Weekly Update (Part 1) – Osvaldo Romberg at Penn

This week’s Weekly includes my review of Osvaldo Romberg’s show at the University of Pennsylvania library. The opening reception is Friday night. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the copy with additional pictures. See my flickr set for more photos from the show.

All Booked Up
Osvaldo Romberg reads a text, closes it, then turns it into a piece of art.

An example of Romberg’s altered books. Here, a book on Bronzino is adorned with a magnifying glass.

Osvaldo Romberg wreaks havoc upon books-eviscerating them, gluing them shut or encasing the tomes in thick layers of resin. But it’s clear from the artist’s 43-year retrospective at the University of Pennsylvania‘s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library that Romberg isn’t a book hater. He loves books. When he’s not destroying and reconfiguring existing volumes, the Argentine-born artist and curator is making new books of his own from scattered words, phrases, specimens and images. Romberg’s biblio-passion comes from his engagement with art, culture and scholarship. He raises issue with how civilization selects and maintains its stories.

Columbia encyclopedia into which the artist inserted a prayer book and some shells.

Ironically, the destructive acts have created something beautiful, and Romberg’s transformed book objects are delightful to the eye. He festoons the outer shells of the sculptural books with small, jewel-like adornments (shells, coral, glass magnifiers). Here and there he places outcroppings of small figures who sit like guardians of the new order. The works resemble relics from a shamanistic ritual. And indeed, the artist’s practice is ritualistic: He reads the book for the last time, closes it and then glues it or guts it-transforming the book into art.

My favorite work in the show, People of the Book.

Romberg isn’t saying we should do away with books or return to an oral tradition and tell our stories around the campfire. But he does raise the issue of cultural codification. Romberg is all about systems, classifications and hierarchies. His work can be read as a critique of the hierarchical system that creates books: Why were these chosen and by whom? By seizing control of the storytelling, Romberg suggests that alternate systems (more personal, idiosyncratic and artistic ones) can create equally valid chronicles. That we can substitute handmade metaphorical, beautiful and artistic systems to tell stories is a great utopian vision.

An example of a new book — with art by Romberg and aphorisms by Jean-Michel Rabate.

Romberg, a professor of art at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and senior curator at the Slought Foundation, is a successful international artist with an active exhibition history in New York, Chicago, Berlin,
Vienna, Paris and elsewhere. Oddly, while the artist has been in Philadelphia for 14 years, he’s yet to have an in-depth solo show in the city. Here he’s known more for his curating and teaching. This is the first opportunity to see a critical mass of the artist’s output and get a glimpse of what he’s about.


This piece refers, I believe, to Duchamp’s boite en valise or museum in a box.

Although comprehensive, the show is confined to Romberg’s practice surrounding books and words. The artist has also made several videos and says he’s working on another, Jesús de Buenos Aires, in which the stories are acted out with life-sized transparent plastic dolls that he makes.

All the work is in vitrines, which is too bad because I would have liked to get closer to many of the books and objects.

Art is a serious business for Romberg. He believes it must provoke and engage but not entertain. This show is a successful provocation and a great foray into visual storytelling and alternative histories.

“The Library Is Burning: Text, Image, Object: 1963-2006, Osvaldo Romberg.”
Opening reception Fri., April 7, 6pm. Free. Through June 7. University of Pennsylvania, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library,
3420 Walnut St. 215.898.7088.