Books On Books Collection – Robert Cottingham

A-Z: Robert Cottingham: An American Alphabet (1997-2012)

A-Z: Robert Cottingham: An American Alphabet (1997-2012)
Robert Cottingham
Hardcover. H x W mm, pages. Edition of 100. Acquired from Tandem Press, 10 September 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist and Tandem Press.

I had completed a number of canvases for AN AMERICAN ALPHABET and began to experience storage problems. The paintings were leaning against all available walls and were in danger of being damaged. For protection, I hung them as a group on one wall, stacking them four high by four across, … sixteen canvases that reached to the ceiling and formed a monumental mosaic of letterforms. This arrangement of tightly packed images created an energy I hadn’t anticipated. As I looked up at it for the first time from my studio floor, I was immediately transported back to those moments when my father and I ascended from the 42nd Street subway station. The sight lines in my studio matched the ones I’d experienced as a child looking up at the signs and lights of Times Square. (Cottingham, A-Z)

Cottingham’s time travel creates a longing in the viewer for travel in time and space. What that wall must have looked like. Those who might have enjoyed the 1996 show at the Forum Gallery in New York or the installation at the New York Print Fair in November 2011 or the Tandem Press exhibition at Madison, WI, in 2018 would have a limited idea (the images were not stacked four high). A-Z: An American Alphabet is as close as the rest of us will come to visualizing it. The artist book does have the advantage of letter by letter commentary from Cottingham.

Another plus in the book is Cottingham’s exploration of his process, tools and material:

The photograph is the starting point. Once I’ve chosen a specific image, I’ll do at least one preliminary sketch in black and white. This drawing familiarizes me with the image and allows me to make the first formal adjustments. The drawing acts as a value study — a sketch that helps determine the tonal range of the image, how dark or light the various elements should be. …/ Next comes the preliminary color study. This may be a watercolor or a gouache, sometimes handled loosely, sometimes treated as a more finished work. …/ I can now move on to the canvas. My preferred medium is oil. … The painting quickly takes on a life of its own, demanding further adjustments to color, tonal value, and form. But the preliminary work, like a map, guides me towards the new and always unexpected version of my original concept./ … / I consider printmaking an important adjunct to my painting. Many times, when I’ve completed a painting, I feel the need to do more work with the image — to dig deeper, exploring other aspects of its structure. Printmaking offers this opportunity. … / … An old world sensibility and craftsmanship is brought to the selection of paper (often hand-made), the mixing of inks, the preparation of plates or lithographic stones, and other steps in the process.

Cottingham also draws out the collaborative nature of printmaking, which in this case involved four Master Printers (Andy Rubin, Bruce Crownover, Joe Freye and, for the digital, Jason Ruhl) and, for the book design and layout, Linda Endlich. Another form of collaboration is influence, and Cottingham is generously open about his debts: Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian and, of course, the design of the signs from which the letters come. Along with his contemporaries such as Chuck Close, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack and John Salt, Cottingham represents the movement of Photo-Realism.

An American Alphabet also finds cousins in the Books On Books Collection. For found letters as objects, there is The Typographic Universe (2014), compiled by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson. For found letters recreated with pastels and watercolor, there is Stephen T. Johnson’s Alphabet City (1995). For color and form (albeit in totally different media), there are Karen Hanmer’s The Spectrum A-Z (2003) and Tara McLeod’s ABC (2015).

Left: The Typographic Universe (2014) by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson. Right: Alphabet City (1995) by Stephen T. Johnson.
Photos of the works: Books On Books Collection.

Left: The Spectrum A-Z (2003) by Karen Hanmer. Right: ABC (2015) by Tara McLeod.
Photos of the works: Books On Books Collection.

The artist and Tandem Press have been kind enough to provide images of the letters A and Z to compare with those in the book, a comparison that underscores the quality of the book and Cottingham’s art.

An American Alphabet: A (2001)
Robert Cottingham
Lithography, Edition of 40, 32 x 23 inches
Image courtesy of Robert Cottingham and Tandem Press

An American Alphabet: Z (2008)
Robert Cottingham
Lithography, Edition of 40, 30 1/2 x 23 inches
Image courtesy of Robert Cottingham and Tandem Press

Further Reading

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

Stephen T. Johnson“. Books On Books Collection. 30 November 2021.

Meisel, Louis K. 1993. Photorealism since 1980. New York: H.N. Abrams.

Meisel, Louis K., and Helene Zucker Seeman. 1989. Photo-Realism. New York: Abradale Press.

Books On Books Collection – Stephen T. Johnson

Alphabet City (1995)

Alphabet City (1995)
Stephen T. Johnson
Casebound, sewn and glued. H276 x W226 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Blackwell’s, 17 August 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

A Caldecott Honor Book and New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 1995, Alphabet City goes beyond the alphabet letters as found objects, a sub-genre documented by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson in The Typographic Universe (2014). Johnson transforms his found capital letters with pastels, watercolor, gouache and charcoal into photo-realistic pictures in varying but similar sizes; for example, 26.5 x 22.5 inches for the A and 25.25 x 21.5 inches for the Z. These appeared in an inaugural exhibition in 1997 at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. Johnson’s works are held in numerous permanent collections (mostly in the US) and private ones (mainly US-based but increasingly Europe as well), but they are closely tied to his children’s books: Alphabet School (2015) and A is for Art (see below). Most impressive is how he lifts the alphabet book from ordinary trade status to artist book.

Along with Robert Cottingham, Johnson established the photo-realistic alphabet as its own sub-genre, which has been explored by other artists such as Stephen Magsig in The Urban Alphabet: Paintings from Postcards from Detroit and Simon Jennings in Outdoor Types: An Urban Alphabet (2010)

A is for Art (2008)

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet (2008)
Stephen T. Johnson
Perfect bound in case with doublures. H310 x 235 mm, 40 pages. Acquired from Amazon E.U., 4 September 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

In his review in American Art, Philip Nel coins an apt name for Johnson’s art — “alphabet expressionism” — which, on closer examination of texture and technique, applies also to Alphabet City. Go back and look at the foreground of the letter A in Alphabet City.

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet has the feel of Moussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Although each movement “depicts” a different painting, the composer’s style comes through; although each letter alludes to different artists (for example, but not complete for each letter: A – François Dufrêne, Kurt Schwitters; B- Jim Dine, Willem de Kooning , C- Arman, Félix Gonzáles-Torres; D- Udomsak Krisanamis; W- Man Ray; X- Robert Rauschenberg; Y- Tom Wesselman, Robert Indiana; Z- Beatrice Mandelman, Mimmo Rotella), the artist’s vision comes through. To pull that off requires considerable versatility. Several of the images in A is for Art derive from sculptures and large-scale installations. Take a look, too, at his triptych of mosaics in the City Center Public Library of Lenexa, Kansas.

Also a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year, A is for Art demonstrates two subgenres of alphabet books: the hidden and alliterative alphabet. An interesting, perhaps intentional, effect — even more so when the letters are difficult to find — is to make the viewer linger over the image longer than the museum goer’s average of less than 30 seconds per object. The ingenuity of Johnson’s alliterative sentences is almost as engaging as the images; even so, its main effect directs the eye back to the images. Here is the text for the letter A:

A a
Arrangement No. 1
Affixed across and around an angled letter A are an array of abstracted and assembled bits of advertisements, and apparent among them are apostrophes, ampersands, accents, and an asterisk.

If you spend only 13 minutes in this book (30 seconds per letter), you are missing out.

Music and numbers have also piqued Johnson’s creative curiosity, but another of his series works leads in a more intriguing, roundabout way back to A is for Art: the Kana Card series. On a trip through Japan, the artist acquired a set of Japanese flashcards for learning Katagana and Hiragana. Each 2 x 3 inch card becomes a canvas for paint and collage.

Alphabet School (2015)

Alphabet School (2015)
Stephen T. Johnson
Hardback. H286 x W236 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Book Depository, 5 November 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

Using monoprints on paper with digital enhancements, Johnson shifts technique yet again here. The photorealism yields to a graininess, but as with Alphabet City, the effect of making the reader look not just at the images but also at his or her environment remains.

Some letters are contrived (two bookends posed for the letter M). Most of the scenes, however, deliver an authentic sense of found letters (the C in the support of the globe atlas). Johnson has raised the bar on the hidden-letter theme, common in the genre of alphabet books, by several notches.

Further Reading

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

Robert Cottingham“. Books On Books Collection.

Paul Cox“. Books On Books Collection.

Heller, Steven, and Gail Anderson“. 8 May 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Mackey, Bonnie, and Hedy Schiller Watson. 2017. Alphabet books: the K-12 educators’ power tool. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Nel, Philip. 2008. “The Fall and Rise of Children’s Literature.” American Art 22, no. 1: 23–27.

A Is for Art: Stephen T. Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet“. 31 August 2010. Nine Kinds of Pie.

Zerkin, Becca. 9 November 2008. “Alphabet City.” The New York Times Book Review. The review actually covers A is for Art.

Books On Books Collection – Clément Mériguet

ABCDead (2010)

ABCDead (2010)
Clément Mériguet
H170 x W140 mm, 56 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Chapitre Libraire, 10 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

An alphabet of sardonic commentary in words and images on death, human behavior, stupidity and fetishism. Starting with the skull for Avenir (“future”), Mériguet places his alphabet artist book squarely within the genres of the vanitas and still life. which in French is — appropriately — nature morte (“nature dead”). (In addition to the images below, the artist offers the images of an ivory carving to illustrate Éléphant, a tree stump for Oxygène and a dead bee for Pollen. With his medium being the computer, he clearly cannot resist compounding the punnery by describing his images as nature morte virtuelle.

Further Reading

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

Books On Books Collection – Julien Gineste

Alphabet (2016)

Alphabet (2016)
Julien Gineste
Staple-bound pamphlet. H180 x W130 mm, 32 pages. Edition of 100. Acquired from ~zeug, 25 March 2020. Photos: Courtesy of the publisher, ~zeug.

These single-color risograph-printed photos of celebrities and literary figures are without labels. The reader’s ability to identify them depends on general, historical, literary and popular knowledge and some awareness of how the French pronounce the letters of the alphabet.

A clever piece to make us think about the relationship of text to image. If you can recognize the tennis legend Arthur Ashe, you have to know that the letter H is pronounced “aash” to make sense of his position in the booklet. No need to know there is no difference in saying “O”; you only need to know the face of Jackie O. Several of the personalities go by an initial that corresponds to their alphabetic position: Jay Z and Mister T, but did the French really call “Dubya”, the 43rd president of the US, “doobla-vay”?

Further Reading

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

Sciullo, Pierre di. L’Après-midi d’un phonème — The Afternoon of a Phoneme (Paris, FR: ~zeug, 2019). Another exercise in French/English punning — if only in the title’s play on Mallarmé’s poem and Débussy’s musical homage L’Après-midi d’un Faune. The book is a more complex affair, being both an accomplished artist book and interview by Sandra Chamaret and Julien Gieneste of di Sciullo.

Books On Books Collection – Claude Sarasas

The ABC’s of Origami (1964)

The ABC’s of Origami (1964)
Claude Sarasas
Paper on board, casebound with illustrated endpapers. H264 x W188 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Thrift Books, 7 September 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Its blend of multilingual treatment, paper craft applied to the alphabet and collage of origami figures against scenes of Japanese landscapes recommended this book to the Books On Books Collection as a curiosity. The less-than-always-clear origami directions and the words’ lettering, however, altering between black and white and shadowed to tilt in different directions to distinguish the English, French and Japanese, dull the curiosity.

The ABC’s of Origami is now in its second edition (2012). Without question, Ms Sarasas has pointed the way for combining abecedaries with origami objects.

Further Reading

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

Hasegawa, Taichiro. Magical origami alphabets and numerals (Japan: [publisher not identified], 1996).

Hwang, Joyce. Kirigami alphabet design 7: fun with paper folding and cutting (Union City, CA: Heian International, 1994).

Klein, Louis. Animals to fold: an illustrated cutout alphabet book on origami (London: B.T. Batsford, 1962).

Bookmarking Book Art – Diane Harries

Legacy (2018)

Legacy (2018)
Diane Harries
Venetian blind book. Monoprint, screenprint and collage. Closed: H107 x W233 x D25 mm; Open: H1000 mm. Unique.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Look at the circular and triangular pieces making up the clasp for this work Legacy (2018) by Diane Harries. Don’t they appear to be made of marble or some other polished stone? They actually come from coconut husk, shaped, polished and dyed. The only indigenous plant from the palm family in New Zealand is the nīkau, and the coconut trees present on one of its islands were likely planted. “Some say that when Māori came to New Zealand, they looked in vain for a familiar tree and seeing the nīkau, compared it to the coconut tree of their Pacific homeland. One translation of ‘nīkau’ is ‘without nuts’, in remembrance of the coconut.”

The choice of material — this crafted seed — strikes a subtle note in a work inspired by Harries’ experience with the Gordon Park Scenic Reserve, a protected lowland forest once common to the Manawatu/Whanganui region of New Zealand. An expanse of land preserved by what threatened it in the first place.

As the thread unwinds from around the circular piece of seed pod and the triangular piece is laid aside, the subtle notes grow. The fashioned clasp is the same sort used to hold up or let fall a venetian blind. But here the clasp works in reverse from that for a venetian blind: the winding holds the book closed, the unwinding opens it. The thread winds around and through what appears at first to be an accordion book, but with the first turned page or panel, it is clear that this is venetian blind structure. A structure that modulates the movement of light and air. Our artifice can be deployed “to open or close” nature.

A collage of hand-printed images (monoprint and screenprint) sound the more obvious note that this work addresses our impact on nature. Images of leaves and a wire fence strung along posts. Alternating panels of living and dead trees — a healthy and exotic bunya pine and the native, dead kahikatea (white pine).

As the panels extend fully, other material and images come into play. Staves of musical notation appear — here on a panel with the living, there on a panel with the dead. Just as fickle as a pretty human artifact that in one context winds to close and in another winds to open.

Images of wandering thread contrast with the straight lines of real thread connecting the panels. Scraps of tarlatan with its loose weave constrast with densely woven rectangles of thread.

Did the venetian blind structure and seed-based material choose the images, or did the images choose the structure and material?The choice of material and structure can play an obvious or subtle role — or both, or none at all — in a work. When material, form, technique and metaphor play together like this, the work becomes art.

Artist’s Statement

The botanical history of Gordon Park Scenic Reserve provides a window on the social changes that have marked the region. European settlers cleared most of the native bush for farmland, but this tiny patch of swamp forest three kilometres east of Whanganui was saved by an enlightened landowner. Today as conservationists, we mourn the loss of native species everywhere.

The plants there today tell these stories of loss and invasion. Drainage of the area for pastureland has put native kahikatea (white pine) trees at risk during drought and some have died. Their bleached skeletons stand sentinel to this historically neglected status. Paradoxically, the exotic bunya pine (Australian native) nearby, is valued as a marker of the original homestead (now removed), and is officially recorded as Protected Tree #96. The stories are enmeshed in our history and changing values, indicated by the woven fabric in the book.

However, regardless of their social meaning, there is splendour in both of these trees, and the music is a whimsical appreciation of beauty in the face of mankind’s fickle imprints upon the earth.

Further Reading

Chinnery, Colin. “The Chinese pothi (fanjia zhuang)“. The International Dunhuang Project. Site last revised: September 2016. Accessed 30 October 2021. The venetian blind book structure derives from one of the earliest known methods of binding: the Indo-Chinese pothi or palm-leaf sutra.

Department of Conservation, New Zealand Government. Manawatu/Whanganui. Site last revised: N.D. Accessed 30 October 2021

Books On Books Collection – Ernest Fraenkel

Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé
à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés (1960)

Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé, à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés (1960)
Ernest Fraenkel
Paperback, stapled to fold-in sleeve. H245 x W160 mm, 44 pages bound with 68 pages on 8.5 uncut folded and gathered sheets. Acquired from À la Page, 12 October 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Ernest Fraenkel should have left it at visually mapping Un Coup de Dés and offered it up as simply an artistic response to the poem. Even if it is a mapping of the condensed single-paged Cosmopolis (1897) version of the poem, think of the various renderings in handset chapbook form printed on letterpress or as lithographs, or etchings on glass, or even sculptures. It could have been the “Prometheus bound” to the “Prometheus unbound” of those who paid homage by appropriating the more expansive double-page spread book version (1914) that Mallarmé intended. Instead, it lies tucked away with 44 pages de l’explication. Professor David W. Seaman (Georgia Southern University), who has engaged with Fraenkel’s analysis, puts it well:

It must be said in [Fraenkel’s] defense that the idea is tempting: to make wordless patterns of the pages of the poem in order to see the ideogrammatic shapes more clearly. In addition, Fraenkel has contributed some worthwhile insights into the use of space and text in the poem, … However, there are three major objections to his project. First, he used, for most of his research, the text of the Cosmopolis edition of the poem, an edition which nearly everyone agrees is far from the author’s intentions, especially insofar as the ideograms are concerned; the preface to that edition gives ample warning of this. … / The second objection is that Fraenkel strays too far from the text, preferring to keep in mind a general idea of the meaning of the poem, and then go off according to the feelings the designs give him. … In fact,  sometimes Fraenkel recommends turning the design on its side or upside-down to see what image may present itself! / The third objection is that these designs are then used more or less like Rohrschach ink blots. (Seaman, pp. 142-43)

In his nine sets of single-sided uncut sheets, Fraenkel offers seven different diagrammatic approaches to the poem as it appeared in Cosmopolis, whose editors could not allow the poem’s lines to cross over the gutter to the next page as Mallarmé imagined the layout. The opening pages of Fraenkel’s seven approaches are laid out below in sunlight and paired with the textual opening page.

Seven different diagrammatic renderings. The one at the lower right shows Fraenkel’s sideways view.

The first rendering (above, upper left) is closest to what Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers would create later in the decade.

Left: a METRICA n’aboolira (1968) by Mario Diacono (1968). Right: Image: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1969) by Marcel Broodthaers (1969).

Fraenkel’s nine sets of sheets break down into eight of 8 pages and one of 4 pages. Below is the first set opened out.

The first set of eight pages

Compared with Diacono’s, Broodthaers’ and all the other works of homage to date, Fraenkel’s renderings retain a distinction and suggest other new directions not yet taken physically or digitally. Given the sculptural interpretations by Geraldo de Barros, Jorge Méndez Blake and Kathy Bruce, doesn’t Fraenkel’s first rendering call for a three-dimensional cantilevered homage constructed of slabs of blackened flotsam connected with brushed steel rods?

From the series Jogos de Dados (1986)
Geraldo de Barros
Photo: Julia Parpulov. Permission from Fabiana de Barros.

Biblioteca Mallarmé/Mallarmé Library (2011)
Jorge Méndez Blake
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Navigating the Abyss (2014)
Kathy Bruce
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Given the video created by Giulio Maffei transforming the 1914 book version into Broodthaers’ and the digital legerdemain of Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato and Tayyib Yavuz, why not an animated digital transformation of the Cosmopolis version into the 1914 book version?

Le Vite dei Libri 26 – Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (2016)
Giulio Maffei
Permission from the artist.


Mallarmé’s Self-replicating Machine: A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (2018)
Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato
Permission from the artists.

Experiment Book: “Un Coup de Dés”
Tayyib Yavuz
Permission from the artist.

And Professor Jed Rasula (University of Georgia), who has also explored Fraenkel’s work, suggests yet another medium:

Fraenkel’s sixty-eight seismographic and astral diagrams (or “stylizations”) practice a truly graphic mode of literary analysis. It was Fraenkel’s conviction that “a plastic text rests hidden in the extra-conscious layers of the poet, paralleling the verbal text of the poem” (9). … In their accentuation of the visual character of Un Coup de dés, Fraenkel’s designs are like watching a movie with the sound turned off, forced to rely on gesture rather than dialogue in order to follow the action.”

Except for the sound part, that could describe Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château de Dés (1929).

Further Reading

Derek Beaulieu“. Books On Books Collection. 19 June 2020.

Raffaella della Olga“. Books On Books Collection. 8 December 2020.

Klaus Detjen“. Books On Books Collection. 9 September 2020.

Sammy Engramer“. Books On Books Collection. 1 June 2020.

Michalis Pichler“. Books On Books Collection. 19 August 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans“. Books On Books Collection. 16 April 2020.

Eric Zboya“. Books On Books Collection. 1 June 2020.

Donnachie, Karen Ann, and Andy Siminiato. “Mallarmé’s Self-replicating Machine: A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”. MATLIT: Materialities of Literature, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, p. 37-49, Aug. 2018. Date accessed: 23 March 2019.

Rasula, Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (London: Palgrave, 2009). Accessed via Electronic Poetry Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Seaman, David W.  Concrete poetry in France (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1981).

Books On Books Collection – Nif Hodgson

Fluid Horizons (2021)

Fluid Horizons (2021)
Nif Hodgson
Slipcase. Modified dragon-scale concertina. Slipcase: H91 x W158 mm. Book: H90 x W156 mm, 20 panels. Variable edition of 10, of which this is #1. Acquired from 23 Sandy Gallery, 2 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

The opportunity to add another dragon-scale binding (see Rutherford Witthus and Zhang Xiaodong below) to the collection would have been incentive enough. The binding of Fluid Horizons is not, however, the usual dragon-scale binding as applied to multi-leaved scrolls. It comprises an effective accordion spine with leaves attached to the inside folds. What made Fluid Horizons irresistible is the effect the structure achieves with the unusual technique and material: screenprint and archival pigment ink on Arista II transparency film, Duralar polyester film and Lexan polycarbonate film.

Each book in an edition varies because its twenty images are selected from hundreds of photographs taken by Hodgson with the same horizon-dimension. Although not in sequence, each image influences the selection of the next, which creates a sense of progression. With the gradation of light and transparency across the selection, the sense of progression increases. But it is not a “film-like” progression of images, or snapshots taken one after another in sequence. Like memory and our sense of time, on which this work meditates, the progression is a fragile reconstruction. The transparent materials, expandable accordion spine and fluttering panels reflect the ephemeral, flexible and fragmentary way in which memory is shaped while also being affected by perception in the moment.

There is a further material ephemerality to the work. The panel surface is delicate, subject to dissolving from contact with moisture, smudging from fingers and scratching from grit. As Hodgson puts it, “the sensitive materials lightly wear with viewing and play, just as memory faintly fogs with time and recollection”. Fluid Horizons is a stunning union of form and metaphor.

Further Reading

Rutherford Witthus“. Books On Books Collection. 27 October 2021.

Zhang Xiaodong“. Books On Books Collection. 1 December 2019.

Chinnery, Colin. “Whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang)“. The International Dunhuang Project. Site last revised: September 2016. Accessed 21 October 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Rutherford Witthus

Skip for Joy (2021)

Skip for Joy (2021)
Rutherford Witthus
Dragon-scale scroll bound to bamboo rod. H306 x W477 mm, 11 panels. Edition of 5, of which this is #1. Acquired from the artist, 18 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Rutherford Witthus’ work is strong, quiet, broad and distinctive. It blends Eastern and Western traditions of the book arts. It joins the blackletter fonts of the Cistercian monks with the typography of Hermann Zapf. It joins John Cage’s chance-determined selection in the creation of art with a group of physicists’ fascination with the crumpling of paper. It experiments with abstract art and Japanese fore-edge illustration and binding. It offers a meditation on Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque through an intricately folded reprinting. The artist’s eclectic appreciation of  the work of Sappho, Walt Whitman, St. Francis, Gilles Deleuze, Søren Kierkegaard, Ernst Haeckel, Robert Herrick, Miguel de Unamuno and others finds an impressive unity across his body of work. Skip for Joy is the first of his works to be added to the Books On Books Collection.

Compounding its compelling structure, Skip for Joy displays accumulating lines of text one by one until there are ten lines of text on the tenth panel. For each line, Witthus draws its words and expressions from an entry in Roget’s Thesaurus. As each panel grows in width to play its part in the dragon-scale binding, each line grows, too, repeating words and adding more synonyms from its entry in Roget’s. Compounding the scaling of structure and text, Witthus varies his lines in color and position. Starting with the phrase “skip for joy” in orange on the first panel, he then adds the phrase “grit one’s teeth” in violet on the second panel beneath the orange line; then “desire” in red on the third above the orange line; then “do up and do” in turquoise on the fourth; and so on.

Second panel

Third panel

Fourth panel

What does Roget’s Thesaurus have to do with dragon-scale binding? The scroll’s first phrase and title provide a clue: an imperative to play. Anyone interested in playing with the dragon-scale (or whirlwind) binding usually goes to the site of the International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online. Among its descriptions so far of the forty thousand works found in the Buddhist cave library near China’s Dunhuang on the western edge of the Gobi desert in 1900, there is this passage:

Old Chinese accounts of whirlwind binding are very rare. However, there was a trail of clues left by a Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) rhyme dictionary called Kanmiu buque qieyun (Corrected rhymes), by Wang Renxu. … From the earliest accounts from the Song dynasty up to the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911), references to whirlwind bound books have always been connected with this text. … / Several examples of what is believed to be whirlwind binding have now been discovered in the Dunhuang collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library. Most of these have not been rebound, so it is possible to get a clear impression how these manuscripts were bound and why they were bound in this manner. IDP

Where Western reference works are organized alphabetically, the Qièyùn rhyming dictionary is organized phonologically. But that phonological organization is complex: starting first by grouping characters according to the five tones, then grouping them into rhyming groups according to a character’s initial consonant, and then into groups according to the rhyme of a character’s final consonant. And determining those rhymes requires instructions — the fanqie method that explains via other characters how a character entry should be pronounced. In short, organization by phonological similarities — of tone, initial rhyming consonant and final rhyming consonant.

So to follow the lead of the dragon-scale bound Qièyùn, Witthus picks an English-language reference work whose entries offer plenty of content based on similarities — such as synonyms. Skip for Joy is playful art. Its “rhymes” are the repetitions and synonyms in a line of text. Its lines of text jump into the panels where they will and in whatever color that suits. In the tenth panel, the seventh line even breaks into a dragon-like undulation.

Tenth panel

As the dragon-scale scroll returns to its archival box, its colors and undulating line unite with the dragon in the box’s silk onlay.

Further Reading

Nif Hodgson“. Books On Books Collection. 27 October 2021.

Zhang Xiaodong“. Books On Books Collection. 1 December 2019.

Chinnery, Colin. “Whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang)“. The International Dunhuang Project. Site last revised: September 2016. Accessed 21 October 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Karen Hanmer

The Spectrum A to Z (2003)

The Spectrum A to Z (2003)
Karen Hanmer
Tunnel book. 5 x 5 x 18 inches. Pigment inkjet prints. Edition of 20, of which this is #17. Acquired from Vamp & Tramp, 3 September 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with the artist’s permission.

The Spectrum A-Z is a satisfying addition to the Books On Books Collection for several reasons. Accordion book, flip-book and pop-up book treatments of the alphabet abound, but this may be the only tunnel book treatment. If not, surely the blending of the the alphabet with tunnel book structure and the color spectrum secures its uniqueness. Also, the springiness achieved in this tunnel book makes it alive and special.

In response to questions about the work, Hanmer commented on the work’s creation and sent along the screen shot below of the Photoshop files from which she printed the letters A-D:


A screen shot of the Photoshop files used for printing. Courtesy of the artist.

I print them with crop marks, cut the larger thing out and into quarters, and then cut around the individual letters (used to use a Havels #11, now I use a Swann Morton #10A scalpel blade, and a 6” ruler with sandpaper on the back so it does not slip for the straight bits, freehand for the curves). Years go by when I don’t need to make another, so I have a non-printing comment reminding me of the grain direction. If the letters were long grain, the structure would be limp and unsatisfying.Assembly with 1/4″ 3M 415 tape. PVA would make it wrinkly. Mohawk Superfine Cover, I think 80#. Whatever printer I have at the time, now an Epson SureColor P5000. (Correspondence with Books On Books. 19 October 2021)

The Havels #11 and Swann Morton #10A.

The color spectrum followed out and part way back by the book comes eclectically from the order of the default RGB swatch palette in Adobe’s version of Photoshop prior to Creative Suite in 2003. As for the structure’s springiness, Hanmer comments that she is not wild about it,

but 20 years ago I did not know that I could cut several little tabs with a woodworking gouge out of the accordion for each letter and attach the letters to the tabs to relieve the tension, and 2021 Karen does not feel like adding several more hours to the process of assembling these. She also likes the security of having each panel adhered for its full length. And now that you mention it, the springiness would make it a lot more fun to play with, so maybe it is not so bad after all. (Correspondence with Books On Books. 19 October 2021)

The Spectrum A-Z was made in response to a call from the Chicago Hand Bookbinders, which thrived from 1978/9 through 2009. The Biographical/Historical Note for the CHB archives mentions that, “Among its notable projects was a series of fifteen collaborative artist’s alphabet books in varying formats, created between 1987 and 2004”. Of course, from time to time, other “organizations of the book” have issued calls for artist alphabet books. But with the infinite gradations in Roy G. Biv’s spectrum and the customizability within Creative Suite, surely now another call is bound to result in a rainbow of followers of Hanmer’s innovation.

Further Reading

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

Gage, John. Colour and Culture : Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Webb, Poul. “Alphabet Books – part 1“, 27 December 2017; “Alphabet Books – part 2, 29 December 2017; Alphabet Books – part 3″, 1 January 2018; “Alphabet Books – part 4“, 3 January 2018; “Alphabet Books – part 5“, 5 January 2018; “Alphabet Books – part 6“, 8 January 2018; “Alphabet Books – part 7“, 10 January 2018; “Alphabet Books – part 8“, 12 January 2018. Art & Artists. Accessed 2 September 2021. “For the color” from horn-books to the alphabet books of the early 20th century.