The Understated Beauty of Decorated Paper

In our admittedly limited hierarchies of art materials and mediums, paper isn’t always ranked among the most scintillating. But a new book by Mindell Dubansky, author, book conservator, and museum librarian for preservation at the Thomas J. Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, proves that the art of paper can be a page-turner.

A lifetime of Dubansky’s passion and subject matter expertise has come together in Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s — an extraordinary feat of research that deep-dives into the niche world of fine art paper decoration. The book’s release accompanies an eponymous exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York, curated by Dubansky and opening January 18, that will feature 150 objects from the Watson Library collection.

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John Coventry’s marbled paper with stenciling and collage (early 1970s)

The book surveys 53 living artists, all dedicated over the last half-century to learning, teaching, and experimenting within the art of intricately embellished paper. Once a mainstay of household decorating and elite publishing, decorated paper has experienced much waxing and waning in value, reputation, and public consumption over the decades.

“In America in the 19th century, after the invention of wood pulp paper, many more books could be printed inexpensively,” Dubansky explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Book binders before the 1850s marbled their own cover papers, which you see on books of that time.” Later in the 19th century, the use of print marbling rollers allowed anyone to mechanically roll a pattern on the edge of a book.

Iris Nevins’s “Fantasy” marbled paper (1994) features watercolor with egg white and olive oil on Hahnemühle Natur Text paper.

Ironically, the art of marbling was often utilized to mimic actual marble as a cost-saving measure, and decorated paper covers were much cheaper to produce than leather bindings, so at various times in history, marbled paper was actually a thrifty alternative.

The First International Marblers’ Gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1989 came on the heels of several decades of independent practitioners recapturing old techniques and forging new, experimental inroads in the medium. Dubansky’s survey begins in the 1960s, when pioneers of the field like Diane and Paul Maurer, John Coventry, Douglas Morse Howell, and Peggy Skycraft started to teach themselves — and eventually others — to marble paper. The book includes a glossary of special terms that illuminates various techniques, motifs, tools, and materials of the art form.

Dubansky traces the first solo forays of the 1960s into the establishment of the field in the 1970s, followed by expansion and commercialization in the 1980s, to the Internet-fueled globalization of this anachronistic art field in the 1990s. The book culminates in the 2000s “and beyond,” when a new generation explores the well-established legacy of decorated paper-making and begins to take it in its own experimental directions.

Thomas Leech, “Under and Over Marble” (1991) overmarbled paper, underpainted in luminescent silver

The book is a visual playground, and absolute catnip for enthusiasts of form, pattern, and color — but it’s also a crucial compendium of information about a thriving yet extremely specialized art practice and its players over half a century. The experience is twofold: a coffee table book of stunning imagery also serves as an invaluable reference that captures an astonishing amount of primary resource information. This is thanks to Dubansky’s determination to track down, visit, and speak with dozens of living artists, some of whom have had very little recognition outside their field.

“People often see a lot of [mass-produced] marbling, and it’s usually not very good,” Dubanksy said. “But when an artist concentrates on this for decades, and you see what they can do, it’s mind-blowing.”

Polly Fox, “Spanish marbled paper” (undated)
Marbled paper with underpainted moths by Dana Draper and overmarbling by Ingrid Butler (mid-1980s)
Robert Wu Daisy Garden, marbled paper with mixed patterns (ca. 2015) (all photos courtesy Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Susan Pogány’s “Angel Wing pattern” marbled paper (1994)
Peggy Skycraft marbled paper (1991)
Katherine Loeffler’s flame-patterned marbled paper (1998)
Ingrid Butler and Dana Draper, “Autumnal Flame” underpainted marbled paper (ca. 2020–21)


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