Helping assemble the first museum show of her visual art “has seemed like I am organizing a wedding,” Audrey Niffenegger says. “Or arranging an outing for numerous tiny children who don’t want to line up and hold hands.”
The resulting “Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger,” opening June 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, may open the eyes of those who think of Niffenegger only as a best-selling author.
Her breakthrough novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” a decade ago sold 1.3 million copies. It led to a 2009 movie starring Rachel McAdams and a $5 million advance for her next novel, 2009’s “Her Fearful Symmetry.”
“I consider ‘art’ to include any creative work,” Niffenegger says via an e-mail interview from London, where her “Raven Girl” picture book was turned into a ballet by choreographer Wayne McGregor that recently ended its run at the Royal Opera House. “My writing is part of my work as an artist. I don’t worry about media, and I enjoy trying new things. Quite a lot of artists are also writers.”
Accordingly, “My intentions for this exhibit are the same as for my entire body of work. I am interested in the strangeness of the ordinary; in heightening awareness of the passage of time; in sex, death, rock ’n’ roll; in the fleeting nature of our selves.”
Certainly her visual works tell their own alluring, mysterious stories, with butterflies flapping out of ears, skeleton horses pulling hearses and women taking wing alongside birds in the 239 paintings, drawings, prints and examples of book art.
“A novel will usually have a larger audience than a graphic novel or artist’s book though I hope that is slowly changing,” says Niffenegger. Her writing career took off when “Time Traveler’s Wife” became a “Today” Show Book Club pick, but it was a different type of book — graphic novels — that was to have been the focus of what became a mid-career retrospective for the Chicago artist, writer and academic, who turned 50 on June 13.
“Book arts have slowly been gaining recognition,” Niffenegger says. “And as electronic publishing comes along, the book arts have influenced book design and have filled an urge to have more tactile, satisfying books.”
Indeed, she adds, “Many designers and artists who spend their time on computers during the day spend their studio time printing, binding [and] making paper. I think there is a craving for physical books and as more people become aware of book arts the audience will increase.
Niffenegger has found adaptation of her visual novels in other media, such as “The Raven Girl.”
“Collaborating with Wayne McGregor and all the creative people at the Royal Ballet was interesting and sent me down paths I hadn’t tried before. It was especially good because we worked together from the beginning; the story was made particularly for Wayne to make a dance, so it was not quite an adaptation, it was a work that is meant to have several forms.”
Next, she says, it will be a film.
“I would like to work on other performance works and collaborations,” Niffenegger says. One of her other visual books, “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” may become an opera.
Parts of both works are included in the exhibit curated by Krystyna Wasserman, the National Museum of Women in the Arts curator of book arts.
Wasserman compares Niffenegger’s work to that of Edward Gorey, Egon Schiele and Horst Janssen.
Yet the artist says she doesn’t consider herself a throwback.
“One of my professors used to assure us that anything we made was, by necessity, contemporary,” Niffenegger says. “You can’t escape the time you are born into. I think it’s good to make the work I want to make, instead of trying to follow someone else’s notion of what art is.”
Because she is also interested in artists of this time, mentioning William Kentridge, Sophie Calle, Kiki Smith, Paula Rego and Lucian Freud, she says, “I feel I belong in this time with them.”
Part of the excitement of her first museum retrospective is “taken up into the language of art scholarship. I feel slightly more official.”
Despite its setting at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she says, “I don’t think feminism is the first word someone might use to describe my art. But my work is consistent with feminism.”
Appearing almost as often as women in her work are skeletons, ravens and butterflies.
“They have become part of my vocabulary for expressing ideas about permanence and the ephemeral,” she says. “I think about these things often.”
And the one woman who recurs most often is herself, with 22 wide-ranging self-portraits in the show, imagining herself with nests or monkeys on her head, amid a sea of eyeballs or as Rembrandt’s wife.
“The self-portrait is like writing in the first person,” Niffenegger says. “There are a variety of ways to use it. Some of these pieces are like essays; I am myself, and the piece is nonfiction. In other works, I am playing someone else, the work is fictional and I am telling a story.”
In general, she says, “You are not meant to be able to distinguish between these modes of working. It’s not a good idea to assume that my self-portraits are autobiographical, and sometimes it takes me a long time to realize how much fiction is in any given image.”
And suddenly she is speaking again in the vocabulary of writers, the realm where most people know her work.
“Niffenegger’s work as a visual artist may be less familiar to the public than her fiction, but it is an equally marvelous discovery,” museum director Susan Fisher Sterling says.
“Yes, some people are surprised when they find that I am making art,” the writer says. “But I am sure it doesn’t faze them. After all, Kafka worked in an insurance agency and Thomas Lynch is an undertaker.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
runs through Nov. 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Art, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington. Call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.