This online exhibition is the first in a series to be curated by junior staff. Julia Petrocelli worked here in the summer of 2023 and contributed to the preparation of Janet Halverson: An Introduction.

Not much has been written about Richard Hefter, except that he founded the computer software company Optimum Resource and, before that, wrote and illustrated more than two hundred books for children. This online exhibition focuses mostly on the latter, specifically on a collaboration between Hefter and author Martin Stephen Moskof titled a shufflebook. The fifty-two-card set was exclusively published by Golden Press for the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and was spotlighted as the perfect holiday gift in MoMA’s 1972 Christmas catalog.

Hefter grew up in the Bronx to a bookkeeper mother and translator father in the 1950s and ’60s and studied at Pratt Institute for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Afterward, he pursued a painting career and showed paintings in a few museums across the US. But he was better known for selling fifty million copies of his children’s books worldwide. The Sweet Pickles series, which consists of forty books chronicling the lives of the anthropomorphic inhabitants of an imaginary town called Sweet Pickles, is Hefter’s most notable and substantial work.

Unlike most books for kids, a shufflebook does not have recurring characters or even a narrative. Instead, it is made up of over a hundred disassembled pages of objects and actions. “There are over a million stories in this box,” proclaims the text on the cover. “Shuffle the pages, lay them down, and make your own story happen.”

The book’s illustrations are offbeat, highly stylized interpretations of simple nouns and verbs. “They” exist below the waist and in the top right corner of a giant pink box; “she” peeks her head up in the lower right corner of a lilac-colored box; big blocky words bleed off the edge of still other boxes. The drawings are quite subdued and minimal, featuring large sweeps of color. Evoking the works of Helen Frankenthaler and Ellsworth Kelly, the images are abstracted, diversifying a child’s developing visual language. One page feels like getting kissed by a Picasso portrait; another is so bare that it suggests a Rothko painting. The shaky hand-drawn line presents a basic mimetic understanding of the world. Capital letters and punctuation have been banished. Whether or not you had a shufflebook as a kid, its images recall an earlier and simpler understanding of the world, one where airplanes live in the corner of a blue rectangle and rabbits come in groups of nine.

Hefter’s career pivot from print to the web makes him a trendsetter in the cultural shift from visual to digital literacy. He once described the computer as a “bridge between printed materials and the toy concept.” Optimum Resource, Hefter’s software company, was founded in 1983 and was distributed by Xerox Educational Publications. The company sounds like a Silicon Valley start-up but is quite like his prior work: it’s a children’s media company focusing on developing children’s computer literacy. The games are mini courses taught by the character Stickybear, who teaches math, typing, printing, shapes, and even rudimentary design skills. Torrents of these programs are available to play on, along with many digital copies of Hefter’s other books.

Hefter passed away in 2011, and his books have been out of print since the 1990s. These scans of a shufflebook are possible due to an acquisition of the set from the Used Book Superstore in Burlington, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2023.

Julia Petrocelli is a curator and artist based in Boston and NYC. She studied at Tufts SMFA with a focus in fine art and experimental filmmaking. She has curated shows at Bromfield Gallery and subcentral in Boston and her new film I-80 is being exhibited in the FluxusMuseum in Paros, Greece. She likes Natalia Ginzburg, root beer, and structural films. [web + Instagram]