I first encountered Buzz Spector’s work in 1996 at the now defunct Roy Boyd Gallery in Chicago. The centerpiece of that show was Marcel Broodthaers’s catalogue raisonné transformed by Spector’s signature method of tearing each page in successive, jagged-edged vertical strips, from the centerfold outward. In this work he also painted the pages in white gesso. The knowledge-bearing resource becomes a perpetually open but unreadable object, richly symbolic but illegible in the conventional sense. I was completely enchanted. Here was a twinned desire for erudition and experimental art—aspirations coterminous with my own desperation to shed my small-town Indiana origins. At a time when the Midwest was still widely associated with regionalism or the “outsider” expressionism of groups like the Chicago Imagists, Spector seemed to be carving out a rare space for conceptual art and critical culture.
Spector was born on Chicago’s Northside to a working-class Jewish family that prized books and reading. (His mother confessed to mild horror at his book-destroying art.) A prolific artist with an equally prodigious critical output, Spector co-founded and edited the legendary pocket-sized WhiteWalls: A Journal of Artist Writings (1978–87). Spector’s legacy as a critic, editor, and educator feels inseparable from his art. He has held more than fifteen teaching posts, his last being at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was known as a voluble supporter of artists both within and outside the university, at every stage of their careers; he retired in 2019.
“Alterations” at the Saint Louis Art Museum, on view through May 31, is Spector’s first solo museum exhibition in the city where he lived for over a decade. It gathers forty-four works spanning his career, beginning with pencil drawings from the 1970s, where the artist followed the wavering, torn edge of a page to create overlapping columns of hatched graphite marks, and concluding with more recent series in which Spector collages author photos from the dust jackets of mass-market books to deconstruct the writerly aura. The inclusion of so many early and rarely exhibited drawings is a pleasure to see. Their focus on the mark suggests a foundational connection between drawing itself, the gesture of the tear, and the acts of writing and printing.
But conspicuously absent are Spector’s most significant book alterations that refer to the history of the avant-garde, such the Broodthaers work or Malevich: With Eight Red Rectangles (1991), a white board with recesses that mimic a Suprematist composition paired with red-covered books matching the hollows in shape and size (this latter work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago). “Alterations” does include some manipulated books. White Insistence (2009) is titled after a poem by Michael Burkard, in which the white poet reflects on the pervasive whiteness—hair, dress, shoes, words—of an old acquaintance. The text was reprinted by Spector, then bound and torn. Face to Face (2000) alters Japanese artist Ken Ohara’s 1970 book One, a celebrated work anthologizing close-cropped portraits of a diverse array of anonymous New Yorkers. Spector’s tears reduce the book’s imagery to a static, side-by-side display of two faces of indeterminate race and gender. A Passage (1994) contains a book page written by Spector in which the artist attempts to explain his art to an old friend from Hebrew school, who says the work reminds him of “a scholar so erudite” he knew where each letter fell on every page of the Talmud. To which Spector replies, “I’m no scholar, then . . . these books only show what I’ve forgotten.”
It’s hard not to interpret the show’s selections and omissions as revisionist interventions intended to reframe Spector’s predominantly white, male Eurocentricity as an interrogation of the whiteness of systems of knowledge and their endemic nostalgias and amnesias. Two gallery walls lined with six works from Spector’s “Authors” series (1998)—in which he reprinted bound sets of found author photos that he then tore down to wedgelike glyphs and placed on wall-hung lecterns—confronts the viewer like an accidental Rorschach test: does one see in these white faces the oppressive homogeneity of the Euro-American literary canon or a venerable and enviable tradition?
Neither the exhibition literature nor Spector’s extensive reflections on his own work allude to social institutional critique as a key aspect of his practice. Rather, Spector usually positions the book as an object of longing and fetishization. He has eroticized books, analogizing them to vulnerable female bodies to be manipulated by the (male) artist. That tendency has mostly been left out of this show. The only vestiges appear in a small, hand-bound letterpress book entitled Between the Sheets (2003) and Encyclopedia (1982), a torn reference volume with an unmistakably phallic rock resting in its center crease.
Is this the “forgetting” implied in A Passage? The exhibition, in what it does and does not reveal, calls into question the racialized and gendered meaning of Spector’s performance of conceptual art tropes—which, in addition to being characterized by a desaturated “white” aesthetic, also traded heavily in language “perversions” in the form of misogynist double-entendres. A new, critical dimension emerges in “Alterations.” The show seems to argue that deconstructing systems of knowledge while overlooking how whiteness defines and wields the very notion of “knowledge” dooms one to wander the Library of Babel. I see in Spector a Gatsby-like character enthralled by self-invention, the possibility that the voracious consumption of the Euro-American canon could transform the hayseed Franklin (his given name) into the bona fide conceptualist Buzz. I’ve certainly fallen for this myth myself, and spent many years blind to its tragic nature. What makes this exhibition so important is the opportunity it provides for a reckoning, with the self or the institution, however thorny it may be.