Berkeley artist Josh Greene's book-based show opens today. Photos: Contemporary Jewish Museum
Berkeley artist Josh Greene’s book-based show opens today. Photos: Contemporary Jewish Museum

In our tech-centric world, it seems like books could end up as artifacts in museums any day now. A Berkeley artist is speeding up the process — but far from a digital evangelist, Josh Greene is doing it out of reverence for the old medium.

Greene’s two-part exhibition Bound to be Held: A Book Show opened March 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. There’s The Library of Particular Significance, a lending library made of 700-800 books Greene amassed during various book drives. The companion show, Read by Famous, is a collection of books donated by people in the public eye, who provide notes explaining why the books are meaningful to them. The former is a set up to be a social event, whereas the latter is a traditional museum experience: look, don’t touch.

Jimmy Kimmel donated his copy of Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes.”

“A lot of this has to do with lamenting simpler times,” said Greene, a conceptual artist and adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts. “It’s hedging against, or bumping up against the world we live in…but I think some of that goes away a little bit, and it’s just about the book and what it means to people.”

In the library-like exhibit, Greene hopes visitors will interact with the books, plucking them from the shelves, sitting and reading, taking them home for a spell.

“There’s lots of content here. It’s a show you could run through, but it’s also a show you could come back to,” he said. “It could function as a kind of reprieve from the more chaotic elements of our lives.”

The other section features contributions from Gavin Newsom (Make it in America by Andrew Liveris), Junot Diaz (The Earth by Arthur Beiser), and Jill Soloway (Valencia by Michelle Tea), among others. Initially, Greene set out to acquire the entire personal libraries of various celebrities. When that proved difficult, he adjusted his expectations and expanded the show to include common folk.

People’s willingness to part with beloved books touched him.

“I’d get books that were tattered. That appealed to me, because it had the feeling that they were used, that they were held, they hint at the history,” Greene said. In both parts of the exhibit, donors had the option of adding inscriptions or annotations.

One contribution that stood out to the artist was a Frank Sinatra songbook, donated by a 90-year-old woman. In her inscription she wrote, “I never, ever got over the voice.”

Shortly before he died in February 2014, Phillip Seymour Hoffman donated “Death be not Proud” by John Gunther.

The artist himself contributed—a collection of Langston Hughes poems he adored in his twenties, and The New A-Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator—and so did his 4.5-year-old, which took a bit of cajoling.

An avid reader, Greene moved to Berkeley from San Francisco in August. He’s gotten attached to the North Branch library.

“I’m kind of wistful for the days when I spent a lot of time at bookstores,” he said. “I definitely wax nostalgic about simpler times. But I have a phone and I’m trying to learn social media.  In the end we all rely on technology even if we bemoan it.”

Bound To Be Held is the latest in Greene’s portfolio of projects that deal with social interaction and exchange. In a 2001 piece, Unlicensed Therapist, Greene offered counseling sessions to paying clients until the Board of Behavioral Sciences shut down the makeshift clinic. And it’s not the first time the materials have been donated to the artist: in an early piece, Greene requested French artist Sophie Calle’s bed, to help him get through a breakup. She complied, mailing him a full-size bed, which he slept in for months, emailing Calle throughout. A few years ago, Greene’s family members were the subjects of a show where those involved wrote descriptions of themselves, which were posted on casting websites. Greene shot videos of actors auditioning to play the parts. 

Greene’s work has been exhibited at the Hammer Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, UC Davis’ Nelson Gallery, and elsewhere.

It’s his first show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“It makes my mother very happy,” Greene said.

Admission is free for visitors who bring a book to read at the museum on Fridays from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. The show run through June 28, and various activities and readings are scheduled throughout.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...