The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue
Art Books

A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley

Warren Lehrer
A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley
(Goff Books, 2013)

A common complaint among painters is that so few people, not least those within the art world, actually see. Today’s art audience may be quick to translate visual semiotics into a verbal discourse, whether sociological, historical, philosophical, or whatever else; but they lack the developed sensitivities requisite to fully appreciate art based on engaged visual perception. We revere Cézanne for the primacy of seeing within his every brushstroke, his insistence on la petite sensation, really the successive petites sensations on which he built his mature work. But how many viewers, critics, historians—let’s throw in collectors as well—actually touch base with the formative visual life in his or so many other artists’ efforts?

And yet there is ample evidence that over the past 50 years or so we have been transitioning from a culture based on linear, literary expression to a preponderantly visual one. Mechanical reproduction has been key here, dating back further still and so significantly explicated by Walter Benjamin. Newsprint, magazines, film, and the exponential increase on visual communication through digital media have favored the immediacy of visual impact over the slower, linear nature of printed matter.

The seeming contradiction between the artists’ complaint (first disclosure: I am a painter) and these broader observations is cleared up by noticing two distinct meanings of “visual.” The first refers to a particular experiential realm that is not exclusive to visual artists. It is a fundamental function that may be developed through deliberate efforts and pedagogies (Albers’s color course, for example) and helped by reading about the experiences of others (Delacroix’s Journals, Van Gogh’s letters, Gowing’s writings on Vermeer and Matisse). And, of course, anyone can deliberately attend to and reflect upon the qualities of his or her own visual sensations. The other concept of visual experience developed partly through various critiques of literary modes that became prominent, not to say new, in the ’60s, particularly those of Marshall McLuhan. In these, logical, linear thinking was set against the immediacy and accessibility of holistic experience available through new media: film for Benjamin, television for McLuhan, the Internet for the rapidly evolving culture at large. These critiques gained a socially progressive character, even the radical potential to the shift from traditional media. Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” described an essential shift in modes of attention:

Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it ... In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.

Film, being the most immediately communicative medium for the mass audience, Benjamin saw as the most politically advantageous (despite being a bibliophile himself). McLuhan considered all media to be extensions of our nervous systems and gave special attention to television in this regard. The instantaneity of visual impact provided by contemporary kinetic media does not induce the contemplative viewing appropriate to viewing a painting or for that matter reading a book. Hence, two distinct modes of visual experience.

Warren Lehrer’s work as author, designer, performance artist, and teacher exemplifies the values of both realms, contributing to the cultural evolution discussed by Benjamin and McLuhan while also evincing a contemplative visual sensibility. In A Life in Books: the Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley, he has designed a sort of Chinese puzzle whose myriad ideas, stories and characters intersect, overlap, and dovetail. This hefty, multifaceted literary contraption is also an extravagant display of design ideas that contest the conventional linearity and the normal scope of authorial skills of most fiction. Within A Life in Books, which has been written purportedly by its protagonist, the eponymous Bleu Mobley, are 101 books. A prefatory “Note On The Book Format,” starts us off with a page diagraming what is to follow: Bleu’s memoir (a composite of tapes made in prison during one sleepless night) and interviews with Lehrer, here standing in as editor; articles, reviews, and letters concerning Bleu’s books; book covers of his design; promotional catalogue copy; publishers and publication dates; and book excerpts of varying lengths. The sequence of individual books within A Life in Books reflects Mobley’s successive travails, passions, and social concerns throughout his life, thereby carrying forward the overarching narrative. The novel itself is, in effect, a succession of signposts or aliases for much larger files. Each of Bleu’s literary ventures is presented synoptically, pointing to an entire book and expanding outward to the real world in which its diverse characters actually live. Lehrer’s novel becomes a sort of Quaker Oats box phenomenon of images within images, as well as a staging platform for narrative tangents.

The arc of Bleu’s story takes us from his early years in junior high school, where he falls in love with letterpress and journalistic exposés and proceeds through numerous non-conventional ways of presenting texts. The thrust of this is a reaction to highbrow literary culture, as in a section on his prison classes, where he goes from “teacher” to “facilitator” and where everybody is encouraged to tell a story in his or her own way. Bleu’s account is also a bildungsroman, a tale of growing up, marriage, fatherhood, physical incapacity, healing, poverty, financial success, incarceration, and continuous self-reflection.

Given Lehrer’s training in design, his literary inclinations, and his dedication to progressive social issues, Bleu Mobley embodies much of his author. His personal account corresponds to much of Lehrer’s biography. (Second disclosure: as Lehrer’s colleague until my retirement from Purchase College’s School of Art and Design, I appreciated his ongoing critique, here described by Bleu, of the usual university distractions from teaching, and in particular, his brilliant idea to spell out NO CUTS with “a human chain of 1,100 students, parents, faculty, and administrators.” It was photographed and published in protest against Governor Cuomo’s proposed cuts to the SUNY budget and lives again in A Life in Books.)

Lehrer’s passion for diversity animates his profusion of genres, formats, narrative ideas, critiques, and stories of individuals from all parts of the globe. He is adept at representing our multicultural society, which for him means not a sociological construct but the lives and struggles of real people. His cosmopolitanism is rooted not in worldly travels but in the astonishing aggregate of immigrants and refugees who have come from everywhere to Queens to make their lives, raise children, and, too often, grapple with adversities of officialdom. Much of the material—the circumstances and lives of the characters—goes back to Crossing the BLVD, a dense compilation of oral histories told by those whose influx over the past several decades has turned Queens into the most ethnically and culturally diverse place in the country.1

He also shows a corresponding passion for diverse forms of communication: varieties of story telling, of page layouts, of exploratory graphic means of conveying an idea. Lehrer has designed covers for every book presented. (Mobley gets credit, of course.) He represents opened books, as though in three dimensions, smaller than the book in hand yet visually sharing the gutter. He shows one book as a roll of toilet paper, another as articles of clothing, and others as airborne pages with texts available to all. Described on its cover as “an illuminated novel,” A Life in Books in places approaches the form of a graphic novel. Like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Ben Katchor, Lehrer participates in the search for fresh and innovative ways to show, as well as tell, his many stories.


  1. Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, Crossing the BLVD, New York, London, W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. Lehrer and Sloan are also performance artists whose public appearances, often involving people who are their sources, extend their cultural interests and communications.


Robert Berlind

ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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