Books On Books Collection – Paul Cox

Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals (2001)

Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals (2001)
Paul Cox
Casebound, sewn to doublures. H288 xW238 mm, 52 pages with single foldout. Acquired from Amazon, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Chronicle Books.

Not that the alphabet and writing happened chronologically step by step or in one place, but the theory is that they started with pictograms (one sign, one object), ideograms (one sign, one idea), logograms (one sign, one word); added the rebus principle and phonograms (one sign, an object or its sound as in bee the object or the sound of “bee” for use in a word with that sound); added marks for pronunciation or contextualization to distinguish one homonymic phonogram from another; and finally arrived at syllabaries and the even more efficient alphabets (one sign, one sound). Alphabetic letters acquired their non-pictorial shapes as all these signs became more simple and abstract through the tools used to inscribe them (a wedge-shaped stick, a reed, a brush, etc.).

The tools used to make signs in Abstract Alphabet are stencils and ink, or rather a knife and paper or die and metal to cut the stencils to be used with ink. The result is certainly abstract albeit less simple and yet perhaps more artful — and not simply because of its inspiration from the works of Jean Arp. In its artful way, Abstract Alphabet challenges us to think about the alphabet, how it works and how we learn to work it.

Cox’s alphabet skips the pictogram and goes straight to these Arp-ian abstract shapes. His abecedary (“a book of animals”) even skips the images of the animals whose names his signs “spell out”. His signs turn every which way, shrink or expand to fill the double-page spread, which makes the codex also a tool playing into how the signs look and how we read the words they make. The foldout key and the animal name’s initial letter are essential to identifying these animals. But what if there were no foldout key (another element of the Swiss-Army-knife codex’s performing its tool function)?

What if the initial Latin letter of the animal name did not appear in the upper left corner of each double-page spread? What if the animal name ran over to a third or fourth page? What if the Abstract Alphabet were delivered on a scroll? Or a set of 26 clay containers, each inscribed with the signs composing an animal’s name and inside each container a number of tokens each marked with the signs making up the animal’s name? Would the relative frequency of signs in just 26 words make deciphering possible? It would be what archaeologists and paleographers have faced and still face in figuring out where the alphabet came from.

In its visual abstraction, Cox’s alphabet also prompts puzzling over how reading is learned. Without figurative images of the animals to associate with the sets of shapes, how would the brain proceed? What ape looks like a combination of an orange dumbbell, gray egg and green chocolate drop?

Enciphering the alphabet with shapes reverses the alphabet’s historical movement away from the pictorial to the symbolic — but only partly, the shapes are abstract after all. Also the foldout key supplies alphabetic readers with their childhood phonemic clues. But if there were no foldout key, we would have to backtrack and learn what sounds a yellow half-circle, a set of red stairs and so on make. Could we have learned to associate sounds with these abstract shapes instead? Non-alphabetic written languages such as Kanji and Chinese have semantic and phonetic clues embedded in their characters. Cox’s Arp-ian shapes would have to evolve such clues. If it were not for color-blindness, the different colors might be useful in such an evolution; beyond some assistance in distinguishing D from U and F from V, they are not over-labored.

Still this is book art that makes us think. If only the animal below, which was pictographically the source of the first letter in the Greek and Latin alphabets, were the final association of sign and animal in Abstract Alphabet, the book would end on a deserved note of genius.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. 31 March 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Paul Cox“. N.d. Atelier Muji, Japan. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Paul Cox“. N.d. Creation Gallery G8, Japan. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Paul Cox, AGI Open, Seoul 2016“. 9 February 2017. Alliance Graphique Internationale. Accessed 7 August 2021. Cox describes Abstract Alphabet at the 17’02” mark in the video.

Augustin. 25 January 2015. “Paul Cox“. Index Grafik. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Davies, Lyn. 2006. A is for ox: a short history of the alphabet. London: Folio Society.

Dehaene, Stanislas. 2010. Reading in the brain: the new science of how we read. New York: Penguin Books.

Hamaide, Eléonore. 2008. “Paul Cox ou le codex imaginatif. Article d’un cahier Figura, Université Marne-la-Vallée. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Manguel, Albert. 1996. “Reading Shadows”. A History of Reading. London: HarperCollins.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2008. Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

Books On Books Collection – Jon Agee, Alethea Kontis & Bob Kolar, Sean Lamb & Mike Perry, Lou Kuenzler & Julia Woolf

Why does the alphabet begin with the letter A? The long-held speculation that its origin from a sign designating “ox” made it the first in line because of the ox’s meeting the first of our survival needs — food — seems a stretch. Beyond B for beth meaning “house” (shelter) and C for gimel meaning “hunting stick” (in case we run out of oxen), what needs do the other twenty-three letters represent? Especially the letter Z.

Z began its life in seventh place with the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. With Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” extending only to five levels in the twentieth century, Z has had no need to represent — even after the fact. In Phoenician and Hebrew, the letter’s name is zayin, in Greek, zeta, and both mean “seven”. Now there is a credible rationale for a letter’s position in the alphabetical order. But then came Spurius Carvilius Ruga, a Roman headmaster who came up with the letter G, displacing Z, and then Appius Claudius Caecus, the developer of the Appian Way and “censor” with the influence in 312 BC to decide that Latin had no need of Z and its sound anyway and so banished it. After the Romans conquered Greece and began importing Greek words like zephyros, the letter Z returned and settled meaninglessly into last place.

Until the twenty-first century.

Z Goes Home (2006)

Z Goes Home (2006)
Jon Agee
Casebound, paper pasted on boards, sewn. H320 x W223 mm, 30 Pages. Acquired from Amazon, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

In this first of four imaginative books bringing Z to life, the letter begins to take on real character, quietly descending a ladder from its day job at the city zoo, making its way home across a Bridge, stopping for a Cake and Doughnut snack, admiring itself in a Mirror, and so on until reaching its home at the end.

AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First (2012)

AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First (2012)
Alethea Kontis & Bob Kolar
Paperback, sewn. H270 x W245 mm, 48 pages. Acquired from Altair Books, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the author and artist.

Kontis and Kolar give the letter a zestier, feistier temperament in AlphaOops. Z and Zebra start off well enough, followed by Y and X, but then P and the Penguins show up out of order and Z finds that keeping everyone in reverse alphabetical order is harder than it looks.

Z Goes First (2018)

Z Goes First (2018)
Sean Lamb & Mike Perry
H286 x W205 mm, 26 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the author and artist.

Lamb and Perry introduce a generally milder Z, accompanied by a helpful Y always ready to ask why and why not when the other letters are less than cooperative with Z’s going first.

Not Yet Zebra! (2018)

Not Yet Zebra! (2018)
Lou Kuenzler & Julia Woolf
Hardback, paper pasted on board. H256 x W256 mm, 28 pages. Acquired from The Saint Bookstore, 1 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the author and artist.

Kuenzler and Woolf let Z’s inner Zebra loose on poor Annie who just wants to paint her alphabet in the right order.

What has taken Z so long to find its raizon d’être?

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. 31 March 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Davies, Lyn, and Berthold Baskerville. 2006. A is for ox: a short history of the alphabet. London: Folio Society.

Diringer, David. 1968. The alphabet: A key to the history of mankind. Third edition, volume 1. London: Hutchinson.

Fischer, Steven Roger. 2008. A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet abecedarium: some notes on letters. London: Bloomsbury.

Flanders, Judith. 2020. A Place For Everything: the curious history of alphabetical order. New York: Basic Books.

Grout, James. n.d. “Appius Claudius Caecus and the Letter Z”. Encyclopaedia Romana. Last updated 17 May 2021. Accessed 17 August 2021.

Rosen, Michael. 2013. Alphabetical: how every letter tells a story. London: John Murray.

Books On Books Collection – Mark Cockram

The Trial of the Letter ϒ alias Y (1753)

The Trial of the Letter ϒ alias Y:
An Account of the Trial of the Letter ϒ [upsilo
n] alias Y (1753)
Thomas Edwards
Bound and boxed (2021) by Mark Cockram
Box: H220 x W138; Book: H202 x W120 mm, 16 pages.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Like the Hebrew fable in which the letters of the alphabet argue their cases for the position of first letter, this short eighteenth century fantasy has the English Commonwealth of Letters rounding on the letter y as a Greek interloper, usurping their brother i’s rightful position at the end and even middle and beginning of words. Why the letters choose Apollo to judge the case is an irony lost on all the characters. But this is no surprise. After Apollo rules in y’s favor, their witless lack of self-awareness explodes into the internecine warfare of a roomful of Brexiteers. The letters d and th come to blows over murder and murther; the letters ugh demand reinstatement at the end of tho and thro; the letters s and c row over defense/defence and pretense/pretence; and so on.

Thomas Edwards (1699-1757) was an English critic and poet. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his friend the printer and novelist Samuel Richardson encouraged him to write a book on spelling, which resulted in An Account of the Trial of the Letter ϒ [Upsilon], alias Y. The silliness first appeared in 1753 in two forms: one in the fifth edition of Edwards’ Canons of Criticism printed for the bookseller C. Bathurst (over-against St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleetstreet) and the other as a pamphlet for the bookseller W. Owen (at Homer’s Head, in Fleet-Street, near Temple-Bar).

The quarrelsomeness among the letters reflects the same among the not-so-gentlemanly scholars of the period. Edwards’ Canons of Criticism sets out principles for editing in the guise of a stiff critique of William Warburton’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Priest and later bishop of Gloucester, Warburton replied ad hominem, and the feud was on. Even the pompous bully Samuel Johnson joined in, disparaging both (presumably with an eye on elevating his own judgement if not his future edition of Shakespeare):

Soon after Edwards’s ‘Canons of Criticism’ <1748> came out, Johnson was dining at Tonson the Bookseller’s, with Hayman the Painter and some more company. Hayman related to Sir Joshua Reynolds, that the conversation having turned upon Edwards’s book, the gentleman praised it much, and Johnson allowed its merit. But when they went farther, and appeared to put that authour upon a level with Warburton, ‘Nay, (said Johnson,) he has given him some smart hits to be sure; but there is no proportion between the two men; they must not be named together. A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.'” (Dussinger, “Johnson’s unacknowledged debt”)

The version in the Books On Books Collection is the pamphlet: ”First and only edition, vii, [1], 23, [1]pp., with half-title, disbound”, as it is described in the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue. Human petulance aside, the letters’ speechifying and Edwards’ observations about the alphabet’s history place The Trial squarely in the collection between letterpress works and the more trade-oriented alphabet books. As can be seen in the “before” pictures, though, the pamphlet required some attention before joining. That attention, however, would have to suit the nature of the collection.

Before

From a coincidental meeting at a Maggs Brothers exhibition in London, Mark Cockram sprang to mind, and his words here confirmed him as the right choice:

This brings us to the world of book arts. As I progress with my work and life I have begun to engage with this genre in the book making world. I admit that in the past I was a bit of a book snob. Though I produced a number of book works I was unable to cut free of the shackles of the finely bound book, working towards the mastering the complexity of the book… dare I say I was blinkered? In retrospect it is only over the last 15 or so years that I have been able to bring together the various disciplines of the book with the art of the book (though I am sure many who will argue I have neither) It has taken time for me to be able to engage and combine. However I feel that working in this way I am able to be honest with my work, to reflect the now as opposed to rebinding the past. It is a personal journey.
Please note there are other ways of doing things and opinions….. spelling and grammar. Please further note, the opinion of the author may change at any moment. This is due to having an open mind… of sorts.
(Mark Cockram, Studio 5 Book Arts, 30 December 2019. Accessed 4 January 2020.)

After

The paper-labelled cloth box has an unusual heft, implying weighty content but opening to reveal the humorously modest-sized pamphlet.

The artist’s binding solution involves two paper-covered boards. These additional “before and after” pictures show further how the artist’s “lay flat” binding solution preserves as full a view as possible of the original’s gutter.

Before

After

Note also how, inside and out, the front and back boards comment on the contents. The pamphlet’s title is echoed by the enlarged letters Y and ϒ. The faint palimpsest-like printing on the front and back covers (see above and below) and the overprinted inside covers echo the sourcing, disbound from an original binding.

And there is no missing Cockram’s fine press touch in the handling of the end papers and the spine’s red inner backing echoing the interior of the storage box.

Further Reading

Special thanks to William Laywood of Forest Books ABA-ILAB for explaining the notation from the English Short Title Catalogue pointing me down the road to discovering the Canons of Criticism and Professor Dussinger’s insights.

Dussinger, John A. 23 September 2004. “Thomas Edwards“, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed 9 October 2021.

Dussinger, John A. 1 January 2016. “Johnson’s unacknowledged debt to Thomas Edwards in the 1765 edition of Shakespeare.” Philological Quarterly. In The Free Library, University of Iowa.  Accessed 9 October 2021. Dussinger is quoting James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford U. Press, 1934-1964), l:263n3.

Books On Books Collection – Michele Durkson Clise

Animal Alphabet: Folding Screen (1992)

Animal Alphabet: Folding Screen (1992)
Michele Durkson Clise
Accordion book. H160 x W160 mm, 13 panels. Chronicle Books © 1992, Marquand Books, Inc. & Michele Durkson Clise. Acquired from Greensleeves Books, 7 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Perhaps better known for her earlier series of detective stories about a toy bear named Ophelia, Michele Durkson Clise’s accordion book stands out among alphabet books for its text, graphic art and twist on the genre’s usual categories.

Animals are the most frequent topic of alphabet books, and the most usual text structure is a single letter to a page, accompanied or followed by an animal (or animals) whose name begins with the letter. Another common text structure is the hidden letter, where the letter has to be guessed from the image or is hidden in the image.

In Clise’s Animal Alphabet, instead of the single letter, we have a single animal corresponding not to a letter but to the animal’s name at the end of a rhyming couplet. Where are the letters? There is no D for dog on the first page normally belonging to A, but the page normally belonging to B does show a bear. Was something missed on the first page; might the dog might be a Lhasa Apso? Not with those ears and that tail. And back to the bear; where is the letter B?

The disconnect between alphabetical order and the animals depicted is distracting and enjoyable. The pauses and stumbles it causes lead to looking closely at the images, perhaps postponing discovery of the letters. From where did these striking images come with their black and white engravings of the animals against varied backgrounds of light or dark green, light or dark brown and light gray on glossy card stock? The fine lines in the animal images suggest etching. Several of the backgrounds appear to be wood engravings. In a trade book, the printing is surely offset, from which the technique of drawing is hard to tell. Perhaps the answer resides in the artist archive at the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library in the Seattle Art Museum. Or in someone’s encyclopedic eye for antique prints.

Despite the “distractions” of the accordion fold, the pull of the anapest (tum-ti-tum) rhythm and the animals aligned with rhyme not the letters, the somewhat hidden letters eventually emerge. For the reader not attuned to acrostics, there they are at the start of each couplet’s lines: Alligator, Bobolink, Crocodile, Dromedary … Yellowhammer, Zebra.

Which is it — “necessity, the mother of invention” or ”invention, the mother of necessity”? Whichever, with Clise’s Animal Alphabet, we have the necessary and right letters, words, lines, rhyme, rhythm, textual, graphic and material structure.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection. 31 March 2020.

Blamires, David. 1990. Adult alphabets: examples of English press alphabet books from the last hundred years with an alphabetical description, copious illustrations and a checklist of press alphabet books. Oxford: Hanborough Parrot.

Cooper, Cathie Hilterbran. 1996. ABC books and activities: from preschool to high school. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.

Mackey, Bonnie, and Hedy Watson. 2016. Alphabet Books: The K-12 Educators’ Power Tool. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Books On Books Collection – Reinhold Nasshan

Würfelwurf (1992)

Würfelwurf: fragmentarische Annäherung an Stéphan Mallarmé (1992)
Reinhold Nasshan
Slipcase, embossed spine, casebound in paper-covered boards, front cover decorated with title set on slip of paper woven into the cover, block sewn and glued, with relief prints as pastedowns. Slipcase: H360 x W248 mm; Book: 351 x 243 mm, 4 gatherings of folios of varying size cut, tucked or folded to fit within the binding’s dimensions. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

“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.

The very structure and working of Nasshan’s Würfelwurf underscore his title’s distinction between a single act and repetition of the act. On its front cover, the word würfelwurf splits in two, one half printed over the other on the slip woven into the slits in the front cover. The slip angles downward from left to right suggesting action, which comes aplenty inside the book.

Some pages are cut, their corners folded and tucked in. One gathering consists of a sheet 688 x 470 mm that is creased with mountain- and valley-folds and untrimmed at the bottom edge so that it unfolds into a base that spills out beyond the covers. Pages take on dice-shaped edges and planes that seem to roll from within and against the book. The achieved effect of motion recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) or Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.

Although the title of Mallarmé’s poem appears, most of the text scattered across the surfaces comes from his other writings; for example, peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces”); tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre (“everything in the world exists to end up in a book”); and Das Buch ist eine totale Expansion des Buchstabens (“The book is a total expansion of the letter”). When that large folded gathering comes, though, the Mallarmé’s words begin to be jumbled: Ein Würfelwurf wird nie das Würfelspiel abschaffen (“A throw of the dice will never abolish the game of dice”) and Ein Wurf Gottes wird nie den Zufall abschaffen (“A throw from God will never abolish chance”).

Strangest of all is the mangling of émet from the poem’s final line Toute pensée émet un coup de dés (“All thought emits a throw of the dice”). The word becomes éinet. Not French, not German. Perhaps a typo of “in” for “m”? As it turns out, according to the artist, it is a fluke that the letter “m” available in the font on hand printed poorly, so “i” and “n” provided an alternative three vertical strokes.

Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997)

Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997)
Reinhold Nasshan
Flexible triangular cloth-covered book boards, 4 cotton paper squares folded into origami water bomb base and glued. Triangle: 127 x 127 x 179 mm; Square “pages”: 166 x 166 mm. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

Nasshan also refers to this as a “letter sculpture”. Inviting the reconfiguring as with the works of Eleonora Cumer or Bruno Munari, or simply constant fiddling as with a paper fortune teller, Un Coup is more three-dimensional than Würfelwurf. As with Würfelwurf, this work lets 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). With less surface than Würfelwurf, though, it has fewer extracts from Mallarmé’s writings. Indeed, along with the physical shape shifting, the enlarged letters overprinted at multiple angles to one another combine to make this work more abstract than extract. But because text and book are material from which, on which and with which Nasshan creates, the abstract retains its links to the book.

Also a painter, Nasshan’s works fall into two categories or surfaces — painted books and painted canvases. Though lacking the shape of a book, his abstract paintings retain that link to “the world of Letters” in shapes and figures that evoke hieroglyphics, Chinese characters, typography and even cave paintings. His influences appear equally eclectic — though more Kandinsky, Klee and Miró than Pollock or Rothko — which matches up with his choice of substrates in fiction and nonfiction. When not choosing works from the ancient, classical or Romantic periods (from Gilgamesh to Seneca to Hölderlin), he chooses Apollinaire, Beckett, Celan, Joyce or Wittgenstein among others from the Modern period.

A wider audience would profit from Nasshan’s works. At least these two and others that might enter the Books On Books Collection will be available in the 2022 exhibitions celebrating the 125th anniversary of the publication of Un Coup de Dés in Cosmopolis (May 1897).

Further Reading

Bolton, Ama. 4 November 2013. “Saturday 2 November at the Oxford Book Fair“. Barleybooks.

Guckes-Kühl, Karen. September 2008. “Entdeckungsreise in die Buchkunst“. Buchbinderei Köster.

Klein, Thomas. 7 July 2019. “Die Sprache der Träume“. Wochenblatt-Reporter.de.

Möthrath, Birgit. 29 July 2019. “Reinhold Nasshan zeigt Malerie und Buchobjekte im Frank-Loebschen Haus“. Die Rheinpfalz.

Nasshan, Reinhold. 20 September 2021. Correspondence with Books On Books.

Books On Books Collection – Andrew Morrison

Chroma Numerica (2019)

Chroma Numerica (2019)
Andrew Morrison
Perfect bound cased in quarter-hinged paper-on-board binding. H143 x W145 mm, 60 pages, printed on one side. Edition of 30, of which this is #17. Acquired from the artist, 2 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

In the children’s book tradition, counting books and alphabet books often come paired. Chroma Numerica‘s partner appears with the same binding earlier in Andrew Morrison’s work below, and in both cases, the printing process is the real subject — not the learning of numbers or letters. From his wood type, Morrison rolls out oversized numbers 1-30 printed in a chromatic scale on Somerset Book 200gsm paper.

Provenance (2018)

Provenance (2018)
Andrew Morrison
Casebound with dustjacket. H152 x W155 mm, 9 foldouts, 6 leaves (including 1 trimmed short), 2 end leaves. Edition of 30, of which this is #28. Acquired from the artist, 2 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

While Chroma Numerica and A-Z use printing processes to count and spell out their subjects, Provenance uses folds and stitching to conceal texts and images that reveal the making of the book itself. More than the other two books, Provenance requires “reading with the hands”. The two sequences below show the result and process — or the effect then cause — of needle perforation and wire stitching. In the first, the perforation can be seen along the right-hand edge, then along the left, and then in the middle of the unfolded image, which is annotated with a description of the printing process and paper. In the second sequence, the wire stitch can be seen in the gutter; then, with the two tabs pushed back, the German stitching machine comes in view, again annotated with a description of the printing process.

Provenance recalls those sets of binding models produced by Gary Frost, Karen Hanmer and others, but it may be too fragile for the constant reading with the hands that it would undergo as a teaching tool. It is more to be carefully and gently admired — a beautiful peacock admiring itself in the mirror of itself.

Two Wood Press A-Z (2013)

Two Wood Press A-Z (2013)
Andrew Morrison
Hardcover. Casebound glued. H180 x W155 mm, 56 pages. Edition of 30, of which this is an A/P. Acquired from the artist, 5 May 2020.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

An inspired A-to-Z, with tongue in cheek evident in the material form as well as the text. At first, there seems to be no letter A, but closer inspection reveals the ampersand sneakily placed at the start of the alphabet on a page glued halfway up the pastedown. For the letter C, we have “chase” — the heavy steel frame used to hold type in a letterpress. Of course, the type held in a chase would read as in a mirror, and so “C. WADE.” and “HALIFAX.” do just that in their “paper” chase. E for embossing is, of course, embossed. The usually difficult search for a word or term beginning with X is not a problem for typophile and provides a self-defining demonstration as does “yellowing” for Y. For the letter Z, we have to take it on trust that the images are the result from “an etched letterpress printing plate made of zinc”.

Ampersand& (2007)

Ampersand& (2007)
Andrew Morrison
Board cover, perfect bound. H180 x W180 mm, 22 pages. Acquired from the artist, 5 May 2020.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

The sneaky ampersand at the beginning of Two Hand Press A-Z may have escaped from Ampersand& — or given the density and evenness of the possible escapee’s color, perhaps not. Any collection of wooden type will have “character”-giving flaws — nicks, nocks and abrasions. So it is with this … what is the collective noun for ampersands? The variation in shape of these ampersands and Morrison’s flaunty display of them deliver even more character. And note the watermark in the Somerset paper peeking through the third image below.

Further Reading

The Last Word on the Ampersand“. 27 June 2020. Books On Books Collection.

David Clifford“. 15 September 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Bliss, Douglas Percy. 2013. A history of wood engraving: the original edition. New York: Skyhorse Press. Originally published by J.M. Dent in 1928.

Frost, Gary. 1996. Teaching set of historical bookbindings. Utopia, Tex: Gary Frost, Dry Frio Bindery.

Hanmer, Karen. 2013. Biblio Tech. Glenview, IL: Karen Hanmer Book Arts.

Books On Books Collection – Tara McLeod

ABC (2015)

You think the beginner’s ABC, the primary colors and the humble linocut are so simple? That’s the challenge posed by this accordion wrapper’s overlap of a red A with a yellow B and its overlap with a blue C.

ABC (2015)
Tara McLeod
Miniature accordion book. Wrapper: H90 x W90 mm; Acccordion closed: H85 x W85 mm; 26 hand cut multi-color lino block letters printed on 200gsm Lana Desin Blanc. Acquired from National Library of New Zealand, 1 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with the artist’s permission.

With each letter’s stylistic shift in shape …

with each panel’s chromatic shift around the shifting shapes …

Tara McLeod’s artistry shows how these 26 signs, 3 colors, blade, block and surface are both anything but simple and everything that is simple.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection. 31 March 2020.

The Last Word on the Ampersand“. 27 June 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Andrew Morrison“. September 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Tara McLeod: Pressing Boundaries Exhibition”. Emma Jean Framing Gallery. 19 September 2019. Accessed 21 August 2021.

McLeod, Tara. 2004. The ampersand : the character known as an ampersand is an abbreviated form of and. Auckland: Pear Tree Press.

Books On Books Collection – David Clifford

Letterpress Printing ABC (2004)

Letterpress Printing ABC (2004)
David Clifford
Miniature. H78 x W78 mm, 62 pages. Edition of 50 numbered copies, of which this is #48. Acquired from Bromer Booksellers, 1 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the publisher.

Among the several outstanding production features of Clifford’s miniature is its variation on Claire Van Vliet’s binding structure in The Gospel of Mary (2006). It first becomes apparent in the double-page spread below. As with most of the structures demonstrated in Woven and Interlocking Book Structures (2002), the binding structure consists of woven strips of paper to hold the folios together and attach the cover. The top-down view of Letterpress ABC shows the gathered folios and, if enlarged in a browser, also shows the paper tape running from the cover and across the gathers.

Staking his claim over Andrew Morrison as first past the post, Clifford starts his A-Z with the last symbol of the alphabet (“Ampersand”) and closes with the same Z term (“zinco”). There are other overlaps in terms, but the two efforts differ so rewardingly — Clifford’s woven binding, typeset definitions, miniature trim size and handmade paper versus Morrison’s children’s board book hinged binding, demonstrated definitions, larger trim and Somerset paper — that one cannot be chosen over the other.

An additional pleasure from Clifford’s book is its complement to two other Heavenly Monkey publications in the Books On Books Collection: Francesca Lohmann’s An Alphabetical Accumulation (2017) and Rollin Milroy’s Francesco Griffo da Bologna: Fragments and Glimpses (2020). If it were not for Rollin Milroy, the attentive reader and I would forever struggle with the puzzle of how Clifford’s 2004 binding came to be influenced by Van Vliet’s 2006 binding. Milroy writes:

Claire came to Vancouver in ’04 and gave a day-long class, which David (& his daughter Yasmine) attended. The project was already in development (probably even printed), and D showed Claire a dummy and got some pointers. I didn’t realize ABC preceded her own Gospel. 

And here is the entry for Letterpress extracted from proofs for Heavenly Monkey’s checklist to be published in 2022:

Courtesy of Rollin Milroy. 2021 © Heavenly Monkey.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection. 31 March 2020.

Andrew Morrison“. 15 September 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Francesca Lohmann“. 25 June 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Heavenly Monkey“. 21 November 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Allen, Susan Macall, Fletcher Manley, Kathleen Burch, and Claire Van Vliet. 2015. The Janus Press at sixty: San Francisco Center for the Book : February 14 through May 24, 2015. See p.108 for Van Vliet’s binding of The Gospel of Mary.

Books On Books Collection – Borje Svensson & James Diaz

Letters (1982)

Letters (1982)
Borje Svensson and James Diaz
Book in a box. H61 x W61 X D61 cm, 18 accordion panels and diorama. Collins © 1982, Borje Svensson.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Animals (1982)

Animals (1982)
Borje Svensson and James Diaz Letters (1982)
Book in a box. H61 x W61 X D61, 18 accordion panels and diorama. Collins © 1982, Borje Svensson
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Given the effectiveness of Svensson and Diaz’s Letters alphabet book-in-a-box effort, it is surprising that they did not follow up the alphabetical theme from Animals, especially since animals have made up the most popular category of alphabet books for centuries. Another 24 or 25 books in boxes beckon. Alphabetical cubes of birds, cats, dogs and the zemmi! And what about the ampersand? And what different paper artistry might Diaz have performed if requested to fill out the series with further innovation? Consider Claire Van Vliet’s alphabetical Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996), Helen Hiebert’s Alpha Beta (2010) and Karen Hanmer’s The Spectrum A to Z.

Before its acquisition by Harpers in 1985, William Collins & Sons settled on the less risky venture of four books in boxes: Animals, Letters, Numbers and Colors. First with Elgin Davis Studios, James Diaz was the paper engineer behind all four and later joined David A. Carter (see his tribute to Bruno Munari here) to produce The Elements of Pop Up: A Pop Up Book for Aspiring Paper Engineers (1999), still used as a primary textbook.

Of course, B. S. Johnson and Marc Saporta pioneered boxes containing loose pages or leaves to be read in any order, but to find contemporary books in boxes where the box is not just a storage mechanism but functionally integrated, we have to look to Ed Hutchins, Sue Johnson and Hedi Kyle among others.

More celebrations of the alphabet and book as “total expansion of the letter” to come.

Books On Books Collection – Molly Peacock & Kara Kosaka

Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (2014)

Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (2014)
Molly Peacock & Kara Kosaka
Casebound with headband and collaged endpapers. H236 x W146 mm, 158 pages. Acquired from The Book Depository, 6 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Given the intent spelled out in its specimen below, Frank Heine’s “Tribute” should add to the fabulistic atmosphere of Peacock’s fictions played out by her 26 characters each named after a letter in the alphabet. Despite the book’s colophon extolling the typeface, there is something about it, however, that does not quite work for Alphabetique.

Tribute (2003), Frank Heine, Emigré Fonts; Type specimen sheet attributed to François Guyot (1565), Luna: Folger Digital Image Collection.

For example, its capital G squats like an un-Guyot-esque toad in the seventh chapter, and the capital Q lacks Guyot’s swordlike swash so appropriate to the tale of Q, master of the quilloned thorn knife who rises to the position of Royal Flower Keeper. Nevertheless, the choices of font (lowercase and smallcaps for the children, uppercase for the grown-ups, roman for the married sister and italic for the single) and the use of color for each character’s name ring true throughout the narrative. Like the layout and choice of font, Kara Kosaka’s collages fuse with the narrative and, unlike the typeface, deliver the atmosphere the fictions deserve.

When the character T appears (a maple tree), characters from the other vignettes show up, including the offspring of the articles A and THE, but this coalescence is only a feint toward an ensemble tale. The stories of U-Y return to standalone status, making the twenty-sixth chapter a surprise gathering of all the letters, albeit not in their characters of the preceding twenty-five fictions.

What happens to Z, the zoologist, is perhaps the most original of all the fictions. Any hint beyond the choice of font in that preceding sentence would spoil the surprise for the book artist with a mastery of letterpress, access to an extensive collection of typefaces and the readiness to be inspired to complete delivery of what Alphabetique deserves.

Further Reading

Richardson, Charles Scott. 2009. The end of the alphabet. London: Portobello Books.

Winston, Sam. 2006. A dictionary story. London: Circle Press. This is an example of design and art delivering just deserts to the text.

Books On Books Collection – Cristina Balbiano d’Aramengo

Alphabet Flag Book (2010)

Alphabet Flag Book (2010)
Cristina Balbiano d’Aramengo (photos by Federico Novaro)
Flag book. H207 x W176 mm, 14 panels, 28 flags. Edition of 20. Acquired from the artist, 21 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

In part, the Alphabet Flag Book is a case of web-found art. In 2008 Federico Novaro initiated a blog of editorial news and reviews. Like a chapter in an illuminated manuscript, each article opens with the enlarged image of a letter or punctuation mark taken from Novaro’s photo of the cover of the book being reviewed. Friend of Novaro, Balbiano d’Aramengo proposed the flag book structure and then found that there were enough images for an edition of twenty unique copies.

For each copy, the artist could have followed an alphabetical order with each row of characters reading left to right. Or a boustrophedon order with A-G reading left to right in the top row, H-N reading right to left in the second row, and so on as the ox plows. Of course, the artist’s eye for harmonies of color and shape when selecting from the found images has a role in choosing the order of content. But then there is the need to fill the 27th and 28th flags. The availability of punctuation marks in the found images solves that constraint. In fact, the front and back covers embrace them. The symmetry of the marks on the covers is even enhanced by the precision of the belly band that holds the book closed. So what order will the covers reveal?

The artist has been kind enough to provide the following behind-the-scenes photos of the process.

Photos: Courtesy of Cristina Balbiano d’Aramengo.

Despite the alphabetical sorting process to assemble the content for each copy, the result is far from alphabetical.

To have followed a left-to-right order or boustrophedon order would not have embraced how a flag book’s structure breaks up the traditional codex pages vertically and horizontally no matter the angle of view. The explosion of non-alphabetical color and shapes inside the orderly covers is a bit like the chaos of the internet behind that simple rectangular search button between the clamshell covers of a laptop.

Further Reading

The Art of Reading in a ‘Post-Text Future’“. Bookmarking Book Art. 21 February 2018.

Hedi Kyle’s The Art of the Fold: How to Make Innovative Books and Paper Structures (2018)“. Bookmarking Book Art. 24 September 2018.

Flanders, Judith. 2021. A Place For Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. London: Picador.

Books On Books Collection – Tana Hoban

A, B, See! (1982)

A, B, See! (1982)
Tana Hoban
Hardcover, casebound. H252 x W286 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Cattermole 20th Century Children’s Book, 7 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Made in dark-room conditions with light-sensitive paper, actual objects and cutouts, these photograms lift this simple ABC book to the plane of object recognition and to the level of art. Other artists who have applied photographic techniques to the abecedary are Anthon Beeke, Eileen Hogan, Peter Hutchinson, Simon Jennings or Stephen T. Johnson. Each has a distinctiveness of eye, technique or conceptualizing. Hoban’s seems to lie in extracting something more from that simple imposition of white on black.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection. 31 March 2020.

Anthon Beeke“. Books On Books Collection. 21 June 2021.

Books by Tana Hoban and Complete Book Reviews“. Publishers Weekly. Accessed 19 August 2021.

Photogram“. Art Terms. Tate Gallery. n.d. Accessed 19 August 2021.

Allison, Alida & Hoban, Tana. 2000. “I” of the Beholder: An Interview with Tana Hoban. The Lion and the Unicorn. 24. 143-149.

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2016. Emanations. The art of the cameraless photograph. München: Prestel Verlag.

Books On Books Collection – The Poetics of Reason (2020)

The Poetics of Reason (2020)
Text: Éric Lapierre, Ambra Fabi and Giovanni Piovene, Mariabruna Fabrizzi and Fosco Lucarelli, Sébastien Marot, and Laurent Esmilaire and Tristan Chadney. Design: Marco Balesteros
Five-volume set of perfect bound paperbacks in bellyband; laminated display letters on front cover, tinted fore-edges. H212 x W130 mm, 712 pages. Acquired from Small Projects, S.A., 19 February 2020.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

“The Poetics of Reason” was the title and theme for the fifth Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2019 (the first was in 2007). Awarded the ADG Laus 2020 Golden Prize in the category of editorial graphic design, this work stands well with Bruno Munari’s three small 1960’s books on the square, circle and triangle, now available in a single volume, and calls to mind several works testifying to the relationship between architecture and book art. In the first of the five volumes, Éric Lapierre even interweaves with his text on architectural rationality illustrations from book artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sol Lewitt and Ed Ruscha — all without comment, in itself conveying their implicit relevance. His similar display of a page from Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard — that progenitor of modern and post-modern book art — speaks to the role that space — les blancs, as Mallarmé calls it — plays in these adjacent communities.

136 pages

The second volume, by Ambra Fabi and Giovanni Piovene, draws in Leon Battista Alberti, of course, whose columns ornament works by Mari Eckstein Gower, Helen Malone and many other book artists.

136 pages

Drawing on Gaston Bachelard and Juhani Pallasmaa as it does, the third volume, by Mariabruna Fabrizzi and Fosco Lucarelli, calls to mind the work of Olafur Eliasson and Marian Macken here in the Books On Books Collection and elsewhere. Anyone familiar with Richard Niessen’s The Typographic Palace of Masonry will appreciate Fabrizzi and Fosco’s exploration of where architecture, imagination and memory intersect.

136 pages

In the lengthiest of the five volumes, Sébastien Marot takes us into the territory of urban architecture and the anthropocene, also occupied by book artists Sarah Bryant, Emily Speed, Philip Zimmermann and many others.

216 pages

The last and shortest volume, put together by Laurent Esmilaire and Tristan Chadney, consists mostly of photos that may remind the viewer of Irma Boom’s Elements of Architecture, with Rem Koolhaas, or Strip, with Kees Christiaanse — especially in conjunction with the tinted fore edges.

88 pages

Referenced below, Pedro Vada’s review of the Triennale and the five separate sites across which it occurred in Portugal provides more insight into the five volumes themselves. Marco Ballesteros LETRA website provides additional images of the five volumes’ design.

Further Reading

Architecture“. 12 November 2018. Books On Books Collection.

SOCKS Studio, an extraordinary website run by Fabrizzi and Lucarelli.

Beaumont, Eleanor. 16 January 2019. “Interview with Irma Boom“, The Architectural Review.

Munari, Bruno. 2015. Bruno Munari: Square Circle Triangle. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Vada, Pedro. 24 July 2019. “Details about Lisbon Triennale 2019“. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 August 2021.

Bookmarking Book Art – Books on Book Art | 4 August 2013

See also Resources (in progress) page.

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Abt, Jeffrey. The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary artists’ Books Exhibited in Joseph Regenstein Library – University of Chicago, February Through April 1986 Exhibition catalog.

Antaya, Christine and Sloman, PaulBook Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books Gestalten (May 26, 2011). Documents current art, installation, and design created with and from books. “The fascinating range of examples in Book Art is eloquent proof that–despite or because of digital media’s inroads as sources of text information–the book’s legacy as an object and a carrier of ideas and communication is being expanded today in the creative realm.” Book jacket. See interview with Antaya and some of the artists here.

The Book as Instrument: Stephane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture – Anna Sigridur Arnar. An academic study of the literary and cultural seedbed of book art. “This is a highly ambitious, original account of Stéphane Mallarmé’s lifelong engagement with the book and the vast network of forces (cultural, aesthetic, political) that both informed this engagement and were transformed by it. Anna Sigrídur Arnar seamlessly brings together divergent areas of inquiry in order to support the idea that the book was and remains a site of numerous debates about democracy, public and private space, the uses of art and print, and the role of authors and readers. The Book as Instrument is elegantly written, in engaging and highly readable prose. Arnar succeeds in presenting and analyzing with remarkable lucidity ideas that many of us have learned to approach as difficult and thus nearly off-limits. This will be an important work of scholarship for a variety of disciplines.” (Willa Z. Silverman, Pennsylvania State University).

Art Is Books: Kunstenaarsboeken/Livres D’Artistes/Artist’s Books/Künstlerbücher – Guy Bleus. Catalog of a travelling exhibition in 1991. See also Artists’ Books on Tour edited by Kristina Pokorny-Nagel.

No Longer Innocent: Book Art In America 1960-1980 – Betty Bright. A history of an important period in book art. Like Drucker (below), Bright categorizes book art, places it within the movements of the period and profiles its individual and institutional supporters. Artbook review.

Artists’ Books: The Book As a Work of Art, 1963-1995Stephen Bury. Explores the impact artists had on the format of the book.

A Century of Artists Books — Riva Castleman. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994. NAL pressmark: AB.94.0020. A catalog of an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The selection tends toward the livre d’artiste but does address the impact of the digital shift on artists’ books.

Chapon, François. Le Peintre et le Livre: l’Age d’Or du Livre Illustré en France 1870–1970. Paris: Flammarion, 1987. NAL pressmark: 507.C.172

Courtney, Cathy. Speaking of Book Art: Interviews with British and American Book Artists. Los Altos Hills: Anderson-Lovelace, 1999. NAL pressmark: AB.99.0001

New Directions in Altered Books – Gabe Cyr. A book of projects and techniques by a book artist.

The Century of Artists Books – Johanna Drucker. “A folded fan, a set of blocks, words embedded in lucite: artists’ books are a singular form of imaginative expression. With the insight of the artist and the discernment of the art historian, Drucker details over 200 of these works, relating them to the variety of art movements of the last century and tracing their development in form and concept. This work, one of the first full-length studies available of artists’ books, provides both a critical analysis of the structures themselves and a basis for further reflection on the philosophical and conceptual roles they play. From codex to document, from performance to self-image, the world of artists’ books is made available to student and teacher, collector and connoisseur. A useful work for all art collections, both public and academic.”Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Library, Library Journal.

#5168 Altered Book – Special Effects (Design Originals) – Laurie Goodson. One of a series of booklets on book-alteration techniques. Other authors include Beth Cote and Cindy Pestka.

Altered Books, Collaborative Journals, and Other Adventures in Bookmaking – Holly Harrison. A showcase of book art with an emphasis on multi-artist collaborations.

The Cutting Edge Of Reading: Artists’ Books – Judd Hubert and Renee Hubert. Published in 1999, a close examination of 40 examples of book art. Illustrated.

Books Unbound – Michael Jacobs. A book of projects by a book artist.

Johnson, Robert Flynn. Artists Books in the Modern Era 1870–2000: the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. NAL pressmark: AB.2001.0002

Artists’ Books: A Critical Survey Of The Literature – Stefan Klima. A 1998 monograph summarizing the debates over the artists’ book. 

Book + Art: Handcrafting Artists’ Books – Dorothy Simpson Krause. A book of projects by a book artist; covers mixed-media techniques as well as bookbinding.

The Penland Book of Handmade Books – Jane LaFerla (Editor); Alice Gunter (Editor); Lark Books Staff. Tutorials, inspiration and reflective essays by book artists.

500 Handmade Books – Steve Miller. A highly illustrated, wide-ranging coffee table book.

Artists’ Books on Tour – Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel. Catalog of a travelling exhibition organized and sponsored by MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna), MGLC (Llubljana’s International Centre of Graphic Arts) and UPM (Museum of Decorative Arts) in 2011.

1,000 Artists’ Books: Exploring the Book as Art – Peter and Donna Thomas, Sandra Salamony. External and internal views of works, descriptions at the end of the book.

Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels: How Joseph Cornell reinvented a French agricultural manual to create an American masterpiece – Dickran Tashjian and Analisa Leppanen-Guerra (editors). A part-facsimile, part-DVD, part-boxed-presentation that gives some idea of the artwork by Joseph Cornell held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artwork is Cornell’s alteration of the Journal d’Agriculture Practique (Volume 21, 1911), a handbook of advice for farmers.

Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing, and Reimagining the Book – Jason Thompson. Techniques-driven; covers bookbinding, woodworking, paper crafting, origami, and textile and decorative arts techniques.

Masters: Book Arts: Major Works by Leading Artists – Eileen Wallace. Illustrated selection of work from 43 master book artists with brief comments from the artists about their work, careers, and philosophies.

The Book As Art – Krystyna Wasserman; Audrey Niffenegger (Text by); Johanna Drucker (Text by). An illustrated volume covering over 100 artists books held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Book Art: Creative Ideas to Transform Your Books, Decorations, Stationary, Display Scenes and More – Claire Youngs. A crafts book of 35 projects.

Books On Books Collection – Buzz Spector

With the exception of Unpacking my Library and Between the Sheets, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. More than most book artists’ ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, Buzz Spector’s ephemera have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.

The Book Made Art (1986)

The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary Artists’ Books, exhibited in the Joseph Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago, February through April 1986
Curated and edited by Jeffrey Abt; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector.
Saddle-stitched, staples; H200 x W200 mm.
Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1986.

Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:

A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses”).

While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.

Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.

The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:

The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a more than passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — “Art Readings”.

The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.

Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus.
The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.

The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:

Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.

By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire. Including this catalogue.

The Library of Babel (1991)

The Library of Babel
Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector.
Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm
Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.

Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.

Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.

Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt (1985), further below, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalogue to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.

Marcel Broodthaers (1990)
Buzz Spector
An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers (Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Center/Rizzoli, 1989).
Photos: Courtesy of Buzz Spector.

He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogues, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.

North Sea (for M.B.) (1990)
Buzz Spector
Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.

Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.

When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic:  “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse. 

Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogues in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.

North Sea (for M.B.) (1990)
Buzz Spector
Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.

Screenshot of “Marcel Broodthaers: A Voyage to the North Sea“, an exhibition at Specific Object, 28 January-20 March 2009.

Unpacking my Library (1995)

Unpacking my Library (1994-95)
Buzz Spector
Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.
Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.

From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.

Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:

This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.

So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.

The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:

So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

Screenshot from Buzz Spector, inSITE 94 (interview).

Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.

Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.

Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:

The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.

Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.

The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)

The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book
Buzz Spector
Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing.
Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.

The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.

Detail of cover: Books On Books Collection.

Between the Sheets (2003)

Between the Sheets (2003)
Buzz Spector
Cloth over boards, Japanese stab binding, 15 folded sheets, outer sides offset printed with enlarged “artist photos” clipped from dust jackets of art books repurposed by Spector for his bookworks, inner side printed (recto only) with text by and selected by Spector. H157.5 x W216 x D12.7 mm. Edition of 40, of which this is #40. Acquired from Olive Branch Press, 26 June 2020.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Buzz Spector: Alterations (2020)

Buzz Spector: Alterations (2020)
Buzz Spector
Gretchen L. Wagner; Elizabeth Wyckoff; Andrea Ferber Brochure. H254 x W256 mm, 4 unnumbered pages. Acquired from the artist, 23 June 2020.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Two items of ephemera make up this entry: a pristine copy of the announcement for Spector’s retrospective at the Saint Louis Art Museum, held 20 November 2020 through 31 May 31 2021; and a copy of it with the front cover hand torn by the artist. Both are displayed in the images above and below. Again, Spector makes an ephemeral piece echo the works in the exhibition.

Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Between the Lines (2021)

Between the Lines (2021)
Buzz Spector
Elizabeth Wyckoff, Gretchen L. Wagner, Meredith Malone, Michael Garzel, Jane E. Neidhardt
Perfect bound paperback. H268 x W 230 mm, 81 pages. Acquired from the artist, 10 March 2021.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.

The Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, which has supported Spector’s work since 1995, sponsored this monograph following 2020/21 retrospective held at the Saint Louis Art Museum. As a slightly less ephemeral item, it neatly rounds off this entry. Its cover image shows one of Spector’s well-known alterations: Altered LeWitt (1985), one of five of the found and hand-torn catalogue: Sol LeWitt, Drawing Series I, II, III, IIII A & B (Turin, Italy, at the Galleria Sperone, 1974). Compare it with North Sea (for M.B), above, which Spector created five years after Altered LeWitt. Spector extends the technique and concept across the two works in distinctive ways to echo two distinctive artists and yet also speak to commonalities and originality among the three artists.

Photo of Between the Lines (pp. 12-13): Books On Books Collection.

Between the Lines‘ presentation of the works is spectacular. Recalling the effect in The Book Made Art (above), they seem to float three dimensionally on the page. The detail photo of Unpacking my Library across a double-page spread offers a good example, especially when compared with the images above.

Photo of Between the Lines (pp.16-17): Books On Books Collection.

Between the Lines also provides the opportunity to end this entry with an image of the work incorporating an image of the author and his generosity toward his fellow bookworkers. Note in particular the reference to Michael Garzel, the monograph’s designer and creator of the typeface used so strikingly on the cover, for chapter titles and here in the heading “Acknowledgments”.

Photo of Between the Lines (pp. 4-5): Books On Books Collection.

Revised entry, 24 September 2021; original entry, 31 March 2020.

Further Reading

Buzz Spector“, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 March 2016.

Baran, Jessica. 16 March 2021. “Showing What Has Been Forgotten“. Art in America. Accessed 23 September 2021.

Benezra, Neal. “Buzz Spector: The Library of Babel and Other Works“, [exhibition] 16 February – 17 April 1988, The Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed 26 March 2020.

Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 160.

Krauss, Rosalind. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999). Accessed 26 March 2020.

Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.

Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.

Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.

Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.

Platzker, David. “Marcel Broodthaers : A Voyage on the North Sea”, Specific Object, New York, New York, 28 January — 20 March 2009. Accessed 31 March 2020.

Ray, Ashley. 28 December 2020. “At the Saint Louis Art Museum, artist Buzz Spector considers literature by playing editor“. St. Louis Magazine. Accessed 23 September 2021.

Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.

Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.

Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.

Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).

Spector, Buzz. 25 March 2021. “Art Speaks“. Saint Louis Art Museum. Video series of artists’ talks. Accessed 23 August 2021.