Investigating forms of presentation of the Artist’ Book.

The book on the table. /// The closed archives. /// The book in a box. /// The open archives. ///
The book on the shelves. /// The book underfoot. /// The book on the ground.
/// The book in an intimate space. /// The book as installation. /// The book in a working space. ///
The book as an object to walk around. /// The book as a concept for a space.

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participant: Helga Kos [# 05]


Helga KosHelga Kos

Ode aan de Kolossale Zon’ (Ode to the Colossal Sun), an Artist’s Book by Helga Kos

‘Ode aan de Kolossale Zon’ has been inspired by the musicplay ‘Last Poems of Wallace Stevens’ by Ned Rorem. Rorem is a contemporary composer who is famous in United States by the large amount of songs he composed. Stevens is considered as the greatest of all 20th century poets. His mysterious and at the same time very visual poems often have the relationship between fact and fiction as a theme.

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Kos: “My own ideas about imagination of reality and memories are related to Stevens’ views. This gave me the challenge to connect a third, visual layer to Stevens’ poetry. Rorems musicplay exists of nine parts, that differ strongly in mutual ways in colour of sound, time and rythm. Soprano, cello and piano appear in many different combinations of importancy. Returning musical themes connect the separated parts. In the book I work with images in a comparative way. The book exists of three semi-permanent linked covers that also can be looked at next to eachother. In this way connections can be made to different visual themes that repeat in the three parts”.

The Artist’s Book is a piece of art in itself. But the addition of the music CD makes it possible to deepen the experience of the ‘spectator’ and in this way to guide him into the layers, complexity and musicality of this interdisciplinary project. Because of the fact that the CD has been put to the book the spectator will be given way to experience three disciplines (image, text and music) simultaneously.


The book is a common publication of the company for chamber music Wendingen, Amsterdam; Helga Kos, Amsterdam and Gallery Samuel Lallouz, Montréal, Canada.
It exists of three covers that are connected to eachother semi-permanent with Velcro: 156 pages filled with graphics by Helga Kos and the CD ‘Last Poems of Wallace Stevens’ performed by Wendingen. Typography by Josje Pollmann.
Edition, numbered and signed, 288 copies. Prize Euros 1500,-.


'Ode aan de Kolossale Zon'

‘Ode aan de Kolossale Zon’ (Ode to the Colossal Sun) is a 156-page artist’s book consisting of hand made prints. Helga Kos created the book in response to the musical composition ‘Last Poems of Wallace Stevens’ by the contemporary American composer Ned Rorem. It is printed using ten distinct techniques on twelve different types of paper, in a signed and numbered edition of 288. ‘Ode aan de Kolossale Zon’ is a joint publication by Wendingen and Helga Kos in Amsterdam and Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal.

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Three volumes in a box, size 34x26x6 cm.
Creative editing by Josje Pollmann.
A CD of the song cycle performed by the Dutch chamber group Wendingen, forms part of Volume I.
The price of the book is 1500,- Euro.

Helga explains her production as a third, visual stratum to Steven’s poems and Rorem’s music. “One experiences a book not at one glance but by leafing through it. My intention with this book is that the pages should not be separate graphic sheets, but acquire their meaning in relation to each other. The image changes by turning the pages. After-image and transparency play an important part in this. ‘Smut’ and ‘show-through’, traditionally a printer’s nightmare, were consciously sought techniques.”

In 2004 the book was selected for 'Best Dutch Book Designs' in the Netherlands, and in Germany, short-listed for Best Book Designs From All Over The World. It has been exhibited internationally including displays in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Montreal, Oxford and Paris. And several museums and libraries purchased it internationally.

‘Ode aan de Kolossale Zon’ is included in the public collections of

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Caldic Collection B.V. Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague, The Netherlands
The Royal Library, The Hague, The Netherlands
Bibliothéque Nationale de France, Paris, France
National Bibliothek, Leipzig, Germany
Piermont Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY, USA
Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
State University of NY at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kohler Art Library, Wisconsin, USA
Galerie Samuel Lallouz, Montréal, Canada
LA Louver Gallery, Venice (LA), California, USA
Herinneringsfonds Vincent van Gogh, The Hague, The Netherlands

Please also see the review by Nancy Campbell for ‘Printmaking Today’ and listen to the soundtrack of video text

Copyright poems © 1955 by Wallace Stevens
Copyricht music © 1972 by ned Rorem
Copyright Ode aan de Kolossale Zon © 2003 by Helga Kos
Copyright Dutch translation © 2003 by Meino zeillemaker


Printmaking today / vol 16, nr 3, Autumn 2007 / By Nancy Campbell

Profile artist: Helga Kos

Helga Kos has developed a series of prints to accompany a musical setting of Wallace Stevens’ poems.

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Helga Kos, a graduate of the prestigious Amsterdam Rijksacademie, describes herself as a painter, though she works in a range of media with integrity and distinction. Ode to the Colossal Sun, her first venture into printmaking, is an artist’s book which incorporates seven of Wallace Stevens’ late poems. It was awarded the accolade of Best Dutch Book Design in 2004, and has been acquired by numerous international collections. Art Larson, formerly Leonard Baskin’s printer at Gehenna Press, described the letterpress section as one of the finest pieces of technical work he had seen. However, Helga did not set out to please letterpress purists or even to make a formal ‘artist’s book’ to fit into that rapidly growing genre. I visited her studio near the Singelgracht in central Amsterdam to talk about this intensive five-year printmaking project.

Helga believes a successful print demands fine draughtsmanship and control of form and colour. She sees this exemplified by Hockney’s work, which she has admired since she too recorded the distorted patterns in swimming pools, although her own paintings suggest more abstract influences. She was hesitant to embark upon printmaking, a medium which seemed to require more detailed planning, and a daunting degree of technical experience. ‘When you paint you can be less precise and just suggest things, but when you print it’s different: you have to chose when you make the colour changes, and you cannot go back. You can put something over it, but you cannot destroy it.

Helga’s exploration of printing was catalysed by an invitation to exhibit alongside a concert performance of Last Poems of Wallace Stevens by the American composer Ned Rorem. She created some rich gouaches, and later, when asked to make a CD booklet for the recording, she decided to develop the project further. It’s not surprising that Stevens, author of such works as ‘The Ultimate Poem is Abstract’, and analyst of the representation of things, struck a chord with the artist. Inspired by livres d’artistes such as Matisse’s Jazz, he was notoriously finicky about the design of his own publications and his work seems an appropriate subject for graphic experiment.

Theme and Variation

Helga’s experience drawing storyboards for animated movies suggested the possibilities of narrative form. Her concept was to use the book structure to highlight the nature of music as a force existing in time. She wanted to create a visual work ‘that has all the elements of music – themes that come back and connect to earlier themes or variations on themes.’ Over 156 pages, images are suggested before and after they appear, using semi-transparent, half-size or perforated paper through which the viewer can see beyond the existing spread. Each section has a different dominant tone, swathes of sombre blues or fold-outs that recall the sun-bleached pinks and yellows of her paintings. A small scarlet circle is a leitmotif, repeated as a lithographed scribble, a silkscreened spot, and even a Velcro fastening for the CD which lurks in the opening sequence, containing the austere and occasionally frenetic chamber music. ‘There is no page existing by itself,’ insists Helga. The three-volume, spiral-bound structure, with its many interconnecting visual references, prevents the images being taken out-of-sequence as they might on gallery walls.

Helga delighted in the physical task of printing. Every fresh development brought ideas unprejudiced by experience. She experimented in the graphic studio of the Rijksacademie, mixing inks, testing papers ranging from delicate kozo to stiff card and pulling flat and folded sheets through the press. ‘I discovered that when using a certain black paper, the ink changed colour, red became bronze, a bright orange turned into real gold and a specific blue popped up as a sparkling dark pink, days after printing.’ She became jokingly known as the ‘ten-colour printing machine.’ On one particular spread numerous lino blocks were inked simultaneously with different colours and printed in one revolution of the press, resulting in a geometric pattern of saturated intensity. Offset litho was used for reproductions of gouaches in the final volume, but this return to paint was totally controlled by the print process; Helga doctored the original paintings, so that they, rather than their replication, became the means to an end.

Stories and Non-Stories

These multiple combinations of colour and form arouse strong emotions. Helga sees the audience as an active component of her artwork, and intends the book to induce in each viewer the sense of possibility an artist experiences when creating a project. In an early series of paintings entitled Non-Stories (1995) Helga aimed to create an abstract work ‘which had figurative elements that were so strangely connected that you couldn’t make a story out of them.’ Those canvases gestured towards something elusive or forgotten, like vast landscapes in which we are at once liberated and utterly lost. A recent show, entitled Not Here Not Now (2005) examines similar concerns. If you would just think about a tree now is a lino print in which a woman is half-hidden as if behind a tree, but the absent tree must be imagined as well as the figure’s hidden body. Whether challenging the viewer’s notions of narrative or provoking play, Helga often stands back to let their interpretation take centre stage.

‘Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself’, the last poem in Ode to the Colossal Sun, describes an intangible sound ‘like/A new knowledge of reality.’ Helga’s work, mining layers of reality, ultimately suggests that the ‘real’ may only exist in the individual imagination. She is sceptical of photographic truth and prefers to evoke questions rather than answers, making free use of blank spaces and unfinished lines, inked over or otherwise occluded with multiple crosses or expressive scribbles. In ‘A child asleep in its own mind’ a Victorian studio portrait is overprinted with a pattern reminiscent of oppressive antique wallpaper and panels of colour that leave a glittering residue. She disrupts the primary image because ‘memory is not constructed like a photograph.’ Ode to the Colossal Sun, where no page is free of reference to the others, suggests that the Zen ideal of existing in the present is impossible due to invasive memories or anxieties about the future. Helga explains that there were several instances in which the very nature of the printed process assisted her, for example while printing from lino blocks for the first volume: ‘I noticed that on the sheets that I used to keep the press from staining there appeared beautiful rest forms.’ These protection sheets were saved and used in the final section, ‘A Clear Day’, where they provide a negative image of the borders of earlier prints.

When the book was completed, Helga returned to painting, working on a scale that had been impossible in the pressroom. She doesn’t deny that she now considers printing part of her repertoire and shows me a wall pinned with dynamic, impulsive sketches which she hopes will form the foundations of a new graphic project. However, when I question her further, she smiles mysteriously and hints that her return to printing ‘will be very different.’ Since a project that started as a booklet developed into a monumental three-volume work, who can imagine where this versatile artist will go next?


For further information: www.helgaKos.nl 020-6442562 helgakos@xs4all.nl.