A Semaphore Alphabet: From Angels to Zebras (2002) Lynn Hatzius Softcover, saddle stitched, staples. H148 x W105 mm. 32 pages. Edition of 300. Acquired from Blackwell’s Antiquarian & Rare Books, 15 November 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Lynn Hatzius’s blend of the traditional and surreal in her abecedarium of linocuts foreshadows her more photographic collage and printmaking work, especially her book cover for Edith Grossman’s translation of Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes, her contributions to the Faces exhibition at the Topolski Gallery in 2010 and her series Limbs from the same period.
Hatzius finds several layers of whimsy and meaning by wordlessly jamming an inanimate template of limbs together with the heads, trunks, hands and actions of creatures usually associated with children’s ABC books (B for bird, C for cat, X for xylophone playing and Y for yo-yoing). Further surrealism — such as the bird’s wearing a beard and a headdress of bananas and basket of berries or the cat’s having lobster claws for paws — keeps readers on their toes. As the xylophonist and other occasional changes to the template’s lower extremities demonstrate, Hatzius also keeps her semaphore-forming template on its toes, blurring the line between animate and inanimate.
Perhaps that is Hatzius’s way of drawing our attention to the arbitrary association of letters and signs with things, actions and ideas. The usually inanimate part of a template can become animated, and the usually animate part of the template can just as well become the inanimate fence rail over which the zebra leans its head.
A photographer since 1991, Brazilian Lucia Mindlin Loeb turned to the book as the surface and form for her art. Works such as Livro sobre Livros (“Book about Books“), Entre páginas (“Between Pages”) and Biblioteca (“Library“) speak to an academic fascination with the structural elements of the book — especially its volume, edges, pages and spine. Along with Memória fotográfica (“Photographic memory”), they explore what photography and the book can tell us about time, space, memory, the world we see and a familial experience of it. The works below from the Books On Books Collection show only a fraction of how far beyond the photobook Loeb has gone.
Abismo (2012) Lucia Mindlin Loeb Front and back card covers on a sewn, exposed-spine book block cut diagonally into two volumes, each housed in a custom archival box. H210 x W210 x D175 cm. Edition of 5 and 2 artist’s proofs, of which this is A/P #2. Acquired from the artist, 5 October 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Fore-edge view (L) and spine view (R) of the cut halves resting against each other.
Close up of spine.
With the two halves open and positioned properly, their parallel opening and page turning soon creates a disorientation. The top half thickens and narrows, while the bottom half thickens and deepens.
Below, a close-up view of the abyss and the cliffwalkers evokes a sense of precariousness and vertigo.
Few books allow views of double-page spreads simultaneously from two different places in the book, and varying the position of the two halves can widen the abyss.
The brief clip below conveys more of the disorienting effects that “reading” this work offers. Perhaps the same feelings the cliffwalkers experienced.
Devaneio (2015) Lucia Mindlin Loeb Exposed spine book block, handsewn and glued, loose in trifold case. H180 x W130 x D3 mm. 384 pages. Edition of 12, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 5 October 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Devaneio means “daydream”, which is certainly elicited by the thick black line undulating over the hills and valleys optically created by the thinner lines parallel to each other and the thicker line. Over the first seventeen pages, the thick line appears only at the bottom of the recto page, but almost imperceptibly rises up the page.
First recto page
Seventeenth recto page
As the seventeenth recto page turns, another thick line begins its descent seemingly from outside the top edge of the eighteenth verso page. From here on, in their respective downward and upward movements, the thick lines on the verso and recto pages appear headed for convergence. The stroboscopic effect of the background of tightly packed thinner lines enhances this appearance of downward and upward motion. Although they converge, the thick lines skip over any direct intersection and continue their journeys toward the bottom edge of the verso page and top edge of the recto page.
The thick line on the verso page makes its appearance.
The lines begin to converge,
but do not intersect.
The lines diverge, the verso continuing downwards and the recto, upwards.
As the daydream begins to end, the upward bound thick line has almost disappeared at the top of its recto page. As the page turns, only the downward bound thick line remains to finish its journey at the bottom of the last verso page, the last page of the book. Of course, the the thick line’s end position on the last verso page is the same as its start position on the first recto page.
The upward bound thick line almost gone on the recto page.
The thick line has gone from the recto page.
The thick line at rest on the last verso page.
The crossover of the verso and recto thick lines can be observed on the book’s fore edge, and the thinner lines’ stroboscopic effect shows up even on the top and bottom edges.
Devised by Robert Sayer (1756), “harlequinade” was a form of children’s book. Also called a “metamorphosis” or “turn-up” book, its pages were cut horizontally so that their parts could turn independently of one another and generate amusing mix-and-mismatch images. Book artists such as Emily Martin have seized on the form to great satirical effect.
Loeb’s “Memories of You” maintains the form’s comic nature but blends it with the forms of the photobook and family photograph album to deliver a whimsical and sentimental celebration of four generations. Loeb plays her title’s deliberate ambiguity out with the form’s interchange of resemblances in faces, poses and costumes and lifts her work out of mere sentimentality. The video below provides a better view of the work than would photos of the book.
The sculptural mastery in Loeb’s works makes for intriguing and enjoyable comparison with that of Doug Beube, Andrew Hayes and Guy Laramée in the Books On Books Collection, while the photographic mastery calls up Scott Kernan, Marlene MacCallum and Michael Snow for similar revisits.
“Doug Beube“. 21 April 2020. Books On Books Collection.
“Andrew Hayes“. 4 September 2019. Books On Books Collection.
“Guy Laramée“. 18 September 2019. Books On Books Collection.
“Scott Kernan“. 22 February 2019. Books On Books Collection.
Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water) (2020) Golnar Adili Wood, felt, board and cloth, 5 x 7 x 1.5 inches (closed), Edition of 25. Acquired from the artist, 1 July 2022 Photos: Books On Books Collection unless indicated otherwise. Displayed with artist’s permission.
Helpfully for a Western audience, the box cover of this homage to the traditional Persian sentence for first-year readers links the right-to-left-reading words with their roman alphabet transcription and English translation. Beyond that, understanding just these few characters and appreciating the artistry involved require some research.
Close-up of box cover.
The character called ‘alef and making an aa sound is آ. From the transcription, we know that the sound should appear four times — twice in “Baabaa” and once in each of “Aab” and “Daad”. The character called be and eliciting a b sound is ب . The transcription indicates it should appear three times — twice in “Baabaa” and once at the end of “Aab”. The character named daal and making a d sound is د . The transcription calls for it to appear twice — at the beginning and end of “Daad”.
As in Arabic, from which Persian adopts most of its characters, some characters’ appearance changes depending on their position in a word or syllable. If a word begins with ‘alef (آ) and is the aa vowel (as opposed to the “o” or “é” vowel), the character for it has a “roof” — as in the word “Aab” — but if the sound falls in the middle of a word — as in “Daad” — the “roof” comes off: (ا). Also as in Arabic script, Persian letters can be linked with one another, altering their appearance. In “Baabaa”, ‘alef (ا) links up with be (ب); so not only does its “roof” disappear, but it squeezes the width of ب and shifts its diacritic (the dot underneath): با. To Western eyes, the linked characters look like one character. In some typefaces, we have the similar phenomenon of ligatures, in which, for example, the letter f and the letter i will join into the single character fi.
Spine of the box.
Even if Gutenberg’s type mimicked scribal lettering, roman type was not cursive script, which explains in part the hard work by Francesco Griffo da Bologna and Aldus Manutius to come up with italic. With characters changing shape with position and linkage, with diacritics and a slantable baseline to allow stacking of letter combinations, the innovation of setting movable type for Arabic and Persian or any calligraphically represented language would be and has been even harder — if not impossible as designers Rana Abou Rjeily and Bahman Eslami explain (see references below).
All of this preamble helps in appreciating the linguistic and cultural bridging that Adili’s artwork performs. The miniaturized shape of traditional alphabet blocks meets pixellated and sculpted Persian in Adili’s modular wooden cubes and recessed felt base. Her invented typography mostly skirts the calligraphic concerns by leaping into the third dimension. Language becomes tactile and three-dimensional not only in this work but in almost all of the work emanating from her studio.
Larger set of letter modules. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
The Jasmine Scented Ones is a particularly good example. This series of works uses the pixellated shapes from Father Gave Water to screenprint Persian characters and words this time taken from a Hafez poem and exploits the play of light through superimposed sheets of Japanese Rayon Lens paper and across 3D resin prints to embody the tension in the poem’s wordplay with the verbs to sit and to settle. For touch that would see and sight that would touch, Adili offers highly expressive works.
Many thanks to Golnar Adili for assistance with the crash course in Persian characters. Any remaining errors rest with Books On Books.
There’s a Monster in the Alphabet (2002) James Rumford Dustjacket, hardcover. H285 x W230 mm. 32 pages. Acquired from Bud Plant and Hutchison Books, 3 November 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the author.
James Rumford subtly weaves fanciful, speculative and well-founded points about the origin and transmission of the alphabet into his inventive reframing of Herodotus’s tale of how the Phoenicians brought the alphabet to Greece. In the double-page spread above, the letter A’s evolution can be found in the ox’s head on the right and among the fish on the left.
Rumford’s painting with letters is another reminder of the fluidity of picture and letter. Phoenician and early Greek letters are used white on black to outline figures and suggest motion (as with the stick-throwing Cadmus above) or orange on black to evoke the decorative patterns of Greek pottery (as with the vase below).
The note shaped within the vase makes for a deft graphic transition from the pictorial to the fully textual appendix on the recto page, whose explanations will send an attentive reader back to the preceding pages to look more closely at their images.
Sequoyah (2004) James Rumford Dustcover, hardback. H285 x W230 mm. pages. Acquired from Amazon EU, 25 September 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the author.
Rumford’s Hawaiian residence places him on the equivalent of a linguistic equator reflected in the range of languages his books have engaged: Arabic, Bamum, Chinese, English, French, Ikinyarwanda, Persian and, of course, Hawaiian. He might be suspected of aiming to create an A-Z library of stories about the world’s languages. He has even covered hieroglyphics and Latin.
With Sequoyah, Rumford gives bilingual treatment to an astonishing feat — the creation of a syllabary within decades as opposed to the centuries it has taken for most other languages’ alphabets and syllabaries.
As with There’s a Monster in the Alphabet, the audience for Sequoyah is older children (probably ages 8 and older), but supporters of the Endangered Alphabets Project and fans of works such as Sam Winston’s One and Everything (2022) would also enjoy Rumford’s two books.
Diringer, David, and Reinhold Regensburger. 1968. The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind. London: Hutchinson. A standard, beginning to be challenged by late 20th and early 21st century archaeological findings and palaeographical studies.
“Working on this series of engravings reminded me that the Victorians delighted in employing flowers to send messages, having an established lexicon of meanings for many common flowers. One might send foxgloves to express a suspicion of insincerity, snapdragons to underscore offence at another’s presumptiveness (and don’t the tight-lipped snapdragons in my engraving have an offended air about them?)” — Gerard Brender à Brandis
“E.N. Ellis“. 30 October 2022. Books On Books Collection.
“Enid Marx“. 1 August 2022. Books On Books Collection.
Rougeux describes himself as a “data artist”, and his works might also be considered “found art” given such sources of data as Nicolas Bion’s treatise on mathematical instruments from 1709, Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Iconographic Encyclopædia of Science, Literature, and Art (1852) and John Southward’s A Dictionary of Typography and its Accessory Arts (1875). While the resulting works recall Ben Fry’s and Stefanie Posavec & Greg McInerny’s celebrations of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, two different and more apropos, even if analogue, points of comparison are Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information (1990) and Francisca Prieto’s Composition No. 1. The connection with Tufte is the more obvious, but Rougeux’s digital manipulation of antique works feels very much like Prieto’s manual folding of them.
26 farbige Buchstaben (1986) / “26 Colored Letters“ Ursula Hochuli-Gamma Afterword Rolf Kühni Sewn paperbound. H240 x W152 mm. 36 unnumbered pages. Acquired from VGS Verlagsgenossenschaft, 7 June 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of VGS.
A is for Alphabet; The alphabet belongs to those who write and to those who read. B is for Buchstaben: All letters fix words in the past, but they also bring them back again.
26 farbige Buchstaben is a gem of design and letter art, but its added text strains to transform it into an abecedary. Some are aphorisms (containing a grain of truth) like A, B and E. Some fall more toward religious or political dicta like F. Some play letter jokes as with Y, which is named Ypsilon in German and has been belabored in English as well for its “superfluitie“. Any translation into any language would be a struggle.
How to find substitutes for the capitalized German nouns to which the letters refer and to convey the gnomic tone? With its cognate “Alphabet”, letter A above is easy. “The Alphabet belongs to both the one who writes and the one who reads”. Even if occasionally a solution for non-cognates offers itself — as with E for Easy below — there remain B for Buchstaben (“letters”) above, F for Frage (“question”) below, Z for Ziel (“destination”) below and 21 more with which to contend.
E is for Einfache: “The simple left much behind before it became simple.” (or, Easy left much behind before it became Easy.) F is for Frage: The question of “peace or freedom” will sound strange to those who have no bread.
Given the fundamental arbitrariness of the alphabet itself and the often bizarre range of sayings assigned to letters in other languages’ alphabet books, perhaps “strain” is unfair. Nevertheless, the text in 26 farbige Buchstaben is unnecessary to identify any of the letters in the images and generally is a distraction from the images, which as can also be seen below in Metamorphose and Zeichen, Ziffern, Lettern are the point. The art of 26 farbige Buchstaben foreshadows how the artist would use wooden letter type for collage, painting and inspiration in these later works.
Given the scarcity of writing online about her work and the absence of any of her works in the British Library, the National Art Library (V&A) or Library of Congress, Ursula Hochuli-Gamma seems under-appreciated. Her exhibitions have tended to be local to St. Gallen, but her books can be acquired from Verlagsgenossenschaft St. Gallen and some booksellers.
Y is for ypsilon: The Ypsilon makes little sense. According to Bayern it is right in the middle. Z is for Ziel: The destination is not as important as the journey, so we should start from the beginning.
L’Alphabet Zinzin (2011) Zazie Sazonoff Casebound, paper over board. H370 x W280 mm. 52 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Amazon, 31 January 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Nathalie Sazonoff.
Zazie Sazonoff describes herself as a metteur en scène d’objets. Like mise en scène, it is an expression that is difficult to translate. It is easier to point at her works and say, “There, that’s what a metteur en scène d’objets does”. With its arrangement of toys from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s on the verso page, L’Alphabet Zinzin presents uppercase, lowercase and lowercase cursive letters on the recto pages and a variety of words beginning with the relevant letter. Zinzin means crazy or zany. As part of France’s National Education’s literature reference list for cycle 1, L’Alphabet Zinzin‘s zaniness must engage the imaginations of its young audience.
“Zany” was a frequent fallback for the letter Z in English abecedaries of the 18th and 19th centuries, but this is a whole zany alphabet that should engage the imaginations of an older audience, too. There seems to be something more going on: Flick the pages back and forth quickly and you might think you are catching the objects moving into place. Are there activities or untold stories behind the scenes?
On Sazonoff’s website, you can find under Projets two works that suggest influences from Man Ray, Luis Buñuel and film noir: Rêve: livre animé and Têtes à queue: roman graphique, but the titles and recurrence of paper pop-ups show the continued grounding of her art in the book form. Petites Curiosités, under the section Art, suggest the influence of Joseph Cornell, perhaps the founding genius of the mise-en-scène in assemblage of found objects. With these works as context, L’Alphabet Zinzin teeters on the cusp of becoming an artist’s book. It certainly compares favorably with Peter Blake’s ABC (2009) and Leslie Haines’ Animal Abecedary(2018).
Of the many artistic techniques applied to alphabet books, the collage has several champions, and the surreal collage claims many of them: Clément Mériguet, Paul Thurlby and Ludwig Zeller. Leslie Haines’ effort harks back to the collages of surrealist Max Ernst, who also turned his hand to lettrines.
For a useful exercise in comparing styles of collage, take Haines’ Animal Abecedary for a visit with Zazie Sazonoff’s L’Alphabet Zinzin as well as Mériguet’s ABCDead, Thurlby’s Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet and Zeller’s AlphaCollage.
From Hornbook to ABC Picture Book was organized by four members of the Corps 8 collective. They issued it with the financial backing of the Zeeuwse Nederland Bibliotheek and under the auspices of Drukwerk in de Marge (Printing in the Margin), a foundation established in 1975 by likeminded amateur printers and publishers. Drukwerk in de Marge recalls The Typophiles, a similar group founded in the 1930s in New York that attracted great talents like Frederic Goudy, Bruce Rogers and Beatrice Warde. Like Drukwerk in de Marge, The Typophiles stimulated quirky publications. One of them — Diggings of Many Ampersandhogs (almost the last word on the ampersand) — resides in the Books On Books Collection and, until now, lacked an appropriate partner covering the preceding twenty-six characters of the alphabet.
Van Hornbook includes four brief essays. Following in the footsteps of Andrew White Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book, the first two — “Van Hornbook & Haneboek” / “Of Hornbook & Handbook” and “Van Beeldalfabet & ABC-Prentenboek” / “Of Picture Alphabet & ABC Picture Book” –provide historical context for the format and its successors. Only four hornbooks have survived in the Netherlands, dating from the eighteenth century, so like Tuer, Van Hornbook‘s essayists rely on images from popular historical prints to show the hornbook’s appearance and handling. To the three hundred illustrations of History of the Horn-Book, the Nederlanders add this:
So, Master Jordje! With AB boardje And cane on high. Your earnest weening Leaves children keening As school draws nigh!
The print dates to 1785. The Dutch collective’s undertaking and their contributors’ offerings for the leporello are all the more notable for such a narrow historical margin on which to build.
The work’s four editors have the last say with “Verantwoording” / “Explanation”, which is an extended run-up to the colophon. The leporello is printed on 180 gms Antik Gerippt Bütten by Hahnemühle, and the essays are on 130 gms. The heavier weight of the leporello’s panels must have been an open invitation for the contributors to show off. Aside from the constraint of print area, the “Hornbook preparation group” seems to have imposed only one other layout requirement: that each double-panel spread display the same horn-book shape on its left-hand panel. As the images below show, this was just the right touch of uniformity to spark rather than impede the contributors’ creativity and individuality.
In English, the text beneath the two images here reads “A is an Augustin, the standard size in letterpress. An Augustin is equal to a cicero and has twelve points. Two Augustins and 2.5 points equal one centimeter.” Under the image of the shoe, Silvia Zwaaneveldt (De Baaierd, Leiden) converts into points the traditional measure for the “foot”: a foot would equal the size of the king’s foot, which eventually was standardized to twelve inches, which — to save us from chasing after Willem-Alexander or Charles III with a pica stick — is 72 Augustins.
In their contribution for the letter B, Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramele invent a fictitious typeface Barbaar, named to allow them an extended joke about the outsider (or barbarian) status of Margedrukkers among traditional printers. If the Dutch reader misses the tongue-in-cheekiness of the entry, the colophon gives away the game:
Realisatie: BYpers, een gelegenheidsinitiatief van Dick Wessels en Ferrie van Ramele. Letters: Barbaar en Yplex (beleg) en Lectura (brood). / “Realization: BYpers, an occasional initiative of Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramble. Letters: Barbaar and Yplex (icing) and Lectura (cake).”
Elze ter Harkel (De Vier Seizoenen, Groningen) concocts two panels of verbal and visual puns on the letter C. The alliterative wordplay in the doggerel of “Confetti” is too Dutch and deliberately nonsensical for a satisfactory replica in English, but its reference to cellulose is a clue to the visual papermaking pun in the C’s bubbling up from the pulp vat next to it. Also referring to paper, the panels’ best pun hides in the last altered word of Cicero’s saying “Charta non erubescit“. This is usually translated as “Documents don’t blush”, meaning you can express opinions in print you might blush to express in person, but charta also means “paper”. With the “e” changed to a “c” in the last word, the Latin now means “crumble”. So, it’s “Paper doesn’t crumble”, which ought to make the winking punster blush a little.
Antje Veldstra (Antje Veldstra Grafiek, Groningen) is an award-winning woodcut artist. Almost all of the X-words in her couplet are the Latin names for trees: Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress), Larix (Larch), Quercus Ilex (Holm Oak), Taxus (Yew) and Salix caprea (Goat Willow). The first two words, however, — xeno and xylo — are prefixes. The first means “alien,” “strange” or “guest” as in xenophobia (“fear of foreigners”). The second means “wood” as in xylography (“the art of engraving on wood or of printing from woodblocks”). But what is so strange or alien about these trees? The clue is in the background (lower left) of the birch print. Those are runes, the ancient marks of mystery and secret language. The most easily distinguished are ᚷ (called Gebo, associated with gift and fortuitous outcome) and ᛖ (called Ehwaz, associated with horse and movement). In her craft, Veldstra, however, does not leave us with the ancients. The last entry — en bovenal Russisch berkentriplex — is Russian birch plywood, commonly used for engraving.
If there remains any doubt about the tone of the entry for B by Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramele, consider their entry for Y.
Y is a special case. Eccentric and rare, barely good for a few pages in the dictionary: it owes its survival perhaps mainly to the strength of conventions and the cultural-historical significance of the alphabet as a whole. Without this support, the Y might have already been killed off, on the advice of a government committee that concluded that we could very well make do with the IJ. Economical and transparent, entirely in keeping with contemporary principles.
But so balanced in form, standing firmly on one foot and evoking thoughts of a glass of sparkling red wine, a vase of roses, arms raised to heaven…. Such a letter deserves to be preserved and added with its own name to the ever-expanding stage of letter designs! The Yplex represents the strength and beauty of the marginal figures among the letters of the alphabet, a few of which we still find in this hornbook.
Although still a marginal appearance, that will soon change after the publication of this hornbook. In the register of the new edition of Groenendaal’s Printing Letters, the Yplex will be the only one shining under the Y. Stand by for the Yplex!”
The last letter of the alphabet bedevils abecedarians in every language. Sjaklien Euwals settles on zetduiveltje: “typesetter’s or printer’s little devil”. Word for word in English, the caption reads “Z is the typesetter’s little devil that will not let me loose”. The image rules out the English expression “printer’s devil”, which refers to the printshop apprentice. Euwals’ little devil is the green and red gremlin who leans over her shoulder, grabs her wrist and makes her drop letters from her composing stick. In other words, the imp on whom to blame typographical errors. To capture Sjaklien Euwals’ humor in translation, we might have to go with “Z iz the typezetter’z gremlin that won’t let looze.”
Given the affinity between artists’ books and children’s books (particularly alphabet books), it is surprising how few works of book art pay homage to the form of the horn-book. Van Hornbook tot ABC-Prentenboek sets a high bar. Perhaps increased awareness of it will prime the pump for primers.
“Elder Futhark“. Last edited 11 August 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 27 October 2022.
Perspectiva Literaria (1557/1972) Johannes Lencker, Ed. Eberhard Fiebig Perfect bound paperback. H235 x W197 mm. 60 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Bernard Richter, 11 November 2021. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
About a dozen institutions hold copies of the 1567 original from which this 1972 facsimile was made. They list Johannes (or Hans) Lencker (German, active by 1551–died 1585) as the author and Matthias Zündt (German, probably ca. 1498–1572) as the artist, meaning engraver. Lencker’s hand lies behind the book’s images and Perspektivische Buchstaben (“Perspectival Letters“), a pen and brown ink and wash print auctioned in 2019.
Lencker and Zündt’s achievements with perspective, letters and geometric shapes stand on the shoulders of Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1490) and Albrecht Dürer (1525), just as theirs stand on those of the rediscoverers of linear perspective: Filippo Brunelleschi (1415), Leon Battista Alberti (1435) and Piero della Francesco (ca.1460). Lencker’s originality lay in designing his letters as solids leaning against geometrical solids and resting on a horizontal shelf. The shelf’s thick, grainy fore edge and the thin parallel line above it, suggesting the shelf’s intersection with a blank wall, set up a field of depth in which the geometrical models’ mass and shape set off the three-dimensionality of the foreshortened letters balanced on and against them. Some letters’ feet and edges seem to enter the viewer’s space, an effect enhanced by a hand-colored version of the original. Sadly the facsimile contains no examples of the hand-colored images.
Perspectiva literaria. Das ist ein clerliche fürreyssung wie man alle Buchstaben des gantzen Alphabets… in die Perspectif einer flachen Ebnen bringen mag (1567) After drawings by Hans Lencker, engraved by Matthias Zündt Limp binding in vellum. H307 x W200 mm. 21 of 22 plates. From Bonhams auction, 19 August 2020.
From 1972 facsimile.
These are not letters for calligraphic or typographic use. They are objects the viewer wants to touch, pick up and play with — something that can also be found in works by Takenobu Igarashi, Ji Lee and Johnson Banks.
An Alphabet(1985) E.N. Ellis Terracotta card slipcase, casebound sewn, quarter terracotta cloth and red patterned paper covered boards with white-paper label stamped in red, colored endpapers, Velin d’Arches paper. Slipcase: H138 x W108 mm; Book: H135 x W107 mm, 32 pages. Edition of 75, of which this is #31. Acquired from David Miles Bookseller, 30 September 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
An Ashmolean exhibition called “Scene through Wood” (10 August–15 November 2020) featured the work of Edwina Ellis among others in a century overview of wood engraving. Here is the exhibition’s description of Ellis and her work
Born in Australia in 1946, Ellis is a pioneering artist responsible for ‘some of the most technically elaborate engravings ever made’. Her work is held in international collections around the world. Her treatments of mundane objects like pieces of paper are virtuoso achievements, so realistic they take on surreal dimensions.
Less concerned with realism or surreality, her wordless alphabet reveals a sly humor: U for an upside down unicorn and X for a Dodo, and animal anatomy drawing attention to letter parts (for example, tails).
With Ellis and her humor, the traditional tension between text and image in artists’ books falls into reveling with entwining letters and even hiding them with their animal associates and striking the balance just right.
Also on display is her appreciation for predecessors: a hint of Johannes Lencker on the title page while squeezing the tools of the trade in between an armadillo and zebra, and a nod toward Aldus Manutius and his dolphin and anchor trademark.
Distinguished abecedarians and typographers have an interesting history with the black and white coat of arms and title piece atop the masthead of The Times of London. In 1953, it was Reynolds Stone; in 1966, Berthold Wolpe; and in 2006, Edwina Ellis. Look under Further Reading for more.
Stone Reynolds. 1974. An Alphabet. London: Warren Editions.
Hall, Alistair. 29 September 2017. “The Wolpe Collection.” We Made This. Accessed 29 October 2021. Wolpe was also a scholar of typography, One of the works with which he was involved is in the Books On Books Collection: Johann David Steingruber’s Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1972).
Marginalia (2017) Anja Lutz Open back sewn spine with dust jacket 245 x 330 mm. 112 pages. Acquired from The Greenbox Press, 3 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
In 1964, the Fluxus artist George Brecht created a work called Book, which Michael Werner published in 1972 and which Moritz Küng reintroduced in facsimile in 2017. Also sometimes called This is the cover of the book, it proceeds to label each of the otherwise blank pages with its structural label: “These are the end pages of the book”; “This is the page before the title page of the book that tells you what the title is or was, or is going to be”; “This is the title page”; “This is the other side of the title page …” and so on. Like most self-referential or tautological artists’ books, it has its facetiousness. One page is labeled “This is the page with text on it”; another, “This the page that rustles when you turn it (maybe)”. Individual pages and perhaps the whole will lead to pauses to reflect on the thing being defined by labels and self-reference and how the mental funny-bone is being tickled. In the end, the structure or skeleton of the book as a thing — one thing — has been defined by the naming of parts.
Anja Lutz ‘s Marginalia proceeds differently. Her pages are the pages without text on them — or images, running heads, page numbers, etc. Lutz has taken thirty-four of the books she has designed under her imprint The Greenbox Press and carefully excised from each the text and images layer by layer until the empty spaces define the blank spaces that previously supported the content. But this does not result in the definition of a generic book structure or skeleton.
While Lutz’s technique might be similar to that of other book artists who have altered books by excavating or strip mining them, she is not offering precisely the same invitation that, say, Brian Dettmer offers with Tristram Shandy (2014). Dettmer, too, has excised layers away from an underlying work — the Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). While both works invite us to think about the book as thing (or the guts and structure of this thing the book), Dettmer is inviting us to look into the specific underlying work in a different way or consider how the new shape is his response to the underlying work. Sterne’s novel remains present, and we can peer into its crevices and nooks to pick out words, sentences and images — to look into the novel in a new way. Lutz’s surgery does not leave enough of the underlying work to permit a “look in”. We look through instead. Even though she provides a list of the designed books she used, they are not present as Tristram Shandy is.
Each of the books with which Lutz start is, as she puts it, “unique in its choice of format, material, layout, composition, and rhythm”. Despite her nod and the listing of books, this does not mean that she wants us to respond to the results of her surgery with “before and after” comparisons. Rather she invites us to look only at the newly created works. In the end, each has its own structure or skeleton — the struts or bones of the marginal space defined by the negative space of removed content.
But the means of that invitation is this codex entitled Marginalia. With its dust-jacket-like wrapper around the exposed sewn spine, is Marginalia being offered as an artist’s book itself or a catalogue with artist’s book-like features? Beautifully produced, Marginalia is nevertheless not a limited edition. Besides the book, a limited number of collages shown in it are available, each framed floating between two panes of glass. They certainly qualify as works of sculptural book art, and if the artist were to turn her scalpel to copies of Marginalia itself, they too would surely qualify as artist’s books. A collection that held one of the collages, a copy of Marginalia and an altered copy of it would have won a trifecta.
Front and back of the book block, showing the exposed spine.
Alphabet Music (2d ed. 1992) Jeremy Adler Loose folios. H252 x W354 mm. 7 folios. Edition of 25, of which this is #23. Acquired from Antiquariat Willi Braunert, 2 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Clearly the alphabet has held an especially productive place in Jeremy Adler’s imagination.
From 1972 to 1977, he issued A: an envelope magazine of visual poetry. His Alphabox (1973) was the first issue in the Writers Forum Object Series, founded by Bob Cobbing, and he named his Alphabox Press after it. Alphabox consisted of four sheets, printed on one side only, each folded six times and fixed at three edges in total, folding out concertina-style to show twenty-eight panels with one letter of the alphabet per panel. The following years brought Alphabet Music (1st ed., 1974), two alphabet-themed exhibitions (1975-77), Vowel Jubilee (1979), Alphabet (1980), Soapbox (1991) including “Alphabet Spaghetti”, and The Electric Alphabet/Elektrická Abeceda (1996) with Jiří Šindler. What makes most of these works — and particularly Alphabet Music — stand out is their synesthetic suggestion and calculated complexity.
The colophon to Alphabet Music, a separate folio accompanying seven loose folios, says, “Each sheet of Alphabet Music contains 15 letters, either whole, or split up into fragments, except the last, where the sequence breaks off… For a full reading, the sheets should be laid out in sequence… Colour denotes key.”
In Oulipo-esque fashion,that limit appears to be determined by the sum of the first five letters’ numerical position in the alphabet (1+2+3+4+5 = 15, so sheet one has 1 A, 2Bs, 3Cs, 4Ds and 5Es). Sheet two, likewise, has 6Fs, 7 Gs, and 2Hs to make 15 letters. Sheet three continues with the remaining 6 Hs for this eighth letter in the alphabet plus 9 Is for the ninth letter, adding up to 15 letters. Sheet four includes 10 Js and 5 letter Ks, and sheet five continues with the remaining 6 Ks for the eleventh letter plus only 9Ls of the twelfth letter, leaving sheet six to pick up the remaining 3 Ls and 12 Ms of the thirteenth letter. Contrary to the explanation, the seventh and last sheet doesn’t break off the sequence; its 1 M and presumably 14 fractured Ns add up to 15.
But why does the music end there? The letters tumble, leap and cascade like musical notes or expressions on the page. Why not additional sheets? Having come this far with the constraint of 15, perhaps Adler worked out that no sum from any summative series from the start of the alphabet could provide a constraint that would work out “evenly” in the end. There would always be leftover or remainder Zs. Alphabet Music has always to be unfinishable — much like the textual expressions the alphabet can yield.
The first edition of Alphabet Music was published in 1974 in an edition of 130 copies by Adler’s Alphabox Press (London) and was first performed with Paul Burwell, Bob Cobbing, and Bill Griffiths at the Poetry Festival in Münster 1979. Extracts first appeared in Kroklok 3 (December 1972), Poetry Review 63:3 (Autumn 1972), and Typewriter (NY) 3 (1973). Although online searching has not uncovered any recording of this performance, or instructions for performing Alphabet Music, perhaps an impression can be gleaned from this recording of Alphabox. Given the title of Alphabet Music, the visual impression it makes, its expressed intent and its reported performance, Alphabet Music would seem an exemplar of Dick Higgins’ definition of an intermedial work: “a conceptual fusion of scenario, visuality and, often enough, audio elements”.
“Ernest Fraenkel“. 30 October 2021. Books On Books Collection. Jeremy Adler’s uncle was Ernest Fraenkel, author of Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés(1960), also in this collection.
Jim Avignon’s website describes Neoangin: Das musikalische ABC (2014) as a “synaesthetic experiment, [on] which Lutz and Avignon have worked together again after almost 15 years, [in which] music, illustration and typography mix in the most cheerful and unsparing way”. For each letter of the alphabet, Avignon has written a song, presented on a double-page spread designed by Lutz and Avignon. The book and performance were prepared and premiered at Typo Berlin 2014.
Songs A through C are “Animal Hypnotist”, “Bad Photoshop” and “City of Strangers”.
The song for Q is “Q Typology of Letters”. The tails of various Qs straddle female, male and epicene symbols and characters as well as emotional quotients and characters.
The songs for X, Y and Z are “X-Files: All Deleted Pages”, “Yeah” and “ZZZZZ”.
Synesthesia of the alphabet can be found elsewhere in the Books On Books Collection: Jean Holabird’s Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) and Le Cadratin’s rendition of Rimbaud’s Voyelles (1871/1883/2012) under Jean-Renaud Dagon. And so can conjunctions of the alphabet and musical notation: Karl Kempton’s playground (2013-14) and Bernard Heidsieck’s Abécédaire n° 6 clef de sol : été 2007 (2015). But Avignon and Lutz have the claim to the only combination of the two and certainly when the musical performance is added.
In French, wouldn’t an abecedary in the key of G (the fifth note “sol” in the Do-Re-Mi song) have to be associated with the summer (été) and sun (soleil)? That may be the nearest to the fixed association of letters with objects you will find in this work by one of the 1950s creators of Sound Poetry (Poésie sonore).
The collage mixes uppercase and lowercase, serif and sans serif and numerous families of type.
Like beauty and a Rohrshach test, any significance to the collage of each letter is left to the eye of the beholder. Or the ear. Do the positions of the main A, B and C suggest the opening notes of the ABC song?
The confetti-like N’s and n’s look like stemless notes being drawn up and down the staves. The O in the center of the staves surrounded by a rectangle of O’s resembles the sound hole in a cigar box guitar. The P’s are dripping in three dwindling streams of p’s. The Q’s and q’s seem bottled up and rising to spout onto the staves.
The X’s make an X, or perhaps the struts of a drum with a bass drum stick tucked in. Y forms a mosaic banjo. While Z looks like a bird of prey with its wings at the peak of an upbeat, readied for a powerful downbeat and lift off, it could the horned helmet of a nineteenth-century opera soprano.
Other artists in the collection have used the musical stave in their alphabet-related works: Karl Kempton and Jim Avignon & Anja Lutz. But Heidsieck uses the stave like a musical note and the leporello structure like a musical stave itself. Across its panels, the image of the stave sometimes keeps to the same position, sometimes descends or ascends across two or more panels — like musical notes. Sometimes it supports the letters, sometimes it suspends them, sometimes it embraces them, sometimes it embeds itself among them. The letters defy any expectation of behavior of notes fixed to the stave, but they are never independent of it. Rather than asserting synesthesia as Rimbaud or Nabokov do with words, Heidsieck’s work enacts it by conflating the structures and elements of musical notation, the alphabet, the accordion book and painting.
26 Voices / January Interlude (2020) Karl Kempton Sewn booklet. H190 x W177 mm. 28 pages. Edition of 60 unnumbered. Acquired from Derek Beaulieu, 4 January 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Derek Beaulieu deserves a vote of thanks for bringing this work back into print, even if for a limited edition. 26 Voices / January Interlude first appeared under the title Rune 2: 26 voices/ january interlude as number 10 in Robert Caldwell’s Typewriter series, published by Bird in the Bush Press (1980). In the Acknowledgements, Kempton writes that the series “was composed in January, 1978 in 28 days. After the letter K the flow stopped until a dream of L’s form arrived unblocking the flow”.
The series of patterns, each made from an upper case letter of the alphabet typed over and over, range in appearance — some like Amish quilts, some like Byzantine rugs, some like Celtic knots, but like snowflakes, no two alike. Given how some pairs of letters are mirror images of each other (bd, pq) or inverse (bp, dq), you would expect some close affinity in their two patterns, but no. No pairs of those patterns look at all alike. You would also be mistaken to expect a pattern to reflect the letter that constitutes it. Instead, you find one pattern resembling the letter X, but it is made of letter U’s. There are naturally some similarities between patterns at the broadest level — E and N, L and M or R and S — but these have little to do with the letters themselves, and the similarity recedes as details come to the fore or falls into the background with illusory three dimensionality. The shapes are not rune like, but individually and sequentially, they have the associative dream-like qualities of runes.
A close up
Double-page spread B&C
B close up
C close up
Center double-page spread N&O
Double-page spread X&Y
X close up
Y close up
Z close up
Actual runes appear in the following work, similarly in black and white and with similarly illusory three dimensionality. Not technically in the Books On Books Collection, playground (2013-14) can be found online. Surprisingly, it has not been in print.
playground (2013-14) karl kempton Online, 78 pages (screens). Accessed 7 August 2022. Screenshots reproduced with permission.
What an opportunity for collaborators to join with Kempton to produce playground in different editions varying in color (black and white, red and white, green and white, blue and white, etc.), in paper (handmade, watercolor, washi, high gloss, matte, etc.) and in binding (accordion, stab binding, case bound, scroll, etc.). Perhaps such an extravaganza is not in keeping with Kempton’s style and approach over the years, but this playground is such an invitation to play.
Games and sports are depicted together with letters and punctuation marks on platforms made of the musical staff or stave, all of which offer Kempton multiple means of metaphor. FIrst, inked martial arts figures break a K of karate boards. Then, a baseball player bats the dot of a lowercase i into the air. A basketball player jumps and aims at a basket formed of a half note. A golfer chips toward a half-note hole flagged with a pennant bearing the treble clef G. A boxer punches the bowl of a large P.
The images become more worked as the book proceeds. A weightlifter atop a lowercase e lifts a set of weights composed of the umlaut above the e, and the shadow of the image is cast across the stave lines behind the letter. Shadows of gymnasts appear behind an uppercase G, lowercase o and lowercase i.
Animation sequences occur, such as the platform diver leaping from the body of a lowercase i and creating an exclamation-point splash in a pool formed by a circle that widens across the stave as the diver submerges.
Around the same time of playground‘s inception, this combination of letters and musical notation found expression among other artists: for example, Jim Avignon & Anja Lutz in Neoangin: Das musikalische ABC (2014) and Bernard Heidsieck in Abécédaire n° 6 clef de sol : été 2007 (2015). Metaphorically linking textual expression, if not individual letters of the alphabet, with musical scores goes back at least as far as Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) and carries forward into explicit linkage by Michalis Pichler (2009) and Rainier Lericolais (2009) in their works of homage to Un Coup de Dés.
To return to Kempton’s playground, an interlude occurs to associate the alphabet with magnetism, then breaks off to return to the games motif, this time in the form of winter sports. The musical notation motif is still there, but Kempton modifies it with a piano keyboard at both ends of the stave and with manicules fingering the keyboards at both ends while articulating a variation on sign language. Musically and metaphorically, matters become more complex with the introduction of two pairs of staves, pyramids of squares and circles and one manicule using the lowercase i to bring back the magnetism interlude.
From here on, additional motifs are developed, and words and phrases appear: a physics experiment punningly labeled “period piece”, a night game lit by inverted question and exclamation marks, and juxtaposed opposites (“covered/uncovered” and “sunrise/sunset”).
All these motifs, textual and visual puns, and images seem concerned with the development of symbols for interpreting the world and communicating that interpretation. With the appearance on black background of an exclamation mark with an open book inside its point, then a pair of rectangles each suspended by the sentence “volumes lines speak / lines speak volumes”, an animated sequence begins an extended narrative drawing everything together.
After the descending hand squeezes out the yin yang symbol onto the stave from the image of an open book, Kempton joins this theme of interconnected opposite forces with the development of language, which is where the runes come in, held in an unclosed fist. Eventually the book concludes with an open pair of hands, centered on reversed-out stave/keyboards and holding a point of light radiant against the blackness.
Kuorinki’s alphabetical ordering/disordering of one of the sacred texts for literary theorists — Michel Foucault’s 1967 Les Mots et Les Choses: Une Archéologie des Sciences Humaines in its later English translation — rises above that too-frequent result in book art and conceptual art: the one-trick pony. Kuorinki accomplishes this by his choice of appropriation, his choice to use a translation of it and his choice of the alphabet and book art as technique and material.
The alphabet’s arbitrariness and the codical illusion of order and fixity make them the ideal artistic tools with which to make an artwork responding to Foucault’s sweeping treatise on the contingency of knowledge and language. The hefty, tightly bound block of paper and its cover title evoke the memories of anticipation on first picking up any book promising a vision of the order of things. But this book does not even offer a contextualizing preface, an orderly table of contents, chapters, page numbers or index.
When a text becomes canonical — a sort of common expression — how else to respond to it as a visual artist than “to take the mickey”? Of course, as the book’s bellyband tips us off, Kuorinki’s The Order of Things is a joke. And of course, on further reflection, it is serious.
In creating his artist’s book, did Kuorinki know the term calque — the literal, word-for-word translation that becomes a common expression in the borrowing language as in the English it goes without saying from the French ça va sans dire or the English word-hoard from the Anglo-Saxon wordhord? If so, it goes without saying that his work of book art is a calque itself — a literal, word-for-word translation of unealphabétisation of Foucault’s word-hoard for Les Mots et Les Ordres. And if granted its appropriation of the status of calque as a means of appropriating Foucault’s canonical text, Kuorinki’s The Order of Things is a pony of many different colors and tricks. Or to visit another attraction in the fun fair, hasn’t Kuorinki turned Foucault’s sacred text into an artifactual carnival of mirrors?
Welcome to the online celebration of the 125th anniversary of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897).
This is the poem that launched countless works of free verse and experiments with typography and the page. Visually and physically, its arrangement of scattered words in different type sizes and styles across the pages echoes the drama, images and delaying syntax that the text plays out — a sinking ship, its struggling master, cresting waves, a Siren, a whirlpool or abyss, the North Star and its nearby constellation Ursa Minor. Its challenge to the reader heralded 125 years of artistic and intellectual engagements: a crisis in language and representation, the struggle to reconcile pattern and meaning with chance and nothingness, and the never-ending tarantella of the material with the conceptual. Mallarmé’s is the poem that made the world modern and then post-modern.
The poem also launched a host of livres d’artiste in numerous languages as well as homage in the form of film, painting, photography, sculpture, installation, theater, costume, music, dance, programming, and book art. Even exhibitions of book art. The exhibition best known from the 20th century is Marcel Broodthaers’ 1969 show. Academic exhibitions for the 1998 centenary of Mallarmé’s death included artworks. The fact, however, that no less than five art exhibitions in homage to Un Coup de Dés appeared in the first decade of the 21st century demonstrates a rapidly growing recognition of its importance as a muse to book artists.
Together, these exhibitions captured somewhat less than half the relevant works that would have qualified. Following the Pichler exhibition in 2017, the number of such works has only grown. On the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard, it is time to take stock again.
The Poem that “Made Us Modern”
The poem arrived May 1897 in Volume VI, No. 17 of Cosmopolis, Revue internationale, published in London. The anticipated shock of the poem’s layout for its readers prompted the editors to request a preface from Mallarmé explaining how to read the poem. Occasionally a worn copy of the issue comes up for sale by a rare book dealer or auction house, but Gallica (France’s National Library online catalogue) offers access where we can see the single-page and double-page spreads that caused such concern.
The Cosmopolis editorial team may have overestimated its readers’ immediate shock (there was little response), but imagine the team’s shock if Mallarmé had insisted that Cosmopolis somehow print the poem as he really wished: across eleven double-page spreads rather than the nine single pages into which it was compressed. Again, Gallica provides the means to see what most of us will never see firsthand: Mallarmé’s mark-up of the later proofs showing his intended double-page spreads. These proofs were for the deluxe edition Mallarmé wanted to publish with the entrepreneur Ambroise Vollard. From their correspondence, we know that prints by Odilon Redon were to be included. We know also that Mallarmé’s instructions on size, weight and placement of words, down to the letter, were meticulous.
The printers proclaimed the whole thing madness. Vollard did not press. And Mallarmé died in 1898. Finally in 1914, with the involvement of Edmond Bonniot, Mallarmé’s son-in-law, Éditions de la Nouvelle revue française (NRF) delivered on Mallarmé’s typographic intentions — almost — the typeface was Elzevir not Didot. Gallimard/NRF has reissued it several times in various trim sizes over the years. Subsequent archival discoveries and close observations led to other facsimiles, many of which are recorded in Thierry Roger’s monumental L’Archive du Coup de dés (2010). The scope of this essay/exhibition does not include every one of the many editions of the poem (or its translations) — only those that attempt an artistic homage as well. They appear chronologically among the artworks in the exhibition.
Neither is the essay/exhibition an attempt to explicate this enigmatic poem. What happens in Un Coup de Dés, what it means, how it made us modern and then post-modern — all that and more — have been the subject of countless books, essays and web pages. Those on which this essay/exhibition has relied for such insights can be found under the heading “Further Reading (and Viewing)” at the end of the exhibition. The aims here are rather to present the reader/viewer with an exhibition as comprehensive as possible of the works of artistic homage to this singular poem that have appeared since 1897. For additional exhibitions marking the occasion,see the heading “Other Exhibitions in 2022”, also at the end of this exhibition.
Covers of the 1914 edition (held by the Bodleian) and 1993 edition (from the Books On Books Collection). Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira “l’Appropriation”
While the experience cannot be the same, the reach of a virtual exhibition can exceed that of a bricks-and-mortar affair in certain ways. Moreover, it can provide building blocks for future organizers, curators and enthusiasts of book art and this unusual poem. By virtue of its virtuality, this exhibition is updateable. Its bibliographical references are linked wherever possible to permalinks, enabling the viewer to locate the nearest physical copy of the work. Where Pichler’s exhibition included a working player piano and piano roll version of Un Coup de Dés and films/videos (albeit not related to Mallarmé’s poem), this virtual exhibition provides visuals and hyperlinks to films/videos directly related to the poem as well as the same for operatic, balletic and musical renditions of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. The works of homage included come from an exploration of exhibition catalogues, BnF Gallica, the Library of Congress, the Bodleian libraries, WorldCat and Google search — and tips from the scholars and artists themselves.
The word “homage” extends a wide umbrella — over parody, pastiche, livre d’artiste and appropriations in all manner of art forms. One or two works in the exhibition stretch the point of paying homage. Picasso’s pun un coup de thé is one example. Its admission rests on its being the earliest hint of the poem’s presence in other artworks. Subsequent omissions may be intentional or unintentional. In its seeming allusiveness to the poem, Cy Twombly’s Poems to the Sea (1959) petitions for admission. Lacking more obvious appropriation, though, it is more an “homage” to Twombly’s experience of the Mediterranean than of Mallarmé’s poem. Other petitioners, considered or missed, await future curators.
From 1897 to 1959 (5)
Just five works of homage in the first sixty years after the poem’s appearance is not a promising start, but it provides context in which to appreciate the later acceleration.
The earliest homage to Un Coup de Dés came only a few months after its publication. It took the form of Australian Christopher Brennan’s handwritten pastiche scolding the critics of his own poems influenced by Mallarmé. The work has only appeared in facsimile and then not until 1981. Its lengthy title is better appreciated in its handwritten form. More on this work here.
Facsimile edition of the handwritten manuscript. Published by Hale & Iremonger. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In 1973, the art historian and critic Robert Rosenblum remarked on Picasso’s likely homage in the truncated newspaper headline — from “UN COUP DE THÉÂTRE” to “UN COUP DE THÉ” — for use in his 1912 collage. The connection seems a stretch, but Picasso was aware of Mallarmé and the poem, as were the circles in which Picasso moved. One of the avant-gardists — Man Ray — would be far less subtle in his cinematic homage to the poem.
Man Ray’s set location was Villa Noailles, a villa built for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. Not surprisingly for patrons of Brancusi, Mallet-Stevens and Picasso among many others, the Noailles were footing the bill for Man Ray’s cinematic effort. The film opens with a screen quotation from the poem, but, other than the dice-shaped aspect of the villa which sparked the connection, the film develops its own mysterious suggestions apart from Mallarmé’s.
Film, one reel, 16 mm, 19:46 minutes. Posted 26 April 2014. Accessed 1 April 2018.
The Art et Action Laboratoire de Théâtre planned a spectacle including a polyphonic vocal performance of the poem as early as 1919. Thwarted by copyright law, Art et Action joined with the Société des Gens de Lettres for a new orchestration in 1942. Claude Autant-Lara’s 1923 poster for the abortive presentation (along with three other similar spectacles) and his decor (not shown here) foreshadow performance works by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Kathy Bruce and Alistair Noble, Bernadette O’Toole and many others — all noted below.
The efforts from 1897 to 1929 did little to prompt others to explore Un Coup de Dés for material and inspiration in the next three decades. Perhaps the first livre d’artiste version of the poem (and the fifth and last homage from 1897 to 1959) was created by Hella Guth in 1952. Guth’s distinctive style of collage foreshadows future extensions into more three-dimensional and material techniques.
Front and back covers of Hella Guth’s livre d’artiste. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France. Displayed with permission of Kate Rys, niece of Hella Guth.
From 1960 to 1969 (5)
The next six decades of the poem’s aftermath give a geometric progression of works in a variety of media by which homage was paid. The 1960s begin with two “over-the-top” works, over the top in very different ways.
Ernest Fraenkel was convinced that, working back from the text of Un Coup de Dés, he had “discovered” additional artwork in Mallarmé’s mind. The forms of the artwork could be shown by connecting the dots (the beginnings of the lines with each other, and likewise the ends) and shading the enclosed shapes — like a Rorshach test, only inverted (words first, then the images). Strange as the theorizing may be, stranger still is the visual results’ prediction of similar impressions almost ten years later arising from completely different premisses. More on Fraenkel’s work here.
Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Seven different diagrammatic renderings. The one at the lower right shows Fraenkel’s sideways view. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The second homage to appear in this decade is André Masson’s near illumination of the poem. It subsequently warranted an extended essay from the 2003 exhibition’s curators: Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert. These three extracts from their essay provide useful touchstones to place against later works in this virtual exhibition:
Far from continuing or elaborating on Mallarmé’s project, Masson has contrived a systematic substitution of graphics, including calligraphy, for a typographical chef-d’oeuvre, thus enabling an unforeseen and uninvited art form to usurp the territory of another. (p. 508)
… in illustrating poetry he more often than not deserves his usual designation of abstract surrealist, all the more so because he combines automatism with the mythological dynamism so characteristic of his paintings and his drawings. (p. 513)
… Mallarmé’s poem, characterized by its avoidance of anecdotal narrative, its deliberate twistings of metaphorical patterns, its deconstruction of rhythmic continuity, practically precludes figuration. How can any illustration, however abstract, lend visual support to a text that compounds to such an extent the problematics of representation? … How could Masson graphically master a text that perversely withdraws from the reader and pores over itself, like the hypothetically sentient waves it repeatedly evokes, questions, and denies? (p. 514)
By the end of the 1960s, a very different form of homage takes over from that of Guth and Masson, one prefigured by Fraenkel’s abstract mapping of Mallarmé’s text into strips of black, one that would recur in several guises into the next century. Call it homage by redaction.
Detectable from its title, Diacono’s work intends a more social or political comment than Fraenkel’s. In an interview, he noted, “The title alternates not only colors, black and orange, but also uppercase and lowercase letters. The wordplay in essence says: the absence of metrics, of language, will not abolish poetry. Neither will the American taboos” (Nickas, 2019). Those comments align with the element of “pop” art and the underground comic in this homage. But does Diacono’s socio-political drive outweigh the rest of a METRICA n’aboolira‘s insistence on “looking at” Un Coup de Dés rather than reading it? Or is the work reminding us to read what we are looking at? More on this work here. The entire work has been digitized here.
Marcel Broodthaers’ homage appeared as a three-part centerpiece to the 1969 exhibition entitled Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé: Marcel Broodthaers à la Deblioudebliou/S (“Literary exhibition around Mallarmé at the Deblioudebliou/S”). Deblioudebliou/S puns on a distorted French pronunciation of the letter W and the three initials of the Antwerp gallery Wide White Space, where the event occurred. The three parts consist of ten copies numbered I-X on anodized aluminum, ninety copies numbered 1-90 on transparent mechanographic paper (the original edition) and three hundred copies numbered 1-300 on opaque paper (the catalogue edition). On Broodthaers’ cover, the word Image occupies the same space as Poème on the 1914 edition’s cover. Following that, Broodthaers displaces Mallarmé’s dismissive “Préface” from Cosmopolis with his own preface: the poem’s entire text set in a block of type with the lines separated by slashes. Until the colophon, that is the only legible text to appear in this homage by redaction in which all the lines of the poem are blacked out. As visitors to the show perused the editions, a tape recording of Broodthaers’ reading the poem played in the background. Broodthaers’ multimedia homage would provoke dozens of artists to create works of double-, triple- even quintuple-homage over the next sixty years.
Photos: Top image courtesy of Charles Bernstein; middle and bottom images courtesy of MACBA.
Broodthaers’ bookworks above are not the only forms of homage he created for Un Coup de Dés. The Galerie Michael Werner hosted an exhibition entitled “Footprints of a collector: Reiner Speck. Mallarmé, Broodthaers et les autres” (2 May – 23 July 2022). In addition to outstanding copies of the Image works, the curator Sabine Schiffer included Garniture Symbolique (1975), a blue-tinted glossy photo strip with nine photos on glossy paper, showing excerpts and phrases from the poem. Also, a painting entitled Un coup de dés jamais quand bien même… (oil, gold paint, felt pen on canvas) from 1969.
The last 1960s works of homage to mention are Daniel Spoerri’s Un Coup de Dés dinner-cum-artwork, originally held in 1968 and reperformed on numerous occasions, and the Aspen Magazine in a Box [aka : The Minimalism Issue] (No. 5 + 6, Fall/Winter 1967), dedicated to Mallarmé.
Spoerri’s homage is first and foremost performative art with invited dinner guests assigned their seats by a throw of the dice. Afterwards, the meal’s detritus is fixed to a surface for vertical display, like debris on the deck of a shipwreck. No image of one of the Un Coup de Dés after-dinner works has been found for this exhibition. It may be that one or more of these performances also alluded to the literary dinners at which Mallarmé declaimed. Mark Clintberg has recounted one of these Spoerri banquets (held at Haus Maria Theresia in Dusseldorf, Germany, on 5 February 2010), and its social satiric flavor seems distant from those celebrations of the late 19th century. Though not on display here, Spoerri’s performances in homage are worth noting as heralds of the veritable variety show of performances that will appear over the coming decades.
Although The Minimalism Issue is more an homage to Mallarmé in general than one to Un Coup de Dés in particular, it too is a herald. It makes for a mixed bag (or box) and is noteworthy as much for its difficult-to-access LPs and super 8 films as for its name contributors: Roland Barthes, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Dan Graham, Susan Sontag among others. With its mixed media, Aspen’s Mallarmé Box foreshadows even more eclectic and technically challenging efforts to come.
Permission of Whitechapel Gallery being sought.
From 1970 to 1979 (4)
If simply nodding toward Mallarmé’s poetic influence constituted homage, a small town of concrete poems could be put forward to pad the number of artworks of homage to Un Coup de Dés in the 1970s. As for artworks, perhaps artists were momentarily stunned by Broodthaers’ homage, for only four very different new works of homage appeared in the 1970s.
One of the participants in The Minimalism Issue of the Aspen Magazine, Dan Graham moved from his conceptual Poem Schema (1966), which appeared in the box, to an installation as homage. Graham’s primary interest had been Mallarmé’s long-touted Le Livre, which was to be not merely a book but a performance. So his attraction to Brian Doherty’s book as box of mixed media makes sense. Un Coup de Dés, however, may have had just as much influence as Le Livre. Consider these comments by Penny Florence as she writes about how Mallarmé’s poem and Odilon Redon’s prints must be read together:
They are a book with interchangeable pages, with varying directions and registers, with vertical and horizontal movements, with reversals and with shapes that are as important in signification as words. They challenge our notion of coherence and demand that we re-shape the relations between recorded and immediate experience. (p.110) [My emphasis]
That is also what happens in Dan Graham’s installation Present Continuous Past (1974). The installation room consists of two mirrored walls at a right angle to each other. A third wall on which a video camera is mounted above a video screen stands at a right angle to one mirrored wall and opposite the other. The fourth wall at a right angle to camera/screen wall of the room is blank white and provides the entrance to the installation. The video records the viewer and, after an eight-seconds lag, projects the recording onto the video screen. Because the recorder will then pick up the mirror reflection of the eight-seconds-lagged projection playing on the video screen and will then play that back after another eight-seconds lag, the viewer will experience in the present a continuous regress of the past(s).
Jean Lecoultre’s livre d’artiste of “soft varnish” etching resonates with Mallarmé’s dictum peindre non la chose mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to depict not the object but the effect the object produces”). Lecoultre depicts easily identifiable objects — a stone, a measuring rod, a rope and more — and less easily identifiable ones — a blurred wall and windows, a metallic plate with two rows of six numbered holes (the one numbered “1” filled with red), a pair of draped rectangular columns being sliced with a cheese-cutter-like cable and so on. The soft-focus realistic detail of surreal images, the strange juxtaposition of objects and the way some objects seem to float on the page — these mirror Mallarmé’s arrangement of words and lines among les blancs of the pages, the precision of his images and the suggestiveness of his metaphors.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of Jean Lecoultre.
Mallarmé was always drawn to the idea of theatrical performances of his works, including Un Coup de Dés. He may have had a revolutionary grasp of staging text on blank pages, but he lacked any grasp of mise-en-scène for the actual stage. Despite his finger on the pulse of domestic fashion in his one-man magazine La Dernière Mode (1874), Mallarmé had no feel for the audience attracted to his contemporary Sarah Bernhardt.
He might have rejoiced that Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub filmed this Greek-style theatrical reading of Un Coup de Dés even if it came some sixty years after the attempt by Art et Action (see above). By staging the nine-voice reading in the Père Lachaise cemetery on the hill where the last Communards had been shot and buried, and also nearby the memorials to the Holocaust’s concentration camps, Straub and Huillet appropriated the poem for a forced chime with their film’s title, a quotation attributed to Jules Michelet, the 19th century historian of the French Revolution. War poetry and social indignation figure little in Mallarmé’s work even though the end of the Franco-Prussian war as well as the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in May 1871 hung like a pall over France in his lifetime. But in light of another line from Michelet — “With the world began a war that will only end with the world, and not before: that of man against nature, mind against matter, freedom against fate. History is nothing but the story of this endless struggle.” Introduction à l’histoire universelle (1843) — perhaps the chime is not so forced. A video of the reading was made available on DVD in 2010.
As will be seen later in the exhibition, Ian Wallace is a “repeat hommageur”. Over three decades, he has created three separate works. With each one, something subtly new appears, but all are grounded in a particular kind of self-referencing shared with Mallarmé’s poem: the creative struggle reflected in the creation. In his own words:
In 1979, I made a large photographic work … which combined images of me in the studio making the work itself, with a text meditating on this concept of self-referencing. … This work was an early attempt to reconfigure a conceptual art practice through its literary antecedent in the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, …. After reading [Un Coup de Dés] for many years, I have come to appreciate it as one of the foundational works of modern art. Its theme, that of artistic destiny and a crisis of representation, was expressed through the collapse of metaphysics into typographics and the material space of the page. [Ian Wallace in Un Coup de Dés/Writing Turned Image, curated by Sabine Folie, p. 82.]
The 1980s begin with the acclaimed édition mise en oeuvre by Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp. In addition to trebling the previous decade’s contribution, the 1980s offer the first sculptural installations to pay homage to Un Coup de Dés — Robert Filliou’s Eins. Un. One. (1984) and Geraldo de Barros’ Jogos de Dados (1986) — as well as the first symphony — Claude Baillif’s Un coup de dés, d’après Mallarmé, Op. 53 (1980).
In 1980, Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp used Mallarmé’s corrected proofs of the abortive Vollard version to produce an edition closer to Mallarmé’s intention than previously published. They followed the intended unbound-folios approach to the poem but juxtaposed it not with the etchings of Odile Redon but with artistic interpretations by Papp and his contemporaries. A decade later, Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert would comment: “This surprising accompaniment to a scrupulously authentic printing of the original poem pays so to speak a postmodern homage to a quintessential modern master” (p. 508). Over the decades after the Ronat/Papp production, other new editions appeared — also aimed at reflecting the Master’s wishes. Not including Françoise Morel‘s facsimile of the manuscripts and proofs(2007), there are three other explorations of the “true” edition (in French): Michel Pierson‘s (2002), Ypsilon Éditeur‘s (2007) and Alain Hurtig‘s (2012). Not shown in the exhibition, Pierson’s substitutes artwork by Jorge Camacho for that by Odile Redon. Ypsilon Éditeur’s edition restores Redon and appears later in this exhibition. Also shown later, Hurtig’s edition substitutes Catherine Belœil’s artwork for Redon’s and provides an insightful analysis of typeface options, including the Didot. For more on the Ronat/Papp edition, go here.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Double-page spreads from the 1980 Ronat/Papp edition. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Tibor Papp, Déville. Paul Nagy, Untitled. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Claude Baillif began this symphony while teaching at McGill University in Montréal. The musical composition for five choirs, two double basses, two percussionists, two kettledrums, and electronic tape directly addresses the poem’s shape. As explained in the LP liner notes, Baillif assigned a particular “sound property” to each of the poem’s eleven double-page spreads (with two double basses, two percussionists and two kettledrum players punctuating the change from one spread to another); designated each of the five choirs to each of the five type fonts and sizes; and generated a “ribbon of sound” in the university’s electronic music studio to create additional echoes across the eleven spreads. The result is “essentially grave, still music”, although with a great deal of dissonance. Baillif may have been “helped by the contemplation of the calm vastness of the St. Lawrence Estuary”, but do not expect Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau); after all, Un Coup de Dés involves a shipwreck. Baillif’s is not the first musical homage to Mallarmé. Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon pli (“Fold on fold”) in 1957 holds that distinction, but Baillif’s is the first dedicated to Un Coup de Dés and signals several others to come.
This work first appeared in 1984 and has been displayed in several 21st-century exhibitions, including Robert Filliou‘s first solo exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2013. The constellation of 16,000 multicolored dice, each with all six sides bearing a single dot, delivers one of the more humorous works of homage to Un Coup de Dés. With the guarantee of a single dot, it might be thought that chance has been abolished, whichever and however many dice are rolled. The multiple sizes and colors of the dice and the varied constellations into which they might fall per installation suggest otherwise. Again, even this thought emits a throw of the dice.
As Ronat and Papp were preparing their édition mise-en-oeuvre following Mallarmé’s corrected proofs, Neil Crawford came across a copy of Robert Greer Cohn’s Mallarmé’s Masterwork, New Findings (Mouton & Co, The Hague, 1966) and was struck by its reproduction of the set of proofs sold by Pierre Berès to an American collector – the so-called Lahure proofs. Crawford, too, was determined to prepare a typographic translation of the proofs — but in English. Crawford’s choice of the Bodoni typeface as a substitute for the Didot that Mallarmé wanted can be justified on two grounds: first, the two typefaces are historically contemporaneous and inspired alike by John Baskerville’s experimentation with the contrast between letters’ thick and thin strokes; and second, even if there had been an English translation to set in 1897 or 1914, Bodoni was the more available face for English-language typesetters. Having enlarged Cohn’s reproductions to their originals’ size, Crawford undertook the daunting task of figuring out how to squeeze an English version taking up 10% more space than the French into Mallarmé’s careful layout. It would take seven years of evenings in tracing letters, translating, transcribing, adjusting, retranslating and retranscribing to generate hand-crafted layouts that could be stored away until the day that photocomposition would be sufficiently advanced to accommodate the word and character spacing necessary to follow them. Fittingly by chance encounters, Crawford was introduced in 1982 to Ian Tyson, who was planning his own livre d’artiste version. In an ironic reversal of Mallarmé’s concern that the Redon prints might undermine the typography, Tyson and Crawford were concerned that anything less than letterpress printing would not ensure the density of black on the page that would complement Tyson’s aquatints. This led to phototypesetting output as patch setting, then hand pasting according to Crawford’s layouts, and then creation of process line blocks for the relief printing in letterpress. More on Tyson and Crawford’s homage here.
Michael Lechner‘s diptych, a color lithograph of mixed media on paper, has some affinity with Tyson’s homage. Both oscillate between abstraction and iconography. Both allude to the computational but overlay it with sandy gradations of tint. Lechner himself writes: “by the geometrical, I trap the dream and by the dream I make fun of the geometry”.
Geraldo de Barros created his sculptural forms in the 1980s. Jogos de Dados was among the first large-scale sculptural installations paying homage to Un Coups de Dés. Haraldo and Augusto de Campos and their Noigrandes literary magazine had raised the profile of the poem over the preceding decades, and Augusto de Campos, friend to de Barros, dedicated a poem to his squares.
Mounted on wires stretched from ceiling to floor, the 55 geometric sculptural forms of de Barros’s Jogos de Dados(Games of Dice, 1980s) dominate the space, hanging in clusters facing this way and that. Close to the centre, the originating piece, Pai de Todos (Father of Them All), is a hexagon comprising 12 rhombuses, pristine in its mathematical precision, the simplicity of its black, white and grey colours, and its smooth, almost textureless expanses of Formica. — Rigby, Art Review.
Alessandro Zanella, founder of Edizioni Ampersand, asked the artist and fellow printer/publisher Vernière to join him in realizing this Italian livre d’artiste. Vernière’s abstract woodcuts capture the poem’s imagery of sea foam, shipwreck and the abyss. More on Zanella and Vernière here.
More an allusion than homage, Bernard Chiavelli’s hardcover comic book is the second of a trilogy, following its main character through adventures based on the imagined East African life of exile Arthur Rimbaud, one-time visitor to Mallarmé’s Tuesday soirées, fellow poète maudit, gun runner and Paul Verlaine’s lover. More on Chiavelli’s trilogy here.
Carol Rudyard’s homage is dual, linking Mallarmé to Marcel Duchamp, and may be the first video installation to incorporate Un Coup de Dés. In the video, the title of the poem is chanted. Perhaps recalling Picasso’s collage of newspaper text “un coup de thé”, Rudyard juxtaposes the text uncoup with the image of a goblet (une coupe), and the words le hasard appear, reproduced from a newspaper and repeatedly photocopied. Before that, the words de dés appear beside the glass, behind which is a cloth patterned in black and white squares suggesting a checkerboard or dice, and likewise the words jamais and n’abolira appear. Rudyard’s allusions are as subtle and elusive as Mallarmé’s own experiment with language in his poem as Lyn Merrington’s essay in Australian Divagations demonstrates.
Honorine Tepfer embeds her homage in paper as if taking her cue from Mallarmé’s letter to André Gide about the poem:
… le rythme d’une phrase au sujet d’un acte ou même d’un objet n’a de sens que s’il les limite et, figuré sur la papier, repris par les Lettres à l’estampe originelle, en doit rendre, malgré tout quelque chose […]. La littérature fait ainsi sa preuve: pas autre raison d’écrire sur du paper.
“… the rhythm of a sentence about an act or even an object has meaning only if imitates them and, enacted on paper, when the Letters have taken over from the original etching must convey something despite it all […]. Literature thus makes its proof: there is no other reason to write on paper.” — from Selected Letters, in Rancière’s Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren, pp. 56-57.
Tepfer’s choice of Baskerville highlights the recurring issue of honoring Mallarmé’s wish for the poem to be set in Didot.
One of the more daring of livres d’artiste. Christiane Vielle not only deploys her engravings to take Mallarmé’s poem beyond the double-page spreads he envisioned, she also does so by redistributing his text under folds and across them. In offering her re-reading of the work, Vielle offers viewers the chance for their own re-reading in opening, closing and reopening the folds to see how the poem and images enfold one another in different views.
The number of works paying homage to Un Coup de Dés in the 1990s continued the decade-on-decade increase since the 1980s. Numerous exhibitions and conferences in honor of the centennial of Mallarmé’s death closed out the decade them were:
In keeping with D. J. Waldie’s reading of Danielle Mihram‘s analysis of the proofs of the intended Mallarmé/Vollard livre d’artiste and Waldie’s own examination of the proofs at Harvard, Young’s four woodcuts are presented separately from the text and aim to honor Mallarmé’s desire for images that are “blond and pale” in relation to the white of les blancs and the sharp black of the type. The design by Young and Felicia Rice used several cuttings of Bodoni to approximate the Firmin-Didot of the original proofs. More on the Young, Rice and Waldie volume here.
Any new livre d’artiste in homage to Un Coup de Dés naturally faces questions of quantity, placement and color of the artwork. Mallarmé’s primary concern was that they not detract from the visual imagery of the text in its careful typography and layout. In all three considerations, Ellsworth Kelly and Limited Edition Press may be honoring Ambroise Vollard’s entrepreneurial hopes more. Despite (or because of) Kelly’s minimalist associations, more is more in this leatherbound volume that runs to 97 unpaginated pages, including 11 lithographs. A double-spread of blank pages follows each recto page of text and each page of lithographs, each of which appears on a recto page. The number of prints is a balancing response to the 11 double-spread pages of the poem, but those intervening blank pages nod toward Mallarmé’s les blancs.
Mallarmé’s poem is one of many literary obsessions for Reinhold Nasshan and has yielded two works of homage: Würfelwurf and Un Coup. Both of these sculptural works are semantically subtle. The first deliberately omits the article eins (“a”). “Throw of the dice”, “dice throw” or “throwing dice” are all reasonable translations of Würfelwurf, but not “a throw of the dice”, which most German translators render as ein Würfelwurf when tackling Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés. But then Reinhold Nasshan is not translating the poem. As the subtitle indicates, he is making “a fragmentary approach”, an approximation. By truncating the poem’s title, Un Coup also projects its fragmentary approach. In its three-dimensional shape-shifting, it presents the “moment of movement itself, the transition between the throw and the impact of the dice, emerge graphically” (moment der bewegung selbst den ubergang zwischen dem werfen und dem auftreffen der wurfel, graphisch hervortreten zu lassen). More on Nasshan’s work here.
This is the second of Ian Wallace’s works inspired by Un Coup de Dés, and as he notes, it had a transformative effect:
… I did make a more assertive reference to Mallarmé’s book by photographing it at a specific page (as well as Jacques Scherer’s publication of Mallarmé’s Le Livre — his incomplete and unpublished ‘great work’ …) conspicuously inserted amongst a random collection of materials on my worktable…. I recognized that the blank pages of this poem were … an early literary equivalent to the endgame aesthetics of late modernist aesthetics of monochrome painting that I had practiced earlier in the 1960s…. and … shifted my work away from abstract monochrome painting to montage photography influenced by the linguistic aspect of conceptual art that I called the “literature of images.” — Ian Wallace in Un Coup de Dés/Writing Turned Image, curated by Sabine Folie, p.86.
Perhaps uniquely, Barry Guy’s musical homage to what he calls “a typographical symphony of words” has architectural origins. In the liner notes for its performance by the Hilliard Ensemble, Guy writes:
The choice of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés as the basis of the piece came about through studies of the conceptual buildings by the architects Richard Rogers and Peter Eisenmann respectively. Rogers’ project was for the Tomigaya exhibition space in Tokyo where modules and floors would operate like an adjustable shelving system, flexing with the needs of the inhabitants. Eisenmann’s project was the Max-Reinhardt-Haus, Berlin, which manipulates the infinite three-dimensional Moebius strip to arrive at a series of topological surfaces which form the prismatic character of the building. The conceptual link was provided by Mallarmé’s poem which transformed the idea of the ‘module’ and the Möbius strip into a dice twisting in the air.
… One of the surprising elements is Mallarmé’s very radical use of upper and lower case lettering. I set about to distil the upper case words in sequence into a new quasi-abstract text that lent itself to vocalisation. Additionally Mallarmé’s ‘landscape’ layout suggested a graphic representation of the music and its movement. The score is accordingly on one large page and portrays the rolling of the dice associated with the desired pitches, execution and text. — Barry Guy.
Over all other hommageurs of Un Coup de Dés, Joëlle Tuerlinckx has the advantage that her name originates in the Old Flemish word teerling(en)/die(dice). Perhaps in some subtle way, this has made her susceptible to the poem’s influence. In correspondence, she writes:
I like to quote ‘rien n’aura (eu) lieu que le lieu ‘. I share this perception / conception of the world and of the space-time that it induces. almost like a philosophy of life, a way of living and exhibiting. — Joëlle Tuerlinckx, 18 February 2021, correspondence with Books On Books.
Tuerlinck’s first throw of the dice in 1994 was occasioned by being asked to place a work in the exhibition’s entrance display case. With no concrete sense of the display’s place or placement of the other objects in the exhibition, she left matters to chance:
On the road when I reached Witte de With, I picked up a green cube that morning, put it in my pocket. I still had a (hard-boiled?) breakfast egg in my pocket that I hadn’t had time to eat. And on a piece of paper, in front of the window, I scribbled a point, and immediately emptied my pocket. Everything happened, as it was obvious, on demand. I marked each object with a few points at random .. by the shape of the egg and its improbability as an object to be thrown or to have a face, and with the two-dimensionality of the piece of paper each stroke was in advance both won and lost. 18 February 2021, correspondence with Books On Books.
For her second throw of the dice (2008), Tuerlinckx placed (threw?) three black undifferentiated cubes on what appears to be a geographical map but is a happenstance stain created by a puddle of evaporating tea. With no markings on the dice, there is no winning or losing, and nothing has taken place but the place marked by the dice on a chance-made map.
Scholar of typography and design, Klaus Detjen presents the poem three times in this volume: first, in French overlaid with an interpretive design, then in French and finally in German. All three instances follow the typography and layout of the first book edition of the poem as published in 1914 by Gallimard. The colored linear frames, threads and markings are allocated to the typographical motifs Mallarmé uses. Using Chinese-fold folios, Detjen carries his color diagrams across the fore-edge to highlight the reading order as he understands the syntax relayed by the typographical motifs. He also takes Mallarmé at his word about les blancs and seizes on the whiteness of the surrounding space and runs to the prismatic metaphor that the spectrum of colors is simply the decomposition of white light. More on Detjen’s homage here.