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Sid Shiff's art books take as long as he wants. The imaging of fine art

SID SHIFF has lots of gifts, but he's not ready for Christmas. Workers in the bindery are still hand-stitching folios. The invitations haven't gone out. And Ben is somewhere between New York and Milan. But Sid isn't rushing. Sid doesn't rush.

If there is one secret to the way Sid Shiff has turned around the fortunes of the Limited Editions Club, founded in 1929, it is by resisting frantic modern busyness and embracing the preindustrial maxim that things take as long as they take.

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A decade ago, the Limited Editions Club - which publishes fine art books from its office on East 65th Street in New York City - was near intellectual and financial bankruptcy. Today, the club is one week away from a glittering opening at the Museum of Modern Art.

The museum will be spotlighting the Robert Motherwell-Octavio Paz book, an integration of the Mexican poet's words with a series of 26 lithographs that grew out of the artist's reading of three long poems. The Motherwell-Paz project marks the transition of the club from one that produces illustrated books to one that organizes and capitalizes on artists' books.

Together with his son, Ben, Sid Shiff works in the manner of a movie producer, acquiring texts and talent, but not directing the film. Artists are asked to respond visually to their favorite works; writers, to imagine their words illuminated by a favorite artist.

Sid and Ben are not looking for road-map illustrations. Robert Motherwell defines his work on the Paz poems as the making of ``images that emotionally connect with the subject matter.''

There have been some matches where like attracts like: Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman,'' bound with etchings by Leonard Baskin; John Hersey's ``Hiroshima,'' burning with the intense colors of Jacob Lawrence; Robert Mapplethorpe's sensuous photogravures, paired with the tangled reveries of Rimbaud's ``A Season in Hell.''

But the club excels in the unexpected.

Jorge Luis Borges's ``Ficciones'' is a book designed to be a chunky black cowhide sculpture. Its text is intersected with geometric images by Sol LeWitt that have the same sly intricacy as the Borges tales. Reproductions of G"unter Grass's line drawings are traced through the author's text of ``The Flounder,'' which is presented in three slim volumes, bound with eelskin spines set on covers the color of water weeds.

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The club's elegantly simple procedure of catalyzing artists and fictions with the possibilities of designing a book of their own invites conjecture.

Might we see Anita Brookner's ``Hotel du Lac'' interpolated with images by David Hockney? Eric Fischl reacting to the jivy writing of Jay McInerney? Julian Schnabel meets Tama Janowitz?

Brookner and Hockney are likely candidates, but probably not Schnabel, Janowitz, Fischl, or McInerney. In most cases, the club leans toward somewhat older, more established, and less voguish artists and writers.

Sid Shiff believes that he is an adult educator and that to be successful at it, he has to engage people he calls the ``best players.'' So it is Larry Rivers who is making lithographs for Robert Penn Warren's ``All the King's Men,'' and Robert Ballagh who did the photogravures for James Joyce's ``The Dubliners.''

The club philosophy runs counter to that of the influential organization Printed Matter, this country's largest distributor of small-press books by artists, which started 11 years ago. (Sol LeWitt was one of its founders.)

Printed Matter jokes that its ideal is to ``get artists' books into the supermarkets.'' Because it takes advantage of mass production techniques, prices are low - mostly under $20. Moreover, the many books distributed by Printed Matter are political or theoretical, attempting to investigate and subvert the perceived deceptiveness of words and pictures in contemporary culture.

The Limited Editions Club trusts words and pictures. Other than John Hersey's ``Hiroshima,'' its only political effort is a project in which the photographer Jan Groover will make pictures for a text on Nicaragua. The club holds that value - both aesthetic and monetary - is produced by calling on ``many of the great artists of our time to create images for ... classic texts.'' The colophon page at the end of the book, which usually carries the signature of the author and artist, attests to the quality of the typography and paper.

Editions, which once had press runs of 2,000, now are limited to 750. Prices for individual books, generally acquired by yearly subscription fee, run from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Purchased separately, the Motherwell-Paz project costs $4,000.

The hefty prices belie the books' quiet mien. They have an austere beauty one might call Florentine, after that city's legendary appreciation of luxury, clarity, and solidity. They are not showpieces, nor are they fragile. They are books and images meant to be read.

Many club members collect these books solely as investments, but many others do read them. Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon says he never gets on a plane without one of Shiff's books.

By next Friday, the invitations to the opening at the museum will have been received, and Ben will be back from Milan. Club members who attend the party will get their first glimpse at some of the Motherwell-Paz books, newly stitched and bound, resting in vitrines.

But members will not get their own copies until January or maybe February. The people who do the stitching for the bindery in upstate New York are still sewing, and Sid knows not to rush them.

Things take as long as they take.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the fine arts department at Syracuse University.

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