“A Humument started life around noon on the 5th of November 1966. As usual on a Saturday morning Ron Kitaj and I were prowling the huge warehouse in search of bargains. When we arrived at the racks of cheap and dusty books left over from house clearances I boasted to Ron that if I took the first one that cost threepence I could make it serve a serious long-term project. My eye quickly chanced on a yellow book with the tempting title A Human Document. Looking inside we found it had the fateful price. “If it’s a dime,” said Ron “then that’s your book: and I’m your witness.” – Tom Phillips
Flowers Gallery is pleased to announce that British artist Tom Phillips will present Pages from A Humument at the New York Gallery - the first time that works from A Humument have been displayed on such a large scale in New York.
From a chance encounter in a London thrift store with A Human Document, a Victorian novel by W. H. Mallock, Phillips embarked upon a project which has continued for almost half a century. Altering the text of the original novel in a series of variations, by drawing and overpainting, splicing and collaging, he has generated a counter-document titled A Humument; a testament to the endless potential for the generation and reinterpretation of ideas.
Early experiments with the book included obliterating unwanted words, and highlighting others, simultaneously interrupting the flow of the original story while inventing a new non-linear narrative. Segments of text were designated new poetic meaning, connected through ‘rivers’ of ink, watercolor or gouache winding through the typography, forming new pictorial arrangements and occasionally images of faces and figures. In later editions, Phillips introduced outside material to the pages, integrating collaged imagery and motifs from other elements of his work.
The original edition of 367 treated pages was completed in 1973; it was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and went on to be published as a trade edition. Phillips worked on subsequent revisions, with a fifth edition completed in 2012. Phillips says: “In the original introduction I spoke of ‘mining and undermining’ Mallock’s text but I was now aware I had not dug as deeply as it might permit. Thus the first version could be regarded as preliminary opencast mining leaving more hidden seams to be investigated.” 100 pages from three different versions of the project will be displayed in Pages from A Humument, showcasing the evolution of the book over time from Mallock’s untreated book pages to A Humument Version 1 and, later, A Humument Version 2. The series was exhibited in its entirety through 2013-14 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).
Since completing his first page in 1966, Phillips has created over 1000 texts or ‘fragments’ of poetry and prose from the original document. A selection of these miniature fragments will be displayed together in the exhibition as a group, illustrating how Phillips uses the original novel as a starting point for endless discovery.
Phillips’ work on A Humument has provided a source for many of his wide-ranging projects, from series’ of watercolours such as Ein Deutsches Requiem, The Quest for Irma and Ma Vlast; a suite of illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; sculptural works such as a set of fictitious globes (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum); to the libretto, stage directions, musical notation and design brief for the opera Irma.
In 1969, Phillips produced a sketch score for Irma. A silkscreen print of this graphic score will be showcased at Flowers Gallery, New York as part of this exhibition, alongside 15 original pages of the full score, completed 45 years later. Phillips describes this project as ‘the operatic equivalent of A Humument’, which in its full form provides a recipe for a complete stage event. This section of the exhibition will mirror the artist’s pages from A Humument, as Phillips created distinct versions of both projects from the same source material at different stages of his career.