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A. Steve Wolfe

Steve Wolfe is about 56 years old and studied at Virginia Commonwealth–Newsweek’s top sculpture MFA program for a few years running. He had a solo show at the Whitney in 2009, which traveled to the Menil Collection in Houston. He is represented by 24th Street Manhattan’s Luhring Augustine.

Steve Wolfe, "Untitled (Cubism)" 1997. Oil, lithography ink, and modeling paste on paper mounted on wood and canvasboard, 10 1/4 x 8 x 7/8." MoMA.

Wolfe’s work includes both mixed media prints on wood panels in full imitation of books, and works on paper detailing book covers in two-dimensions. Wolfe depicts the books as objects handled on a daily basis and thereby marked by use. (I.e. not the Platonic ideal of a Penguin book, but the book itself, fraught with wear). We witness a depiction of the specific book of a person’s library. The media common to the pieces are oil, lithography and screenprint on board or paper. Mixed media, part printing and part hand-work when on wood, to form a full 3-D impersonation; when on paper, flat. He describes his work to the MoMA here.

In a 2003 review printed in the NYT, Holland Cotter writes, “Mr. Wolfe has been creating his bibliographical art for years, and it has not escaped accusations of preciousness. In my view it is saved, even elevated, by its conceptual smarts…He turns art historical studies of deities like Picasso into artifacts, immaculate but mute….In short, the [personal] histories trapped in the work are what warm up the optical tours de force.”

The Whitney summarizes his recent works thus: “Working in the tradition of trompe l’oeil, his pieces often quite literally fool the eye on first inspection: tattered books, worn album covers, and vinyl records appear pristine but these are objects made from modeling paste, screenprints, drawings, and many other media, and they reproduce not just the thing but the individuality an object takes on as it is consumed by one or more individuals.”

Steve Wolfe, "Untitled (Picasso)." Oil, screenprint, modeling paste, paper, canvasboard and wood. 9 x 6 x 1/2 inches.

Steve Wolfe, "Untitled (Study for the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas)." 2004-5. Oil, lithography, modeling paste on paper at 15" by 10"

An important distinction can be set between  hand-written text and printed text.  The hand-written embodies sentiment and the thereness of the maker. From Cy Twombly’s oil-bar scrawl on canvas to Collier Schorr’s handwritten wall-text in her 2008 show Freeway Balconies, hand-written text carries a sense of personality, a clear sensual aspect, and at times an urgency (the immediate and emotional instead of the precisely planned). Text inscribed by hand acts as an “X” ME FECIT [but as Lichtenstein showed with his brushstroke paintings, any spontaneous gesture can become a convention in itself with time]. Printed text, or text written to look as if printed, mimics the mechanical. It effaces its author, be it in Chuck Close’s painted bottle of ketchup at a diner table or Ed Ruscha’s  celebrated word paintings.

Steve Wolfe. "Untitled (Vanguard/Cook's/ Sapporo/Durham's/Campari Cartons)." (2001-3); Cartons: Oil and screenprint on archival cardboard with wooden armatures. Books: Oil, screenprint, lithography, modeling paste, canvasboard, paper and wood.

A recurring image in Wolfe’s pieces is the Penguin book cover, calling to mind his contemporaries Duncan Hannah and Harland Miller. Duncan Hannah does Penguin covers in just oil on canvas; he has been recently commissioned by Penguin itself


. Hannah portrays Penguin covers and occasionally fictionalizes the author or title. Miller improvises around the Penguin layout, assembling book titles from journal entries or overheard phrases.

Penguin has capitalized on the art trend presumably. In 2006, Penguin by Design, a compendium of covers, was released. And Penguin 75–a look at contemporary covers in discussion with the authors and designers–came out in July 2010.


Duncan Hannah, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Oil on canvas, 14"x9" (2007)


Cf. Leanne Shapton, who does paintings on wood to imitate books among other book depictions and book arts.

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