Hirsch Library Exhibitions

Visit the Hirsch Library during regular hours to see exhibitions featuring volumes from the library’s collection of rare books.

(Un)making the Book: Artists and Repurposed Materials

September 21–December 31, 2022

Nearly since the inception of books and manuscripts, artists and creators have treated written or printed materials as pliable and changeable objects and forms. Medieval marginal notes and experimentation gave way to processes such as erasure and collage, the main idea being that in the right hands printed matter is never a “finished” product, but rather a stepping stone toward further creation and experimentation. 

Each of the artists in this exhibition has taken an existing book or set of print materials and fundamentally altered and changed it to suit particular purposes, at times creating entirely new narratives and visual language or destroying original meaning and function altogether to create conceptual art objects completely “unreadable” in the traditional sense. Published novels, hardware catalogues, and personal ads are all fair game to be absorbed, reconfigured, and metamorphosed into completely new expressions of artistic intention.

Visit on-site
Hirsch Library is located on the lower level of the Audrey Jones Beck Building.

Not Playing Around: The Unconventional Use of the Card in Modern and Contemporary Art

November 3, 2021–March 12, 2022

Cards are a part of the human experience all over the world in myriad ways, including for pleasure, divination, and gambling. This exhibition explores how artists have used cards in modern and contemporary art over the past 70 years. The selections are divided into three categories: functional cards, tarot decks, and documentation. The functional examples include baseball cards, playing cards, postcards, and construction toys. The tarot decks feature imagery from art history, astrology, and contemporary photography. Representing documentation are exhibition catalogues and loose-card artists’ books.

The objects in Not Playing Around were created to be used and interacted with, which flips the usual dynamic between art and viewer. The juxtaposition of elements that typically would not be compared leads to new interpretations. Although each artist approached the format in a different way, the exhibition illustrates how cards can represent artistic intention outside traditional means and showcases the interconnections between artists across time and locations.

Hirsch Library is located in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The virtual edition of Not Playing Around is available 24/7. 
Best viewed on the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari.

Bookbinding Uncovered: Materials, Techniques, and Artistic Expression

July 14–October 30, 2021

Spanning nearly 400 years, Bookbinding Uncovered explores the history of the book through the production process, techniques, and materials. Bookbinding materials illustrate the progression of technological advances, from the use of animal skins for producing vellum bindings to the application of synthetic fabrics made of PVC. Materials begin to tell a story about a book’s contents and provenance, as in Vocabulario y Refranero Criollo, featuring a cowhide binding with a branded title.

Many embellishments familiar today, such as marbled paper, gold, and striped headbands, are imitations of historical bookbinding techniques created by skilled artisans centuries ago. Identifying materials and techniques is essential to understanding not only the history of the book, but also tastes of a particular period or culture.

Fore-edge painting and miniature bindings are labor-intensive techniques that showcase technical achievement and serve a functional purpose, such as determining ownership or concealing information. Artists’ books with truly inspired bindings, such as those by Robert The and Dan Walsh, underscore that exceptional bookbinding also serves as an important medium for artistic expression.

Hirsch Library is located in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The virtual edition of Bookbinding Uncovered is available 24/7. 
Best viewed on the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari.

“Do Not Underestimate Our Power”: The Art World Activism of Howardena Pindell

March 24–July 10, 2021

Though Howardena Pindell started her artistic career in the 1960s making abstract paintings, over time she began incorporating bold social commentary in her work, illuminating the racist, colonial history of the United States. Pindell (born 1943) traced this history to the structures of white supremacy she observed. Not content to simply make art about ongoing oppression, she chose to take action. Pindell’s significance as an artist is matched by her enduring influence as an anti-racist organizer, writer, critic, and curator on New York’s cultural scene during the last decades of the 20th century.

Do Not Underestimate Our Power highlights Pindell’s vital contributions to a long-lasting dialogue and protest movement over racism in the art world. Books, periodicals, and archival materials from the 1970s to the 1990s illustrate milestones within this narrative and reveal the critical importance of collectivity and solidarity in the lives of artists of color. Beyond a history of art, this exhibition also offers a social and political history, in which Pindell and numerous collaborators define what it meant to be an artist intent on transforming society—laying the groundwork for a more-inclusive cultural field today.

Hirsch Library is located in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The virtual edition of “Do Not Underestimate Our Power” is available 24/7. 
Best viewed on the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari.

Making the Movable Book: An Evolution of Paper Engineering

December 2, 2020–March 20, 2021

Since the 13th century, bookmakers and artists have looked for ways to bring life to the structure and form of the traditional book. Techniques for achieving innovations include accordion folds, pop-ups, wheel charts (volvelles), flaps, pull tabs, pop-outs, and pull-downs.

Publications with these attributes became known as “movable books.” Although pop-up books and movable books are often associated with children, these texts were created as instructional tools for adults and were published as scholarly works. The subject matter encompassed anatomy, astronomy, cryptography, and more. Even though techniques have evolved, construction methods continue to link artists’ and bookmakers’ works from different periods across the globe.

Making the Movable Book: An Evolution of Paper Engineering investigates the multidimensional ways artists and publishers have played with techniques to expand the boundaries of the traditional book. The exhibition reflects the abiding fascination with such paper mechanisms through titles from the Hirsch Library’s collection.

Hirsch Library is located in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The virtual edition of Making the Movable Book is available 24/7. 
Best viewed on the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari.

Echoes of Harlem: The Graphic Work of Aaron Douglas

March 10–November 29, 2020

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) was a graphic artist, painter, and teacher who began his artistic career during the period recognized today as the Harlem Renaissance. He came to Harlem in 1925, inspired by the writings of African American philosopher Alain Locke, who called for a New Negro renaissance in black art and literature that would contribute toward racial equality in America. Douglas’s work appeared in major publications, from black journals like The Crisis and Opportunity, to books published by Alfred A. Knopf and Harper & Brothers.

The covers and texts of noted Harlem Renaissance writers—including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay—also featured Douglas’s illustrations. In his graphic work for these publications, Douglas developed a visual language inspired by African art, Art Deco design, and black vernacular music, such as jazz and the blues. Through this synthesis, Douglas created an unparalleled black artistic expression that was distinctly modern.

Hirsch Library is located in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The virtual edition of Echoes of Harlem is available 24/7. 
Best viewed on the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari.

See the library catalog listing for the books and periodicals included in the exhibition. All of the publications are part of the Hirsch Library’s growing collection of materials related to the Harlem Renaissance.

Modernist Myths: Aesthetics of Identity in Latin American Graphics

November 19, 2019–March 7, 2020

During the nationalist reconstruction of the 1920s, avant-garde Latin American artists and writers aimed to subvert European exceptionalism in their quest to explore a postcolonial, postrevolutionary identity. Understanding that European culture could not be ignored, artists realized that it could be used to their advantage. Imported printing techniques and the prevailing Modernist style were adapted to reframe indigenous visual culture and advance a revitalized American identity.

The circulation of local or indigenous mythologies and pre-Hispanic aesthetics in magazines and affordable paperbacks provoked a revolutionary spirit, disrupting power relations rather than reinforcing them. With a dedication to potent imagery, the materials in Modernist Myths illustrate the birth of an American Modernism that inverted, while often exploiting, international influences.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

The Revolution Will Be Publicized: Printing the Resistance

July 30–November 16, 2019

“The revolution will not be televised”—a slogan made popular by the 1960s Black Power movement in the United States—was later used as a song title and immortalized further by poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron. At its heart, the phrase suggests that traditional media outlets and sources of information, ensconced as they are in maintaining the status quo, are incapable of properly representing movements toward real social change.

The mid-20th century was a time of great social upheaval throughout the United States and the world. Faced with established outlets of information either incapable of, or unwilling to, represent their ideas, resistance movements turned to creating their own publications, periodicals, and newsletters to communicate their messages and unite their members.

The Revolution Will Be Publicized presents periodicals of resistance from the Hirsch Library’s special collections. The exhibition focuses on mid-20th century Mexican political and labor publications; newsletters and pamphlets from the Black Power and Civil Rights movements; and later antiwar, queer, and feminist periodicals from the 1960s and 1970s.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Alluring Melancholy: Representations of the Tormented Artist

April 9–July 27, 2019

The tormented artist, frequently embodied by Vincent van Gogh, is an easily recognizable archetype and often a real-life person. This character may be withdrawn from society and suffering psychological turmoil—the impetus for creating poignant works of art. Alluring Melancholy: Representations of the Tormented Artist explores the origins and development of this archetype through seminal art movements of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including Romanticism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Art Brut.

Books from the collections of the Hirsch Library and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation illustrate how the philosophies of these movements have perpetuated the stereotype of the tortured artist. The exhibition also examines society’s preoccupation with the struggling artist, which in turn influences contemporary art and artists.

Alluring Melancholy focuses on Alice Neel, Jackson Pollock, Scofield Thayer, and Unica Zürn in the role of the tormented artist.

See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Everyday Encounters: Erasing the Divide between Art and Life

December 18, 2018–April 6, 2019

In the 1960s, breaking with a long tradition of art as object, avant-garde movements—such as Conceptualism and Fluxus—engaged with the chaos and absurdity of the times by dematerializing the art object. Everyday Encounters draws from the Hirsch Library’s collection of Conceptual and Fluxus books, periodicals, and ephemera to look at process-oriented artists through the lens of printed matter as interactive documents.

An essay by American writer and curator Lucy Lippard in 1968 predicted the complete disappearance of the traditional art object, and the increased power of ideas, concepts, and audience engagement. Working with everyday materials and invoking dynamic relationships between art and everyday life, artists began to illustrate this radical shift where encounters became the preferred medium, and ephemeral relics were often the only remnants.

Among the artists represented in Everyday Encounters: Erasing the Divide between Art and Life are Lygia Clark, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, and Edgardo Antonio Vigo.

See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Creating “Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972–1985”

August 28–December 15, 2018

The Hirsch Library and the MFAH Archives—the premier research facilities for scholars of Texas art—offer books, catalogs, and nearly 700 reels of microfilm produced by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Also available are thousands of files containing ephemera related to artists and arts organizations from Houston and beyond. These files are particularly valuable, as they contain newsletters, résumés, gallery invitations, programs, and newspaper clippings of which few copies survive and which are sometimes the only existing record of obscure dates and events.

This exhibition presents highlights from the Hirsch Library’s collection that informed the research behind the new publication Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972–1985 (Texas A&M University Press) by Pete Gershon, program coordinator for the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Printing Pop: Andy Warhol On & Off the Page

May 1–August 25, 2018

Andy Warhol (1928–1987) epitomizes the concept of the multitalented, mixed-media artist. During his career, the Pop artist embraced painting, printmaking, filmmaking, photography, and graphic design. Although sometimes overshadowed by his explorations of other media, books and magazines were central to his artistic production. He created nearly 100 books and more than 400 magazine commissions between 1948 and his death. For Warhol, these formats provided yet one more avenue to illustrate provocative juxtapositions of high and low art, the effects of serialization, relations between the visual and textual, and the blurring of authorship.

Featured publications from the Hirsch Library’s collection provide a view of Warhol’s playful and often thought-provoking engagement with printed matter. These materials highlight his various—and sometimes overlapping—roles as illustrator, author, designer, and publisher.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Written with the Body

December 19, 2017–April 28, 2018

Written with the Body considers the female form in art history through housekeeping manuals, photobooks, artists’ books, and gallery catalogues from the Hirsch Library collection. Portrayed by prominent male artists over centuries, the female form has represented many different ideas and themes: idealized femininity; charged symbol of fertility; arrested object of desire.

Increasingly, however, women are reclaiming their form to promote new body images and meaning systems. This exhibition offers a look at female writers and artists documenting their own perspectives to reveal an engagement with the body not as a fixed site, but instead as a space where nuanced, personal associations emerge.

See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Documenting a Transformative Gift: Books and Archival Materials from Edith A. and Percy S. Straus

August 29–December 16, 2017

In 1941, Edith A. and Percy S. Straus gifted the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with their distinguished collection of European Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance masterworks, forever transforming Houston’s prominence as a center for art.

Over the years, their generous bequest was complemented by a gift of 135 books and catalogues, as well as a rich trove of archival materials from the couple’s personal holdings. This exhibition—featuring key documents culled from the Hirsch Library and the Museum Archives—offers a better understanding of the figures who shaped the Straus Collection, and how they thoughtfully pursued each object.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Reading Music: Sound Recordings and the Book

April 25–August 26, 2017

From the mid-20th century to the present day, visual artists have worked to expand the perception of the book as a mere container for textual information, subverting expectations and toying with formal elements to make objects typically considered documents into interactive works of art. A similar tradition of experimentation and play exists in another medium: recorded sound. Reading Music presents a selection of books that incorporate sound recordings as well as artists’ original sound works from the Hirsch Library’s collection in an attempt to explore ways artists have used both the textual and aural to create hybrid spaces of expression.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

CLAP! 10x10 Contemporary Latin American Photobooks

March 2–April 8, 2017

“CLAP! 10x10 Contemporary Latin American Photobooks” features 130 contemporary Latin American photobooks published between 2000 and 2016. Organized by the nonprofit 10×10 Photobooks based in New York City, the project presents a hands-on opportunity to browse Latin American photobooks that are rarely seen in the United States. 

The selected books represent many of the most exciting innovations in Latin American photography and publications today. 

Drawn to Teach: Instruction Manuals from the 17th to the 19th Century

December 16, 2016–April 22, 2017

Since earliest recorded history, the basic human impulse to draw has been used to communicate ideas, express fears and desires, convey religious or political beliefs, and adorn the physical environment. From the Age of Enlightenment in Europe through the 19th century in America, drawing proficiency was considered not only a sign of refinement, but also an essential element in the repertoire of an educated person. With the aid of skillful teachers and written manuals, individuals of all ages could strive to master rudimentary perspective, nature and landscape, and human and animal figures.

Featuring works from the holdings of the Hirsch Library and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, this exhibition explores the wide range of drawing manuals published in Europe and America from the 17th to the 19th century.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Much Ado about Something: Shakespeare Illustrated on the Printed Page

July 12–December 15, 2016

In 2016, we mark the 400th anniversary of the death of English playwright William Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare’s reputation is well established today, his legacy owes much to the visual arts over the past few centuries. It was largely through books, folios, and printed impressions that representations of his works were most widely seen and, in turn, his reputation enhanced.

This exhibition features nine publications—from the collections of the Hirsch Library and Rienzi—that highlight artistic responses to Shakespeare’s unique and lasting vision. 

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

Everything and Everyone: Artists’ Books Published by the National Museum of Women in the Arts

March 1–July 9, 2016

Artists’ books, which came to prominence as a medium in the mid-20th century, are best described as works of art that are conceived and executed by their makers as books. To make a book is to claim power over objects by giving physical embodiment to ideas.

Artists' books often take this concept a step further, as every aspect and creative choice behind an artist's book can be alive with meaning. To “read” an artist's book is to reckon not only with text, but also with structure and form.

The publications featured in this exhibition are selected largely from a gift of artists’ books published by the National Museum of Women in the Arts and given to the Hirsch Library by Renée and Stan Wallace in 2011. These works provide a cross-section of the many forms and creative possibilities of artists’ books.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

“Violence and Precision”: Artists’ Manifestoes

November 24, 2015–February 27, 2016

Originating in legal and political contexts during the Renaissance, manifestoes played a critical and defining role in many artistic movements of the 20th century as Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists embraced their power to challenge orthodoxy and fundamentally change visual practice. Through examples from the Hirsch Library's special collections, the exhibition Violence and Precision highlights a number of artists’ manifestoes from the early 20th century to the present.

► See the library catalog listings for the books included in the exhibition.

For information about past MFAH exhibitions, search the exhibitions archive database.

Meet the Books

Hirsch Library Exhibition Tours
To complement the library’s exhibitions, the Hirsch Library staff often schedules “Meet the Books” tours. These tours are free and open to the public. Learn more