A fair display of books as art

Books often aren’t recognized as art in the same way that paintings or sculpture are. But they should be, says fine-art book printer Peter Koch of Berkeley.

That’s the premise behind the four-day book fair Koch and his Codex Foundation are putting on at Berkeley, opening Sunday in Pauley Ballroom in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union.

The Codex International Book Fair and Symposium will bring 138 exhibitors to campus — artists who are keeping alive the tradition of hand-making books in one-of-a-kind or limited editions, as well as the fine art presses that print them and the dealers who trade in them.

Books that are boxes, books that open accordion-style, hand-printed books with original illustrations and

A box book from Flying Paper Press, one of the Codex book fair’s 138 exhibitors.

bindings crafted from wood and bone — the range of works on display and for sale will be a representative sampling of the genre. Inside may be contemporary poetry, or Shakespeare, or essays written by the artists themselves — or no text at all.

Some of the books employ the very latest in digital imaging technology, in the service of a 200-year-old art tradition.

One book on display was hand-inscribed by “one of the greatest calligraphers on earth,” with hand-painted illustrations by a well-known California artist, Koch says. He remained mysterious about further details, except one: It’s priced at $100,000.

Exhibitors are coming from St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Bogota, Mexico City, Paris, Hamburg and all over the United States. Many are Californians, for example Magnolia Editions, a fine-art print workshop in Oakland that has worked with major artists like Chuck Close to re-create paintings as tapestries — and documented the weavings in books.

This will be the third time Koch has held the biennial Codex book fair at Berkeley; the campus’s Bancroft Library, home to many fine-art books, is a major sponsor.

A detail from a Chuck Close tapestry by Magnolia Editions of Oakland, another Codex exhibitor.

The fair is a primary focus of the Codex Foundation, which Koch founded with the goal of preserving and promoting the art and craft of the book. The word codex derives from Latin and means “bound book”; it dates to the ancient days when joining pages at the spine started replacing scrolls as the technology of choice for reading materials.

The 2009 fair — which the Berkeley Library called “an event of major significance” — attracted 2,000 collectors, scholars and the curious, and this year’s edition will remain open one day longer. It’s timed to take place right before the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair, which starts Friday, Feb. 11 and is a major draw for book lovers and dealers from elsewhere.

Among the speakers at a symposium accompanying the Codex book fair will be the keeper of special collections from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and the curator of modern collections at the Museum Meermanno in The Hague. The symposium is planned for Monday through Wednesday mornings at the Berkeley Art Museum theater.

According to Koch, the number of professional artisans with workshops where ongoing generations can learn book-making skills is diminishing “and in need of our support in order to flourish and to transmit their culture and knowledge to the next generation.”

Koch has done his part. For 20 years, he has taught a class in printing on the Bancroft Library’s 19th century press. This semester, he initiated a new class, “The Book as Object: Lessons in Connoisseurship,” which explores rare books in the Bancroft collections, including a page from the circa-1454 Gutenberg Bible.

The lack of recognition paid fine art books is due in part to the fact that books, by their nature, aren’t hung on walls for all to see, but are sit on shelves, Koch says.

“Book collecting is a private passion,” Koch contends. Collectors, he addes, are “not like billionaires hanging (art) on the wall like hunting trophies. Books are not like trophy wives or trophy cars — they’re works of art.”

He sees signs that the idea of books as art is taking hold in the culture. For instance, in June, an exhibit he’s curating of five California fine-art bookmakers is opening at Stanford University — in its museum, not in the library.

“Fifty years ago, people wouldn’t recognize photography as art,” Koch says. That changed; now Codex and the fair are trying to do the same for fine-art books.

The Codex book fair runs Sunday through Wednesday in Pauley Ballroom on the Berkeley campus. More information is available on the fair website.