Personal Libraries Library (Winter 2009-10 to Spring/Summer 2021)
Imagine belonging to a library composed of selected personal libraries and housed on another continent. Imagine that the librarian who selects those personal libraries and hunts down copies of the works (preferably the same editions) needed to recreate completely those libraries also constantly harvests the libraries for connections among them and delivers them to you in the form of ephemera. It exists. I have a library card for it.
Since 2009, Abra Ancliffe, its artist/librarian, has been replicating the personal libraries of
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), Massachusetts astronomer, educator, suffragist and librarian Robert Smithson (1938-1973), New Jersey-born land artist, sculptor and art theorist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Argentinian writer of fiction, poetry and essays Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Cuban-Italian writer of fiction, poetry and essays Anne B. Spencer (1882-1975), Virginia-based member of the Harlem Renaissance circle, poet, civil rights activist, teacher and librarian
Each personal library has a catalogue derived from our librarian’s research and consultation with foundations associated with each of the owners. Each library has its wish list of works needed to complete the holdings; and a Reference Library Catalogue for background on each of the owners has been added. But why these particular personal libraries? Was there a rule?
The library itself has rules (courtesy of our librarian’s fellow artist Larissa Hammond):
1 The Library is a coordinate geometry that is initiated within and between the booksets. 2 The books within each set may not be disassociated and circulate as a singularity. 3 Each individual book is zero dimensional unless activated by its faction. 4 Reference materials are considered an empty set and may not be removed from the Library.
Given such rules, it is no surprise that our librarian has included Borges. The fabulist of “The Library of Babel” once held the job of first assistant in a Buenos Aires municipal library and reportedly remarked “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library” and “I always imagined Paradise to be some kind of a library”. Also, given such rules and the inclusion of Borges, could the Cuban-Italian Italo Calvino, a member of the Oulipo movement, be far behind?
Maria Mitchell’s personal library was the seed or germinating star of the PLL in the winter of 2009-2010 (see the item in the upper right corner of the photo above). Flowers and constellations are two themes that our librarian finds as links among the personal libraries.
Another link between the libraries are the books common to more than one library. For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays appears in Maria Mitchell’s and Robert Smithson’s libraries. Perhaps there is a sort of transcendentalism driving the library! How appropriate that the first book from Mitchell’s library acquired and the first in the PLL was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays.
By virtue of these collage-like connections that our librarian draws in the periodic issues of ephemera, a book published at a later date may seem to belong equally to an earlier owner. Perhaps, as in the collages into which the ephemera can fall, “one book may hide another” to paraphrase Kenneth Koch. The issues of ephemera arrive like challenges to Robert Smithson’s notion of site and non-site works of art. They are works that depend and do not depend on their site. They arrive so similar and so different, regular enough but sporadic enough, that they are like “Miss Mitchell’s comet” — non-periodic (until it appears again).
PLL Ephemeral Issues. Left to right and top to bottom: Winter 2009/2010; Summer 2010; Winter 2011; Summer 20012; Winter 2012; Summer 2013; Winter 2013; Summer 2014; Winter 2015; Summer 2016; Winter 2016; Summer 2017; Fall/Winter 2017; Spring/Summer 2018; Fall/Winter 2018; Spring/Summer 2019; Fall/Winter 2019; Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 2020; Spring/Summer 2019.
The ephemera themselves represent “collaborations” among the personal libraries — courtesy of our librarian’s reading of the Library’s “coordinate geometry”, of course. For the Spring/Summer 2021 issue, the first piece of ephemera listed on the blue manifest (its Bibliography) is “Paper to be Placed in a Window” (see the upper left-hand corner of the photo immediately above). Glossy black on both sides, the single folded sheet displays an astronomical photo with holes of different size punched to let light light up the constellation. According to the manifest or Bibliography, the work connects the constellation Aguila (Eagle) “in and around the Milky Way south of Cygnus” with J.B. Sedgwick’s Introducing Astronomy from Smithson’s library with Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman from Calvino’s. The connection with Sedgwick is obvious. The connection with Sterne’s novel may be obvious to readers familiar with its “black page”, or will be to readers here who proceed to the entry for the next of Abra Ancliffe’s works in the Books On Books Collection.
It is no surprise that Ancliffe’s work of book-art-cum-academic-treatise is part of the Laurence Sterne Trust Foundation’s permanent collection. Like Shandy Hall’s own The Black Page Catalogue (2010), The Secret Astronomy extrapolates and celebrates page 73 with the same whimsy and seriousness that the 73 writers and artists invited to make their own Black Page exercised. In its own self-publishing status, it also underscores like Simon Morris’s manifesto Do or DIY (2012) the same status of Sterne’s work as a forerunner to the self-published, self-referential works of book art of the mid- to late 20th century. It is Ancliffe’s elevation of the self-reflexive academic treatise to art status that secures The Secret Astronomy its position in the Books On Books Collection.
The rectangle of black appearing on page 173 in the first edition of Sterne’s novel faces the brief announcement of Parson Yorick’s death on page 172: “Alas, poor Yorick”. Taking off on the concept of academe’s variorum edition, Ancliffe has reproducedthe black pages from more than one hundrededitions of Sterne’s novel. What is a singularity in the novel becomes a contemplation of a regularity that reveals a material irregularity since the 1759 edition. Densities of ink have varied, oxidation occurred, spots from lint and fingerprints accumulated — even show-throughs from the next chapter’s text — so that the eye begins to read the accumulated pages for astronomical images — Tristram’s and Sterne’s secret astronomy. (The temptation to Grangerize this work by slipping into it Ancliffe’s ephemera “Paper to be Placed in a Window” is strong.) Ancliffe urges forward her case for the discovery of a secret astronomy with a series of appendices, one of which draws attention to Sterne’s use of the asterisk in the novel and proposes one of its hidden kabbalistic meanings in an equation: if star = *, and Sterne = star, then Sterne = *. There is even the dutiful source appendix listing all of the editions from which black pages have been gathered.
Pages 169-70 of the first edition of Tristram Shandy account for another famous singular, regular irregularity — the marbled page, which Tristram calls “the motly emblem of my work”. Ancliffe’s black, brown and gray marbled spine and inside covers make for an apt, ironic and artistic stroke — a reminder of the element of chance that is so characteristic of Sterne’s narrative project, of The Secret Astronomy and of the ephemera arising from the Personal Libraries Library.
From Shandy Hall’s Emblem of My Workblog, accessed 18 September 2019.
“Shandy Hall“. 1 January 2021. Books On Books Collection.
With the permission of the author and The Book & Paper Gathering, this essay by Paula Steere is being reposted at Books On Books because Steere’s observations about bookbinding lead to a closer look at works in the Books On Books Collection. Keep Steere’s essay open in this window, then open another window for one of the entries in this baker’s dozen to start:
Compare images in the open windows. Just as Gary Frost’s conservation work shed light on book art, Steere’s descriptions and explanations can lead to a greater appreciation of these artists’ works and others.
Posted on Thursday 9th June, 2022 by thebookandpapergathering. Accessed 13 June 2022.
What stresses occur when we open a book? How do spine materials affect them? What are we really doing when we stick things on a book spine, sand them back, and then stick more things on? On what are we basing these decisions? As a book conservation student, keen to learn, I looked for spine structure information in popular conservation and bookbinding literature, but I found no satisfactory answers to my questions. So I did what I always do when I want to find out how things work: I talked to a mechanical engineer. This article is based on my MA Conservation dissertation research at Camberwell College of Arts, London. I realised early in the research process that I needed the knowledge of an engineer, and conveniently, there happened to be one in my family. Lee McIlvaine lives and works in the United States, has 30 years of mechanical engineering experience and specialises in mechanism and structural design. Five years later, we are still talking about book mechanics.
Spine lining materials are fundamental to the action of a book spine. Yet, a review of over 250 technical statements about book structure, lining materials or lining techniques from historical and contemporary conservation and bookbinding literature1 revealed that many statements are unqualified or unquantified. For example, Middleton (1998) advises that ‘when enough layers [of paper linings] have been applied, the end of the paper is trimmed off’, but he does not specify how many ‘enough’ would be. Technical information can also be contradictory between authors. For example, Szirmai (2001, p. 275) partially attributes the functional longevity of existing gothic bindings to the ‘restrained’ use of adhesive on the spine. However, Douglas Cockerell (1901, p. 152) advocates giving the spine ‘a thick coat of glue’ when lining heavy books. Diehl (1980 Vol. 1, p. 190) states that the hollow back is ‘one of the most commonest [sic] faults of construction’, but does not explain why. On the other hand, Middleton (1963) simply reports the historical use of recessed thongs with a hollow back to enable more throwup; he does not indicate whether this was a good or bad practice. Advice in the literature requires some level of experience to interpret it, and some statements in the literature reviewed are even technically incorrect2, all of which makes the advice unhelpful for learners. I felt an immediate kinship with an anonymous author who wrote in The British Bookmaker that
Vague generalities may always be used by theorists in describing a process of work, and they may suffice for those who know how to do it, and are consequently able to fill in the omissions of the unpractised and merely theoretical exponent of the craft, but for those who desire to learn, or for those who, being practised workmen, desire to extend their knowledge, vague generalities will not suffice. (1892-3, no page)
Clear and reliable information about linings is greatly needed. As Miller (2010, p. 100) rightly points out, ‘linings can sometimes be extremely damaging’. With that in mind, the starting point for my research was the well-known article by Conroy, ‘The Movement of the Book Spine’ (1987), in which he describes a fundamental engineering principle important for bindings – the tension and compression principle.
Mechanics of the book spine
When any material bends, it has a tension side and a compression side (Fig. 1). Material in the tension layer will spread apart, while material in the compression layer will, as the name suggests, compress. This principle applies when a book is opened (Figs. 2, 3). A book spine has a tension and a compression layer. The tension layer consists of the spine folds of the text block (the folded edges of the text sections) and the material adhered directly to them. All materials placed on top of this layer are in compression.
Fig. 1 – The action of a bending object, demonstrating the tension and compression principle. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
Figs. 2, 3 – Tension (A) and compression (B) layers: the tension and compression principle applies to any open book, regardless of the binding type. Photography by Paula Steere
When a book is opened, the movement at the spine folds is largely imperceptible, but its importance should not be underestimated. Too much movement could contribute to poor opening and structural failure. Each of the spine folds moves with some degree of independence. This localised movement can be thought of as a series of flexible mini-bends (McIlvaine 2017a), as illustrated in Figure 4. These mini-bends have different radii and are affected by adhesives and sewing. (Sewing structure will be discussed in Part II.) They create localised strain (deformation) (Fig. 5), and it is this localised strain that causes the spine to fail.
Fig. 4 – Imperceptible movement of the spine folds in an opened book. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
Fig. 5 – Localised bending at each spine fold increases strain. Sewing and adhesives also create non-uniform stiffness; for example, adhesive shrinkage pulls paper down and flattens. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
Linings also move, and these shearing forces contribute to the deformation of the spine folds. The choice of lining materials affects the extent of the deformation. Miller (2010, p. 100) defines linings as a support that allows the spine to flex ‘without the sewn sections parting’. While in reality we cannot eliminate deformation entirely, informed choices can minimise it.
A fundamental aim of spine linings, therefore, is to minimise deformation at the interface between the text block and the first layer (the spine folds and first lining). We can achieve this by minimising the spreading apart (deformation) of the spine folds in the tension layer. Based on principles of mechanical engineering, the first step is to place a stiff and thin first lining against the text block to minimise movement. All subsequent materials, including further linings, adhesive layers and covering material, should ideally be less stiff than this first lining. This is not always an easy task. The model in Figures 6, 7 and 8 shows how adhering a stiff material to a flexible material affects the strain distribution in a composite material. Acetate, a thin and relatively stiff material, is adhered to a sponge (Fig. 6, 7). When the sponge is bent, the stiffness of the acetate minimises movement at the acetate/sponge interface (Fig. 8A). This interface is in the tension layer, and the higher stiffness of this layer drives deformation into the less stiff outer sponge (compression layer), as shown in Figure 8B. This is a simplified model of a book spine, which is also essentially a composite of several materials.
Figs. 6, 7 – A stiff material (acetate) adhered to a less stiff material (a sponge). Photography by Paula Steere
Fig. 8 – The stiffness of the acetate reduces (but does not eliminate) the spreading apart (tension) of the sponge at A. This can be a model of the spine fold – first lining interface. When the tension layer is stiffer, the deformation is driven into the compression layer at B, which represents the exterior book spine and covering material. Photography by Paula Steere
Of course, driving deformation to the outer spine layers could potentially damage the spine leather and tooling of a tight back (Franck 1941, p. 7). We also do not want to prevent movement entirely, as the spine needs to flex to some degree for the book to open well. The required degree of spine stiffness is also affected by other variables, such as the thickness of the sewing supports and type of sewing structure. Nevertheless, the tension and compression principle applies equally to all books and offers tangible criteria on which to base spine lining decisions. However, this is only the first part of the story. We must also understand the performance mechanics of the conservation spine lining materials themselves – paper, linen, cotton and adhesives.
The mechanical properties of spine lining materials determine their use
Research indicates that paper lining materials are not robust enough for book spine linings. In 1708, Zeidler wrote in his book on the philosophy of bookbinding that ‘The French do not care to glue anything on the spine. Some glue only paper strips on, putting everything slovenly over and believing they have come just as far [as putting parchment or linen cloth on neatly and exactly]’3(p. 78). Szirmai (2001, p. 196) interprets these sentiments by saying that Zeidler ‘castigates’ French bookbinders for using paper linings in gothic books.
Conroy (1987, p. 4) supports the case against placing paper on the spine. He warns that paper is prone to breaking when stretched (due to tension) and buckles easily when compressed. McIlvaine (2017a) concurs, saying that while paper is a stiff material, it is not strong enough and is susceptible to tearing. Any imperfection would propagate easily. Paper has an irregular and random structure, which determines its physical properties (Corte and Kallmes 1961, p. 14–15; see Fig. 9). Its relative weakness could be attributed in part to this formation.
Fig. 9 (left) – Paper consists of randomly arranged separate fibres. Fig. 10 (right) – Fabric consists of twisted, woven and secure threads. Drawings by The Book & Paper Gathering
Fabrics tend to have a stronger base material and structure than paper (Fig. 10). For spine linings, the important properties of fabrics are tenacity (stress at break), extensibility (degree of stretch before breaking) and modulus (resistance to stretch). Tenacity is the term used to describe fibre strength; extensibility contributes to fold endurance; and modulus contributes to stiffness. These properties are determined by the fibre structure of the raw material. Linen is made from the bast stem fibres of Linum usitatissimum. The thick-walled, tube-like cells with small lumens or canals (hollow spaces) (Landi 1998, p. 22) are arranged in bundles, as shown in Figure 11a. Cotton, meanwhile, is made from the seed hair of Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium hirsutum. Cotton fibres are very different from linen, forming single hollow and flat cells with a large lumen (Landi 1998, p. 21; Fig. 11b).
Fig. 11 – a: A cross-section of thick-walled linen cells arranged in bundles. b: Cross-sections of thinner, flatter cotton cells. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
The thick walls and bundle arrangement of linen cells make linen a stiff and strong material. However, the thick cell walls lower its fold endurance and make it prone to breaking when repeatedly folded in the same place (UAL, no date), because thicker walls undergo more strain when bent. This is analogous to bending a piece of cardboard versus a piece of paper – there will be more damage (deformation) to the cardboard because of its thickness. The thicker a material, the stiffer it becomes when bent due to the neutral axis principle (McIlvaine 2017c), illustrated in Figure 12. This principle states that when a material is bent, there is no tension or compression at the centre line, but deformation increases with distance from this central plane.
Linen also has less extensibility than cotton and will break more easily when stretched. Cotton has higher fold endurance than linen due to its structure: thin walls and a large lumen enable it to collapse on itself, reducing thickness locally and decreasing strain when folded (as per the neutral axis principle). These properties have been confirmed with data from fold endurance and mechanical strength tests published in the well-known books Conservation of Leather and Related Materials and The Textile Conservator’s Manual (Tables 1 and 2).
The data in Table 2 shows that linen is, on average, stronger than cotton because of its higher tenacity. Linen also has a much higher initial modulus (resistance to extension) than cotton, making it the stiffer fabric and a good candidate for a thin, stiff first lining. The less stiff cotton is a good second lining because of its higher fold endurance, and can be used to reattach boards if needed (more on that shortly).
In addition to fibre composition, the orientation of the yarns also affects the mechanical properties of fabric that are relevant to this spine lining design. Warp yarns (lengthwise grain, parallel to the selvage edge) stretch less (are stiffer) because they have a higher modulus than weft yarns (crosswise grain, perpendicular to the selvage edge). Warp yarns are more tightly twisted, and hence stronger (Hackler 2006), than weft yarns. They are tightly stretched during the weaving process (The Taunton Press, no date) to allow the more loosely wound weft yarns to be woven between them. I confirmed the higher stiffness of warp yarns by pulling the fabrics the same distance in both directions. Under tension, weft yarns stretched visibly more than warp yarns. Therefore, additional stiffness in the first lining can be gained by positioning the linen with the warp yarns across the spine width, which minimises the spreading apart of the spine folds. It is worth noting that the bias grain direction has been considered the strongest because the most fibres are available; however, in this orientation, the fabric also deforms easily, and therefore, could be susceptible to damage (Fig. 13).
The properties of adhesives should also be considered. Conroy (1987, p. 4) says that an adhesive does not need to be flexible; flexibility is required only if too much adhesive is used. McIlvaine (2017b) further reminds us of the neutral axis principle (Fig. 12) – thin layers of adhesive are desirable because thin materials strain less when bent.
However, the adhesive must still be thick enough to be effective. I carried out adhesion tests on aero linen and aero cotton swatches to find the smallest amount of adhesive that still yielded strong adhesion between the two fabrics. A 1:1 mix of Evacon R and wheat starch paste (1:3 wheat starch to water v/v) was used for additional strength. A thin, medium and thick layer of adhesive was applied with a brush to clear acetate to serve as a quantity guide. The adhesive was then applied by brush to both cotton and linen swatches to be adhered together. The linen was positioned on the cotton swatches so that both the warp and weft orientations were tested in the direction of the shearing force. The cotton was not used in the bias direction. The fabrics were pressed with a bone folder and air-dried for a minimum of two hours (Fig. 14). There was no adhesive failure or obvious strength difference between the thin, medium and thick coats of adhesive mix when pulling them apart with my hands under maximum manual shearing force (Fig. 15). Therefore, the thinnest coat of adhesive could safely be used to minimise deformation and cumulative stiffness without compromising adhesion strength.
Fig. 13 (left) – Bias grain under tension deforms easily. Fig. 14 (right) – Lining design adhesion test swatches: linen and cotton adhered together with thin, medium and thick layers of adhesive. Pencil arrows show the weft (crosswise) direction. Photography by Paula Steere
Fig. 15 – Manual adhesive strength test: pulling fabrics to mimic shearing forces experienced by spine linings when a book is opened. Photography by Paula Steere
Putting the principles into practice: spine lining design
To review, for optimum functionality and durability, spine linings should minimise deformation at the interface between the spine folds and first lining material. We can achieve this by placing a stiff and thin first lining against the text block to minimise movement and keep the spine folds from spreading apart. All subsequent materials, including further linings, adhesives and covering material, should ideally be less stiff than this first lining.
For the spine lining design based on this research, aero linen should be used as the first lining, with the stronger, stiffer warp yarns placed across the spine width from shoulder to shoulder (Figs. 16, 17). Thinner, less stiff aero cotton, with its greater fold endurance, should be used as a second lining to reattach the boards. (If the boards are still attached, a second lining may not be necessary at all.) To minimise cumulative stiffness in the outer (compression) layer, positioning cotton in the bias direction could be a good choice, since this is the least stiff of the yarn orientations. Additionally, all subsequent linings, such as the paper used to smooth an uneven tight back spine, should be kept to an absolute minimum, with thin adhesive layers throughout. For heavy text blocks, I use WSP and ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) mix (1:1) to adhere the linen to the spine folds, and I use wheat starch paste alone, without EVA, for materials in the compression layer (to reduce cumulative stiffness). For standard-sized books that are not very heavy, I use wheat starch paste on its own throughout the process; however, I have not tested swatches of wheat starch paste without EVA.
When adding more linings after the linen (and cotton, if reattaching boards), check opening characteristics after each lining has dried thoroughly. Paper linings can be omitted altogether in some instances; for example, if the tight back spine is even, in a case binding, or in a situation where throwup does not require additional control. Keep in mind the engineering principles discussed in this article when deciding on the number of additional linings and the choice of lining material: the compression layer (everything after the first linen lining) should ideally be less stiff than the tension layer. Thinly pared leather, discussed below, can be used instead of paper for additional linings to reduce stiffness.
Fig. 16 – Spine lining design based on the tension and compression engineering principle and the mechanical properties of spine lining materials. Original drawing by Paula Steere; graphic rendering by The Book & Paper Gathering
The quarter leather tight back in Figure 18 has a heavy parchment text block, and I wanted to experiment with traditional leather linings because the mechanical properties of leather are excellent for the compression layer of my spine lining design: it is strong, but not stiff, because of the structure of its main component, the protein collagen. The linings in this image are made of thinly pared leather. I have used a graduated lining technique, which I was delighted to discover during my research, to further minimise stiffness in the compression layer. The graduated lining structure is attributed to Francis Bedford, a nineteenth-century bookbinder acclaimed for the ‘even strain’ (Anonymous author 1893, p. 58) of his bindings. The rationale for the graduated lining structure is that the stiffness needed for a book to open well at any given place varies. The centre of the spine takes the greatest strain and should be the stiffest, while less stiffness is required near the beginning and end sections of the text block (McIlvaine 2017b). Subsequent linings after the first one are ‘a little further in’ (Anonymous author 1893, p. 58), stopping a little short of the shoulders, as illustrated in Figure 18.
I also adapted the graduated lining technique to the leather covering material to reduce overall stiffness. The leather over the centre spine folds is thicker than that over the beginning and end spine folds. This was achieved through tapered paring, as shown in Figures 19 and 20. A comparison of opening characteristics before and after treatment can be seen in Figures 21 and 22.
In conclusion, exploring the forces present in a book spine and the mechanical properties of familiar book conservation materials has helped me to overcome the ‘vague generalities’ found in the literature. Understanding mechanics and materials enables the conservator to take advantage of engineering concepts that offer tangible criteria on which to base spine lining decisions. I discovered several hidden gems along the way, such as Zeidler’s ire, Bedford’s famed workshop, and, of course, that anonymous kindred spirit from The British Bookmaker for whom vague generalities would not suffice.
Special thanks to my colleagues at the College of Arms, Becky Tabram and Christopher Harvey, head of conservation, who encouraged and allowed me to explore these ideas while I was a conservator there. Their experience and knowledge of books and our ongoing conversations and practical experiments in the workshop were invaluable.
1. I reviewed approximately 36 books and articles, spanning the years 1658 (in a 1977 translation) to 2017.
2. Technical statements in the literature were cross-referenced with a mechanical engineer, Lee McILvaine, for scientific accuracy. This research document is available upon request.
3. Translation by Isana Skeete (2017). No published English translation of this book could be found.
Anonymous author (1892–3) ‘Editorial’, The British Bookmaker, 6, no page number.
Anonymous author (1893) ‘On forwarding’, The British Bookmaker, 7(75), p. 58.
Cockerell, D. (1901) Bookbinding: The classic Arts and Crafts manual. New York: Dover Publications.
Conroy, T. (1987) ‘The movement of the book spine’, The Book and Paper Group Annual, 6, pp. 1–22.
Corte, H. and Kallmes, O.J. (1961) Statistical geometry of a fibrous network. New York: Regis Paper Company.
Diehl, E. (1980) Bookbinding: Its background and technique (2 vols). Rev. edn. New York: Dover Publications.
Franck, P. (1941) A lost link in the technique of bookbinding and how I found it. Gaylordsville, Connecticut: The author.
Hackler, N. (2006) Understanding fabric grain. Rev. edn. Gainesville: University of Florida.
Landi, S. (1998) The textile conservator’s manual. Butterworth-Heinemann: Oxford.
McIlvaine, L. (2017a) Email to Paula Steere, 8 April.
McIlvaine, L. (2017b) Conversation with Paula Steere, 13 April.
McIlvaine, L. (2017c) Email to Paula Steere, 26 April.
Middleton, B.C. (1963) A history of English craft bookbinding technique. Hafner Publishing: London.
Middleton, B.C. (1998) The restoration of leather bindings. Rev. Ed. Delaware, London: Oak Knoll Press, The British Library.
Miller, J. (2010) Books will speak plain – A handbook for identifying and describing historical bindings. Michigan: Legacy Press.
Silverman, R., Cains, A., Ruzika, G., Zyats, P., Reidell, S., Primanis, O., Puglia, A., Anderson, P., Etherington, D., Minter, B., Brock, D., Zimmern, F. (2006) ‘Conservation of leather bookbindings: a mosaic of contemporary techniques’, in Kite, M. and Thomson, R. Conservation of leather and related materials. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 225–243.
Skeete, I. (2017) Translation of passage in Zeidler, J. (1708), 17 May.
Szirmai, J.A. (2001) The archaeology of medieval bookbinding. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate.
Zeidler, J.G. (1708) Buchbinder-Philosophie oder Einleitung in die Buchbinder-Kunst. Hall im Magdeburgschen: in Rengerischer Buchhandlung.
Paula Steere has an education background and was head of Art and Design in a secondary school in London before retraining in book and archival conservation at Camberwell College of Arts from 2015 to 2017. She has worked at the College of Arms, the Wellcome Collection, the Senate House Library, the London College of Fashion Archive, the Victoria and Albert Museum and UCL Special Collections. Currently she is a preventive conservator, volunteer coordinator and grant writer at the Hershey History Centre, a nonprofit museum in Pennsylvania, US. She is also a book conservator in private practice.
“How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?” So begins the description for a workshop run by Ken Botnick in 2017. His two works in the Books On Books Collection answer those questions with a resounding “This is how“.
Table of Contents (2020)
Table of Contents (2021) Ken Botnick Slipcased, boards with exposed sewn binding. Slipcase: H270 x W170 mm; Book: H265 xW185 mm, 56 pages. Edition of 20, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 3 May 2022. Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Table of Contents has no table of contents. Instead the whole book is a meditation on a table of contents — that of James J. Gibson’s The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). On the inside cover, Botnick characterizes Table of Contents as a “book-length visual/textual poem” and identifies the cento as its model. Cento is short for the Latin centonibus (“patchwork”) and describes the technique of appropriating others’ lines of verse to compose an original “collage” poem. Rather than lines from poems, though, Botnick has appropriated text from Gibson’s table of contents and figure labels.
Here is Gibson’s complete table of contents:
Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, pp. ix-xiv. Internet Archive.
Here is Botnick’s selection of text:
Table of Contents Compression waves from a vibratory event How are associations between events detected? The stationary information for seeing one thing through another Radiation from a luminous source The physical reality of speech The diffusion of volatile substances The development of selective attention The superfluous appeal to memory The consequences of inadequate information The consequences of rigidity The special consequences of light Transmitted light and transparent surfaces The structuring of light by means other than reflection The structuring of light by alphabetic writing The stable and unbounded character of the phenomenal visual world The perception of chemical values in the sea The inspired air The beginning of a theory
But that is not how Botnick’s cento is presented. In calling it a “visual/textual poem”, Botnick is too modest. It is much more than visual/textual: it is visual, textual, auditory and haptic — and is so from the start, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.
First of all, the slipcase is more of a “slipsleeve” from which the spine protrudes for fingers and eyes to feel the exposed binding threads, the pattern of knots and the ridges of the gathered signatures. This is the sewn boards structure, credited to Gary Frost, more on that later. The spine and fore edge offer bright colors that contrast with the deeply black sleeve that displays three slanting parallel cutouts in the cloth, exposing the board it covers. The pattern those cutouts make will become a recurrent visual and tactile theme as the pages turn.
As the tightly fitting sleeve pulls away from the board-stiff book, they make a “shirring” sound together. As the front cover turns, the title page bows upward showing nine impressed parallel lines beneath the words “Table of Contents”, and when that page turns, it crackles and makes a shuffling sound as its edge drags across the following bright blue page.
Through that bright blue translucence, the pattern from the slipsleeve reappears but rearranged and multiplied into a zigzag spectrum of colors. The physical turning of the translucent page “exposes” that zigzag spectrum and the second line of text in this poem: “Compression waves from a vibratory event”. Gibson’s text refers to the perception of sound or physical vibrations, and Botnick poetically overlays this with his selection of papers and introduction of zigzag waves of color. The zigzag pattern and its rounded elements, which on some pages are scattered, elongated, cross-hatched or sharp-edged, contribute a recurrent visual syncopated rhythm through the book. Toward the end, the zigzag moves into a more consistently vertical and angular, almost helical, appearance.
First leaf turned, second leaf turning, third leaf revealed.
Zigzag pattern scattered. Zigzag pattern become helical.
To deliver other visual and haptic effects, Botnick prints his translucent papers sometimes only on their reverse sides, sometimes on both, sometimes to the point of opacity as with the first leaf and other times to the point of transforming the colors about to appear on the next sheet beneath as with the second and third leaves. Of course, this changes the feel of the sheet from one side to the other. Botnick also uses six different paper types (including one with a watermark designed for this edition and made at Dieu Donné Paper). The variety in printing and papers introduces additional tactile and visual rhythms: slick and matte, smooth and rough, dark and light, etc. Again, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.
Visual effects achieved by printing on both sides of translucent paper layered over fine print paper.
Visual effects achieved by printing translucent paper to near opacity on one side, spot printing on the other side and layering that sheet over a translucent paper printed on one side.
Variation of paper types.
The sewn boards structure, executed by Emdash studio member Robin Siddall, offers the most effective means of achieving the sensory effects intended with the variety of papers, ink colors and printing techniques, as well as delivering a lay-flat binding. Each four-page signature consists of two separate sheets glued to the inner edges of a narrow folded card (the board) sewn and linked to the boards of the signatures before and after. The card used for those hinges is a Japanese washi called Moriki, known for its folding strength and colors, but how particularly apt those multiple hinges and colors are for this patchwork poem.
Detail of an open signature exposing the thread sewn through the board and showing the leaves glued to the edges of the board.
Gibson defines the haptic system as that “by which animals and men are literally in touch with the environment” (p.97). On the penultimate double-page spread, Botnick reveals the environment that touched his “book-length visual/textual poem” into existence: one of pandemic, isolation, violent exposure of institutionalized racism, the “Big Lie” and insurrection. Set in the now familiar zigzag pattern, the revelatory text annotates the lines of appropriated text and the prints, connecting both with the environment and the meditation on perception. Botnick’s book is certainly a distinctive interweaving way of thinking about these threads.
It is telling that Table of Contents ends with black and gray, the colors that dominate the other work in the collection: Diderot Project (2015), which presents this pronouncement from Odilon Redon:
Even without the prismatic range of colors in Table of Contents, Botnick’s Diderot Project (2015) may outstrip the former in the number of ways in which Botnick makes not only the page but also the codex itself “become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas”.
Diderot Project (2015)
Diderot Project (2015) Ken Botnick H290 x W194 mm, 150 pages. Edition of 70, of which this is #32. Acquired from the artist, Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Clearly, like Table of Contents, this work is a “book-length visual/textual poem”, so it offers some insights on the book artist’s favorite rhymes, rhythms, metaphors, techniques and themes. First and foremost is his taking a literary work as his muse. With Table of Contents, it is James J. Gibson’s psychology book; in this case, it is Denis Diderot’s multi-volume Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia), a decades-long project with Jean le Rond d’Alembert and 138 other contributors. Nodding to the multiple volumes of the Encyclopedia, the artist refers to the sections of his work as Volumes 1, 2 and 3, although they are bound as one binding. The three volumes’ titles follow the Encyclopedia‘s overarching categories in its “System of Human Knowledge”: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Digitally captured images from the Encyclopedia‘s plate volumes abound.
Table of Contents
Diderot Project, however, is not a condensed version or description of the Encyclopedia. Like literary works of ekphrasis whose words meditate on a visual object, Diderot Project is book art that meditates — inversely — on a literary work. The cover to Diderot Project does not show its name where the title is expected, rather it shows the name of its object of meditation. And it displays that name in a distinctive monumental way.
The front cover’s silver slab serif italic letters in all caps on textured, triple-dyed flax paper and the back cover’s diagram in the same palette strike chords that reverberate throughout the work. The chords are both obvious and subtle. Immediately, with a pattern of silver-gray compasses and directional stars, the doublures repeat the cover’s black and silver notes but on a less textured paper. Curiously the fly leaves of the doublures are not really fly leaves because they are pasted at their fore edges to separate leaves of black paper: a subtle hint to look beneath the surface, inquire into the mechanics. (An irresistible side note on the mechanics of the binding: the binder Daniel E. Kelm, in tipping the black fly leaf to the outer printed one, extends the fly leaf further into the book as a tipped-on hinge inserted through the first two signatures. The detailed image below on the right shows the hinging edge of the fly leaf between the signatures.)
L-R: Inside back cover, doublure with compass and directional star motif; Inside front cover, doublure leaf anchored to fly leaf; Binding detailed view of hinging edge of fly leaf extending between signatures.
Following that almost-Chinese fold of a flyleaf, the half-title drops any pretense of hinting. Turning the half-title with its 3×4 grid of black, brown, tan and gray squares on translucent paper reveals that the squares have been created by printing in silver, copper, light brown tint and no ink on the reverse. Underneath the half-title leaf lies another black page with the recurring silver-gray image of four buckets linked by their handles. The pattern of buckets is parallel to the interlinked image of compass and directional star on the doublures. It is another subtle hint: this time, to look at patterns for their similarities and differences arising from the mechanics of effects, to consider the commonality of tools whether at the low or high end of culture.
L-R: Half-title on translucent paper; inked reverse of half-title and the interlinking buckets.
If this reaction to the prelims seems a stretch, then the following run of folios surely validates it. Not only does the text articulate the parity of craft and tools (métier) with art and science, the watermark hand gestures to it, then the watermark hand joins its mirror image “to tie” the knot of the binding thread, and then the second watermark hand joins its printed mirror image at the same point. These six pages enact parallels of similarities and differences.
The layering of translucent paper printed on one or both sides, which also occurs in Table of Contents, is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques. He has even delivered a lecture at the Getty Research Institute entitled “Transparency as Metaphor“. Botnick’s use of it in the sequence below invites the reader/viewer to meditate with him on “the nature of craft, tools, memory, and imagination, while provoking questions about authorship in artists’ books”.
Running across the four pages of the two leaves of UV Ultra Clearfold, the enlarged present, past and future letters call on perception, memory and imagination to decipher the name: Diderot, emerged and submerged. However large his name is cast, though, is Diderot the author? By bracketing these transparencies with an image of a manufactory or workshop and a crowd of listeners and observers with pens poised, Botnick evokes the other 139 contributors to the Encyclopedia and his own host of collaborators, including Kelm (binding), Paul Wong (papermaking) and, importantly the Emdash studio (Catherine Johnson, Ben Kiel, Karen Werner and, in New Delhi, Ira Raja).
Tools, the workplace and studio lie at the heart of the Diderot Project‘s second volume, which boasts the following complex foldout which in itself validates Roland Barthes’ statement from his essay on the Encyclopedia‘s plates: “The object is the world’s human signature”.
Sensation, perception and the natural world lie at the heart of the third volume, and here is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques: typographic distinction. The right-side up text on the verso page is set in Walbaum, as is every instance of Diderot’s text. The upside down text on the verso and all the text on the recto are set in Trade Gothic, as is the case for more contemporary authors (Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, respectively, in these instances). Note how Foucault’s upside down text reflects the action in the image of the camera obscura, and picks up the theme of perceptual flipping initiated with the watermark hand in Volume 1 and Diderot’s enlarged name across the translucent pages in Volume 2.
Both Table of Contents and Diderot Project reward revisiting for this kind of close reading, close looking, close fingering and close listening. Close comparison and contrast as well because together they answer “How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?”
On inverse ekphrasis and its role in artists’ books and book art.
When a work of art inspires poetry or prose, we call the literary result ekphrastic: “the verbal representation of visual representation”. Keats, Auden and Jarrell use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel, or Donatello’s sculpture of David. But book artists often work in the other direction. They use the letters, words, the physical elements of the book or even the shape of books, the functions of the book or even the processes of bookmaking to create works of art. A kind of inverse ekphrasis.
The phrase inverse ekphrasis first occurred in comments on artwork by Kate Buckley and Ros Rixon. It seems to have originated and sharpened from reading Murray Krieger (1992), W.J.T. Mitchell (1994), Jay David Bolter (1996) and Marian Macken (2018). Explaining ekphrasis and the tensions between text and image in Picture Theory, Mitchell writes:
A verbal representation cannot represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a visual representation can.
Mitchell calls this a commonsense perception. It insists on an impossibility for verbal representation and a possibility for visual representation. But let’s play a game. Invert and modify it:
A visual representation does not represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a verbal representation does.
Likewise the altered assertion seems a commonsense perception, but it does not insist; it is a simpler, more limited observation. It has to be. A visual work can reproduce a readable version of The Great Gatsby’s entire text. This poster does just that. The image illustrates the book, but the poster is not an illustrated book, the illustration is the text of the book. The visual representation makes the story present, but in a temporally and spatially different way. Instead of leaning over a codex to read the words and look through them to Nick and Gatsby’s world, we stand and look at their arrangement into an emblem of that world, we begin to read the words. Tiring or being called away, we turn from it. Passing by, we stop, and our eyes jump to another part of the image and, seeing a familiar or intriguing word or sentence, begin to read again. It may be “great book” art, but is it great “book art”? Whatever one’s judgment, it is a form of inverse ekphrasis, which is one means that some works of book art adopt to make present their inspiring object, which in part achieves their own objecthood.
Exploring the relationship of the book and, in particular, the artist’s book to architecture, Marian Macken (2018) also makes observations that, restated, shed light on inverse ekphrasis but, just as important, shed light on book art in general. She writes:
… matter is not just material presence, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between architecture’s material presence and the immaterial. Thus the exhibition of architecture becomes the display of technique. With this description of the display of architecture and the notion of translation in mind, artists’ books provide an immediate vehicle for the exhibition of architecture: central to the concept of technique is the re-making of the representation. p. 126.
Now let’s play the restatement game:
Matter is not just the material presence of the book in artists’ books, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial. The alphabet, type, typography, the substrate (clay, stone, skin, paper, screen, etc.), page (in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique) and the binding or apparent absence of binding (again, in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique): each and together are the site of techniques that the artist/author can choose in pursuit of an idea, concept, thought, emotion or sensation intended.
With that statement, we move beyond inverse ekphrasis (“the re-making of a representation” or the making of re-presentation). A work of book art hardly requires an external literary work to occasion it, but in the collection’s many instances occasioned by verbal works of art, they riff more often than not on those elements mentioned above. The riffing is a performance that takes place on the site of techniques; it is the exploration of the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial.
The page is one of the most frequent elements subject to riffing. The choice of codex, palm leaf, leporello, scrolling paper, scrolling screen (others?) as a book’s structuring technique offers the opportunity to choose or redefine the construct of the “page”. Even within the space of a codex page, the diptych of a double-page spread, foldouts, pop-ups, or even within a continuously (horizontal or vertical) scrolling screen, the artist chooses techniques of demarcating, delineating, delimiting to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. This includes the metaphorical use to which the most experimental of book artists and authors have put the space in between letters, words, lines of text, images and pages. Think of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard and the artists’ books in homage to it.
Thebinding or apparent absence of binding is another frequent element subject to invention. The choice of structure (codex, etc.) offers an opportunity to choose or invent techniques of holding or bringing together or dispersing what is demarcated, delineated, delimited in the attempt to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. Think of the innovations and rediscoveries of Cor Aerssens, Gary Frost, Daniel Kelm, Hedi Kyle, Claire Van Vliet and other book artists. And what of the“apparent absence of binding”? Its inclusion allows for some of the more conceptual and most experimental works of book art — those that pose simple challenges to the idea of binding, those that pose more complex concepts of unboundedness. Think of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (2011), Doug Beube’s Red Infinity #4 (2017) or Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen (2012).
Ulises Carrión’s 1975 manifesto assertion — The book is a space-time sequence — is apropos here. The book artist India Johnson (2019) explains its appropriateness by playing the same game of restatement and, in doing so, also captures Macken’s notion of “the site of techniques”:
… the more I read of Carrión, the more I’m persuaded that he is right: that his definition of the book, as both space and sequence, may be the most adequate one that we have.
That’s why I don’t describe the sculptures I’ve made in response to The New Art of Making Books as ‘expanding’ the idea of the book. They may, however, expand the idea of bookbinding.
In mulling over bookbinding in the expanded field, I have ultimately found myself back where I began: but not as a translator–this time, as an author. I am currently re-writing The New Art of Making Books, in collaboration with the translator and poet Andrea Bel.Arruti. As Ulises Carrión himself proclaimed, “plagiarism is the point of departure for creative activity in the new art.” By inverting all of Carrión’s claims, we’re generating a new manifesto, The Old Art of Making Books:
“Books, contrary to popular opinion, are not for reading. They are for making.
Making books is a sequence of processes, unfolding into space, whose making happens in time.
The making is a space-time sequence.”
And so inverse ekphrasis via this inverse manifesto becomes a way into book art.
Some examples of inverse ekphrasis from the Books On Books Collection:
Tetenbaum, both writer and book artist, spent a month in a gallery listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, and the result was an “artist’s book” or “bookwork” called Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map. Put aside — difficult as it may be — the pleasure of craft and art so plainly suffusing the print, paper and binding of this work, what is the work’s relation to the material of which it is made? Is it like a “movie of the book”? Or some sort of literary/artistic criticism? Are we enjoying Tetenbaum’s “making the novel her own” (as in the pun on mining), or is the work inspiring us to go back to Cather’s novel with renewed interest? Or both? To what degree can we appreciate Tetenbaum’s book art without having read My Ántonia?To make Tetenbaum’s work our own — to mine it — must we go to the site from which the artist quarried her material? How do we think about the “material” of which Mining My Ántonia is made? How does that contribute to our appreciation of the work itself? And to our thinking about book art?
Bartsch, S., & Elsner, J. 1 January 2007. Special issue on ekphrasis. Classical Philology, 102, 1. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, Andrew. 2005. “On display: The exhibition of architecture”. In Abe, Hitoshi. Hitoshi Abe Flicker Tokyo: Toto Shoppan.
Benjamin, Walter. 1955. Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace & World. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Task of the Translator”.
Bolter, Jay David. “Ekphrasis, Virtual Reality, and the Future of Writing” in Nunberg, Geoffrey, and Umberto Eco. 1996. The future of the book. Turnhout: Brepols.
Abstract: In this essay, Robert P. Fletcher demonstrates how, while putting together digital and print media affordances, augmented print may evoke in readers a sense of the uncanny. Fletcher also explains how works such as Amaranth Borsuk’s Abra (2014), Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound (2016) or Stuart Campbell’s Modern Polaxis (2014) seem to demonstrate the existence of a never-ending return of the “familiar” in electronic literature.
Abstract: In this article, the significance of the rhetorical and modern definitions of ekphrasis will be discussed through the lens of digital literature and art. It attempts to reinscribe the body in ekphrastic practice by adding touch to the abstracted visualism of the eye, and emphasize defining features of the ancient usage: orality, immediacy and tactility. What I call the digital ekphrasis with its emphasis on enargeia, its strong connections with the ancient definition, and on the bodily interaction with the work of art, conveys an aesthetic of tactility; digitalis=finger. By tracing and elucidating a historical trajectory that takes the concept of ekphrasis in the ancient culture as a starting point, the intention is not to reject the theories of the late 1900s, but through a reinterpretation of ekphrasis put forward an example of how digital perspectives on classic concepts could challenge or revise more or less taken-for-granted assumptions in the humanities. In this context ‘the digital’ is not only a phenomenon that could be tied to certain digital objects or used as a digital tool, but as an approach to history, with strong critical potential. The aim is to show that one of the most important features of our digital culture is that it offers new perspectives – not only on current technology – but also on literary, cultural and aesthetic historical practices.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Indirect Language”. In Merleau-Ponty, M., & Lefort, C. 199). The prose of the world. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Touches on gesture, on science and mathematics, compares language and painting.
Jessica Berenbeim, a University Lecturer at the Faculty of English and a Fellow of Jesus College, has selected works from the Books On Books Collection for this exhibition. With the assistance of Justine Provino, a doctoral student at Cambridge, Berenbeim has arranged the works to effect a certain conversation. As she writes,
Artists’ experiments with books and letters have taken many forms, some of which look more like books than others. This exhibition of book art, and book-inspired art, opens a view of one of its most intriguing stories: the tradition of reflections, riffs, and responses to one seminal work, Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Roll of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard). Mallarmé’s experimental work celebrates its 125th anniversary in May 2022, when this exhibition opens. The particular objects on display here, and on view at the screening events, play on two central ideas inspired by this work: chance and visible language. The works in the exhibition are in effect a conversation about the intersection of those themes. What part does chance have to play in the way language is depicted on (or off) the page, and how might accidents of language determine how it looks? How does meaning settle throughout the forms of letters, words, lines, pages, and books, as well as in what the words say?
The exhibition and screenings include works by Jérémie Bennequin, Isabella Checcaglini & Mohammed Bennis, Robert Filliou, Ernest Fraenkel, Rodney Graham, ‘Estelle J.’, Michel Lorand, André Masson, Reinhold Nasshan, Michalis Pichler, Man Ray, Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp, and Honorine Tepfer.
Berenbeim and Provino have suspended seven plates from Pichler‘s homage to hang over the cases containing works by Bennequin, Nasshan, Lorand, Tepfer and Estelle J.. and quietly cast shadows to pun with those works and the exhibition’s title.
In a display case seemingly made for his particular work, the result of Bennequin’s long-distance performances of erasure with his colleague and publisher Antoine Lefebvre calls across the room to all the other works of chance and visible language.
Jérémie Bennequin, Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, Dé-composition (2009-2013)
With the sun streaming into West Court Gallery, the only things missing from the buzz of these conversations were perhaps canapés, champagne and name tags to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this strange poem’s publication.
This recent volume from Gary Frost contains some previously published content from the two other works in the collection (see below), but the new material makes it worth re-reading that content and being reminded to revisit the two works for what is not re-published here. The diagram below, providing an historical overview of types of codices and their relationship, is also worth keeping close to hand when reading other reference works (see Further Reading).
Adventures in Book Preservation (2012) Future of the Book: A Way Forward (2012)
Walt Whitman’s “Faces”: A Typographic Reading (2012) Barbara Henry Case bound in boards in quarter-leather. H270 x W182 mm, 34 pages. Linocuts by Barbara Henry. Edition of 80, of which this is #69. Acquired from the artist, 11 April 2022. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission.
Although Whitman knew some of Victor Hugo’s work (in translation), it is unlikely that he knew of Hugo’s declaration “man in his entirety is in the alphabet … The alphabet is a source”. If he had, and if he had the French text as well, he would have appreciated that that last word in the original is font.
Man and his World in the Alphabet (1991) Victor Hugo Design and production by Kenneth Hardacre. Translation by Paul Standard for Hermann Zapf’s Manuale Typographicum (1954). Photos of the work: Books On Books.
Working in a printing shop, Whitman could hardly overlook the metaphors on offer: the font or fount as source or mine, the typeface for the human face and vice versa. Barbara Henry has harvested from the Leaves of Grass the two short poems — “A Font of Type” and “Leaf of Faces” — that explore those metaphors. Bringing them together alongside an essay by Karen Karbiener (New York University) and one of her own, Henry embeds them in a well-crafted fine press book and embodies “Leaf of Faces” in its own set of typographic fireworks.
First though come the two essays. Karbiener’s sets the familiar biographical stage for Whitman and provides a sympathetic reading of Henry’s “typographic reading” to come. Henry’s is an earnest and plausible justification for her explication of the typographic references in each section of “Leaf of Faces”. Her essay closes with a paragraph explaining that many of the typefaces Whitman would have known are no longer available, that today’s measure of type size (the point) did not exist in Whitman’s day and that in homage she has mostly used 12 point Bulmer, a typeface from “the American Type Founders Company, a conglomerate of most of the type foundries formed in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death”. Also, she has set the type for “Leaf of Faces” by hand in a composing stick as Whitman would have done.
Then on the following pages comes a list of the names by which Whitman and his fellow print workers knew the various sizes of type. Without the list, the reader would miss the parenthetical allusions in “A Font of Type” — “nonpareil, brevier, bourgeois, long primer” — to what today are known as 6pt, 8pt, 9pt and 10pt type sizes. Whitman’s clever choice of names that have connotations beyond his extended metaphor possibly makes the lines comprehensible even without the finer points of the allusion. Or perhaps the reader still needs to be familiar with loose hot metal type and how the slivers of individual letters rest all sorted into their sections of a wooden typecase before they are mined or pulled from their latent slumbers to form words and expressions to be voiced.
Then, after this prefacing short poem, the fireworks begin with Henry’s orange and black linocut of Whitman’s face over the title of the second poem, underlined with green fleurons (like leaves of grass).
In the poem’s first double-page spread, Henry’s postcard-size digital photo of pedestrians and signs on Bleecker Street in 2012 not only illustrates lines of the facing poem, it echoes the postcard-size vintage photo by Marcus Ormsbee of Lower Hudson Street in 1865 used at the start of her essay. Her photo’s startling colors contrast with Ormsbee’s black and white and complement the bold colors and foundry typefaces that follow in her treatment of the poem. A true book artist, Henry is making these features in her book refer to what she is doing in the book — bringing her 21st century eye to eye with Whitman’s 19th century.
These are but three of the six spreads across which Henry transforms Whitman’s “Leaf of Faces” into her typographic spectacle. It and the whole of the book bring to life what Anne M. Royston calls “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”.
One last observation: Just as there is no evidence that Whitman knew Victor Hugo’s mystic reference to the alphabet as source, there is also no evidence that he knew the Sufi poets. But Ralph Waldo Emerson did know them. His Complete Works, Volume VIII, has a section entitled “Persian Poetry” and translates a key passage of Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (1177). As Karbinier notes in her essay, Whitman called Ralph Waldo Emerson the “Master”, so perhaps it is not so uncanny that “Leaf of Faces” includes a similar recognition of divinity at which the birds arrive when they finally meet the Simorgh, lord of all birds, whom they have been seeking, only to be told by the Simorgh:
It is yourselves you see and what you are. (Who sees the Lord? It is himself each sees; …)
Or as Whitman more egotistically puts it:
And I shall look again in a score or two of ages, And I shall meet the real landlord perfect and unharmed, every inch as good as myself.
Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History, Issue 2 (2021) Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth and Simon Morris Perfect bound softcover, H314 x W314 mm, 180 pages. Editions included: Fiona Banner (aka Vanity Press), Full Stop, front & back covers; Kendell Geers, Stripped Bare, end papers; Carolyn Thompson, The Beast in Me, H1180 x W1180 mm; Erica Baum, Piano Rolls, H120 x W120 closed, W960 mm open; Harold Offeh, Crystal Mouths, H210 x W105 closed, W480 mm open; David Bellingham, Cigar Burn Apertures, H210 x W105 mm; Miranda July, Bookmark, H302 x W54 mm; Christian Bök, Supermassive, LP. Acquired from Information as Material, 10 October 2021. Photos of the issue: Books On Books Collection.
How materially perverse is it that the second issue of Inscription is devoted to “the hole”, yet it is the first issue that actually has a hole in it? The first issue of Inscription did set a seriously playful — or playfully serious — tone, and the second issue does not fail to maintain it. The second issue continues the dos-à-dos binding but with only the front and back covers as the external giveaway. In the middle of this single-spine paperback, pages 1-90 meet an inverted pages 90-1 in the middle, which prompts the reader to turn the open book 180° and flip back to page 1. From either direction, the reader meets the traditional backmatter of a journal in the middle.
Inverted cover and center of Inscription (2021).
Such reversals of expectation call for a countervalent design element to avoid too much confusion. In this issue, that element consists of constant earth-tone backgrounds framing constant black-on-white text boxes (square holes?) for each article. Even within these constants, reversals of expectation play out. The backgrounds are drawn from 14 different sources, ranging from laid paper samples, parchment, pulp and brown boards to a slice of Emmental cheese (sorry, Gromit, no Wensleydale), and the layouts for each square hole differ, being taken from 16 other journals such as The Criterion, The Egoist and National Geographic.
List of backgrounds used throughout the issue.
List of publications whose layouts are used throughout the issue.
The Emmental cheese background around the opening of Marcinkowski’s essay; Hybrid wove/laid paper made for James Watt & Co around the opening of Lüthi’s essay.
There is an even more recurrent “bass” line in this issue. It comes from the South African artist Kendell Geers, interviewed by the Editors. Even this bass line plays with variable perspective. Marking the start of most articles is a sheet bearing on recto and verso pages the image of a bullet hole (entry then exit) taken from Geers’ work Point Blank (2004). Bullet holes in glass — from Geers’ Stripped Bare (2009) — punctuate inversely the inside covers, bringing two symmetric/asymmetric openings to this topsy turvy production.
Kendell Geers, Point Blank (2004), front and back covers; Stripped Bare (2009; inside covers of Inscription (2021).
Long-time admirers of the 1960s-70s multimedia magazine Aspen, the editors have continued their practice of including unbound elements. In this issue, they have included Carolyn Thompson enormous poster The Beast in Me, whose sentences and part-sentences beginning with “I” have been cut from eight different novels and pasted down to form the hole seen below. Also included are Erica Baum’s Piano Rolls, Harold Offeh’s Crystal Mouths, David Bellingham’s Cigar Burn Apertures, Miranda July’s, Bookmark and Christian Bök’s Supermassive LP.
Carolyn Thompson, The Beast in Me, H1180 x W1180 mm. Photo: Ricky Adam. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Erica Baum, Piano Rolls, H120 x W120 closed, W960 mm open. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Harold Offeh, Crystal Mouths, H210 x W105 closed, W480 mm open; David Bellingham, Cigar Burn Apertures, H210 x W105 mm; Miranda July, Bookmark, H302 x W54 mm; Christian Bök, Supermassive, LP. Photos of the works: Books On Books Collection.
Like the famous combined Aspen issue Nos.5/6 — an homage to Stéphane Mallarmé — Inscription manages to pull off an eclectic unity with the essays included, which unlike Aspen was accomplished after a double-blind review process. Inscription‘s editors have turned on its head Robert Frost’s dismissive characterization of free verse as playing tennis without a net; they are playing doubles with a net and blindfolded and have created a work of art. This issue’s entries range from Paul Reynold’s erudite and whimsical definitions of all sorts of holes; the scholarly detective work on the holes that bind (pin holes and punch holes by Craig Robertson and Deirdre Lynch and filing holes by Heather Wolfe); James Mission’s tracking the crafts of scribe, typesetter and coder in representing lacunae, gaps or holes in the text; Louis Lüthi’s puncturing juxtaposition of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1948 abridgment of Moby-Dick, Orion Books’ 2007 Moby-Dick in Half the Time and Damion Searls’ 2009 riposte ; or The Whale; to Fiona Banner’s photo-essay on her hole-creating Full Stop‘s, granite sculptures of full stops (periods) created from the Peanuts , Klang and Orator typefaces, two of which were dropped into the marine protected area of Dogger Bank to put a sure stop to industrial fishing there. Here is the table of contents:
Michael Marcinkowski — “house / table” Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovíc — “Reading the Hole on the Last Address Memorial Plaques in Moscow” Fiona Banner — “Full Stop intervention with Greenpeace” Simon Morris — “Perspective Correction” Dianna Frid, Carla Nappi and Ian Truelove — “Wormholes, The Cascabel Butterfly and an AR collaboration” Aleksandra Kaminska and Julian De Maeyer — “The Perfect Cut: Talking with Myriam Dion” Paul Reynolds — “A Glossary of Holes” Louis Lüthi — “A Snow Hill in the Air” James Mission — “Signifying Nothing: Follow a Hole Through Three Text Technologies” Editors — “An Interview with Kendell Geers” Heather Wolfe — “On Curating Filing Holes” Craig Robertson and Deirdre Lynch — “Pinning and Punching: A Provisional History of Holes, Paper, and Books”
Inscription continues to provide one of the liveliest examples of what Anne M. Royston calls “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”.
Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595/1995) Johann Theodor de Bry Facsimile edition created by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel as part of the boxed set Alphabets Buchstaben Calligraphy, published by Ravensburger Buchverlag (1998). H275 x W255 mm, 80 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Terrahe & Oswald, 14 March 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Johann Theodor de Dry and his sons were copperplate engravers, best known for their Grands and Petits Voyages (1590-1634) of 57 separate parts, containing over 500 different engravings illustrating the explorations of the world beyond the shores of 16th and 17th century Europe. While the De Brys’ place in the history of book art might be traced from their illustrations of Hans Staden’s tales of Brazilian cannibals to Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” [Cannibal Manifesto] (1928) and Moussa Kone’s Nowhere Land (2017), their equally strong, if not better, claim rests on the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595) and the Alphabeta et characteres (1596).
The Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet presents the letters of the alphabet adorned with Judaeo-Christian allegorical figures, vegetation, birds and animals, instruments, implements, weapons and regal emblems. An octave in Latin and one in German provide hints for identifying the allegorical and emblematic references. At the end of the De Brys’ alphabet atlas Alphabeta et characteres, iam inde a creato mundo ad nostra usq. tempora, apud omnes omnino nationes usurpat (1596) depicting dozens of alphabets — the Chaldaic, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Slavonic, Hispanic, Latin and so on — another decorated alphabet and an alphabet formed of human figures make their appearance.
Letters R&S and the human alphabet from Alphabeta et characteres, iam inde a creato mundo ad nostra usq. tempora, apud omnes omnino nationes usurpat (1596). Images: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel reproduce to scale the letters from the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet and present thumb-nail versions of the alphabets as well as the decorated letters from Alphabeta et characteres. Their facsimile is not the first for these works. J.N. Stoltzenberger printed Alphabeta et characteres in translation for William Fitzer in 1628, and George Waterston & Sons published Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet as The New Artistic Alphabet in 1880 (albeit without the original’s text and verses). By juxtaposing all these originals, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel provide a concentration of what makes the De Brys partial forerunners in the history of book art: images embracing letters (and letters embracing images).
Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel facsimile (1995) of Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595), pp. 12-13. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Welcome to the online celebration of the 125th anniversary of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897).
This is the poem that launched countless works of free verse and experiments with typography and the page. Visually and physically, its arrangement of scattered words in different type sizes and styles across the pages echoes the drama, images and delaying syntax that the text plays out — a sinking ship, its struggling master, cresting waves, a Siren, a whirlpool or abyss, the North Star and its nearby constellation Ursa Minor. Its challenge to the reader heralded 125 years of artistic and intellectual engagements: a crisis in language and representation, the struggle to reconcile pattern and meaning with chance and nothingness, and the never-ending tarantella of the material with the conceptual. Mallarmé’s is the poem that made the world modern and then post-modern.
The poem also launched a host of livres d’artiste in numerous languages as well as homage in the form of film, painting, photography, sculpture, installation, theater, costume, music, dance, programming, and book art. Even exhibitions of book art. The exhibition best known from the 20th century is Marcel Broodthaers’ 1969 show. Academic exhibitions for the 1998 centenary of Mallarmé’s death included artworks. The fact, however, that no less than five art exhibitions in homage to Un Coup de Dés appeared in the first decade of the 21st century demonstrates a rapidly growing recognition of its importance as a muse to book artists.
Together, these exhibitions captured somewhat less than half the relevant works that would have qualified. Following the Pichler exhibition in 2017, the number of such works has only grown. On the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard, it is time to take stock again.
The Poem that “Made Us Modern”
The poem arrived May 1897 in Volume VI, No. 17 of Cosmopolis, Revue internationale, published in London. The anticipated shock of the poem’s layout for its readers prompted the editors to request a preface from Mallarmé explaining how to read the poem. Occasionally a worn copy of the issue comes up for sale by a rare book dealer or auction house, but Gallica (France’s National Library online catalogue) offers access where we can see the single-page and double-page spreads that caused such concern.
The Cosmopolis editorial team may have overestimated its readers’ immediate shock (there was little response), but imagine the team’s shock if Mallarmé had insisted that Cosmopolis somehow print the poem as he really wished: across eleven double-page spreads rather than the nine single pages into which it was compressed. Again, Gallica provides the means to see what most of us will never see firsthand: Mallarmé’s mark-up of the later proofs showing his intended double-page spreads. These proofs were for the deluxe edition Mallarmé wanted to publish with the entrepreneur Ambroise Vollard. From their correspondence, we know that prints by Odilon Redon were to be included. We know also that Mallarmé’s instructions on size, weight and placement of words, down to the letter, were meticulous.
The printers proclaimed the whole thing madness. Vollard did not press. And Mallarmé died in 1898. Finally in 1914, with the involvement of Edmond Bonniot, Mallarmé’s son-in-law, Éditions de la Nouvelle revue française (NRF) delivered on Mallarmé’s typographic intentions — almost — the typeface was Elzevir not Didot. Gallimard/NRF has reissued it several times in various trim sizes over the years. Subsequent archival discoveries and close observations led to other facsimiles, many of which are recorded in Thierry Roger’s monumental L’Archive du Coup de dés (2010). The scope of this essay/exhibition does not include every one of the many editions of the poem (or its translations) — only those that attempt an artistic homage as well. They appear chronologically among the artworks in the exhibition.
Neither is the essay/exhibition an attempt to explicate this enigmatic poem. What happens in Un Coup de Dés, what it means, how it made us modern and then post-modern — all that and more — have been the subject of countless books, essays and web pages. Those on which this essay/exhibition has relied for such insights can be found under the heading “Further Reading (and Viewing)” at the end of the exhibition. The aims here are rather to present the reader/viewer with an exhibition as comprehensive as possible of the works of artistic homage to this singular poem that have appeared since 1897. For additional exhibitions marking the occasion,see the heading “Other Exhibitions in 2022”, also at the end of this exhibition.
Covers of the 1914 edition (held by the Bodleian) and 1993 edition (from the Books On Books Collection). Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira “l’Appropriation”
While the experience cannot be the same, the reach of a virtual exhibition can exceed that of a bricks-and-mortar affair in certain ways. Moreover, it can provide building blocks for future organizers, curators and enthusiasts of book art and this unusual poem. By virtue of its virtuality, this exhibition is updateable. Its bibliographical references are linked wherever possible to permalinks, enabling the viewer to locate the nearest physical copy of the work. Where Pichler’s exhibition included a working player piano and piano roll version of Un Coup de Dés and films/videos (albeit not related to Mallarmé’s poem), this virtual exhibition provides visuals and hyperlinks to films/videos directly related to the poem as well as the same for operatic, balletic and musical renditions of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. The works of homage included come from an exploration of exhibition catalogues, BnF Gallica, the Library of Congress, the Bodleian libraries, WorldCat and Google search — and tips from the scholars and artists themselves.
The word “homage” extends a wide umbrella — over parody, pastiche, livre d’artiste and appropriations in all manner of art forms. One or two works in the exhibition stretch the point of paying homage. Picasso’s pun un coup de thé is one example. Its admission rests on its being the earliest hint of the poem’s presence in other artworks. Subsequent omissions may be intentional or unintentional. In its seeming allusiveness to the poem, Cy Twombly’s Poems to the Sea (1959) petitions for admission. Lacking more obvious appropriation, though, it is more an “homage” to Twombly’s experience of the Mediterranean than of Mallarmé’s poem. Other petitioners, considered or missed, await future curators.
From 1897 to 1959 (5)
Just five works of homage in the first sixty years after the poem’s appearance is not a promising start, but it provides context in which to appreciate the later acceleration.
The earliest homage to Un Coup de Dés came only a few months after its publication. It took the form of Australian Christopher Brennan’s handwritten pastiche scolding the critics of his own poems influenced by Mallarmé. The work has only appeared in facsimile and then not until 1981. Its lengthy title is better appreciated in its handwritten form. More on this work here.
Facsimile edition of the handwritten manuscript. Published by Hale & Iremonger. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In 1973, the art historian and critic Robert Rosenblum remarked on Picasso’s likely homage in the truncated newspaper headline — from “UN COUP DE THÉÂTRE” to “UN COUP DE THÉ” — for use in his 1912 collage. The connection seems a stretch, but Picasso was aware of Mallarmé and the poem, as were the circles in which Picasso moved. One of the avant-gardists — Man Ray — would be far less subtle in his cinematic homage to the poem.
Man Ray’s set location was Villa Noailles, a villa built for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. Not surprisingly for patrons of Brancusi, Mallet-Stevens and Picasso among many others, the Noailles were footing the bill for Man Ray’s cinematic effort. The film opens with a screen quotation from the poem, but, other than the dice-shaped aspect of the villa which sparked the connection, the film develops its own mysterious suggestions apart from Mallarmé’s.
Film, one reel, 16 mm, 19:46 minutes. Posted 26 April 2014. Accessed 1 April 2018.
The Art et Action Laboratoire de Théâtre planned a spectacle including a polyphonic vocal performance of the poem as early as 1919. Thwarted by copyright law, Art et Action joined with the Société des Gens de Lettres for a new orchestration in 1942. Claude Autant-Lara’s 1923 poster for the abortive presentation (along with three other similar spectacles) and his decor (not shown here) foreshadow performance works by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Kathy Bruce and Alistair Noble, Bernadette O’Toole and many others — all noted below.
The efforts from 1897 to 1929 did little to prompt others to explore Un Coup de Dés for material and inspiration in the next three decades. Perhaps the first livre d’artiste version of the poem (and the fifth and last homage from 1897 to 1959) was created by Hella Guth in 1952. Guth’s distinctive style of collage foreshadows future extensions into more three-dimensional and material techniques.
Front and back covers of Hella Guth’s livre d’artiste. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France. Displayed with permission of Kate Rys, niece of Hella Guth.
From 1960 to 1969 (5)
The next six decades of the poem’s aftermath give a geometric progression of works in a variety of media by which homage was paid. The 1960s begin with two “over-the-top” works, over the top in very different ways.
Ernest Fraenkel was convinced that, working back from the text of Un Coup de Dés, he had “discovered” additional artwork in Mallarmé’s mind. The forms of the artwork could be shown by connecting the dots (the beginnings of the lines with each other, and likewise the ends) and shading the enclosed shapes — like a Rorshach test, only inverted (words first, then the images). Strange as the theorizing may be, stranger still is the visual results’ prediction of similar impressions almost ten years later arising from completely different premisses. More on Fraenkel’s work here.
Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Seven different diagrammatic renderings. The one at the lower right shows Fraenkel’s sideways view. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The second homage to appear in this decade is André Masson’s near illumination of the poem. It subsequently warranted an extended essay from the 2003 exhibition’s curators: Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert. These three extracts from their essay provide useful touchstones to place against later works in this virtual exhibition:
Far from continuing or elaborating on Mallarmé’s project, Masson has contrived a systematic substitution of graphics, including calligraphy, for a typographical chef-d’oeuvre, thus enabling an unforeseen and uninvited art form to usurp the territory of another. (p. 508)
… in illustrating poetry he more often than not deserves his usual designation of abstract surrealist, all the more so because he combines automatism with the mythological dynamism so characteristic of his paintings and his drawings. (p. 513)
… Mallarmé’s poem, characterized by its avoidance of anecdotal narrative, its deliberate twistings of metaphorical patterns, its deconstruction of rhythmic continuity, practically precludes figuration. How can any illustration, however abstract, lend visual support to a text that compounds to such an extent the problematics of representation? … How could Masson graphically master a text that perversely withdraws from the reader and pores over itself, like the hypothetically sentient waves it repeatedly evokes, questions, and denies? (p. 514)
By the end of the 1960s, a very different form of homage takes over from that of Guth and Masson, one prefigured by Fraenkel’s abstract mapping of Mallarmé’s text into strips of black, one that would recur in several guises into the next century. Call it homage by redaction.
Detectable from its title, Diacono’s work intends a more social or political comment than Fraenkel’s. In an interview, he noted, “The title alternates not only colors, black and orange, but also uppercase and lowercase letters. The wordplay in essence says: the absence of metrics, of language, will not abolish poetry. Neither will the American taboos” (Nickas, 2019). Those comments align with the element of “pop” art and the underground comic in this homage. But does Diacono’s socio-political drive outweigh the rest of a METRICA n’aboolira‘s insistence on “looking at” Un Coup de Dés rather than reading it? Or is the work reminding us to read what we are looking at? More on this work here.
Marcel Broodthaers’ homage appeared as a three-part centerpiece to the 1969 exhibition entitled Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé: Marcel Broodthaers à la Deblioudebliou/S (“Literary exhibition around Mallarmé at the Deblioudebliou/S”). Deblioudebliou/S puns on a distorted French pronunciation of the letter W and the three initials of the Antwerp gallery Wide White Space, where the event occurred. The three parts consist of ten copies numbered I-X on anodized aluminum, ninety copies numbered 1-90 on transparent mechanographic paper (the original edition) and three hundred copies numbered 1-300 on opaque paper (the catalogue edition). On Broodthaers’ cover, the word Image occupies the same space as Poème on the 1914 edition’s cover. Following that, Broodthaers displaces Mallarmé’s dismissive “Préface” from Cosmopolis with his own preface: the poem’s entire text set in a block of type with the lines separated by slashes. Until the colophon, that is the only legible text to appear in this homage by redaction in which all the lines of the poem are blacked out. As visitors to the show perused the editions, a tape recording of Broodthaers’ reading the poem played in the background. Broodthaers’ multimedia homage would provoke dozens of artists to create works of double-, triple- even quintuple-homage over the next sixty years.
Photos: Top image courtesy of Charles Bernstein; middle and bottom images courtesy of MACBA.
Broodthaers’ bookworks above are not the only forms of homage he created for Un Coup de Dés. The Galerie Michael Werner hosted an exhibition entitled “Footprints of a collector: Reiner Speck. Mallarmé, Broodthaers et les autres” (2 May – 23 July 2022). In addition to outstanding copies of the Image works, the curator Sabine Schiffer included Garniture Symbolique (1975), a blue-tinted glossy photo strip with nine photos on glossy paper, showing excerpts and phrases from the poem. Also, a painting entitled Un coup de dés jamais quand bien même… (oil, gold paint, felt pen on canvas) from 1969.
The last 1960s works of homage to mention are Daniel Spoerri’s Un Coup de Dés dinner-cum-artwork, originally held in 1968 and reperformed on numerous occasions, and the Aspen Magazine in a Box [aka : The Minimalism Issue] (No. 5 + 6, Fall/Winter 1967), dedicated to Mallarmé.
Spoerri’s homage is first and foremost performative art with invited dinner guests assigned their seats by a throw of the dice. Afterwards, the meal’s detritus is fixed to a surface for vertical display, like debris on the deck of a shipwreck. No image of one of the Un Coup de Dés after-dinner works has been found for this exhibition. It may be that one or more of these performances also alluded to the literary dinners at which Mallarmé declaimed. Mark Clintberg has recounted one of these Spoerri banquets (held at Haus Maria Theresia in Dusseldorf, Germany, on 5 February 2010), and its social satiric flavor seems distant from those celebrations of the late 19th century. Though not on display here, Spoerri’s performances in homage are worth noting as heralds of the veritable variety show of performances that will appear over the coming decades.
Although The Minimalism Issue is more an homage to Mallarmé in general than one to Un Coup de Dés in particular, it too is a herald. It makes for a mixed bag (or box) and is noteworthy as much for its difficult-to-access LPs and super 8 films as for its name contributors: Roland Barthes, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Dan Graham, Susan Sontag among others. With its mixed media, Aspen’s Mallarmé Box foreshadows even more eclectic and technically challenging efforts to come.
Permission of Whitechapel Gallery being sought.
From 1970 to 1979 (4)
If simply nodding toward Mallarmé’s poetic influence constituted homage, a small town of concrete poems could be put forward to pad the number of artworks of homage to Un Coup de Dés in the 1970s. As for artworks, perhaps artists were momentarily stunned by Broodthaers’ homage, for only four very different new works of homage appeared in the 1970s.
One of the participants in The Minimalism Issue of the Aspen Magazine, Dan Graham moved from his conceptual Poem Schema (1966), which appeared in the box, to an installation as homage. Graham’s primary interest had been Mallarmé’s long-touted Le Livre, which was to be not merely a book but a performance. So his attraction to Brian Doherty’s book as box of mixed media makes sense. Un Coup de Dés, however, may have had just as much influence as Le Livre. Consider these comments by Penny Florence as she writes about how Mallarmé’s poem and Odilon Redon’s prints must be read together:
They are a book with interchangeable pages, with varying directions and registers, with vertical and horizontal movements, with reversals and with shapes that are as important in signification as words. They challenge our notion of coherence and demand that we re-shape the relations between recorded and immediate experience. (p.110) [My emphasis]
That is also what happens in Dan Graham’s installation Present Continuous Past (1974). The installation room consists of two mirrored walls at a right angle to each other. A third wall on which a video camera is mounted above a video screen stands at a right angle to one mirrored wall and opposite the other. The fourth wall at a right angle to camera/screen wall of the room is blank white and provides the entrance to the installation. The video records the viewer and, after an eight-seconds lag, projects the recording onto the video screen. Because the recorder will then pick up the mirror reflection of the eight-seconds-lagged projection playing on the video screen and will then play that back after another eight-seconds lag, the viewer will experience in the present a continuous regress of the past(s).
Jean Lecoultre’s livre d’artiste of “soft varnish” etching resonates with Mallarmé’s dictum peindre non la chose mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to depict not the object but the effect the object produces”). Lecoultre depicts easily identifiable objects — a stone, a measuring rod, a rope and more — and less easily identifiable ones — a blurred wall and windows, a metallic plate with two rows of six numbered holes (the one numbered “1” filled with red), a pair of draped rectangular columns being sliced with a cheese-cutter-like cable and so on. The soft-focus realistic detail of surreal images, the strange juxtaposition of objects and the way some objects seem to float on the page — these mirror Mallarmé’s arrangement of words and lines among les blancs of the pages, the precision of his images and the suggestiveness of his metaphors.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of Jean Lecoultre.
Mallarmé was always drawn to the idea of theatrical performances of his works, including Un Coup de Dés. He may have had a revolutionary grasp of staging text on blank pages, but he lacked any grasp of mise-en-scène for the actual stage. Despite his finger on the pulse of domestic fashion in his one-man magazine La Dernière Mode (1874), Mallarmé had no feel for the audience attracted to his contemporary Sarah Bernhardt.
He might have rejoiced that Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub filmed this Greek-style theatrical reading of Un Coup de Dés even if it came some sixty years after the attempt by Art et Action (see above). By staging the nine-voice reading in the Père Lachaise cemetery on the hill where the last Communards had been shot and buried, and also nearby the memorials to the Holocaust’s concentration camps, Straub and Huillet appropriated the poem for a forced chime with their film’s title, a quotation attributed to Jules Michelet, the 19th century historian of the French Revolution. War poetry and social indignation figure little in Mallarmé’s work even though the end of the Franco-Prussian war as well as the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in May 1871 hung like a pall over France in his lifetime. But in light of another line from Michelet — “With the world began a war that will only end with the world, and not before: that of man against nature, mind against matter, freedom against fate. History is nothing but the story of this endless struggle.” Introduction à l’histoire universelle (1843) — perhaps the chime is not so forced. A video of the reading was made available on DVD in 2010.
As will be seen later in the exhibition, Ian Wallace is a “repeat hommageur”. Over three decades, he has created three separate works. With each one, something subtly new appears, but all are grounded in a particular kind of self-referencing shared with Mallarmé’s poem: the creative struggle reflected in the creation. In his own words:
In 1979, I made a large photographic work … which combined images of me in the studio making the work itself, with a text meditating on this concept of self-referencing. … This work was an early attempt to reconfigure a conceptual art practice through its literary antecedent in the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, …. After reading [Un Coup de Dés] for many years, I have come to appreciate it as one of the foundational works of modern art. Its theme, that of artistic destiny and a crisis of representation, was expressed through the collapse of metaphysics into typographics and the material space of the page. [Ian Wallace in Un Coup de Dés/Writing Turned Image, curated by Sabine Folie, p. 82.]
The 1980s begin with the acclaimed édition mise en oeuvre by Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp. In addition to trebling the previous decade’s contribution, the 1980s offer the first sculptural installations to pay homage to Un Coup de Dés — Robert Filliou’s Eins. Un. One. (1984) and Geraldo de Barros’ Jogos de Dados (1986) — as well as the first symphony — Claude Baillif’s Un coup de dés, d’après Mallarmé, Op. 53 (1980).
In 1980, Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp used Mallarmé’s corrected proofs of the abortive Vollard version to produce an edition closer to Mallarmé’s intention than previously published. They followed the intended unbound-folios approach to the poem but juxtaposed it not with the etchings of Odile Redon but with artistic interpretations by Papp and his contemporaries. A decade later, Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert would comment: “This surprising accompaniment to a scrupulously authentic printing of the original poem pays so to speak a postmodern homage to a quintessential modern master” (p. 508). Over the decades after the Ronat/Papp production, other new editions appeared — also aimed at reflecting the Master’s wishes. Not including Françoise Morel‘s facsimile of the manuscripts and proofs(2007), there are three other explorations of the “true” edition (in French): Michel Pierson‘s (2002), Ypsilon Éditeur‘s (2007) and Alain Hurtig‘s (2012). Not shown in the exhibition, Pierson’s substitutes artwork by Jorge Camacho for that by Odile Redon. Ypsilon Éditeur’s edition restores Redon and appears later in this exhibition. Also shown later, Hurtig’s edition substitutes Catherine Belœil’s artwork for Redon’s and provides an insightful analysis of typeface options, including the Didot. For more on the Ronat/Papp edition, go here.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Double-page spreads from the 1980 Ronat/Papp edition. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Tibor Papp, Déville. Paul Nagy, Untitled. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Claude Baillif began this symphony while teaching at McGill University in Montréal. The musical composition for five choirs, two double basses, two percussionists, two kettledrums, and electronic tape directly addresses the poem’s shape. As explained in the LP liner notes, Baillif assigned a particular “sound property” to each of the poem’s eleven double-page spreads (with two double basses, two percussionists and two kettledrum players punctuating the change from one spread to another); designated each of the five choirs to each of the five type fonts and sizes; and generated a “ribbon of sound” in the university’s electronic music studio to create additional echoes across the eleven spreads. The result is “essentially grave, still music”, although with a great deal of dissonance. Baillif may have been “helped by the contemplation of the calm vastness of the St. Lawrence Estuary”, but do not expect Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau); after all, Un Coup de Dés involves a shipwreck. Baillif’s is not the first musical homage to Mallarmé. Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon pli (“Fold on fold”) in 1957 holds that distinction, but Baillif’s is the first dedicated to Un Coup de Dés and signals several others to come.
This work first appeared in 1984 and has been displayed in several 21st-century exhibitions, including Robert Filliou‘s first solo exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2013. The constellation of 16,000 multicolored dice, each with all six sides bearing a single dot, delivers one of the more humorous works of homage to Un Coup de Dés. With the guarantee of a single dot, it might be thought that chance has been abolished, whichever and however many dice are rolled. The multiple sizes and colors of the dice and the varied constellations into which they might fall per installation suggest otherwise. Again, even this thought emits a throw of the dice.
As Ronat and Papp were preparing their édition mise-en-oeuvre following Mallarmé’s corrected proofs, Neil Crawford came across a copy of Robert Greer Cohn’s Mallarmé’s Masterwork, New Findings (Mouton & Co, The Hague, 1966) and was struck by its reproduction of the set of proofs sold by Pierre Berès to an American collector – the so-called Lahure proofs. Crawford, too, was determined to prepare a typographic translation of the proofs — but in English. Crawford’s choice of the Bodoni typeface as a substitute for the Didot that Mallarmé wanted can be justified on two grounds: first, the two typefaces are historically contemporaneous and inspired alike by John Baskerville’s experimentation with the contrast between letters’ thick and thin strokes; and second, even if there had been an English translation to set in 1897 or 1914, Bodoni was the more available face for English-language typesetters. Having enlarged Cohn’s reproductions to their originals’ size, Crawford undertook the daunting task of figuring out how to squeeze an English version taking up 10% more space than the French into Mallarmé’s careful layout. It would take seven years of evenings in tracing letters, translating, transcribing, adjusting, retranslating and retranscribing to generate hand-crafted layouts that could be stored away until the day that photocomposition would be sufficiently advanced to accommodate the word and character spacing necessary to follow them. Fittingly by chance encounters, Crawford was introduced in 1982 to Ian Tyson, who was planning his own livre d’artiste version. In an ironic reversal of Mallarmé’s concern that the Redon prints might undermine the typography, Tyson and Crawford were concerned that anything less than letterpress printing would not ensure the density of black on the page that would complement Tyson’s aquatints. This led to phototypesetting output as patch setting, then hand pasting according to Crawford’s layouts, and then creation of process line blocks for the relief printing in letterpress. More on Tyson and Crawford’s homage here.
Michael Lechner‘s diptych, a color lithograph of mixed media on paper, has some affinity with Tyson’s homage. Both oscillate between abstraction and iconography. Both allude to the computational but overlay it with sandy gradations of tint. Lechner himself writes: “by the geometrical, I trap the dream and by the dream I make fun of the geometry”.
Geraldo de Barros created his sculptural forms in the 1980s. Jogos de Dados was among the first large-scale sculptural installations paying homage to Un Coups de Dés. Haraldo and Augusto de Campos and their Noigrandes literary magazine had raised the profile of the poem over the preceding decades, and Augusto de Campos, friend to de Barros, dedicated a poem to his squares.
Mounted on wires stretched from ceiling to floor, the 55 geometric sculptural forms of de Barros’s Jogos de Dados(Games of Dice, 1980s) dominate the space, hanging in clusters facing this way and that. Close to the centre, the originating piece, Pai de Todos (Father of Them All), is a hexagon comprising 12 rhombuses, pristine in its mathematical precision, the simplicity of its black, white and grey colours, and its smooth, almost textureless expanses of Formica. — Rigby, Art Review.
Alessandro Zanella, founder of Edizioni Ampersand, asked the artist and fellow printer/publisher Vernière to join him in realizing this Italian livre d’artiste. Vernière’s abstract woodcuts capture the poem’s imagery of sea foam, shipwreck and the abyss. More on Zanella and Vernière here.
More an allusion than homage, Bernard Chiavelli’s hardcover comic book is the second of a trilogy, following its main character through adventures based on the imagined East African life of exile Arthur Rimbaud, one-time visitor to Mallarmé’s Tuesday soirées, fellow poète maudit, gun runner and Paul Verlaine’s lover. More on Chiavelli’s trilogy here.
Carol Rudyard’s homage is dual, linking Mallarmé to Marcel Duchamp, and may be the first video installation to incorporate Un Coup de Dés. In the video, the title of the poem is chanted. Perhaps recalling Picasso’s collage of newspaper text “un coup de thé”, Rudyard juxtaposes the text uncoup with the image of a goblet (une coupe), and the words le hasard appear, reproduced from a newspaper and repeatedly photocopied. Before that, the words de dés appear beside the glass, behind which is a cloth patterned in black and white squares suggesting a checkerboard or dice, and likewise the words jamais and n’abolira appear. Rudyard’s allusions are as subtle and elusive as Mallarmé’s own experiment with language in his poem as Lyn Merrington’s essay in Australian Divagations demonstrates.
Honorine Tepfer embeds her homage in paper as if taking her cue from Mallarmé’s letter to André Gide about the poem:
… le rythme d’une phrase au sujet d’un acte ou même d’un objet n’a de sens que s’il les limite et, figuré sur la papier, repris par les Lettres à l’estampe originelle, en doit rendre, malgré tout quelque chose […]. La littérature fait ainsi sa preuve: pas autre raison d’écrire sur du paper.
“… the rhythm of a sentence about an act or even an object has meaning only if imitates them and, enacted on paper, when the Letters have taken over from the original etching must convey something despite it all […]. Literature thus makes its proof: there is no other reason to write on paper.” — from Selected Letters, in Rancière’s Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren, pp. 56-57.
Tepfer’s choice of Baskerville highlights the recurring issue of honoring Mallarmé’s wish for the poem to be set in Didot.
One of the more daring of livres d’artiste. Christiane Vielle not only deploys her engravings to take Mallarmé’s poem beyond the double-page spreads he envisioned, she also does so by redistributing his text under folds and across them. In offering her re-reading of the work, Vielle offers viewers the chance for their own re-reading in opening, closing and reopening the folds to see how the poem and images enfold one another in different views.