This post, about an exhibition of Martha Rosler’s Library at the Herter Art Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, got me thinking about personal libraries of various kinds. Mostly working libraries, filled with books that people have actually read cover to cover, as opposed to the coffee table variety. I’ve always loved sneaking a peek at the bookshelves in the homes of people I visit. I’ll admit it, I’m a snoop, at least when it comes to uncovering the secret history of what people like to read.  I don’t mind if people snoop my bookshelves when they visit my place either. Bookshelves are like snapshots, in some cases they’re a form of family portrait. I love how over time, everyone’s books can mix together willy nilly, the Marxist analyses with the potty training manuals, but I also love seeing smaller tableaus containing just those books that are “in action” at the moment, like this one, from the home of Pamela Fraser and Randall Szott:


Family bookshelves mediate between public and private space. I would most likely be too embarrassed to ask someone if I could photograph the books in their bedroom (although who knows, maybe not), but the living room seems like fair game. So much art in Chicago takes place within domestic settings, and sometimes it can be really hard for me to keep my eyes on the art, so interested am I in everything else that’s going on in the room. Lately, I’ve been wanting to take pictures of the bookshelves in artist’s studios and in various public/private domiciles as a combination snapshot and local travelogue, a means of staging a different kind of personal encounter. Over the next few months I’ll occasionally post snapshots from the domestic libraries I encounter (with the owners’ permission, of course). So many clues about who we are and what brought us to this point are hidden in plain site right there on a bookshelf. It’s fun to look, to try and make connections, to guess at whose book is whose and to feel a sense of curiosity and wonder at what we find.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.