J ust inside the front entrance of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, a luminous glass tower of book stacks rises straight ahead, immediately drawing your eyes upward to the lighter, airier space on the mezzanine level, and to the 250 translucent, granite-set marble panels that make up the building’s outer walls. From here, the vision you get of Beinecke’s splendor is clearly a partial one, with a remainder that extends out of view above and compels you to get up there and enjoy the full experience.
So it is that before you’ve even glanced around the library’s ground floor, you’re already heading up one of the mirror-image sets of stairs on either side of the entryway.
But there’s a road less traveled, and worth traveling, here on the ground floor. Past the staircases on either side is a different pair of cases: long glass-covered ones that are currently, though fleetingly, filled with contents capable of inspiring some awe of their own.
Those contents are part of Blue: Color and Concept, an exhibition drawn from the Beinecke’s millions of volumes, manuscripts and artifacts that’s set to close on Saturday, April 19. Blue itself is a road less travelled: an exhibit of and for scholarship that isn’t organized around a scholarly topic or field. Instead, the organizing principle is the color blue. That’s it.
And that’s quite intentional. “I was interested in finding out what it would be like to approach the collections with a non-standard category” in mind, says Nancy Kuhl (pictured first above), curator of poetry for the Beinecke’s vast American literature collection, and of this exhibit. With the theme of blue, Kuhl was able to pull together a showcase of extraordinary depth and range, one that “cuts across different collections” and gives visitors an inkling of the breadth of the treasures that lie within Beinecke.
Blue “is such a rich conceptual term. We use it to refer to so many different kinds of things,” Kuhl notes, proceeding to tick off some examples. “A blue mood is one that comes to mind readily, but blue is also a term that’s been used to describe pornography. In Connecticut we’re familiar with the ‘blue laws.’” Also, “It’s my favorite color and, I think, the most beautiful,” she says, breaking into a laugh.
In the exhibit’s north case—the one on the right if you’re coming from the library entrance—Volume 2 of Thomas Say’s American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, a seminal early 19th-century tome filled with blue and other-colored creepy-crawlies, rests next to a 1960s Blue Beetle comic book put out by the defunct Derby-based publisher Charlton Comics (featuring Blue Beetle’s green-skinned nemesis, The Praying Mantis Man, who’s “back for revenge”). A Confederate twenty-dollar bill, inked in blue, lies nearby, as does Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton’s 1915 driver’s permit issued to her at the age of 53 in Paris, France. Down the way, an incredible selection of 1920s “Little Blue Books”—tiny, inexpensive booklets disseminated by an atheist printer in Kansas, intended to give the poor and working classes access to written works from Euripides’s tragedy Electra to Hélene Paquin’s How to Make All Kinds of Candy—is neatly arranged. On the other side of the display case, a set of much larger books with exquisite decorative blue bindings, printed between 1886 and 1919, highlight a golden age of publishing books that could be “admired for their physical beauty as well as their texts,” which would come to an end with the “advent of the dust jacket,” according to the accompanying placard.
In the south case, there are several pieces revolving around blues music legend W.C. Handy, who is widely regarded as the “Father of the Blues,” and was even recognized as such in his own time: a copy of Father of the Blues, his 1941 autobiography, is on display. Beneficiaries of Handy’s handiwork include Miles Davis, whose classic record Kind of Blue rests at the far end of the case next to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask, all in vinyl. Another beneficiary was Langston Hughes, who innovated blues poetry—transposing the “methods and means” of blues music into poetic forms—and even wrote lots of blues music, some of which was published by Handy. Hughes himself has a strong presence in the exhibit, which includes a copy of his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. The medium of film also makes an appearance with a circa-1972 movie poster, plus theater lobby cards, for Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie.
There’s a lot more. I could go on until blue in the face. Blue: Color and Concept even makes use of the base of the library’s glass tower, with blueprints, paintings, collages and a photography series affixed to it.
Just check it out. It’ll blue your mind.
Blue: Color and Concept
at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University
121 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 12-5pm. Exhibition ends Saturday, April 19.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.