Book artist thinks outside the deli wrap

December 2, 2020

Book artist Ben Denzer has unusual ideas about what a book can be. “I like playing with books as a form,” is how he explains it. 

Sometimes his books — which reside in the collections of many libraries and museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the Guggenheim Museum — do contain words. His edition of “The Witness,” for example, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that ponders the mortality of memory, renders the story word by word, each on its own page, each in a distinct typeface and color scheme. 

Or consider “234 Acknowledgements,” a compilation of the acknowledgements sections of Pulitzer Prize-winning books in order of award year, a work he completed with the help from Librarian for Art & Design Jamie Vander Broek and the many library staffers who went to extraordinary lengths to find and deliver copies of the necessary works. 

Often, though, Denzer’s pages consist of things you wouldn’t think belong bound between two covers: ketchup packets, cocktail napkins, lottery tickets, dollar bills, sheets of toilet paper. The books can be quirky, poignant, and cryptic, sometimes all at once. For example, “129 Die” compiles a sequential series of newspaper headlines that traverse a world of tragic and variously fatal incidents — fires, floods, shipwrecks, plane crashes, explosions.

Food for thought

Inspiration is everywhere for an artist whose media includes everyday objects. And to Denzer’s eye, sliced things that come in packages were already so suggestively page-like that in the end he couldn’t resist a yearning to bind them together. 

A copy of his first work in this mode, “20 Slices of American Cheese” (Kraft singles, specifically), is in our Artists’ Books collection at the Art, Architecture & Engineering LIbrary.

Cheese book standing upright on a wood table
Photo by Emily Bucker

And during a visit to the library’s Book Arts Studio last winter (just before COVID put a hold on such activities), Denzer, while finishing “234 Acknowledgements,” submitted to yet another craving to bind something sliced and edible: lunch meat. He wanted his volume of cheese to have an appropriate companion.

This time, instead of relying on what he could easily find at a grocery store — say, bologna that has a first and second name — Denzer sought out the knowledgeable staff at Ann Arbor’s iconic Zingerman’s Deli. His needs, after all, were specific and particular. The meat had to be flexible, colorful, sliceable to an appropriate thickness, and large enough to cut into a rectangle of bindable size.

Ben Denzer at work in the Book Arts Studio

Denzer made the book from 20 slices of mortadella bound in mortadella with inlaid fat lettering. Given the demands of his media — perishable, and temperature-sensitive — he had to move quickly, finishing this one-of-a-kind work over just a few days using the facilities and tools in the Book Arts Studio (the meat glue was a special order).

Though he considered eating the book and documenting the meal as a performance, he instead conserved it by immersing it in a fixative to preserve the colors and then embedding it in plastic. 

Meat book, held open by a blue-gloved hand and submerged in a bin of fluid
Photo by Ben Denzer

The finished book, “20 Slices of Meat,” now resides in the collection at the University of Michigan Library.


by Lynne Raughley


Photo by Alan Piñon


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