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Library of Congress acquires art professor's work

January 13, 2010

Soon, anyone browsing the catalogue of the Library of Congress will find a name long associated with ASU: John Risseeuw, professor of art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

The Library of Congress recently purchased a copy of nearly every work that Risseeuw, a papermaker, printer and fine-book-maker, has completed through his Cabbagehead Press.

And not only did the LoC acquire an archive of his past work, it will receive a copy of everything he creates in the future.

Risseeuw’s work will be housed in the LoC’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

How did the LoC in Washington, D.C., learn about Risseeuw’s work in Arizona?

The connection was made by Nina W. Matheson, an art dealer in Maryland, Risseeuw said, who happened to be familiar with the rare book collection at the LoC.

“A year ago I was contacted by Matheson, who was handling a printmaker and book artist named Claire Van Vliet," Risseeuw said. "Van Vliet was included in a portfolio called ‘A Dance of Death,’ which has work from 19 artists, writers and poets that I made paper for and printed. Matheson said she wanted to represent the portfolio.”

Within two weeks after the initial contact, Matheson had shown the work to Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress.

“The reason I contacted Mr. Dimunation in the first place was to show him John's portfolio, which includes a broadside by the Janus Press (which van Vliet founded in 1952)," Matheson said. "The Janus Press archives are in the Rare Books Division and I knew that they did not have a copy of this broadside, or the portfolio, having searched the LoC catalog.”

Another tie, Matheson said, was the portfolio’s subject matter, “A Dance of Death.”

“The Rare Books Division has, because of the Rosenwald Collection (a large collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early woodcut books donated by Lessing J. Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck Company from 1932 to 1939), many illustrated books around the theme of the Dance of Death. So there were two features that meant they should have the portfolio,” Matheson added.

“Mr. Dimunation was very taken with the pieces in the portfolio, especially John's contribution. He had not heard of the Cabbagehead Press, even though small presses are a specialty of his.”

After talking with Dimunation, Matheson called Risseeuw.

“Nina asked if Cabbagehead Press had any other prints or portfolios,” Risseeuw said. “I said, ‘Yes, about 40 years worth.’”

Risseeuw said Dimunation seemed a little doubtful at first, before he saw any images, about acquiring any Cabbagehead Press work.

“But when he saw the work, he was convinced. The images showed there was growth and change in my work over the years. He said that’s something he doesn’t always see. He asked to see more of my work.”

For his part, Dimunation said he was taken by the combination of fine-printing integrity with the letterpress tradition in Risseeuw’s work.

"My immediate response to John's work was that it was a delicious conversation between sharply defined content and the fine press tradition. What is striking and compelling about his work is that he is able to present social critique and still maintain the integrity of the letterpress form. His work also has real character behind it.”

Dimunation said he collects work for the Rare Books Division when “there is a significant need to document the work.”

“Risseeuw's work embraces the broadside – the single sheet," he said. "This is a difficult task, to convey design and content in a single space. His work, which is innovative and ongoing in its experimentation, speaks in part to a long-standing tradition of the broadside as commentary.

“Because his work is about both the fine press tradition and political commentary, his archive was particularly interesting to the Library of
Congress. It is indeed letterpress printing with character.”

Getting the Cabbagehead Press prints and broadsides assembled for shipment forced Risseeuw to “clean house” a bit, he said.

“I had to go through all of my drawers and storage boxes. In the end I sent him 129 pieces.”

So how has Risseeuw’s work changed over the years?

“I’ve included more political content, more whimsical ideas,” Risseeuw said. “Maybe there’s more sophistication in my later work, conceptually and visually. I’ve made better use of hand-made paper. I’ve really developed that part of the process. The paper contributes to the final piece.”

Risseeuw is thrilled that his paper and printing now are in the holdings of the 210-year-old “museum of the people.”

“The Library of Congress is “an important national, public collection, and the Library of Congress will remain open for a long time. It’s a perfect place. Being chosen to have work there is an honor.”

Dimunation concurs.

“I’m a new, but rabid fan of John’s,” he said.