We can fill it with marks about our ideas or views and also drain it of all its ideas and views. A book remains a book even though we can destroy it, tear pages from it, pour glue onto it and close it shut forever. It is closely linked to our culture and one of the oldest traditional things on which we can formulate response after response. Changing a book is a cultural change and this is the opportunity to use the chance that is found within its convention. To use it to misuse it, to use it the wrong way, is our freedom and we shall retain this. ( Book artist Herman de Vries, 1988)
Osvaldo Romberg has made the book medium his own, yet at the same time tampers with its definition. However, a book remains a book even if the artist ignores its essential qualities. A book can’t be estranged from its meaningful, linguistic history. What is more, the question of what a book is, is revived again when an artist appropriates it as a medium. The artists’ book takes up a position at that juncture where art, documentation and literature converge.
Romberg’s books are typically versatile and have a richness of expression. This isn’t only evident from the exceptional, material quality of the publications, but also from the experimental nature of his projects, the scientific research that takes place through the artist’s eyes and the contextual irony – without cynicism but with a vicious undertone.
Romberg’s books from the nineteen sixties, like his collaborations with the poets Elizabeth Azcona Cranwell and Alejandra Pizarnik, are similar to so-called Livres de peintres – publications in which artist and writer reinforce each other’s strengths. Here the poet’s language acts as an object with which the artist engages in a visual relationship. This gives rise to the actual art in the immediate time and space of the observer and reader.
Later on we see books being created that act as conceptual spaces, like for instance in Dilemma between Faith and Knowledge (1996), or as an instrument for social change as in Civilization (2001). Sometimes the book acts as an accusation, the outside of which is already enough to sense what’s on the inside, or even to fear this. In other instances an attempt is made to destroy the book’s function as an intimate reading source by shutting it tight forever, by presenting it as a multiple, or by exhibiting it as a rare auratic object on a specially made shelf.
As well as having a poetic, art historical and literary component, Romberg’s book works also have a highly social and political content. Clement Greenberg’s formalist doctrine turned art into a socially irrelevant phenomenon with the result that the gap between Culture with a capital C and modern life widened. This cultural philosophy acts as a provocation to Romberg and forms one of the major aspects in his work with which he explains his subversive views. In fact by using the book as a medium, the democratic mass medium par excellence, to question and to use it as a work of art in a small edition, or even as a one-off, the gap between art and life is subjected to a fundamental study.
In his books, which are an indivisible part of his body of work, he gives expression to a culturally critical viewpoint. Romberg’s visual language is highly symbolic and permeated with references to history, Christendom and the myth of the artist. In his work contradictions like holy and profane, death and rebirth, history and actuality, nature and civilisation, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, old and new or creativity and destruction are always present. For him the book functions as a critical tool for ideological and political analyses. He explores historical and contemporary reality and comes up with results that dethrone so-called value-free art production and challenge the seemingly social and political neutrality of the exhibition space.