Mindell Dubansky —
Who in my field had received the attention they deserve; and whose artistic contributions might disappear from the history of the book in the near future? How can I utilize my own half-century experience as an artist, book conservator and preservation librarian to collect, contextualize and share the chosen subject with the public, researchers and artists? These are the questions I asked myself as I pondered my desire to pay homage to the book and paper artists who have contributed to our culture for the last fifty years. This is what motivated me to build a collection of modern American hand-decorated papers and to document their commercial uses and the professional lives of their makers. The result of this project came to be known as the Paper Legacy Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library. Upon completion of the collection, Pattern and Flow. A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s, the first monograph published by the Museum’s library, was created to share this special resource with all of you.
The Paper Legacy Collection began in 2017. My objective was to assemble original materials relating to the most notable American artists active from the midpoint to the turn of the twentieth century, centered around a collection of full sheets of decorated paper in various techniques, as selected and described by the makers themselves. I also endeavored to document the cultural and economic conditions that allowed the artists to flourish during this period. A resource of this kind, I knew, would serve historians and practicing artists long into the future. As it stands today, the collection represents over fifty artists who worked in many styles and techniques, and in all regions of the United States; two of which have worked principally in Canada. Further, it records details of their lives and published writings, and includes examples of their custom tools and archival materials that illustrate the world of paper arts they created.
I began to shape the project by developing a list of makers whose reputations I knew from working as a hand bookbinder in New York since the late 1970s. I scanned the literature of the period noting additional possible participants and consulted with artists and vendors about the people and events they felt were influential on a national level. The cultural map that emerged indicated that professional decorated paper making occurred in loosely connected pockets around the United States, and that the artists involved by the early 1980s were largely responsible for the international conferences, research, publications, workshops, and equipment that helped the craft to prosper. With my list complete, I reached out to the artists with the aim of learning how decorated paper was transformed from a dying art in the late 1960s to a flourishing, nationwide phenomenon by the late 1980s.
In the course of creating the Paper Legacy Collection, I learned that the artists are a collaborative, and industrious group. Because they are experimenters and accustomed to viewing their work as something to be used by others, humility and a pragmatic orientation are common attributes. Professional paper artists and artisans are found in all regions of the US. Many artists included in Pattern and Flow were aesthetically influenced by their home environments, whether natural or urban. They did not adopt the styles of contemporary art movements, apart from a few drawn to the graphic art of the American counterculture or mid-century abstract art. Rather, most found inspiration in their direct encounters with the decorative processes, materials, and methods. All were motivated by beauty and technical perfection. Some took a historical approach, creating traditionally patterned papers with paints made from traditional, often organic, ingredients; others preferred to create modern versions of patterns using modern materials. Each of these groups created both one-of-a-kind papers and multiple sheets with a similar design, or so-called production papers. Other artists took a highly experimental approach, making one-of-a-kind papers using nontraditional materials—such as industrial paints and cooking condiments—to create unusual visual effects. Many of the artists defy categorization and worked, or are still working, in a variety of techniques and styles. The techniques used to create the papers include marbling, paste paper, and other various painting and printmaking approaches. While these methods are grounded in the traditional decorated paper techniques practiced globally for centuries, this new generation both rediscovered and reinvented paper decoration and surface design with a fresh vitality and freedom of expression. The result has been an efflorescence of new and glorious designs which found their way into the daily fabric of our lives.
The decorated paper phenomenon coincided with a proliferation of the book arts in North America—a natural connection, given that hand bookbinding has traditionally incorporated decorated paper
s as covering material and endpapers. Yet, over the ensuing decades, decorated paper arts grew far beyond their role in service to books, with the papers beautifying objects from boxes to walls, including commercial products, and the techniques applied to fabrics and other materials. For example, Paper Legacy artists created package designs for Coty and Kimberly-Clark Corporation, giftwrap for Hallmark, bed sheets for Martex, and home furnishings for Ethan Allen.
The same artists also produced beautiful hand-marbled papers for use by the country’s finest small press publishers, such as the Arion Press in San Franciso, California and Walter Hamady’s Perishable Press in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as commercial publishers, such as Alfred A. Knopf and Harper Collins. Many also created small editions of papers for prestigious institutions, including the White House.
Many artists in the Paper Legacy Collection remain active, and new artists are still entering the field. Others have retired or passed away. In the US, most papers are now sold online as brick-and-mortar outlets have decreased. There is also an apparent shift away from making production papers toward creating one-of-a-kind or small-edition graphic art using the same techniques as before. An example of this is Robert Wu’s Daisy Garden. The decorated paper arts have survived for centuries, through cycles of popularity and disinterest. The Watson Library’s Paper Legacy Collection preserves and documents works made by the most prominent artists working since the 1960s. We encourage you to explore the collection in person and online at https://www.metmuseum.org/paperlegacy.
Mindell Dubansky is museum librarian for preservation, Sherman Fairchild Center for Book Conservation, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.