Language, Decipherment, and Translation - from Then to Now

Poster for Deirdre E. Lawrence's Exhibition
Drawn primarily from my personal collection of approximately 2,000 books and prints, and growing, this exhibition reflects my collecting interests spanning the ancient world, especially Egypt; the work of Walt Whitman; the history of art, including photography; and books made by contemporary artists. A graduate from Pratt’s Library and Information Science program, I had a long career working as an art librarian at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum. Both institutions provided me with excellent learning opportunities as I had intellectual access to encyclopedic collections and curatorial scholars who generously shared their knowledge. Studying art history, teaching at Pratt Institute, and writing about books has opened many doors into topics ranging from antiquity to artists’ books.   

As Principal Librarian at the Brooklyn Museum, I oversaw extensive research collections and curated and co-curated several exhibitions drawn from those collections, including Artists Books (2000) and Egypt through Other Eyes (2003–2006). The Museum’s early history sparked my interest in Walt Whitman, who had served as librarian of the Brooklyn Institute, the predecessor of the Museum. This ongoing interest has resulted in essays and exhibitions, including Walt Whitman’s Words: Inspiring Artists Today, held at the Center for Book Arts in 2019.  

Now I welcome the opportunity to present works that reflect my interests within a unifying theme: how art and language are intertwined throughout history, starting with early attempts to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs and continuing with contemporary artists. Inspired by the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 2022, threaded throughout this exhibition is the notion of art as a universal language that illuminates our understanding of world history. 

A few early works on Egyptian hieroglyphs set the stage, then the exhibition takes a seismic leap in time to books created by contemporary artists who are interested in language, decipherment, and translation. Works focused on a variety of languages—some real and some invented— are included, representing a range of typography and printing processes. Subthemes of the exhibition include erasure and redaction, signs and symbols, storytelling, and other forms of communication. Formats include the traditional codex form, collages, prints and scrolls, and sculpted books. This kaleidoscope of images and ideas hopefully inspires consideration of how books provoke and engage with art, language, and history.  

Thank you to the many people who have contributed their thoughts to the creation of this exhibition, in particular Shira Buchsbaum, Exhibitions Manager, and other key Grolier Club Staff, Consultants and Members. I would like to say a big thank you to two people in particular: Keith DuQuette, an accomplished artist and expert collaborator on the design and production of this exhibition, and my husband, Clem Labine, who has patiently read my words and supported my projects over the years. I am grateful to Clive Phillpot and Tony Zwicker who early on helped me understand the landscape of the page within the book.  

- Deirdre E. Lawrence 

Composite image created by Keith DuQuette. Images from left to right: Report of the Committee Appointed by the Philomathean Society... of the University of Pennsylvania to Translate the Inscription on the Rosetta Stone; The Flight into Egypt: The Third Magnitude. Image courtesy of Timothy C. Ely; Didier Mutel La Pierre Rosette (The Rosetta Stone). Image courtesy of Didier Mutel.