Bookmarking Book Art – Patricia Silva

A particularly apropos video has arrived — apropos for its content, source and circumstances.

Patricia Silva, an artist working in Florence, Italy features in the Virginia Center for the Book’s Shelf Life video series. Virginia-based artist Lyall Harris interviewed Silva about Silva’s project Before We Forget 2020, a set of hand-bound artist’s journals. With each journal’s hand binding, unique cover of marbled paper, varied papers and inclusion of prompts to the owner, Silva draws on several rich traditions of book art.

Before We Forget (2020)
Patricia Silva
Thirty-six page journal (30 acid free writing pages + 6 specialty paper pages). Hand-crafted with hand-marbled paper and cloth covers. H215 x W145mm.

But in its technology, subject and circumstances, the video draws on an even more ancient literary tradition: Boccaccio’s Decameron. In March 2020, Italy was entering its months-long lockdown, and 4,461 miles away, the Virginia Festival of the Book was being cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead of decamping to the Blue Ridge or Tuscan hills with a handful of friends to escape the plague, Harris and Silva invited them via Zoom to their exchange.

Although a significant strain of book art falls into the conceptual and minimalist camps of art, an equally significant strain falls into the camp of the book arts and craft associated with them. Given the influence of her Italian mentor Carlo Saitta and University of the Arts professors like Hedi Kyle, it is no surprise that Before We Forget calls on the traditions of binding and paper marbling. The binding is a traditional case binding done with a link stitch on supports for sewing. The decorative papers come from several sources, almost all small artisans. Some are printed decorative papers, some are silkscreened, most are woodblock printed, of which several come from a small old-time family-run bindery in Venice that uses woodblocks dating back as far as the 1800s. Some of the paper is handmade by the artist.

The casual observer might mistake the journals of Before We Forget for the beautifully crafted blank journals that abound in outlets like Il Papiro or Paperchase. Yet there is surprise here to catch out the casual observer’s mistake and repay a bit of thought. At perhaps its most extreme, conceptual book art amounted to a set of instructions to the reader/viewer. The general interest in reader/viewer participation has several roots. One is craft-based and historical.

Recently in the context of the “other pandemic”, friendship journals and scrapbooks have drawn attention: for example, Amy Matilda Cassey’s Friendship Album (1833-56) and Alexander Gumby’s scrapbooks, including Negro in Bondage (1910-52). Older and more broadly, there are the Album Amicorum of Moyses Walens (1605-15) and Julia Chatfield’s Scrapbook (1845). Before We Forget does not present a set of completely blank pages. Each journal contains prompts to the owner to make notes, sketch, paste in, and add recollections of the days, weeks, and months of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

Encouraging the owner’s intervention recalls another historical phenomenon: Grangerism or extra-illustration, where the owner embellishes a book with inserts. Richard Bull’s extra-illustrated copy of Count Anthony Hamilton’s Mémoires du comte de Gramont (1794) is a good example. Before We Forget does not present a previously printed body of text for Grangerizing, but each journal presents a unique copy to be overwritten.

In that context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this urging of reader/viewer participation evokes — perhaps callous to say — literally, not just metaphorically, Roland Barthes’ poser of the “death of the author”. Before We Forget plays to and against that metaphorical notion. Until a reader/viewer/owner acts upon an acquired copy, is there an author? Is the participating act one of authoring or mere “extra-illustration”? Barthes wrote: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (p. 148). And if reader and author are one and the same?

Given Silva’s intentions stated in the interview, each copy acquired is meant to become a keepsake of events and time personal to its inscriber and be a memorial of the inscriber for future readers. Here is where the literalness of “death of the author” callously intrudes. Whether the owner/author falls prey to the virus or unrelated causes, the author dies.

The topic of the nature and experience of time recurs in book art sufficiently to warrant calling it a tradition. In Before We Forget, it plays out in general and in particular. On the general or theoretical side, we have Ulises Carrión and his definitions of “what a book is:

A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments.

Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time.
A book is a space-time sequence.

If seen as merely a blank journal, Before We Forget may seem not to warrant such “out there” statements. Or, on the contrary, those statements may seem not so “out there” when considered with Before We Forget in hand. On the particular and haptic side, we have in hand this object covered in a one-off piece of marbled paper and prodding our hands to mark it up and change the object to fix past time in it and to fix it in time to come. Theoretically or haptically, it engages the reader/viewer owner/author with the nature and experience of time.

Another tradition of book art in which Before We Forget is rooted, albeit loosely, is the found object and appropriation. In addition to its unique marbled paper cover, each journal contains six sheets of heavier or colored or patterned papers unique to the journal. In a sense, these papers are “found” as Silva has used only papers and cloth left over from older projects or collected (hoarded?) over the years. The marbled paper and specialist papers collected over time that found their way into Before We Forget are, however, only a part of the work — not the work itself as found object. Likewise, even if the owner/author fills the pages with pasted-in photos, postcards or other ephemera found or on hand, those found objects are not the work itself. It seems a stretch to deem the owned but yet-to-be-authored copy something that the owner/author has appropriated. In their collaboration Passato Prossimo (2017), Silva and Lyall Harris provide a magnificent demonstration of fusing book art with found objects and appropriation. The work is shown and discussed in the interview.

For Books On Books, the interview is a welcome reminder of another time. Patrica Silva teaches in both the Studio Arts College International (SACI) and Santa Reparata International School of Art (SRISA) and kindly arranged a visit to both in late September 2019. Florence was relatively empty at the time, and the visits to SACI and SRISA occurred at hours when there were no students around. The photos of the SACI’s gallery, library and grounds, the SRISA’s studio and equipment, and the works of Silva’s students will find their way into the Books On Books Collection’s copy of Before We Forget as strange harbingers.

By the end of September 2020, the Virginia Center for the Book had 40 episodes of Shelf Life on offer — well on the way to matching the Decameron‘s 100 stories. Unfortunately, with the current plague, the Center may be forced to exceed the Decameron‘s count, and Patricia Silva may face a demand for Before We Forget 2021.

Further Reading

Barthes, Roland. Trans. S. Heath. Image, Music, Text: Essays (London: Fontana, 1977).

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books”, Kontexts No. 6-7, 1975.

Chambers, Ross. Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

Peltz, Lucy. Facing the Text: Extra-Illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769-1840 (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 2017).

Books On Books Collection – François Da Ros

Anakatabase: en hommage au Sacré d’avant le Temps du Signe et du Verbe (1991)

Anakatabase: en hommage au Sacré d’avant le Temps du Signe et du Verbe (1991)

François Da Ros

Slipcase: H331 x W179 mm. Board case: H323 x W177 mm. Paper case: H319 x W169 mm. Loose folios (9): H315 x W164 mm. Leporello: H312 x W168 mm (closed) and W3024 mm (open). Edition of 63, of which this is #7 signed by the artist and engraver. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

In the Petit Sèminaire de Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where François Da Ros was enrolled in 1953, a metal staircase led from the playground to the chapel. From an onomatopoeic word game, passed down through generations of classical Greek students ascending (ana) and descending (kata) those steps (base), it came to be known as ana-kata-base. The word game followed Da Ros in his choice of typography and printing over religious orders, with Anakatabase becoming the name of the typesetting/publishing house, founded with Martine Rassineux in 1991.

Photo: Books On Books Collection.

Anakatabase celebrates the alphabet as the root of its maker’s art. Indeed, it presents an entirely invented alphabet. It displays the artist’s manifesto in anakatabasien and twenty other languages. In its play with the letter, languages as well as the structural, functional and material elements of the book, this work of art gives life to Mallarmé’s cryptic pronouncement: Le livre, expansion totale de la lettre, doit d’elle tirer, directement, une mobilité et spacieux, par correspondances, instituer un jeu, on ne sait, qui confirme la fiction (“The book, total expansion of the letter, must directly depict a mobility and spaciousness that — by analogy — constructs an unknown game that confirms the fiction”).

Consider first the structural, functional and material elements. If judged by its cover (or rather, covers), Anakatabase has depths, a roughness and smoothness, a stiffness and suppleness, yet harmonious in its contrasts and variety. A tightly turned-in slipcase, covered in rough papier de paille (a paper made of straw, traditionally for packaging sugar), holds a case of board. In turn, the board case — with the book’s title set vertically in Nicolas Cochin (36pt) on smoother almost parchment-like paper covering the neatly chamfered spine, front and back boards — holds a paper case. Not attached to the board case, the paper case made of Lana Pur Fil folds around a single sheet of Arches Velin 160 gsm, which rests between the paper case and the loose endpapers. The loose endpapers are handmade papier de Chine au liseré rouge (60 or 65 gsm). It is the same paper used for the nine loose single-fold folios. For the leporello making up the last “gathering” in the “book block”, the artist and engraver selected a Japanese paper more commonly used to make interior walls. 

Left: supply of papier de Chine au liseré rouge. Photo: Courtesy of the artist. Right: paper case open to show of “book block” of nine loose folios and leporello. Photo: Books On Books Collection.

These multiple papers of differing weights, finish, opacity, drape or stiffness, rattle and color work together loosely yet harmoniously to cover and uncover (or dis-cover) the artist’s statement.

Like many artist’s statements, Anakatabase is also a philosophical statement. It is also as much an ode to a lifelong coming of age as typographer, printer and master of the book — even, as much, a love letter to “the language of the Sign”. As a work of book art, it lovingly enacts the letter.

The Sacred, lived on a daily basis, for more than four long years of thoughtful silence, woke very early in the twelve-year old child a pressing need for response to the exacting perception of Life. And, since then, this intimate, unremitting quest — between needful poise, the choice of the happy space and the outstandingly possible way — has never ceased. …The adolescent, carried away by his seventeen springtime’s, did not experience love at first sight, not even a hint of it — on the contrary, in the beginning, nearly rejected it — and oft-times felt the temptation of unfaithfulness. When he did reply to this mysterious questioning — the meaning of which sooner or later challenges us — he did not imagine for one instant that this lead which intoxicated him and which, manfully, he learned to lift, would one day over-run him on all sides, as if driven from one book to the other by an invading tide. …In this way, for months they skirted each other, brushed against each other, put up with each other during thousands of seven-point marks, without really recognizing the bond which already cemented them together. At an age where the rising sap pushes one towards the instinct of the species, there is no time for reflection. … With the passage of time, the apprentice was patiently transformed by these silent letters, and simultaneously a special relationship arose between the hand and the lead which henceforward recognized and accepted each other. The new man was then fascinated by the music of these letters — raised high in the composing stick, giving rhythm to the silence of a giant stave where each word is waiting for a sign — these letters of lead that, in a slow drift — underway since the remote times of ancient China with its first signs in clay, until our own day — have imperceptibly drawn closer to man until the point where each carries the mark of the other. For centuries, and for as long as the faith transmitted and shared will melt them down, they have always stood side by side, stepped off on the same foot — of lead or flesh, flesh and of lead — striking light, the shining eye turned towards the sky, capable of living while being distributed a sparkling ballet, where, under a shower of caseshot, each letter recognizes its specific location in the line — and, avoiding the fate of being thrown into the faulty type box (the “Devil”), throws itself into its place, in a confusion of consonants and vowels, spaced with fortes, justified with medium-size, interlettered with fine, punctuated with tildes, grave accents and circumflex accents, in a mingling of exclamation and question marks, where the oe fights for its place with the unseldom ae; disorder ordered by language, words, the Spirit of words. The distribution of type which follows the dissection of as book’s body is not just the putting back into the case of each letter. Here it is stripping away of the flash, lived as sacred ritual — in towering silence — all or nothing. …Struck by lightning, the silent eye, surprised by the eternal instant, ravished by this lead festooned with light, going before or following the hand which cuts crossing, and overlapping furrows into emptiness, discovers again the language of the Sign, hitherto lost in the Babel of letters. This is the moment at which man became typographer. Trans. John Gaynard.

Spaced out across six folios, the statement’s French version appears in large display type and carmine ink. It also appears in nineteen other languages in smaller type in black ink between the lines of the French, their words broken up by the red characters’ ascenders and descenders. At the end of measures, words break without hyphens. This is “the Babel of letters” in Baskerville type. The more ancient leporello form presents the statement in the calligraphy-like anakatabasien face and language. For the reverse of the leporello, Rassineux used the technique of gravure au sucre (“sugar lift”) on her etching plates. The effect’s appearance is suminagashi-like. Underlying the characters on the front of the leporello, those hand-drawn elements on the reverse side evoke the strokes and marks that precede the anakatabasien characters or perhaps all letters.

The artist and engraver (his wife and co-founder of Éditions Anakatabase, Martine Rassineux) kindly provided much-appreciated ephemera for the Books On Books Collection. In addition to the 1991 announcement of Anakatabase, they include items that show a characteristic of Da Ros’s craft that is otherwise hidden away in the linearity of Anakatabase — the magic he performs with the “furniture” of letterpress typesetting.

Photos: Books On Books Collection. Shown with permission of the artist.

The outward-spiralling sentence in the announcement above of Ovi (1988) by Shirley Sharoff exemplifies this legerdemain, as does the open Christmas card celebrating the designation Magister Artium awarded to François Da Ros in 1998. Another example of the mastery of furniture behind the scenes can be seen in the following photo sent by Martine Rassineux of type prepared for a page in Ilinx, also in the Books On Books Collection.

Type preparation; Ilinx (2010)

Régine Detambel (original text), Martine Rassineux (original etchings), François Da Ros (typography). Photos: Courtesy of Martine Rassineux.

For the Books On Books Collection, Anakatabase is at once a work of fine art and an unusual fusion of the collection’s themes of interest in the alphabet, the multilingual, typography, the structural and material elements of the book, and aesthetic enquiry into the very nature of the book.

Further Reading

Birchem, Nathalie. “François Da Ros, poète du plomb“, La Croix, 16 July 2007. Accessed 1 September 2017.

Capelleveen, Paul Van; Sophie Ham; Jordy Joubij. Voices and Visions: The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book (Zwolle: Wanders, 2009) , pp. 196-98.

Capelleveen, Paul Van. Artist & Others: The Imaginative French book in the 21st century (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2016), pp. 30-37.

Da Ros, François. “Le Mystère du Livre“, Éditions Anakatabase, 2000. Accessed 12 September 2020.

Da Ros, François. “La lettre de plomb mobile“, Éditions Anakatabase, 2001. Accessed 12 September 2020.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Le livre, instrument spirituelle”. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Divagations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Books On Books Collection – Maria Welch

the lists (2020)

the lists (2020)

Maria Welch

Chapbook, handmade paper covers, risograph printed on French Paper. H180 x W78 mm, 16 unnumbered pages. Edition of 200, of which this is #8. Acquired from the artist, 20 August 2020.

Created as a handout for an exhibition, this small chapbook delivers a powerful haptic effect with its pulp-painted handmade paper cover and risograph printing on French paper. The cover feels like bark, the paper like dry leaves. The tree-branch layout of lines echoes the sensation, and the content recalls “Silent Poem” by Robert Francis, which itself begs for a book artist’s interpretation.

This work of pulp painting that sits so well with that of Pat Gentenaar-Torley and Claire Van Vliet deploying the same technique came into the collection because of Welch’s contribution below to the tenth Artists’ Book Cornucopia, organized by Alicia Bailey.

Erratic Obsession (2019)

Erratic Obsession (2019)

Maria Welch

Single sheet cut and accordion folded. H116 x W 71 mm (closed), H420 x W561 (open). Wrapped in sleeve with slot-and-tab closure, housed in four-flap linen box with ribbon tie. Edition of 10, of which this is #8. Acquired from the artist, 20 August 2020.

Erratic Obsession speaks to several obsessions in the Books On Books Collection. The first is one with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Stetson), an obsession provoked by book art from Harriet Bart and Caroline Penn (and teaching a class in Philadelphia on American fiction). The text in Erratic Obsession comes in part from the Gilman short story about a woman driven mad by social and marital pressures, and in part from Annie Payson Call’s Nerves and Commonsense (1909). The latter is a collection of Call’s self-help articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal and runs contrary to the subversive early feminism of Gilman’s story.

What Maria Welch has done with a single piece of paper speaks to a second obsession: the fusion of structure and content.

Unfolding this mirrored spiral-cut, single-sheet booklet feels like pulling strips of wallpaper from the wall, as the main character does in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. By printing on both sides of the single sheet, Welch has doubled down on the mirrored structure. By going dark on one side and light on the other, she has tripled down on the structure. All of these structural choices echo the oxymoronic face-off of the title — the erratic vs the obsession — which in turn echoes the themes of Gilman’s story: a wife’s freedom vs a husband’s control, the individual’s mind and self vs society’s expected behavior. Welch’s structural tensions are also responding to the tension between Gilman’s and Call’s perspectives.

Interesting that the artist provides instructions on how the work should be displayed. Preferably in the round. Preferably that folds 1 and 31 (the first and last) stand upright, that folds 2-6 and 26-30 lay flat, that folds 7-9 and 23-25 stand upright, that folds 10-12 and 20-22 create mountain peaks, and that folds 13-19 form the central upright accordion. But the work displays equally well in an erratic spill. Again, a fusion of structure and content.

In its techniques of pulp painting, blow-out papermaking, kirigami (paper cutting) and origami (paper folding), Erratic Obsession rings a third obsession in the collection: the fusion of technique with content. With pulp painting and blow-out papermaking, the image or patterns are intrinsic to the paper, just as a character might think its personality and will are intrinsic to its self. With paper folding and cutting, the techniques are external to the paper, just as societal and marital pressures bend and sever the character’s self. Of course, Call would likely have it the other way round: socialization and commonsense provide the wholesome; willful personality cuts and bends it. No wonder: another of Call’s books was How to Live Quietly (1918).

Further Reading

Wallpaper: An Altered Book Experiment“, Bookmarking Book Art, 10 June 2018.

Claire Van Vliet”, Books On Books Collection, 8 August 2019.

First Seven Books of the Rijswijk Paper Biennial (1996 – 2008)”, Books On Books Collection, 10 October 2019.

Alicia Bailey and the Artists’ Book Cornucopia”, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 November 2019.

Caroline Penn”, Books On Books Collection, 11 June 2020.

Call, Annie Payson. Nerves and Commonsense (Boston: Little, Brown, 1909).

Bookmarking Book Art – Jorge Méndez Blake

Mallarmé’s Library (2011)

Biblioteca Mallarmé (2011)

Jorge Méndez Blake

Metal, wood, mirror, resin, plexiglass + drawing. 95x180x150 cm (table) 50×70 cm (drawing). Photos: Courtesy of Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake.

Silvia Ortiz, founder of the gallery Travesía Cuatro in Madrid, writes

In this exhibition entitled Biblioteca Mallarmé, the artist establishes once again the link between his artwork, literature and architecture. On this occasion Jorge Méndez Blake reformulates the concept of library, this time to a library-shipwreck, a library stranded on the coast, as a wreck. 4 November 2011 – 1is 6 February 2012. Accessed 4 September 2020.

Photo: Courtesy of Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake.

Photo: Courtesy of Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake.

All of the works making up the exhibition pay homage to Un Coup de Dés. In keeping with the sub-genre of the homage to an homage, though, this work eponymous with the exhibition draws on Marcel Broodthaers’ homage to the same poem. With its colorfulness, it might also be drawing on Mario Diacono’s JCT 1, a MeTrica n’ABOOlira (1968), Ian Wallace’s Image/Text (1979) or Klaus Detjen’s Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall (1995). With its three-dimensionality, also perhaps on Geraldo de Barros’s Jogos de Dados (1980s), Albert Dupont’s Désir-Hasard-Dés (2000), or Kathy Bruce’s Navigating the Abyss (2008). Probably not, but the crowd attests to how much Mallarmé’s poem has permeated the genre of book art and its permutations.

Méndez Blake’s originality here arrives in the juxtaposition of the poem’s shipwreck in the form of resinous burnt detritus on the table and flotsam in the print on the wall with the mixed-media blocks on the table recalling books on library display as well as Broodthaers’ rectangular black redactions in his homage or appropriation. Appropriation is very much a theme in this work and the exhibition.

Exhibition view, Travesía Cuatro, Madrid, Spain.

Du fond d’un naufrage (2011)

Du fond d’un naufrage (2011)

Jorge Méndez Blake

Bricks and book. 1.61×1.20×1.06 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake.

Another work in the exhibition, Du fond d’un naufrage (2011), differs in material and shape from any previous homage to the poem. The work’s title (“from the bottom of a shipwreck”) comes from a line in Mallarmé’s poem, and cheekily, the volume at the bottom of the gap between the bricks is Mallarmé’s Collected Poems and Other Verse (Oxford University Press).

Toute Pensée Émet un Coup de Dés (2012-2019)

Toute Pensée Émet un Coup de Dés (2012-2019)

Jorge Méndez Blake

Photo: Courtesy of Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake.

Not in the exhibition but continuing the association with Un Coup de Dés and the theme of appropriation, Toute Pensée Émet un Coup de Dés (2012-2019) is a series of nine drawings that

reproduces classic shipwreck paintings using colored pencil. Classic painters used often the strategy of bending the mast, as a way to show the instability of the ship in the storm. These drawings go through an editing process, in which an image of the original painting is cropped and rotated X degrees to achieve the mast verticality and to make the scene look as if the ships were avoiding the fatal destiny. But by “fixing” the mast, the whole landscape loses its horizontality. Correspondence, Estudio Jorge Méndez Blake, 4 August 2020.

Further Reading

Large-Scale Installations (Updated 3 August 2020)”, Bookmarking Book Art, 3 August 2020.

Peden, Georgia. “Denver’s MCA exhibits adapted literary illustrations”, DU Clarion 9 October 2017. Accessed 23 August 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Klaus Detjen

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall (1995)


Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard: Poème – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall: Ein Gedicht (1995)

Klaus Detjen

Casebound, unopened binding. H300 x W255 mm, 85 pages. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke Fine Books, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This work strikes a curious chord with two exhibitions from 2016 and 2018 — “Reading as Art” at the Bury Art Museum and “The Art of Reading” at the Museum Meermanno, respectively. The works in both exhibitions not only challenged notions of the book and ways of reading but posed the act of making as a form of reading and the act of reading as a form of making. By prefacing this French-German edition of Un Coup de Dés with a book-arts-driven “transcreation”, Klaus Detjen demonstrates that the act of making also implies the act of translating. Typographer, designer, scholar and recipient of the Leipzig Gutenberg Prize for 2017, Detjen has used color, shape, line and binding here as his tools of translation and interpretation.

To use the term “transcreation” here may be taking liberties with Haroldo de Campos’s portmanteau for the idea of “translation as recreation”, or translating with creativity and therefore making “translation-art”. The term and definition perhaps better describe works such as those shown in The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. But then De Campos and his brother, Augusto, singled out Un Coup de Dés as one of the cornerstones (along with Ezra Pound, James Joyce and e.e. cummings) for their group Noigrandres, and Mallarmé’s poem certainly fits the bill of the ideal target of transcreation:

The more intricate the text is the more seducing it is to “recreate” it. Of course in a translation of this type, not only the signified but also the sign itself is translated, that is, the sign’s tangible self, its very materiality (sonorous properties, graphical-visual properties…. Haroldo de Campos, “Translation as Creation and Criticism”, p. 315.

This notoriously difficult poem to translate (or even comprehend) with its cascade of metaphors and symbols (the central ones being a shipwreck and a constellation) appears three times in Detjen’s volume: first, in French with Detjen’s 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. Detjen’s own treatment of the poem very much focuses on the edition’s graphical-visual properties.

In that edition, the rhythm and position of the lines, the font and all the font sizes are precisely specified. Nine typographical motifs structure the poem. They are additionally highlighted in the front part of our book with colors, the meaning of which will be discussed later. Font sizes, styles (roman or italics) and the colors of the motifs used are as follows: First double-page spread: UN COUP DE DÉS, 11.25 mm, blue-violet / Second DS: QUAND BIEN MEME, 3.5 mm, cyan-blue / Third DS: que, 3.5 mm, green / Sixth DS: COMME SI, 5.25 mm, magenta; Une insinuation, 3.5 mm, yellow / Eighth DS 8: SI, 5.25 mm, magenta red / Ninth DS: C’ÉTAIT, 4.5 mm, orange red; autrement qu’hallucination, 2.5 mm, yellow; issu stellaire, 2.5 mm yellow. Klaus Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p.81 (my translation).

The colored linear frames, threads and markings give the nine typographical motifs additional structuring. Detjen intends them to highlight the reading order to guide the reader through the text like a score. Detjen’s later discussion of their meaning, however, focuses mainly on les blancs, the white space around the text of the poem. Taking Mallarmé at his word in the poem’s foreword, Detjen 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. Detjen also notes that the unorthodox Rien/Nichts printed on the volume’s opening page alludes to the expanse of blank space enclosing the lines of text and, in support, quotes from Mallarmé’s “Crisis of Verse”:

Everything is suspended, an arrangement of fragments with alternations and confrontations, adding up to a total rhythm, which would be the poem stilled, in the blanks; … Mallarmé, “Crisis of Verse”, p. 209.

From all this, Detjen avers that it is

as if Mallarmé did not want to have his poem depicted, that is, printed, but perhaps only thought or, at best, whispered. Or did the author see the poem printed in white on white paper? Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p. 82 (my translation).

Following that line of thought, Detjen switched from Mallarmé’s preferred classical serif typeface to News Gothic Bold after experimentation showed that sans serif enabled him to print legibly in flat white on white paper. Confirming his primary focus on the expanse of blank whiteness, Detjen even concludes his afterword by quoting Jorge Luis Borges on Mallarmé:

The impersonal color white itself — is it not utterly Mallarmé? Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”, p. 79.

In his heavy emphasis on les blancs, Detjen ends up not doing justice to other more subtle aspects of his design artistry. Before he comes to the poem’s expanse of whiteness, note how the opening page of Rien/Nichts follows the black pastedowns and endpapers — the absence of light contrasting as much with the cover’s pure white as with the poem’s blank spaces.

Note how the colors to come in his interpretive version appear in dice shapes arranged on the front and back white covers to suggest the faces of a pair of dice. The whole volume becomes ein Würfelwurf, un coup de dés, a throw of the dice, which echoes Mallarmé’s obsession with le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be.

More subtly, Detjen combines the uncut folios with the colored shapes and markings to suggest “rigging” for the foundering ship and a “mapping” for the constellation. The turning uncut folios become billowing sails or rising and falling waves, across which the rigging cuts and the constellation shines.

Detjen’s visual and physical “transcreation” underscores why the French and German translations are not side by side, page for page. How could they be given the way the poem’s words work with the type, the page, the double-page spread and folios? All of which meets de Campos’s definition of the ideal target for transcreation — where the work’s signified, sign and materiality are intricately bound to one another.

In Detjen’s version preceding the French and German versions, the act of translation and interpretation meets the act of creating a work of art.

Further Reading

Bean, Victoria, and Chris McCabe, eds. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (London: Hayward Publishing, 2015).

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Narrative Art and Magic” [1932]. Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine; ed. Eliot Weinberger. In Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 75-82.

Campos, Haroldo de. “Translation as Creation and Criticism” [1963]. Trans. Diana Gibson and Haroldo de Campos. In A. S. Bessa and O. Cisneros, eds., Novas: Selected Writings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), pp. 312-326.

Cisneros, Odile. “From Isomorphism to Cannibalism: The Evolution of Haroldo de Campos’s Translation Concepts“, Érudit: At the crossroads of translating and writing: Poetics and experiments, Volume 25, Number 2, 2012, pp.15-44. Posted 8 October 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Jaruga, Rodolfo. “Ezra Pound’s Arrival in Brazil“, Make It New: The Ezra Pound Society Magazine, Volume 4.1-2, September 2017. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Crisis of Verse” [1897]. Trans. Barbara Johnson. In Divagations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 201-11.

Paola, Modesta de. “Translation in Visual Arts”, Interartive, August 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Clarissa Sligh

Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book (2016)

Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book (2016)

Clarissa Sligh

Perfect bound softcover. Four-color offset lithography. Illustrated paper wrappers with flaps. Housed in foldout die-cut box with gold foil origami crane inserted into cover slot. H203 x W204 mm, 104 unnumbered pages including inserts. Edition of 1000 numbered and signed, of which this is #18. Acquired from Vamp & Tramp, 13 August 2020. Photos: Books on Books Collection with the permission of the artist.

A forthright Franklin Gothic typeface announces the title, descriptive subtitle and author’s name in brown, black, and brown on the warm golden yellow of the die-cut box. As it opens from its velcro fastener, it reveals a gold foil origami crane, inserted in the box’s internal flap. As the flap turns, the straightforward Franklin Gothic re-announces the title, subtitle and author’s name, this time on the book’s white cover. So far, the work gives a sense of simplicity, elegance and warmth. Only the title hints at something uncomfortable to come. Finding a book’s foreword on its cover flap is unusual, but that Franklin Gothic now matched with plain-spoken prose — “I am a black woman. I am an artist.” — reassures. By the foreword’s last line though — “Do we have the courage to live differently?” — the reader/viewer may sense a need to keep the gold foil origami crane close like a guardian angel.

The crane also provides an organizing or, more accurately, guiding principle. Across the double-page spread of near-translucent golden endpapers just before the half-title, the truncated instructions — “cut fold crease flatten turn over cut fold creas” — start to articulate how to alter another book’s pages into origami cranes. On a startling full-page bleed of reddish brown ink, “The Proposal” in yellow and its text in white names the book to be altered: The White Man’s Bible, a white supremacist screed. Wings extended against the reddish brown, the crane hovers over the text.

More startling is the following double-page spread with the artist’s acceptance of the challenge, yet doubt, on the left and a photo of the unopened box full of hate casting a shadow from light falling from the right. The photo on the right spills leftward over the gutter, encroaching on the artist, her acceptance and doubt. And yet, her diagram of a box pushes back, rightward against and into the encroaching shadow.

The guardian angel becomes a necessary angel over the next two double-page spreads. From the left page of the first spread —

My uncle was lynched in South Carolina before I was born. Rope around his neck, his broken body was tossed from a wagon to the yard in front of my mother.

— the text faces on the right a full-page bleed of black ink in which the transparent box diagram sits full of hate-red words. Turn the page.

What the double-page photo of hummocks of grass in the foreground and, in the far background, some fencing, a sandbox, houses behind a stand of brush and trees conveys, with its contrast to the preceding spread of text and image, sticks in the chest and throat.

In the next double-page spread, the box sits, still closed, now on the left in a reversal of its first appearance. The light that casts the box’s shadow shines across the gutter from the artist’s question on the right hand page — “Can it be transformed?” The artist seems to be drawing a deep, preparing breath, one that the next double-page spread implies is calming.

At the next turn, an organizing principle only implicit so far but now explicit in the words “When I was 3” joins the principle of the folding instructions “cut fold crease craft”. These instructions appear again on the same paper used for the endpapers, used here to mark the end of the book’s first section. The first section’s final words “A container to hold broken” fall between the instructions, leaving a warranted sense of foreboding. As the work proceeds akin to a growth chart — “when I was 5”, “when I was 11” and so on — can the necessary angel suffice?

In the four sections that follow, the artist’s life, fears and hopes intersect personally with painful local, national and international history. As she communicates her sense of living this history, she also charts her engagement with others’ history of subjection to hate. If any reader thinks that this somehow gives in to an “all lives matter” chorus, one corrective course is to lay hands and eyes on a copy of this artist’s book. If somehow that does not make plain the power of this artist’s voice, then a further corrective course is to listen to her read the text here. If that does not work, then follow the instructions on the back cover.

Inside flap of the die-cut box; back cover of the book.

I am a white man. I write about book art. Encountering this work of art is to stumble, fall, get up — cut fold crease flatten fold out cut fold in flip over turn again open — and begin to do the work toward acknowledging and accepting this necessary angel. Reminder to self: “again open”.

Further Reading

Adrian, Kathleen D. “The Decentralization of Subject in African American Feminist Photography: Constructing Identity based on Representation and Race in the Work of Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and Clarissa Sligh“, disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory: Vol. 7 , Article 3, 1998.

Gleek, Charlie. “Centuries of Black Artists’ Books“, presented at “Black Bibliographia: Print/Culture/Art” conference at the Center for Material Culture Studies, University of Delaware, 27 April 2019, pp. 7-8. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Hubert, Renée Riese, and Judd David Hubert. The Cutting Edge of Reading : Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1998), pp. 212-16.

Lawrence, Carol. “Clarissa Sligh: Living A Life, the Personal and the Political“, Women’s Studio Workshop, 6 June 2019. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Sligh, Clarissa. “Witness to Dissent: It Wasn’t Little Rock”, IKON #12/13, 1992, pp. 110-15.

Sligh, Clarissa. “On Being An American Black Student“, Heresies 25: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Vol 7 number 1, Issue 25, 1990.

Sligh, Clarissa. Interview with Steve Miller, Book Arts Podcasts, School of Library Information and Sciences, University of Alabama, 1 July 2006.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1951).

Tia Blassingame”, Books On Books Collection, 17 August 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Michael Maranda

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème, Image, Livre (2008)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème, Image, Livre (2008)

Michael Maranda

Hand bound. H325 x W250, 32 pages. Edition of 400, of which this is #8. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Look carefully at this work’s text and images. On its cover, the author’s and artists’ names are hard to make out, overlapping one another as they do, as do the subtitles: Mallarmé and Poème in red, Broodthaers and Image also in red, and Maranda and Livre in black. Between Mallarmé and Broodthaers, it is hard to say technically whose name and subtitle came first in the printing; who and what are overprinting whom and whose? Unbroken as the letters are, though, Michael Maranda and Livre must have come last.

The title page offers a bit more legibility, but the printing hijinks continue. Poème/Mallarmé and Image/Broodthaers no longer occupy the same space and are just perceptible in white lettering created by the ocean of cream-colored ink surrounding them. Along with the poem’s title, Livre/Maranda appear in black.

Then comes the Foreword, and the hijinks strain the eyes even more. At first, it seems that the Foreword has been badly printed. Not only badly printed, but badly translated from Mallarmé’s original: “I would want that one did not read this note or that pass through, even one forgot it”!? Only Maranda’s online artist’s statement explains the how and why of the poor translation:

To highlight the transformation of the reception of the poem by Broodthaers edition, the preface of this edition is Mallarmé’s original one, translated from French to Dutch and then to English using the online translator, Babble [sic] Fish. Michael Maranda, “Statement“, 2008. Accessed 6 August 2020.

That may explain the poor English translation, but what about the poor printing job? Actually, the printwork is precise, and the cover and title page offer the clues to this in their overprinting and reversed-out inking, respectively. The mangled English of the foreword has been printed in black, but the French of the préface appears as the absence of the cream-colored ink. Organizing the printing so that the black ink is broken up by those letters formed from the absence of ink is precision indeed.

Maranda calls his work a “meditation on les blancs“, the term that Mallarmé used in his 1897 preface to Un Coup de Dés to draw attention to the blank spaces surrounding the carefully scattered lines of verse. Taking Mallarmé at his word, Broodthaers drew attention to les blancs by blacking out the text with rectangles and parallelograms reflecting the type’s sizes and styles. In all of the pages that follow the preface, Maranda inks in Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ blancs with cream-colored ink. Paradoxically, Mallarmé’s text and Broodthaers’ black stripes have become blank spaces, and les blancs to which they drew attention have been filled with cream-colored ink.

This strange reversed-out palimpsest recalls a passage from Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” (1975):

The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Carrión.

Maranda’s Livre stands among several works of erasure and excision paying homage to Un Coup de Dés in its 1914/1969 iterations — think of those by Jérémie Bennequin, Cerith Wyn Evans and Michalis Pichler — but by titling his work as he does, Maranda also pays homage to Mallarmé’s lifelong conceptual holy grail of le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be. By overlaying Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image with his meditation on les blancs, Maranda may be implying that visual language is the complete language in which that most beautiful and perfect book can be written.

Yet Maranda’s Livre ends with a colophon that suggests he takes himself no more seriously than his immediate predecessor in the palimpsest did:

This edition is published by Art Metropole. It was not printed in Belgium.

Further Reading

Jérémie Bennequin”, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

Michalis Pichler”, Books On Books Collection, 19 August 2020.

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books” (1975), reprinted in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void, 1980).

Scherer, Jacques. Le “Livre” de Mallarmé; premières recherches sur des documents inédits (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).

Wieland, Magnus. “Sculpture Lecture Reading Un coup de dés“. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Exhibitions

“Excision,” Twenty+3 (Manchester UK), 2008. Curated by Cheryl Sourkes.

“Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé”, Kunstverein Milano. Curated by Maria Anguelova.

Books On Books Collection – Michalis Pichler

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (2008)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (Sculpture) (2008)

Michalis Pichler

Offset and laser gravure, perfect binding. H325 x W250 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Printed Matter, 10 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Appropriated and sculpted bookwork was taking off in numerous forms even before 1964 when Marcel Broodthaers half-embedded the last fifty copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête in plaster. Bruno Munari had introduced libri illeggibili (“unreadable books”) in 1949. John Latham had already encased books with plaster in Shelf Number 2 (1961) and much else in his various skoob works. Tom Phillips’ line-by-line, found-book alteration A Humument was underway, first appearing in 1970, as was Dieter Roth’s string of sausage books Literaturwurst (1961-74). So Broodthaers could have taken any of several directions before deciding to replace Mallarmé’s lines of verse in Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Poéme (1914) with printed and engraved placeholders in paper and anodized aluminum, respectively, to create Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Image (1969).

Le Vite dei Libri 26 directed by Giulio Maffei, 12 January 2016. Accessed 14 August 2020.

Son of Giorgio Maffei (bookseller, curator, scholar and book artist in his own right), Giulio Maffei has made video catalogues for Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei since 2015. Each catalogue is a work of video. In this twenty-sixth outing, Maffei has created a video from the 1914 edition and Broodthaers’ 1969 Image version of Un Coup de Dés.

By 2008, Michalis Pichler had an even greater wealth of forms from which to choose for his double appropriation/homage to Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image. Since the ’80s scores of book artists had been introduced to ingenious structures by Hedi Kyle and Keith A. Smith, among others, so why not an Aunt Sally’s shipwreck of string, canvas and torn paper? Long-Bin Chen had been sanding books and phone directories into busts since the ’90s, so why not a bust of Mallarmé from old editions of Un Coup de Dés and a bust of Broodthaers from catalogues of his works (a variation on Buzz Spector’s treatment)?

Instead Pichler appropriates Mallarmé through Broodthaers’ design and production: an efficient and direct double appropriation. He follows the trim size and layout of the 1914 and 1969 works. Further underscoring the double appropriation, he reprints verbatim Broodthaers’ preface (the full text of Mallarmé’s poem set in small type as a single paragraph with obliques separating the lines of verse). Like Broodthaers, he produced limited editions of three versions: 10 copies in plexiglas (rather than Broodthaers’ 10 in anodized aluminum), 90 copies in translucent paper (just as Broodthaers had done) and 500 copies in paper (rather than Broodthaers’ 300). Where Broodthaers had solid black stripes, though, Pichler substitutes laser cuts in the translucent and paper editions and engraving or abrasion in the plexiglas edition. Hence Sculpture (2008), rather than Image (1969) or Poème (1914).

Not until 2016, though, was Pichler able to cap his double appropriation. Just as Broodthaers had held an exhibition entitled “Broodthaers: Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Antwerp, December 1969), Pichler held one entitled “Pichler: Exposition Littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Milan, December 2016). Like the Broodthaers exhibition, Pichler’s was an opportunity to showcase his own work: it was his first solo exhibition in Italy. Like Broodthaers, he included the Nrf 1914 edition, but also included numerous other editions and translations that had occurred since. Also, key to Pichler’s artistic intent, he included a host of other artists who by appropriation had made homage to Un Coup de Dés … Poème and, in some cases, Broodthaers’ … Image.

Book art is so self-referential in its instances (think of Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes) and as a genre (think Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman) that appropriation offers a natural next step. In Pichler’s case, the subtlety of that step comes in how he reaches through Broodthaers’ Image all the way back to elements of Mallarmé’s Poème to achieve his aims.

When Broodthaers first appropriated Mallarmé’s layout, type sizes and roman/italic styles, he was engaged in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. Usually ekphrasis runs from the work of art (say, a Grecian urn) to the text in response (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Here, the poem and its shape come first, then the work of art — the Image of the poem. By calling his exhibition an exposition littéraire, Broodthaers underscored this. By calling out the shapes on the page, he elevated the original’s semblances of waves, an abyss, a foundering ship and a constellation and, in exposing them, performed a kind of literary study as well as artistic work.

Count it down from Pichler’s appropriation of Broodthaers’ exposition littéraire, from the inclusion/appropriation of other artists’ appropriations of Poème and/or Image, from his own work of book art Sculpture, from his own other works: Pichler’s appropriative ekphrasis is squared, cubed or perhaps raised to the fourth power. Clearly, book art and appropriation are Pichler’s chief palettes — or rather his twin decks from which, as DJ, he mixes what he calls “Greatest Hits”. The phrase simultaneously names Pichler’s imprint on Sculpture‘s cover and the series on his website. The series includes other appropriations such as Every Building on the Ginza Strip (2018) from Ed Ruscha and Some More Sonnet(s) aka Poem(s) (2011) from Ulises Carríon. “Greatest Hits”, however, suggests another subtlety in Sculpture, albeit one best appreciated in the context of all the exhibitions.

The first instance of Broodthaers’ exhibition in Antwerp included a continuous playing of the artist’s tape-recorded reading of the poem. In Cologne for its second instance, Broodthaers renamed it Exposition littéraire et musicale autour de Mallarmé. Broodthaers was simply taking Mallarmé’s musical cue in Un Coup de Dés’s preface, which advises reading the poem as if it were a “score” for music to be heard at a concert and its blank spaces as “silences”.

Taking Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ musical cues and that of his piano-roll-like slots in Sculpture, Pichler created for his exhibition Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique, a piano-roll version of the poem to be played by any visitor who cared to sit and pedal the pianola on which it was installed. So in further appropriation of Mallarmé through Broodthaers, Pichler’s piano roll turns the empty spaces, where the words and black strips would be, into music while the blanks around them become what Magnus Wieland calls “white noise”.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (2009) Michalis Pichler

In traditional literary ekphrasis, the referring text can stand on its own. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield does not require a side-by-side engraving or painting of what Hephaestus forged. Nor does Auden’s exposition of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) need an art history book to hand.

But without the context of the exhibition, the presence of other appropriations, or even Pichler’s translucent and plexiglas editions, what to make of Pichler’s paper edition on its own? The traditional Nrf cover design suggests no surprise to come, although the trim size looks non-traditional in today’s market. The book’s slimness, subtitle and preliminaries also warrant a raised eyebrow: how can this be a sculpture? Turning the pages, the reader/viewer comes to the cuts and sees through to the pages beneath. Shadows move through the leaves. The laser cut technique hints at something that a die cut does not. Do the burnt edges where the laser has cut suggest a more surgical approach to book burning, an allusion to burning decks, or a 19th century and 20th century legacy to the white spaces?

Both Mallarmé and Broodthaers noted the intent to draw attention to the white space of the page. Pichler appropriates both the poet’s and artist’s form and intent. He sculpts a conceptual double-palimpsest not by overwriting the first level of overwriting but by removing it and the original layer altogether. The core subtlety of Pichler’s paper edition of Un Coup de Dés lies in those empty spaces defined at their burnt edges and by the blankness around them. For Sartre, Mallarmé was the poet of nothingness. Broodthaers appropriated the nothingness with black ink. Pichler has appropriated both. The paradox is a work that stands on its own by invoking and eliminating what it appropriates.

Further Reading

Durgin, Patrick. “Witness Marcel Broodthaers: The docile aphorism“, Jacket2, 24 October 2014. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Gilbert, Annette, and Clemens Krümmel. Thirteen Years: The Materialization of Ideas from 2002 to 2015 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2015).

Sartre, Jean-Paul; Ernest Sturm, trans. Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004).

Sowden, Tom. “Exploring Appropriation as a Creative Practice,” MDPI Arts / Issue 8 / Volume 4 (2019). Accessed 6 August 2020.

Wieland, Magnus. “Sculpture Lecture Reading Un coup de dés“. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Among the other artists in Pichler’s Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé were these whose works are also represented in the Books On Books Collection: Jérémie Bennequin, Jim Clinefelter, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rodney Graham, Brian Larosche, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari and Eric Zboya.

Books On Books Collection – Tia Blassingame

Mourning/Warning: Abecedarian (2015)

Mourning/Warning: Abecedarian (2015)

Tia Blassingame

Sixteen folios including cover, staple-stitched, digitally printed on 32 lb laser paper. H280 x W212 mm. Edition of 30 copies of which this is an artist’s proof. Acquired from the artist, 5 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection with permission of the artist.

At its most fundamental, Mourning/Warning — as with any abecedary — is about doing the work of learning to read. In this case, doing the work extends also to learning the maritime signals associated with the letters of this alphabet. In one of several signals of its artistry, it strips the nautical flags of their primary colors (with the occasional exception of the color blue) and replaces them with black and muted browns. Obviously difficult to read in practice, these modified signals for mourning and warning intentionally raise the bar on “doing the work”.

As with any abecedary, each letter is printed to stand out; here, it is in Josefin Sans Bold, a typeface designed for display and having a nautical feel. As with any abecedary, each letter offers an example of its use: here, it is the name of an individual. The bar may be raised a little in that the letter may be the initial letter of the first name or the last. Still, as with any abecedary, the reader is expected to say the name aloud to memorize the letter. “A for Marissa Alexander; for Marissa Alexander, this flag”. In itself, a very small step in doing the work.

Some readers will know these names, some will not. For those who do not, doing the work means learning that Marissa Alexander is now free but with seven years of her life lost to incarceration and home arrest in Florida and a felony conviction for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband in 2010. Or that Ousmane Zongo was an immigrant from Burkina Faso in the wrong place at the wrong time, unarmed and shot twice in the back by police in 2003 in New York.

The work of learning the ABCs or the International Code of Signals is about memorizing. Doing the work with this abecedary is about memorializing. By the time the letter “P” is reached, there can be no question how hard this is. If there is, readers will be stopped in their tracks here: there is no letter “Q”. Why? Because the question mark at the end of the question — “Where is Relisha Tenau Rudd?” — is in bold, demanding the work of remembering Relisha and her circumstances as one of the many Black children gone missing in the US. But the question demands another: “Why?” This is another aspect of Blassingame’s artistry that makes the impact of “doing the work” — learning what lies behind the individuals paired with letters — land with that much more force.

And why do the letters “I”, “U” and “X” have no names assigned? Of course, “I” and “U” have no names; they are reserved for the readers to be drawn into mourning and warning, to imagine themselves speaking the letter aloud to themselves, to imagine themselves as one of the named. As for the letter “X”, the artist writes that it refers to

the anonymity experienced by African Americans today back to when they were enslaved. It references how education and literacy were and in many ways continue to be restricted. How many of our enslaved ancestors made their mark or signed with an X in lieu of being able to sign their names. How they were often forced to make their mark on documents that diminished them. X as a reminder of those that cast off their given, or slave name to own their identity and authority. X is the nameless, unnamed, renamed. X is the sharecropper. X is those that fought fear, and terrorist threats of violence, poll taxes to vote. X is Malcolm X. X is the potter’s field, the slave cemetery, those incarcerated brothers and sisters, the penniless and the powerless. (Correpondence with Books On Books, 10 August 2020)

The fact that the maritime symbol for “X” is cruciform and, here, plain and dark should make for edgy and uncomfortable reading/viewing. Doing the work of learning these altered nautical signals means “doing the work” of looking into the heart of transatlantic slavery and the Black diaspora. It signals a mourning for the known and unknown dead and a burnt warning of those to come if we do not learn these ABCs.

Mourning/Warning: Numbers and Repeaters (2018)

Mourning/Warning: Numbers and Repeaters (2018)

Tia Blassingame

Twelve folios (including cover), digitally printed, H280 x W212 mm 8.5 x 11 inches, 30 copies. Edition of 30 copies of which this is an artist’s proof. Acquired from the artist, 5 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection with permission of the artist.

Numbers and Repeaters signals to its readers there is still more to the work begun with An Abecedarian. The flags for the numbers 0 through 9 must be learned, so too the four “repeaters” for handling messages with duplicate letters or numerals.

Numerals are not numbers, of course, but symbols of them. By associating a name with each numeral, repeater and its altered maritime flag, Numbers and Repeaters doubles the symbolism: the number of names continues to increase and the circumstances to repeat themselves. “Doing the work” required in this added volume reveals, though, that “circumstances” have widened to include gay, lesbian and transgender victims, others who may have been mentally disturbed, the domestically abused and the political activist. The widening does not dilute. It confirms that, as Blassingame writes on her website, “hatred comes constantly in waves”.

As with An Abecedarian, some readers will know the names of the individuals in Numbers and Repeaters, some will not. Readers will also naturally break down into two other groups: those who see themselves as persons of color and those who do not. On her website, the artist writes to all, regardless of how they see themselves, that Numbers and Repeaters “serves as a method of honoring, mourning, and remembering the slain and wronged”. For those who do see themselves as persons of color, she calls it also a method of “teaching our children and ourselves to be vigilant and wary in hostile terrain, where your skin color makes you an easy target.” Whichever group into which readers fall, Numbers and Repeaters demands “doing the work” to learn this “alternate means of communication in times of emergency and duress”. Those times are with us now.

Further Reading

Abecedaries (in progress)”, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Case/Issue Search”, NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Accessed 26 June 2020.

Fighting Hate”, Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed 26 June 2020.

The Innocence Project. Accessed 26 June 2020.

Spotlight on Faculty: Tia Blassingame, Director of Scripps College Press Assistant Professor of Book Arts/Scripps Press”, Scripps College News, 7 February 2020. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Gleek, Charlie. “Centuries of Black Artists’ Books“, presented at “Black Bibliographia: Print/Culture/Art” conference at the Center for Material Culture Studies, University of Delaware, 27 April 2019, pp. 7-8. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “The Idea of America”, New York Times: The 1619 Project, 14 August 2019. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Books On Books Collection – John Gerard

Alpha Beta (2005)

Alpha Beta (2005)

John Gerard 

Small quarto book chain-stitched in boards, with a paper label to the upper cover, 40 pages, H275 x W272 x D15 mm, housed in a paper four-flap enclosure H175 x W278 x D16 mm. Signed edition of 20, of which this is #18. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

In the playground of the alphabet, papermaking, calligraphy, page design and layout, image and text, printing and binding, John Gerard has created an outstanding and contemplative work of book art and the book arts. Eastern and Western traditions meet on the page and in the material and structure: Coptic-style binding, handmade paper and spirited brushing of the letters right up against the geometric constraints of Jan Tschichold’s diagram for deriving the text block’s ideal space and positioning from the Golden Ratio.

The cover’s paper label shows the image of Jan Tschichold’s canon for page layout, which is reproduced on every page of the work. Each letter of the alphabet is messily scrawled in black over and over to fill the mathematically precise text area defined by Tschichold’s canon.

The text and label papers for Alpha Beta are handmade from cotton and hemp using a velin mould with Gerard’s early watermark depicting the Eifeltor Mühle (Eifeltor Mill) and the letters S and G (Studio John Gerard). The weight of the paper is about 150-180gsm. The lettering is done with Indian ink, and the printing of Tschichold’s diagram, with a proofing press using a photo-sensitive nylon plate. The cover papers are also made with cotton and hemp using a coagulant with slightly different pigmented pulps, which creates the decorative speckled look.  The sewing thread is linen.

Tschichold’s “canon” is but one among four. The others belong to Villard de Honnecourt, J.A. Van de Graaf and Raúl Rosarivo. Online, Alexander Ross Charchar’s dynamic diagram “The Dance of the Four Canons” delightfully illustrates the development of the Western craft and science of page layout.

Seifenblasen (2013)

Seifenblasen (2013)

John Gerard

Artist booklet, stitched with linen thread, two sheets hand-made of cotton and abaca fibers, the cover sheet being double couched using a layer of colored pulps, the inner sheet printed in 14p Book Antiqua in relief printing. H200 x W150 mm. Edition of 100 unnumbered copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Inspired by the 19th century poem “Seifenblasen” (“Soap Bubbles”) by Theodor Fontane, John Gerard uses pulp painting to create the shifting prismatic colors displayed on the surface of a soap bubble. By layering different colored pulps on a sheet of plain wet pulp, he evokes the same pleasure, color and lightness evoked by the words.Here is a loose translation:

Soap Bubbles

Children to show their delight 
Send soap bubbles up to the light. 
How they shimmer in the sun — 
Some big, some small. 
Blown with a mouth just so, some
Hold out a whole second —
But several there — 
Yes! — hold on for two. 
One rises as high as the house — 
Bumps there — then it’s over.

Gerard seems drawn to respond to things displaying a tension between spirit and form, be it the tension of soap bubbles or the tension between repeatedly scrawled letters constrained by a canonical grid.

Der Panther (2013)

Der Panther (2013)

John Gerard

Leporello of two connected sheets of hand-made cotton and hemp paper, pulp-painted with red and black lines. H140 x W130 mm (unfolded approx. 770 mm). Unnumbered, signed edition of 25 copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther” embodies the tension that Gerard seems to love. Three stanzas in black 12 pt Book-Antiqua pace across the leporello like the panther behind what seem to him “a thousand bars”, which Gerard evokes in black and red pulp painting on the reverse of the leporello. Fully open, the torn top edge slopes and rises like the back and shoulders of the panther as it strides and turns in the smallest circle it can make. The bars behind, or in front of it, end above the lower edge in rounded shapes like the panther’s paws, whose texture the soft and rough handmade paper mimics.

The alternation of black and red pulp echoes the tension between the cage and panther’s heart in the poem, and the leporello opens and closes on the panther just as its own pupil’s nictitating membrane slides open, then closes on its world. Reportedly, at Augusta Rodin’s behest, Rilke stood before the animal’s cage in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris for nine hours. At the end of the poem, he has placed the reader/viewer inside the animal, absorbed the reader/viewer through the animal’s movement and gaze. Gerard’s artist booklet — by giving the reader/viewer a chance to see through the panther’s eyes — makes Rilke’s poem just as tangible as Rilke’s poem makes the panther and its world.

Gerard’s three works belong with the Books On Books Collection’s first seven books of the Rijswijk Biennial. His Alpha Beta even features in that series’ Papier op de vlucht = Paper takes flight (2006) and contributes to two of the collection’s sub themes: abecedaries as well as the technique of pulp painting. Seifenblasen and De Panther exemplify the sub theme of “reverse ekphrasis” represented by works such as Barbara Tetenbaum’s version of Michael Donaghy’s poem “Machine” or herman de vries’ argumentstellen 1968 / 2003 (de wittgenstein — tractatus — ) (2003). Gerard’s two works are, in fact, the epitome of transforming a literary text into an artwork.

Further Reading

Abecedaries (in progress)”, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

The First Seven Books of the Rijswijk Paper Biennial”, Books On Books Collection, 10 October 2019.

Looking Back and Forward from the Paper Biennial 2018”, Bookmarking Book Art, 24 June 2016

Margins and making objects that live forever”, Bookmarking Book Art, 20 August 2014.

Claire Van Vliet”, Books On Books Collection, 8 August 2019.

Corbett, Rachel. “From You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin”, Poetry Magazine, 31 August 2016. Accessed 11 August 2020.