Just several feet away from where people are immersed in the digital worlds of their laptops, iPhones, and Kindles, Ido Agassi’s hand-designed, individually printed and bound books calmly look on from a display case in the lobby of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. Those who take time to observe Agassi’s “Books as Works of Art,” on view until March 31, are reminded that text need not be a flickering image on a screen, and that words can possess beauty beyond their meaning.
The blending of sculpture, graphic design and bookbinding has been part of the 34-year-old Israeli artist’s personal landscape since 1994, when his father, Uzi Agassi, founded Even Hoshen, the family’s letterpress and intaglio publishing house in Ra’anana. An autodidact, the younger Agassi is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to handcrafting books, boxes and slipcases. Over the years, he has studied bookbinding, restoration, box making, letterpress printing, typesetting, typography, calligraphy, gold finishing, printing and carpentry.
Included in the exhibition are 16 limited edition works of poetry and prose in either Hebrew and English, or just Hebrew. It is immediately clear that Agassi’s work is about form mirroring, or at least conveying, content. For Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” he uses ominous looking, black paper cut illustrations. A book of poems by Ronny Someck called “Pointe Shoes” has a paste-free binding of black cloth with pink ribbon ornamentation. “In Every One There Are Four Sons” by Nili Dagan opens up in the middle to reveal a pop-up sculpture in primary colors of four young men who appear to be running down steps.
Most striking are the poem “Mein Blaus Klavier” (“My Blue Piano”) by Else Lasker-Schuler, imprinted on the paper keys of a book-sized blue cloth grand piano, and the biblical story of David and Goliath, bound by a leather sling shot. Also impressive are a set of miniature books as small as one inch by one inch with tiny illustrations displayed in a doll house-like window box.
Agassi’s books have been exhibited in Israel, the U.S., Switzerland, Germany and England in recent years. Some are held by the Library of Congress, the British Library, university and national library collections, and by private collectors worldwide.
As the world races into the digital future, Agassi’s work reminds us to slow down and consider becoming bibliophiles, in the literal sense of the word. “I really feel I am doing something the way they made it centuries ago. I can do it by candlelight or go outside if it is daytime,” Agassi told San Francisco’s JWeekly in a 2008 interview.
In an age when a book will likely soon be paperless, Agassi’s art challenges us to think about what we stand to lose by no longer being able to hold or behold a three-dimensional, physical interpretation of an author’s ideas. We may no longer be in danger of judging a book by its cover when there is no cover left to judge — but will that be a good thing?