NORTH ADAMS — Neither a novel, a poem, an artist’s book, or a graphic novel, Tom Phillips’s “A Humument,” on show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is a little bit of all these things and one thing incontrovertibly: a masterpiece.
It’s also, uncomfortably, a parasite. Sucking steadily at the life juices of an earlier attempt at art, a late-19th-century novel called “A Human Document” by W.H. Mallock, it has transformed its forgotten host page by page, edition by edition, into something far more imaginative and lasting.
And while — like a charming houseguest grown fond of the husband he cuckolds — Phillips is unfailingly well-mannered toward Mallock’s book, he has nonetheless thoroughly bested it.
Phillips is a beloved figure in British cultural society. He studied literature at Oxford and life drawing at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. He took evening drawing classes with renowned British painter Frank Auerbach. Over the years, he extended his creative efforts into filmmaking (with Peter Greenaway), composing, libretto-writing, translating (Dante’s “Inferno”), illustrating, and teaching. One of his students at Ipswich School of Art was Brian Eno, who became a lifelong friend and occasional collaborator.
Phillips has described “A Humument” (pronounced “Hew-mew-ment” and subtitled “A Treated Victorian Novel”) as “a kitchen table task.” It has been, he adds, in the afterword to the latest published version of the book, “almost entirely an evening employment at the end of a studio day.”
The notion that an artist’s life project, his crowning glory, should have been a sort of side project, something done in the margins, as it were, while he was busy getting on with the real thing (whatever that was) is to be savored. It expresses an almost universal truth, and says everything about Phillips’s infatuation with whim, chance, and the vicissitudes of choice.
“A Humument” was conceived on a Sunday in 1966 on Peckham Rye, in south London. At that time, Phillips had already been toying with art made from words and obliterated newsprint.
In the company of his friend, the late artist R. B. Kitaj, he was perusing the huge warehouse at Austin’s Furniture Repository in search of bargains. As Phillips explains it, he boasted to Kitaj that he would acquire the first book that cost threepence and turn it into “a serious long-term project.”
The book he chanced on was Mallock’s “A Human Document.” And so, with Kitaj as his witness, he committed to a project that is still unfinished: changing every page of the book with images, both abstract and figurative, while at the same time leaving fragments of text showing through. These fragments, connected by shapes resembling speech bubbles, amount to a surprisingly capacious form of poetry — allusive, effervescent, philosophical, often erotic.
All the pages together, thus transformed, amount to an alternative narrative, “the nonlinear narrative,” writes Phillips, “of one who has a somewhat bumpy ride on the roundabouts of art and love.”
The narrative’s hero is “Bill Toge,” Phillips having contrived a rule whereby “Toge” should appear on every page that included the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether.’”
One page, to give an idea, has two bumpily human silhouettes on either side of a canvas mounted on an easel in an interior. One figure is filled in with pink, suggesting nudity. The text, comprised, as in every other page, of what has not been concealed on the original page, reads: “toge/ at last, drawing/ her/ orchard/ see the petals/ palpitating like the wings of/ her/ real self opening.”
In every case, Phillips finds the text he wishes to preserve on each page, and then lets the imagery follow. Usually, he uses watercolor or gouache and pen, but there are no rules, really, and other media and methods are commonly employed.
What is astonishing about the imagery, when all is said and done, is how various it is. Phillips combines flat patterning of great subtlety and invention, illusions of three-dimensional space, virtuosic portraiture, typography, diagrams, cartoon imagery, photographic collage, pictures within pictures, graffiti, landscape, you name it.
Phillips actually completed his transformation of all 367 pages of the book back in 1973. The pages were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London a few weeks later. But Phillips wasn’t finished, and when this first “treatment” was published as a bound trade edition book in 1980 he saw that he was not finished with it.
So he began again, reworking the pages one by one, only leaving a few unchanged. Unlike the first fragile copy, which was kept intact, the revised copy was made with pages extracted from two original copies of the novel and mounted on acid-free paper. This meant that Phillips did not have to treat both sides of a page, and could exhibit his treatments separately.
What is displayed at Mass MoCA, for the first time, is all the pages of the original novel by Mallock and then, running along the wall in a row below it, prints of Phillips’s entire first treatment. A third row contains most of the pages from his still ongoing second revision.
Already vast and utterly absorbing, this display has been paired at Mass MoCA with “The Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary,” a different kind of riff on three 19th-century editions of American illustrated dictionaries by Maryland-based artist Johnny Carrera. There’s nothing wrong with Carrera’s work, to which he has already devoted more than a decade. It’s just that where his work is playful and intelligent, Phillips’s magnum opus exists on a different level, artistically: It is deeply inspired.
More “treated” copies of “The Humument” exist. Besides copies connected to offshoots of the original treatment, Phillips says he has made “substantial inroads into at least four” other copies. He also used fragments of “The Humument” in other works of art, including an illustrated version of Dante’s “Inferno.” He even adapted its written words as the libretto for an opera, “Irma.”
Nor does Phillips tackle the pages in order. Wanting to find a page on which he could respond to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself searching, he explains, “for the unlikely occurrence of ‘nine’ and ‘eleven’ on the same page and in the right order. To my amazement I found them, on page 4.”
He scanned that page for apposite allusions, salvaged the desired text (“it is/ nine/ eleven/ the / time/ singular/ which/ broke down/ illusion”) and superimposed his imagery: in this case, a complex web of references tying together the roman numerals IX and XI (a palindrome), allusions to Dante’s “Inferno,” and two collaged postcards showing monsters (King Kong and Goya’s Saturn) menacing Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
With modernist self-consciousness and no small amount of wit, many of the texts seem to reflect back on the work itself. So, for instance, a page with virtuosic abstract hatching and colored patterning leaves unconcealed the words “a velvet/ time/ to be/ in the middle of/ a book/ binding/ hope/ to love/ with/ glad/ study,/ and/ happy/ hands.”
If these words express delight, they reinforce a delight that mingles with wonder and surprise and is all the viewer’s as he or she looks at all the many parts of an astonishing work of art.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.