Keith Smith’s Bobby, 1985, Nexus Press, Atlanta 

I came to Atlanta nine years ago because of Nexus Press, the experimental publication arm of Nexus Contemporary (now Atlanta Contemporary), which shut its doors in 2003. The Contemporary has this beautiful historic campus; the site comprises an assorted collection of steel and masonry buildings built between 1920 and 1950 by the Standard Oil Company. Their third location since the Press was founded in 1976, the site on Means Street offered its own building, a huge space that provided room for loads of new equipment: an enormous Heidelberg Kord 64 press, a saddle-stitching machine, and two cameras, one 18-feet long. Constantly pushing the limits of the definition of a “book,” Nexus Press never made artistic decisions based on potential profits. When the door closed, they closed, a chain and padlock secured the doors, the building was left to rot. Some years later, a curious museum employee opened up and found the space dusty and very much like the day it closed — right down to a desktop full of invoices, the one on top with yellow post-it notes that read “Pay Immediately.”

Artist proofs were everywhere, scattered on tables and all over the floor sitting atop shipping pallets, hoping to keep priceless works of art preciously off the ground and hopefully out of the puddles of rain. Boxes of books were stacked as if ready to ship but left to block doors. One of these doors revealed a goldmine, a Goonies-like treasure of 100s of the greatest artist-made books ever. The call to me came shortly after that; the next thing I knew, I lived two doors down from the Sol LeWitt sculpture in the Old 4th Ward and spent all of my free time in that musty, humid building going through the books and random ephemera. 

That closet was full of gems—and rubies and gold. I instantly had a dozen favorites, but one in particular stood out as being so cool, so of the moment, it was hard to believe it was created in 1985. Keith Smith’s Bobby is an exuberantly layered, technicolor dream imaged on an old Apple Macintosh computer. It is frequently cited as one of the earliest – if not the earliest – artist’s books designed through digital composition. Smith narrates the tale of his love affair with Bobby, a metaphorical companion representing an imaginary friend, a dark shadow that is always nearby. The book brings Bobby to life through triplicated layers of color separation, offset in magenta, cyan, and yellow. 

From a young age Smith always felt as though he existed in pieces, the missing part of his incomplete puzzle was a love though was so close, but acting on his desires ultimately would never be allowed. The presence of imaginary friends in a child is indicative of the development of social intelligence. Throughout time, Bobby cultivated a character, that while offering emotional solace, but physical anguish. Over the pages of the book we see a young Smith, either in his underwear or nude, is coming to terms with his sexual orientation. His shadow was often found naked just outside the window of their family home. This leads me to wonder if Smith’s fictitious friend really was invented or if Bobby arrived from the deep longing for a neighborhood boy? 

Sometimes, the story you hear is so much better than the truth that you willfully avoid digging deeper. A former director of Nexus Press told me that when Smith arrived in Atlanta to make this book, he walked into the warehouse with two big suitcases. Upon unzipping them up, he revealed one held the big and boxy computer; the other contained an Apple ImageWriter II dot matrix printer. Incredulous, the Nexus team asked where his clothes were packed, as he was set to stay for a month. Without skipping a beat, as though he hadn’t considered the question before that moment. He answered that he was simply there to make a book.