Abby Wanserski is back with a new feature in our series on Art Libraries. Her last article featured The Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and today she shares a more in-depth interview with Special Collections Librarian Jared Ash. Don’t miss the extra interview with artist Jen Mazza, who talks about her Watson Library-inspired artworks.  Enjoy! ~Erinn

Special Collections of the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Abby Wanserski

Jared Ash is responsible for collection development and cataloging of Special Collections, Russian and European language material for the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prior to joining Watson, he was the Curator and Librarian of Special Collections at the Newark Public Library in Newark, NJ. In 2012, Library As Incubator Project spoke to Jared about his initiative to connect contemporary artists with the Special Collections in Newark, and an exhibition pairing contemporary street art and stencil art, with examples of early 20th century pochoir illustration and screenprinting. You can view this article, Stencils + Pochoir at the Newark Public Library.

Albrecht Durer, methods of constructing letterforms, from "Institutionum Geometricarum", 1534. Watson Library Special Collections

Albrecht Durer, methods of constructing letterforms, from “Institutionum Geometricarum”, 1534. Watson Library Special Collections

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): When we last spoke about the Thomas J. Watson Library for our previous article, you mentioned that the Special Collections at the Watson mirrors the the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s general collection. Could you elaborate on what the Special Collections includes?

Jared Ash (JA): While we consider all of the material in Watson Library to be “special,” some books and other materials are “extra special.” “Special Collections” is the designation given to materials in Watson Library that may be unique, may require additional care or caution when handling or storing, or may be prohibitively expensive or impossible to replace if lost or damaged.

Of the nearly 1 million volumes held by the Met Libraries, approximately 10,000 of them are officially designated as “Watson Library Special Collections” and stored in the Rare Book cages. In reality, we probably have at least that many additional titles in our stacks that, at other institutions, are classified as Special Collections/Rare Books, but are able to remain in our general collection because we have restricted circulation and stack-access policies. “Restricted” means only that patrons can’t go down to the stacks and pull material themselves, but rather, must request material through our online catalog, which is then paged and delivered to the Reading Room by library staff. With very few exceptions, nearly everything held by Watson Library is available to the public for research, including Special Collections.

Nearly everything held by Watson Library is available to the public for research, including Special Collections.

The scope of Watson’s Special Collections reflects the encyclopedic nature of the Museum’s collection. Our collections feature books on art, design, and material culture from around the world, in an expansive range of languages, published from the 15th century through today. Particular strengths of the Special Collections include: trade catalogs from the late 18th to 20th century; art, design, and fashion journals from the 18th century to present; early printed works on color theory, perspective, art processes and techniques; illustrated books and albums on travel and exploration; and auction, exhibition, and collection catalogs. While many people may not immediately associate the Met with the terms “modern” or “contemporary,” the Museum libraries’ holdings are exceptionally strong in modern and contemporary material, especially new publications on twentieth and twenty-first century art. It is also worth noting that an increasing percentage of our rare and special collections materials is being made available to researchers worldwide through our Digital Collections where they may be viewed and downloaded as full-text searchable PDF’s at no charge.

The scope of Watson’s Special Collections reflects the encyclopedic nature of the Museum’s collection.

Page spread from Versuch eines Farbensystems by Ignaz Schiffermüller (Wien : Verlegts Augustin Bernardi, 1772). Watson Library Special Collections.

Page spread from Versuch eines Farbensystems by Ignaz Schiffermüller (Wien : Verlegts Augustin Bernardi, 1772). Watson Library Special Collections.

Joaquín Torres-García. Page spread from Nueva escuela de arte del Uruguay : Pintura y arte constructivo : Contribución al arte de las tres Américas = The new art school of Uruguay : painting and constructive art : contribution to the art of the three Americas. (Montevideo : Asociacion de Arte Constructivo, 1946). Watson Library Special Collections.

Joaquín Torres-García. Page spread from Nueva escuela de arte del Uruguay : Pintura y arte constructivo : Contribución al arte de las tres Américas = The new art school of Uruguay : painting and constructive art : contribution to the art of the three Americas. (Montevideo : Asociacion de Arte Constructivo, 1946). Watson Library Special Collections.

Page from Nos impressions. Supplément 1934, a catalog of textile samples from the firm Guillermaz et Cie (Lyon : M. Guillermaz et Cie, 1934). Watson Library Special Collections.

Page from Nos impressions. Supplément 1934, a catalog of textile samples from the firm Guillermaz et Cie (Lyon : M. Guillermaz et Cie, 1934). Watson Library Special Collections.

Page spread from Italian Futurism & Art Deco (Design & Style, no. 4). Cohoes, NY: Mohawk Paper and the Pushpin Group, 1988. Promotional publication series for Mohawk Paper, edited by Steven Heller, and designed by Seymour Chwast. Watson Library Special Collections.

Page spread from Italian Futurism & Art Deco (Design & Style, no. 4). Cohoes, NY: Mohawk Paper and the Pushpin Group, 1988. Promotional publication series for Mohawk Paper, edited by Steven Heller, and designed by Seymour Chwast. Watson Library Special Collections.

LAIP: Are there any special events held at the Watson or exhibits/displays that showcase the Special Collections specifically?

JA: This past year, we initiated a series of Friday evening “salons” organized around particular themes or types of material, at which we display selections of works from the collections for viewing and consultation. For example: in the Fall we hosted the New York chapter of the American Printing History Association, who were interested in seeing material related to Pre-Raphaelite and nineteenth-century British Printing and Design. In February, we shared highlights from our Russian and Slavic holdings with guests from the Society of Historians of East European, Eurasian, and Russian Art and Architecture (SHERA), who were in town for the College Art Association conference. Next month, we are planning to host a group of artists and illustrators associated with the scientific journal Nautilus, to view a selection of titles related to illustration and design.

The Friday evening salons offer an ideal and fun forum for bringing together people…We always encourage our guests to photograph and share images of the featured material via social media.

The salons offer an ideal and fun forum for bringing together people with common interests, passions, and subject specializations; for encouraging the sharing of ideas, insight, and enthusiasm; and for promoting greater awareness of our holdings and accessibility. We always encourage our guests to photograph and share images of the featured material via social media, to help spread the word to their friends and followers.

With regard to exhibits and displays: we have a few exhibition cases in Watson in which we present a rotating display of new Special Collections acquisitions, the majority of which are purchased with funds provided by the Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library. Now those displays are shared online as well, via the Library’s blog, In Circulation.

Student visitors from Bard Graduate Center consulting material from Watson Library's Special Collections.

Student visitors from Bard Graduate Center consulting material from Watson Library’s Special Collections.

Mikhail Karasik, book artist from St. Petersburg, Russia, consulting Josef Albers, The Interaction of Color (Yale University Press, 1963).

Mikhail Karasik, book artist from St. Petersburg, Russia, consulting Josef Albers, The Interaction of Color (Yale University Press, 1963).

Letterpress printers Paul Moxon and Val Lucas, consulting materials from Watson Library's Special Collections.

Letterpress printers Paul Moxon and Val Lucas, consulting materials from Watson Library’s Special Collections.

LAIP: In a previous conversation, you mentioned working with students and artists. Can you tell us more about this process?

JA: Education is at the forefront of everything we do at the Museum and Library. Watson’s collections routinely serve in educating students in rare book and art librarianship, and a number of Watson librarians are instructors or professors in library science programs in New York and New Jersey.

Education is at the forefront of everything we do at the Museum and Library.

In 2008, Watson Library changed its access policy from being open only to museum staff and institution-affiliated, graduate-level researchers and above, to the present policy of being open to anyone over the age of 18, no affiliation required. Since then, Watson has made tremendous strides in promoting our resources through targeted outreach to art history educators throughout the NYC area. Every semester, a significant number of professors bring their classes to Watson for library orientation and instruction in conducting art research.

Jared Ash, Special Collections Librarian, showing a Soviet constructivist photomontage journal to Allison Leigh and her students from Cooper Union.

Jared Ash, Special Collections Librarian, showing a Soviet constructivist photomontage journal to Allison Leigh and her students from Cooper Union.

Students from Fashion Institute of Technology, consulting material from Watson Library's Special Collections.

Students from Fashion Institute of Technology, consulting material from Watson Library’s Special Collections.

In the past year, we began incorporating an introduction to our Special Collections in those orientation sessions, and sharing a few highlights from the collections. We have also been reaching out to and hosting visits by an increasing number of studio art and design classes, as well as individual artists and designers. In my time as a Special Collections Librarian, first in Newark, and now at Watson, many of my most rewarding and enjoyable experiences have been introducing artists to specific titles or types of material in the collection.

In my time as a Special Collections Librarian…my most rewarding and enjoyable experiences have been introducing artists to specific titles or types of material in the collection.

One of the first artists to have participated in a guided exploration of Watson’s Special Collections, and the first to produce a finished work that directly reflects material consulted in those collections, is Jen Mazza. I became familiar with Jen’s work when I was still in Newark, through an artist residency she had at the Newark Museum, and solo exhibitions at Gallery Aferro and Aljira Center for Contemporary Art. I knew from our conversations that she was a staunch supporter of libraries, and her love for books and book culture was becoming increasingly apparent in her paintings.

In early 2014, Jen showed a series of paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, many of which feature images of reproductions of early to mid-20th century abstract paintings from old art publications. (View Jen Mazza’s exhibit at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery here). I had a strong feeling that Watson had a wealth of titles that Jen would find interesting, inspiring, and informative, and encouraged her to come up for a visit. I am thrilled that my hunch was correct, and that material that Jen found at Watson was in fact helpful in creating her new book, 10 White Lies & Poem of the End (New York: Jen Mazza, 2015).

Jen Mazza, 10 White Lies & Poem of the End (New York: Jen Mazza, 2015). Watson Library Special Collections.

Jen Mazza, 10 White Lies & Poem of the End (New York: Jen Mazza, 2015). Watson Library Special Collections.

Jen Mazza has graciously provided us with some insight into what it was like to work directly with the Special Collections.

LAIP: What aspects of your interaction with Special collections were most helpful to your work? 

Jen Mazza (JM): As I was beginning to work on the group of paintings that I showed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 2014, I spent a lot of time contemplating the nature of reproduction: looking at old documents–often black and white prints of original color paintings–and considering their relationship to the originals.  As the likeness was often poor, I considered what other value they might have as images and what else they could reveal.

Among other images, I was looking at reproductions of Malevich’s painting “White on White,” both as it appeared in monographs and other physical books, and also as digital representations found on the web. “White on White” is a painting I know very well from MoMA, so I was constantly surprised by the variations in the images I was viewing.  Seemingly simple in its manufacture, it is perhaps one of the most difficult paintings to reproduce. While at the Watson Library, I searched for images of the painting in the extensive collection of artist monographs and old catalogues.  In the book I created, I chose to reproduce a series of the digital images, but it was at the Watson that I conceptualized the project, gathered facts about Malevich’s work, and collected quotes by and about him and his contemporaries.  These words formed the foundation of the text that accompanies the images.

M. E. Chevreul, plates 5-7 from De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs ... [The Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors] (Paris: Chez Pitois-Levrault, 1839). Watson Library Special Collections.

M. E. Chevreul, plates 5-7 from De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs … [The Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors] (Paris: Chez Pitois-Levrault, 1839). Watson Library Special Collections.

The Watson Library seems an almost infinite resource!  It is as full in its own way as the museum is full of art, simply put, there is a great number and range of materials available all in one place.  Though visiting and browsing the stacks was a fascinating and unusual experience, the most helpful part of the experience was having access to a librarian.  Jared Ash knows the collection exceptionally well and was able to pull out particular books that were beautiful and unusual, truly the jewels of the collection; books that I did not know to even look for when browsing the online catalogue, such as De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs [The Law of Simultaneous Contrast] (above), Die Kunstismen = Les ismes de l’art = The isms of art, and Shima shima, a collection of color woodblock printed textile motifs conceived by Japanese designer and painter Furuya Kōrin (Kyoto: Yamada Unsōdō, 1906) (below).

Cover of Die Kunstismen = Les ismes de l'art = The isms of art, edited by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp (Erlenbach-Zürich, Munich and Leipzig: Eugen Rentsch, 1925). Design by El Lissitzky. Watson Library Special Collections.

Cover of Die Kunstismen = Les ismes de l’art = The isms of art, edited by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp (Erlenbach-Zürich, Munich and Leipzig: Eugen Rentsch, 1925). Design by El Lissitzky. Watson Library Special Collections.

Page spread from Shima shima, a collection of color woodblock printed textile motifs conceived by Japanese designer and painter Furuya Kōrin (Kyoto: Yamada Unsōdō, 1906); Watson Library Special Collections.

Page spread from Shima shima, a collection of color woodblock printed textile motifs conceived by Japanese designer and painter Furuya Kōrin (Kyoto: Yamada Unsōdō, 1906); Watson Library Special Collections.

LAIP: What would you tell other artists about the benefit from visiting the Watson Library?

JM: I think most artists become artists because they are attracted both to materials and ideas; the library is a container for just that.  The intangible nature of digital research makes more apparent the uniqueness of experience offered by libraries and archives.  There is a true vibrancy in the images and materials, which is not to be found online. Being able to touch information, both literally and figuratively, gives something more than just facts and offers an opportunity for contemplation and discovery.

Being able to touch information, both literally and figuratively, gives something more than just facts and offers an opportunity for contemplation and discovery.

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DSC_0015Abby Wanserski received her BFA in Photography from the University Wisconsin Milwaukee. She currently works at the Alicia Ashman Library in Madison Wisconsin and is the co-founder and manager of the Russian folk music group White Birch Ensemble, where she plays the domra, a Russian folk instrument, and sings. Abby is also a photographer and visual artist, and she hopes to apply her creative experience and expertise to a career in Art Librarianship. Visit Abby online at abbyroseart.com.

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