“Keith Kuhn Memorial Exhibit: Alice Heyn Balterman,” The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in June 2013

“Keith Kuhn Memorial Exhibit: Alice Heyn Balterman,” The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

By Karen Chambers

During his tenure as library services director at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Keith Kuhn compiled an impressive collection of artist books. Each year a Memorial Exhibit honors him with works drawn from that collection. This year it showcases the work of Alice Heyn Balterman, a collagist and “altered book,” which I take to include assemblage, artist.

(Picasso is credited with inventing collage or papier collé, in 1908 when he pasted a piece of paper in the center of a drawing: “La Rève,” and assemblage with his Cubist constructions, c. 1912-1914. The word seems to have originated in the early 1950s, when Jean Dubuffet titled a series of collages of butterfly wings, assemblages d’empreintes.)

Balterman, a Cincinnati native, attended Smith College and the Art Institute of Chicago. She was introduced to découpage on a 1954 visit to Cape Cod when she encountered the work of folk artist Peter Hunt. We are not told what she was doing from 1954 to 1990, the earliest works in the show, but since the exhibition comes from the library’s collection that, obviously, determined what could be shown. Still a little information about this long period would have been appreciated.

Keith Kuhn – Alice Balterman piece 3

So let’s start with an altered book from 1990, Livre Plié, which does not include collage. Balterman has opened an old book to create a sculptural object with turned-down pages. Some are turned down nearly in half diagonally, forming a “tutu.” In between those sections, others are folded in half vertically, suggesting a torso. A couple of feathers are inserted at the top. It’s smart and funny, but not as satisfying as her collages and assemblages.

And I’m a sucker for collage. I love seeing how an artist combines images cut from paper into compositions that work formally, which can be the artist’s prime consideration in nonobjective works, but also in thought-provoking ways by juxtaposing disparate images from ephemera to communicate a message.

While collage/assemblage has often been used for whimsy by many, including Joseph Cornell and closer to home Sarah Pearce, it has also been used for some pretty potent political or social purposes (sorry about all those p’s) by the likes of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Pop artist Richard Hamilton.

Balterman is a master at creating compositions that entertain and charm. Her 1990 book Jardin des Collages is opened to a spread with rice paper covering the images on the left-hand page with “THE MOST FAMOUS ITALIAN COMPOSER WAS LIBRETTO” written in pencil. The only clear image is an organ grinder’s monkey.

On the opposite page is a grid of postage-stamp-sized faces, including a Rembrandt etching, a carved-wood head of an African woman, a Chuck Close portrait with penetrating eyes, an almost abstract Ben-Day-dot Lichtenstein with a quite recognizable eye, and others. Above the grid, in the upper right-hand corner, is a “Fragile Handle With Care” sticker. In the lower left and balancing it, is a printed (engraved?) picture of a tail-coated man tying up a large package. The piece is well composed and offers much to decipher.

From 2010 there’s the baseball-themed “Diamonds Are Forever” book. The title has two very obvious interpretations. It’s a well-known song from the 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but Cincinnati has always been a baseball-mad town. In 1863 the Red Stockings (the name was officially changed in the 1890s) became the first all professional team.

The book is opened to the centerfold with a 1900 print of a ruddy-cheeked boy with a Kewpie-doll face straddling the gutter. He’s ready to take a swing with his “twin” as catcher wearing a chest protector that looks like it had been stolen from a parlor settee.

Framing it on the left and right sides are baseball-card sized images including an ad for H & H Butter-Kist Pop Corn showing the front of a box with a little boy fishing while his female companion reads a book. Both are dressed in polka-dot outfits with middy collars. And on the other side, there’s a goofy-looking fellow who looks a lot like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman wearing a cap declaring the Reds champs in 1939. It would have been the National League since in the World Series, the hometown team lost to the Yankees, which won their fourth in a row

Some of Balterman’s books are available for sale in the library’s gift shop. Priced below $100, I seriously considered adding a Balterman to my collection. I’ve paid as much for books about art, why not a book that is art?

Karen S. Chambers

“Keith Kuhn Memorial Exhibit: Alice Heyn Balterman” on view through Aug. 18, 2013, at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Main Library cases outside elevators on 2nd and 3rd floors, 800 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH. 513-369-6900, www.CincinnatiLibrary.org. Sun., 1 p. m.-5:00 p. m. Mon.-Wed., 9 a. m.-9 p. m., Thurs.-Sat., 9 a. m.-6 p. m.


Alice Heyn Balterman, “Traveler’s Adventure,” courtesy of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

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