a library for the leaves of the tree

Larry Aldrich opened the SoHo Center for the Visual Arts in 1973. He wanted to highlight emerging¬†artists, those creative individuals without gallery representation. Adjacent to the Center, Aldrich collaborated with Bernard Karpel, who had just retired as MOMA’s librarian, in founding the Center’s library – a library for practicing artists that focused on “resources which will inform the creative process rather than document the result (Chickanzeff, 1986).”

Though Karpel understood the classification and design of traditional libraries, he knew this wouldn’t be an advantageous orderliness for visual artists. “For every book there must be a hundred, maybe a thousand images, which bear the same relation as leaves to the trunk of a tree,” he said. “While the Dewey Decimal or other systems do an adequate job of classifying the textual trunks, there is little or no provision for classifying or defining the visual details – the leaves, so to speak…(Chickanzeff, 1986).”

Thank you, Bernard. If only your library still existed for today’s generation.

The Center’s library did not circulate materials and was open Tuesday – Saturday afternoons. The collection was art-focused, of course, with monographs on artists, art history, exhibition catalogs, art journals, and image references. Karpel organized these materials by color, such as red for painting, realizing that visual artists would respond better to color than numbers or letters. Rhonda Wall, a painter, recalls that artists were quite content with this classification scheme and easily browsed the stacks (Chickanzeff, 1986). (Art historians and critics, however, were none to pleased. Oh well, they have their own libraries already.)

Art students also found the library valuable. Aldrich noticed Yale students frequenting the place and inquired why. It wasn’t just that Aldrich permitted smoking, but that he purchased anything asked for. In a traditional library like Yale’s,¬†Gibson Danes (head of the art department at Yale) noted, “it takes eighteen months from the time we get any new book or publication till the time it becomes available to the students.” Who’s eager for that kind of service?

Staffed by artists and used by artists, a professional librarian wasn’t needed to help negotiate an unfamiliar system. You’d think this would irk the profession, but ARLIS/NA gave Karpel the Distinguished Service Award in 1986, a year after the Center’s library closed.

Well, it didn’t quite close. The 2,500 volume collection moved to the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The Museum hired a professional librarian and the color cataloging was replaced with the mainstream numbers and letters. In 2005, it was transferred again, this time to NYU. “The transfer will enable the New Museum Library holdings to be expertly catalogued and conserved as part of a full service library in perpetuity and will allow it to be accessible to scholars.”

Aldrich and Karpel set out to create an alterative to the status quo. The books haven’t changed since when Aldrich purchased them in the 1970s, but their accessibility has. I consider this the tree stripped bare.

Chickanzeff, S. (1986). Red is for painting: The SoHo Center library. Art Libraries Journal, 11(3). 5-8.