interaction, and sources of raw material. 

“Alterations” is a survey of the internationally recognized artist’s career. In it, the torn page and written word are mainstays. Sometimes whimsical and often philosophical, these works cause the viewer to pause and think about authorship and the possibilities of books and language. To make his altered books, Spector tears away pages to form new objects with new meanings. The books take on a wedge form that gives them a sculptural quality. The work A Passage, however, reveals the same text, printed on dozens of pages that have been torn back scores of times, emphasizing the copied text’s meaning. For Écriture, Spector used this method on a blank artist’s sketchbook. The viewer sees the nibs of pens spiking out from between the pages, conveying the latent potential and energy found in an artist’s tools. 

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In keeping with the literary theme, Spector explores author photos, using his ripped-paper technique and collage. Authors: Hands to Face 2 is made of cut-out elements from dust jackets. Each author is photographed in a variation of the same pose, meant to convey intellect and status.  

The exhibit also includes works made from postcards, torn-paper reproductions of paintings, and drawings. In the postcard work Latitude, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, we see a horizon line kept constant on a geographically impossible sea.

“Alterations,” curated by Gretchen L. Wagner and Elizabeth Wyckoff, feels appropriate, for the St. Louis area has bookended Spector’s career: He began his studies at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale and most recently taught in Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. It’s also the first presentation of his work in a St. Louis museum. 

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“[Spector] is a generous participant and interlocutor in the life of the university and the entire community,” Wyckoff says. “[His] art is important and compelling intellectually, and yet it has an invitingly tactile presence. His explorations into the world of books really make us think about what a book is, how it is put together, and what it means.” At the exhibit, we’re invited to consider the many lives a book may live: as a physical object, a signifier of interests, an abstract marker of intellectual curiosity, or the starting point of a new pursuit. 

“Buzz Spector: Alterations” is on view at SLAM until May 31.

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