Bookmarking Book Art – ABCs

Remember the entry about the alphabet-book film series Mysteries of Vernacular? 

W is for "window". © Myriapod Productions, 2013
W is for “window”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

With his “Medieval Letter People“, the marvelously named Eric Kwakkel opens my eyes yet again to the materiality of the letter in books and book art – and prompts this renewed but brief hunt for abecedaries.

The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source
Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Kwakkel teaches at the University of Leiden, about ten miles from where I am writing. His online essays wear their learning lightly on the screen and bring the past to life, repeatedly connecting it with our not-so-different present thinking. Seeing the date of the letter G above made me wonder, how did we think about the ABCs during the overlap between illuminated scribal books and the printed book? Kwakkel’s entry on the model or pattern books from which scribes and illuminators would learn to form and decorate those introductory letters adds to my curiosity. Even as late as 1530, eighty years after the invention of movable type, these model books were still being created in parchment. For how long do technologies overlap and co-exist?

In 1529, Geoffroy Tory — “born typographic” —  published Champ fleury, more treatise than abecedary, to explain the design of type according to the Golden Mean. As his subtitle declares, Tory was not bending the human form to the letter but rather explaining The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face – finding the ideal shape of the letters in the human form and face.

Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.
Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.

The 1927 translation into English, magnificently designed by Bruce Rogers, one of the preeminent typographers of the twentieth century, can be found online in the University of Delaware’s ABC: An Alphabet Exhibition and even on CD from Octavo Editions, which also includes the original French and so brings the overlap from the born typographic to the born digital – at least in the medium if not the author.

As more recent evidence supporting Kwakkel’s assertion “things have not changed much since medieval times”, I offer up the New York Museum of Modern Arts’ 2012 exhibition “Artists’ Alphabets”, which celebrated book art abecedaries.

John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35" (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view) Literacy begins with the alphabet. From the early twentieth century to today, modern artists have used the familiar ABC book, or abecedary, as a point of departure for diverse themes. In this exhibition, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a publication, revealing the abecedary as a learning device enjoyed well beyond childhood. From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August - October 2012.
John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35″ (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view). From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August – October 2012.

One entry in particular – Stop the Violence: Character Studies by photographer Francois Robert  – contributes to this medieval heritage of the flesh made into word: his letters are formed of human bones.

Tien-Min Liao, a New York-based designer whose work surely deserved a place MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, offers a far gentler and more gestural ABC for my last specimen. Early in 2012 before the MoMA exhibition, she created her alphabet in what she calls a “typographic experiment” to explore the relationships between upper-case letters and lower-case letters and record how they transform into one another.

Inking shapes onto her fingers, hands and arms, she manipulated or “gestured” them into the corresponding shape of an upper-case letter. Then, without removing or redrawing the inked-on shapes, she adjusted her gestures or the perspective on them to change the upper-case letter to a lower-case of the same letter.  As shown in her illustrations below, she even created an italic version of her “Handmade Type”.

Handmade Type: a typography experiment Tian-Min Liao, March 2012
Handmade Type: a typography experiment,Tien-Min Liao, March 2012

The videos she created to show the transformation of each letter are exceptional, delightful. The banner headline on her site runs forward and backward, turning the HANDMADE into handmade and vice versa.

Unlike my other specimens, though, Tien-Min Liao’s abecedary is available only online. Without my imagining it as a book as well – bound in linen, with a metal handclasp closure or in a solander box including ink, brush and a CD with instructions on handmaking my own alphabet and with a Digital Object Identifier to keep up with her work –  the technological overlap has now run backwards or full circle: the flesh become letter, the fleshly letter become digital.

 

Bookmarking Book Art – Wilber Schilling

Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle, 1903. Allen Press, 1963. The copy shown is one of only 15 copies with an extra suite of 16 artist’s proofs, each titled, numbered 9/15 and signed by the artist in a separate portfolio.  Displayed online at Sophie Schneideman – Rare Books and Prints.

In his Books and Vines essays, Chris T. Adamson provides fresh, personal and insightful comments on fine book productions and their content such as Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” from the Lewis and Dorothy Allen Press in 1963, pictured above.  An oenophile, as the title of his series suggests, Adamson also occasionally offers tips on the best wines with which to decant and read these works.

James is a favorite author at Books On Books as is Herman Melville. Indulge the punning coincidence of Adamson’s introducing us to Wilber Schilling’s Indulgence Press and his edition of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“.  Schilling’s edition of “Bartleby” – with Suzanne Moore’s original hand lettering of Bartleby’s classic statement “I would prefer not to” first appearing fully legible then becoming larger until it literally falls off the bottom of the final page – was an early career statement of an interest in more than fine press work but in book art as well.

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, 1853. Indulgence Press, 1995.
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, 1853. Indulgence Press, 1995.

Consider Schilling’s Half-Life/Full-Life and its binding a variation on the accordion/flag structure of Hedi Kyle and Claire Van Vliet.  The complexity of the form marries well with that of the intertwining, interleaving text and photos along the timelines of the Doomsday Clock and global warming.

Half Life/Full Life Wilber Schilling, 2009 ISBN: 0-9742191-5-0 Cover
Half Life/Full Life
Wilber Schilling, 2009
ISBN: 0-9742191-5-0
Cover

Schilling’s photography in Half Life/Full Life speaks to the importance of that craft in his overall portfolio. His photos of aging, decayed and unbound books are haunting and remind me of the found art of M.L Van Nice.

Natural History Multi-layered gum bichromate print 30" x 22" on Rives BFK 2004 Copyright © Wilber H. Schilling
Natural History
Multi-layered gum bichromate print
30″ x 22″ on Rives BFK
2004
Copyright © Wilber H. Schilling

Schilling has collaborated with Thomas Rose (visual artist and professor at the University of Minnesota),   Michael Dennis Browne (poet and librettist), Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm) and Patricia Hampl (MacArthur Fellow poet and novelist). He has collaborated with Daniel E. Kelm (book artist, founder of the Garage Annex School for Book Arts and a collaborator with Suzanne Moore).

Given the influence of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell on works such as Arthur & Barbara (Arthur Danto and Barbara Westman) or Surplus Value Books: Catalog Number 13, you might say that Schilling has attempted to collaborate with them as well. The danger in that, of course, is highly derivative artwork. That early-career whiff of genius in commissioning the now famous calligrapher Suzanne Moore to hand letter “I would prefer not to” and spreading it in ever larger size across the pages might be what takes Schilling’s work beyond the derivative. His work is worth examining with that anticipation.