Pages. 87-88 of “The Departure of the Argonaut. 1983-1986,” by artist Francesco Clemente and author Alberto Salvinio (translator: George Scrivani). Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art: The Ryda Hecht Levi Collection of Illustrated Books, and Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s spring exhibition seeks to highlight what its curator views as an oftentimes undervalued artistic medium: the artist’s book.

Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books will feature more than 130 artists’ books and prints housed in the BMA’s expansive collection. The diverse exhibition includes well-known painters and printers like Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Wassily Kandinsky and Kiki Smith, as well as collaborations between authors and artists such as Stephen King and collagist Barbara Kruger and poet Walasse Ting and numerous pop artists.

“The creation of artist books was important in the evolution of modern and contemporary art,” said Rena Hoisington, the BMA’s senior curator of prints, drawings and photographs, in an interview.

Hoisington received some help in assembling this exhibition. Nearly a dozen students from Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Institute College of Art and Loyola University Maryland took her spring 2016 class at the BMA, “Paper Museums: Exhibiting Artists’ Books,” in which they studied individual artist books and presented about them to the class on a weekly basis.

“I really wanted them be able to experience each book in its entirety,” Hoisington said.

Page 38 from “La Fin du monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D,” by artist Fernand Léger and author Blaise Cendrars. Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art: The Ryda Hecht Levi Collection of Illustrated Books, and Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The curator said the students’ work and input on the themes for the show have served as the foundation for this exhibition. Most of the books and prints in the show will be accompanied by label text written by the students.

More than half of the works have never before been on display at the museum.

In addition to a wide array of tangible media, the museum will also have iPads with digital copies of some works and videos relating to Michalis Pichler’s sculptural adaption of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” and Michael Snow’s “Cover to Cover.” Facsimiles of some books and English translations of foreign texts will also be available.

Hoisington said that while the medium of the artist book offers a different way to look at the body of an artist’s work, it did present a unique challenge for the curator of a show. It requires careful selections, right down to the very pages on display, she said.

“The book unfolds sequentially in time and you have the process of discovery in time,” she said. “In the exhibition, you have to open the book in one spread and that has to stand in for the whole publication.”

Hoisington noted many artist books not only compiled bodies of work, but also contributed to the creator’s artistic process and development. An example she points to is Kandinsky’s 1913 book, “Sounds” (translated from “Klänge”).

Works such as this “create a dialogue between image and text” that cannot always be captured when examining his individual paintings and prints, Hoisington said. “I’m hoping it will be an eye opener for people.”

“Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books” runs from March 12-June 25 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Click here for more information.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...