Light, Space, Action: Leah Mackin’s Response

May 12, 2017 by

In the stacks of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library, Artist’s Book Grant resident Leah Mackin happened upon the catalog for the 1971 West Coast Minimalist exhibition, Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space. An enclosed interview with Larry Bell caught her attention; Bell’s answers held spaces where vowels should have been and there was no context— nothing but a short editorial note—to explain why.

After checking out the book and jotting down some of the missing letters, Leah’s initial curiosity gave way to planning a more complex project. Drawing from what she calls her “copy cycle mentality”—her interest in duplication, repetition, and distortion—she took the catalog to the nearest photocopier.

It wasn’t this small, forty-six year old casebound book that led her to WSW’s letterpress studio and bindery, but Leah’s awareness of her personal drive to decode the interview. She scanned the pages and, with a light table, began filling in the blanks. Having brought these pages to her WSW residency, Leah’s printing and binding her artist’s book, Transparency Reflection Light Space: A Response.

In the studio,  surrounded by stacks of cover board and book cloth, Leah describes her first encounter with the text. “I read Bell’s responses as a brusque bravado— that he didn’t feel the need to answer the questions. He intentionally, maybe aggressively, refused to participate in the interview with this masculine ego associated with the history of Minimalism. Men would both strip space and take up space with large-scale installations.”

As a response, Leah accentuates this gender divide in her book with two saddle stitch pamphlets. The first pamphlet presents the missing vowels along with photographs of Leah deciphering the text. Scaled to the 1971 catalog and printed on white paper, it’s followed by the second pamphlet containing photocopies of the original text on semi-transparent paper. An extra panel in the book’s cover separates the two sections, accenting themes of absence and presence, clarity and concealment which run throughout both texts. 

Research for Transparency Reflection Light Space: A Response gradually reshaped Leah’s first impression of the artist. She found that in the early 1970’s Bell switched from making steel cubes with glass sheeting to installing gallery-sized works of just glass. Around that time, Bell exhibited at the Tate and, finding his sculpture did not work in the space, was overwhelmed by restructuring his installations.

She explains, “He called the steel frames for his cubes ‘rods’ and was obsessing over how they were functioning—or not functioning—in his work. After spending time with the text, I wanted the [interview] to be a conceptual piece in itself, with Bell’s extraction of the vowels in direct correlation to his sculptural practice.”

Instead, Leah found a later interview where Bell admits to being evasive in his early career. In the same vein of making his words unreadable, he would submit short stories in lieu of artist statements to avoid speaking about his work. Where Leah once read as arrogance in Bell’s motives she sees vulnerability and uncertainty.

True to the original catalog, neither section of Transparency Reflection Light Space: A Response discloses the artist’s full responses; Bell’s ambiguity is preserved. The book serves as an exploration of two artists’ actions, four decades apart, in relation to an art movement that allowed no space for gesture or expression. Just years after the rise of American abstraction championed evidence of the artist’s process, Minimalists restrained from showing the mark or hand of the artist. 

Larry Bell’s removal of vowels divulge process, and Leah’s still researching the extent of role he played in their elimination. As the catalog was published before the digital era, someone—possibly Bell—had to hand-scrape the letters from printing plates. While Bell’s action is implied, Leah’s are featured through the pages. To balance these gestures, she letterpress printed circles indicating a both mistakes in the 1971 text and words she could not decipher. “We’re all in this together now,” she laughs.

Photocopied, sewn, and bound, Leah’s book unfolds in two parts, a response and call. Between the sections, she offers readers a brief editorial note and leaves them to their own investigation.

Head to our Newest Titles page to purchase your copy of Transparency Reflection Light Space: A Response.

Leah Mackin is a book artist and conservator based in Pittsburgh, PA. In her work she addresses multiples, abstraction, art research, preservation, and performance, and she’s always on the lookout for a good photocopier. She holds her BFA in Printmaking and Book Arts from University of the Arts, Philadelphia, and her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Find more books and prints on her website and see more from her residency on our Flickr!