From children’s picture book to artist’s book and back, certain techniques and tropes with the alphabet recur. Finding an image in a letter or making an image from a letter may be the oldest, not surprising given the pictorial origins of almost all writing systems. Lisa Campbell Ernst freshened this approach with a structural twist that does not rely on pop-ups, flaps, pull-tabs, a volvelle, accordion tunnel or any of the other moving part standbys of children’s books. Rather the whole book moves — as its title suggests.
Ernst’s inventiveness with foreground, background and negative space holds its own in the illustrious company of illustrators, designers and artists below under Further Reading.
A Bodoni Charade (1995) Nicolas McDowall Miniature accordion attached to paper over boards. H59 x W67 mm. 32 panels. Edition of 240, of which this is #1. Acquired from Bromers Bookseller, 16 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
A Bodoni Charade expresses a rare wit with 26 imaginative and original unions of letters, decorative type, text and images. The accordion joined to the front and back covers discourages stretching it out for reading and encourages turning the pages codex style. Just as well — the jokes should be savored no more than two at a time, and enjoying the execution of letterpress skill demands it. Notice how the letter g’s descenders kiss the bottom edge of the page as if they are about to fall into space. Glance — or look hard — at the icicle, and you will swear that the lowercase i’s dot is actually dripping. And enjoy how the lowercase j demotes the judgmental uppercase letter J by sharing its jester’s cap bobble.
The Hidden Alphabet (2003) Laura Vaccaro Seeger Die-cut dustjacket. Casebound, alphabet-decorated paper over boards, doublures attached as first and last pages. H225 x W210 mm. 54 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Plain Tales Books, 18 September 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
When removed, The Hidden Alphabet‘s die-cut dustjacket offers a clue to the magic about to happen.
Inside the book, white letters on a glossy black die-cut sheet name the object framed inside the cutout. But lift the black frame, and the object disappears into the uppercase letter appearing on the page underneath: the first letter of the object’s name that just disappeared.
The optical illusion created by the shifting foreground mesmerizes and will prompt a race through this abecedary to see the next bit of magic. But for the teacher or parent reading with the child, Laura Vaccaro Seeger has subtly planted another traditional feature of the alphabet book to be used in a second pass through the book. Learning the difference between lowercase and uppercase characters becomes part of the trick of lifting the flap to move from the small to the big. And for the more serious students of the alphabet and art, the magic calls attention to the metamorphic boundary between text and image
Paul Salt and Susan Shaw collaborate under the name Salt+Shaw. Individually and together, they present a wide range of book art. Much of it finds its most striking expressions in unusual bindings, sometimes to the extent that the binding absorbs the content — as is the case with a spent bullet in Forest Beach Garden.
FOREST GARDEN BEACH (2005)
FOREST GARDEN BEACH(2005) Salt + Shaw Hardcover. H90 x W110 x 30 mm. Edition of 15, of which this is #7. Acquired from the artist, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The book block between the covers here is not a book block of pages. The only text in Forest Garden Beach is found on the tag attached to the work. On one side is the title, artists’ names, date and edition. On the other are UK National Grid Reference coordinates for locations in Scotland, South Yorkshire and East Yorkshire. The coordinates’ suggestion of precision, however, run into visual, tactile and textual ambiguities. This book shape opens on something concealed. The red leather case binding holds and withholds.
The shape seen and felt beneath it seems to be that of a bullet’s shell casing. There is an indentation, almost like a rifle chamber from which the casing is being ejected. According to the artists’ online description, it is a spent bullet “found in a forest, on a beach or in the garden”. But that is information apart, or evidence external to the work and its tag. Even if it were squeezed onto the tag somehow, the information leaves ambiguities: from which of the three locations did this single found object, now covered by leather, come; and why the precision of the coordinates if the source is uncertain?
Fusing location with the element(s) of the book form that they have chosen to exploit is another frequent characteristic of Salt+Shaw’s combined work. The next item is one of their most effective works of “local color”.
Mill (2006) Salt+Shaw Wood and leather binding, using discarded library shelves, canvas and upholstery nails. Plaster cast and canvas pages with individual pamphlet book text inserts printed on Canson paper. Casts made using water extracted in dehumidifying the building. H143 x W114 mm closed, H143 x W310 mm open. Edition of 24, of which this is #2. Acquired from the artists, 25 November 2018.
The work is a tactile exploration of the interior and exterior space of a corn mill in Cromford, built c.1780 to grind grain for workers at Arkwright’s cotton mill.A journey around Cromford Mill, Derbyshire.
Mill is an investigation of the marks of passage, which have become part of the fabric of the space and reveal time, energy, endeavour and change:
(i) recording the interaction of the human body with the building
(ii) recording the impact of natural forces upon the built environment
(iii) locating the marks that reveal a momentary connection or repetitious action
(iv) examining clues and ephemera.
Silicone moulds were taken from marks of usage around the mill, including the spotwhere a door handle impressed upon a wall and the shape of a break in a pane of glass. Plaster casts were then produced, using water from a dehumidifier within the building to make the plaster. A text piece, contained within canvas pocket pages, creates a unique map of the mill and takes a journey through the building – both to experience the environment and locate the plaster casts. [Correspondence from the artists, 5 December 2018.]
Just as the spent object in Forest Garden Beach lies buried or hidden but still tangible beneath the cover of the work, the spent object of Mill is plain to the touch but only through plaster impressions of it. Where the text related to Forest Garden Beach plays a game with precision and ambiguity, the text of Mill plays a game of hide-and-seek or blind man’s bluff.
FOLD (2015) Salt + Shaw Cloth over board with eye-and-ribbon closing. H60 x W140 x D1.5 mm. Edition of 35, of which this is #19. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Provided by the artists and Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artists’ permission.
The cloth-over-board binding opens to reveal a single-fold title page on the inside front cover and a small book tucked into a receptacle on the inside back cover. Bolted to the inside front cover, a found miniature pair of Sheffield scissors. Glued to the inside spine, a small rock. And imprinted on the inside back cover, a rust-transferred reverse image of the scissors.
On removal and opening, the small book turns out to be a single sheet of paper in a “meander” fold.
On one side, it displays a close-up photograph of a beached whale’s skin lying in folds over rocks and shingle. On the other side is a close-up of human skin resting on a similar bed.
So here is a fourth option in the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, but the game is one rather of Risk in which, whatever the craft, whatever the objects found and whatever the strategy played in rock-paper-scissors, the environment enfolds and binds.
This sort of implicit visual/verbal play becomes more explicit in the next work.
COIN (2017) Salt + Shaw Hardcover. H300 x W215 mm, 44 unnumbered pages. Edition of 9, of which this is #2. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
Faint handprints from nine individuals. Light imprints from an ampersand and a series of words all prefixed with “de”. A gradually disappearing profile of Queen Victoria. A hand-worn 1860-1894 penny coin fixed to a splatter of copper leaf. Along with the front cover’s embossed, eroded letters, this progression of letterpress and stencil work toward that coin echoes the archaeological aura of Forest Garden Beach, Mill and Fold, but through its progression, COIN enacts the strange movement through time that such found objects take.
The brackets on either side of the word on the title page might suggest a coin dropped in a pool of time, except that the brackets narrow rather than widen outwards. So, maybe the coin is rising through time. Or, look again at the title page and the coin on the last page, and maybe the brackets should be seen as “leaking” from the word just as the copper leaf can be seen as “leaking” from the coin.
Like the tangible shell casing in Forest Garden Beach beneath the leather, the letters of the word “COIN” rise beneath the front cover cloth. Take another look at those letters, and it becomes clear that their forms beneath the cloth are eroded, just as the bullet is spent and just as the copper coin has been worn. The mix of “de” words and the handprints over the queen’s deteriorating profile add the kind of irony to be found in Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias“.
ITHACA(2015) Salt + Shaw Hardcover. 140 x 140 mm, 9 sheets of architectural tracing paper with hand-cut lines. Edition of 9, of which this is #7. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
Ithaca gives a few twists both to the theme of the present’s interaction with the past and to the artists’ affection for blind printing. As the colophon indicates, the first copy of the edition of nine was left on the island of Ithaca and performs the act of an offering, much as objects left as offerings to the gods. “Journeys” and the work’s title, of course, suggest the most famous of journeying heroes — Odysseus; however,
the journeys to which the offering is dedicated are “inner and outer”, suggesting an allusion beyond the hero. The nine translucent sheets of architecture paper bear cuts whose shapes are each replicated by an embossed printing on the back (or front) cover of the work. If the sheets are rightly arranged, they will replicate the image of the circle and triangle embedded in the square on the front (or back cover).
The combined images of square, circle and triangle and the reference to inner and outer journeys suggest associations with sacred geometry (reflected elsewhere in the Books On Books Collection: Bruno Munari’s compendia on the square, circle and triangle and Jeffrey Morin’s and Steven Ferlauto’s two works) and with Zen (also reflected elsewhere in the collection: Julie Johnstone’s works).
The playing with the sheets of paper — a kind of inner and outer journey itself — to which Ithaca invites us highlights a growing insistence on audience interaction in all the works so far and especially so in the next.
LIMINAL KEEPSAKE (2015)
LIMINAL KEEPSAKE (2015) Salt + Shaw Pamphlet book. H70 x W105 mm, 12 unnumbered pages, half-sheet insert. Edition of 15, of which this is #11. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
Liminal Keepsake realizes the sea:land allusion of Ithaca‘s title by presenting its audience with eleven photographs of sea and land meeting. The photos, unique to each copy in the edition, are held in hand-cut mounts. “Liminal” refers to “a space between” or “where edges meet”. The photos in Liminal Keepsake seem to be a collection of memories about where the edges of the sea and land meet.
But on the inside back cover is a list of references to literary works, each of which has a passage that aligns with the photo matching in the sequence. Here is another space between — the space between the images and the passages — a space into which any curious viewer is thrust. If the viewer expects to enjoy this work fully, the viewer has to seek out the passages in that list to see how the text matches the photo. Not that easy a task since each text is specific to a specific edition of the cited literary work. The For instance, the tenth photo in the sequence is aligned to a passage from Bram Stoker’s Dracula — specifically from page 85, line 17 of the 2003 Penguin edition. Fortunately, that edition can be easily found online. Here’s the passage (the 17th line is in bold):
… The day / was unusually fine till the afternoon, when some of the gossips / who frequent the East Cliff churchyard, and from that com- / manding eminence watch the wide sweep of sea visible to the / north and east, called attention to a sudden show of ‘mares’- / ‘tails’ high in the sky to the north-west. …
And here is the relevant photo in the collection’s copy of Liminal Keepsake.
So the viewer has to become researcher and reader to experience Liminal Keepsake fully, and the viewer/researcher/reader has to become something even more to finish Liminal Keepsake. Just as Ithaca invites its audience to arrange its translucent sheets to form the symbol on its cover, Liminal Keepsake invites its completion by the viewer/researcher/reader-cum-artist’s taking a photo of “the Liminal” and a bibliographical reference that echoes the photo.
In pondering completion of the work, would-be artists come across across other “spaces between” — the space between the visual and textual imaginations and the space between concept and execution. Apparently the artists took their photos, then found the texts to match. To hold an image in mind and be constantly on the lookout for matching text in whatever literary work happens to be in hand seems a tall order. To start the other way around — to have some sea:land text in hand and then seek a setting in which an appropriate image is likely to be found — looks easier to the more textual imagination. On top of this are the artist-manqué’s anxiety of crossing that space between concept and execution and the curator’s anxiety of sacrificing the object as-was and the aura of possibilities for perhaps a lesser object and one definitely without the aura of possibilities.
LOOK (2021) Salt + Shaw Hardcover, double-sided concertina book. H350 x W230 mm, 10 unnumbered panels. Edition of 3, of which this is #1. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
The core features of two individuals’ faces head-on have been drawn on both sides of this concertina book — “core” meaning no delimitation by hair, ears or other details at the edges of the visages. The red thread connecting the pairs of eyes with one another draws attention back to the title: Is it an instruction for the viewer to look? Is it a noun referring to appearance, the look of the faces? Or to expression, the look in the faces? Is it a noun referring to an action occurring between the depicted faces — if only via the thread connecting the pairs of eyes? Only when the concertina is closed do the faces face one another. Yet the color red, echoed between the cover and thread, suggests an intensity connecting these looks, these gazes.
A more textual predecessor to Look is Whorl (2007).
WHORL(2007) Salt + Shaw Hardcover, modified concertina and pamphlet book, H115 x W155 mm, 4 unnumbered panels, 2 unnumbered central sheets. Edition of 20, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
Here is a rare instance of a poem’s metaphysicality being physically enacted by the surface and structure on which the poem is inscribed. On a double-page spread at the work’s center, a poem begins at the center of its spiral, or whorl, with the words “We press tip to tip fingers ….” Pull the double-page spread outwards away from the spine. Because the spread’s centerfold serves to bind four panels into a diamond shape, two hand-cut stencils of two different fingerprints approach (“tremblingly” as the poem describes) to touch one another when the double-page spread is pulled completely outwards and away from the spine. If this does not renind the reader of John Donne’s poetry, nothing will.
The following works are individual to Susan Shaw and Paul Salt, respectively. Shaw’s individual works also deliver complete textual works — short stories or a poem — that fuse with their containers.
Crimson(2004) Susan Shaw Hand-made paper cover. H155 x W110 mm, 8 unnumbered pages. Edition of 10, of which this is #2. Acquired from the artist, 13 December 2021. Photos:Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The washed-out cover, pressed fallen leaf and faded title signal the conclusion of the short story Crimson, in which a couple seemingly argue incessantly about choice of colors, both indoors and out in their garden.
Shaw’s attraction to fiction narrative perspective flutters recurs in the next work, but its leporello structure and photos add a different otherworldly touch.
KLARA AND THE ANGEL (2004)
KLARA AND THE ANGEL(2004) Susan Shaw Hardcover, double-sided concertina book. H220 x W160 mm, 15 unnumbered panels. Edition of 10, of which this is #3. Acquired from the artists, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artists.
The story begins in a Prague cemetery covered in snow, to which the reader’s attention is directed by the narrator’s direct address in light blue type. As the type shifts into black, the narrator continues to address the reader, and with the reference to being perched on St. Francis’s shoulder, the narrator gives some of the game but then deflects with the introduction in blue of Klara’s arrival. As the leporello unfolds, so does Klara’s story and the narrator’s identity as the angel with whom Klara has an appointment.
Snow and evocative photos feature in the next work but with less drama.
SNOW DROPS FROM PETALS(2008)
SNOW DROPS FROM PETALS(2008) Susan Shaw Pamphlet book. H150 x W105 mm, 12 unnumbered pages. Edition of 17, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artist, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The front cover wraps around to overlap the back cover, which is rather like the way in which words often play multiple roles in poems. Here, the subject snow and its verb drops coincide with the flower’s name and its two photos that appear later. The center of the work presents the entire haiku, but more interesting and curious, the haiku’s traditional structure (lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables) breaks up into four segments (5, 6, 3, 3) to appear on verso pages facing a photo.
Daffodils face the first line. Snow drops face the words “ballet pink cyclamens”. More snow drops face the words “nod below”. A bee perched on a blossom faces the words “startled trees”. The effect is to send the reader back and forth across these spreads and page turns like a bee moving from flower to flower.
Paul Salt’s individual works in the collection take a more sculptural expression. Even though this next work is garden-inspired like Snow Drops, its physical presentation reflects the more sculptural garden that inspired it.
BROTHERS IN ARMS(2008)
BROTHERS IN ARMS(2008) Paul Salt Hardcover, folio. H300 x W220 mm close, W655 open. Edition of 24, of which this is #2. Acquired from the artist, 13 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The garden in question here is the more severe but still playful Little Sparta, created by Ian Hamilton Finlay. On a visit there, Salt found a pair of wings at the base of one of the sculptures.
In its imagery and structure, the final work by Salt reflects the physicality and preoccupations found in many of the works above: especially Mill, Coin and Fold. Although it has less whimsy than Coin or Fold, its abrupt title recalls Ed Ruscha’s humorous rule of thumb for distinguishing between bad and good art: Bad art makes you say ‘Wow! Huh?’ Good art makes you say ‘Huh? Wow!’
What …? (2018)
What …? (2018)
Salt+Shaw Hardback, boxed-bound, black book cloth, concertina book with magnetised and elasticated fastening. Drawings and collages printed on black and orange Canson card. Letterpress. Hinges engineered in Canson card to create a spring in the turning of the pages. H213 x W80 mm closed, H213 x W830 mm open Edition of 5, of which this is #2. Acquired from the artists, 25 November 2018.
What? is a book about finding solutions, both in its construction and content. Made over a period of several years, from the first drawing to the final binding, it prefers to raise questions, rather than provide answers. Hence the title. The relationship between What? and viewer therefore depends upon response, perception and making connections. Clues could include: • William Blake • harbingers • manipulation • dislocation • loss • finding a way out • George Orwell. [Correspondence with artists, 5 December 2018.]
What? … Wow!
Sarah Bodman (University of Western England) has highlighted their work in a-n News with some outstanding photos:
“At the recent 21st International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair in Leeds, they launched Ocean Bestiary, a unique book of strange and miraculous Medieval-inspired sea creatures that features a concertina construction, letterpress text, acrylic paint, gold foil, whale bone and a leather inlay.” Sarah Bodman, “Artists’ Books #28: Salt+Shaw, collaborative book makers“, a-n News, 6 March 2018.
Alphabatics (1986) Suse MacDonald Paper on board, casebound sewn. H236 x 285 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Book Depository, 10 September 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
While Suse MacDonald’s Alphabatics can find its ancestor in Bruno Munari’s ABC Con Fantasia (1960), it also finds some clever descendants in Nicolas McDowall’s A Bodoni Charade (1995), David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet (1996) and Anne Bertier’s Construis-moi une lettre (2008).
As the letters are put through their acrobatic paces in three to four steps on the verso page to become the image on the right, the book gently pushes the left-to-right reading direction. Mahmoud Tammam has created animals composed of their names in Arabic script. It would be interesting to see a right-to-left Arabic version (Alefbatics?) of Alphabatics.
Dessine-moi une lettre (2004) Anne Bertier Casebound, sewn. H258 x W258 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 17 August 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Anne Bertier’s three alphabet books cross sub-genres of the ABCs with distinctive style and educational challenge. While the answers to the visual puzzles are offered at the end of the first and last books, considerable pleasure is missed by giving up too quickly. For the English speaker learning French, there’s the added pleasure of cementing a familiar word with Bertier’s images and discovering a new word that will also stick because of them.
Rêve-moi une lettre (2005)
Rêve-moi une lettre (2005) Anne Bertier Casebound, sewn. H135 x W132 mm, 52 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 30 August 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Here is the French version of the alliterative alphabet. Its opening with Alice suggests an underlying literary motif, but more likely at play is the association of the book’s title (“dream me a letter”) with Alice’s dreaming of Wonderland.
The English alphabet’s “go to” for the letter A does not work for the French pomme, but from the similarity between the image here and that in Dessine-moi un lettre, there seems to be one, too, for the French alphabet. With the cognate word in French and English, the letter B is too easy. But C is for ?
With the overlap between design, art and children’s education, Bertier’s numerous large-scale exhibitions in China, Italy, Japan, Korea as well as France come as no surprise. Think of Dik Bruna, Eleonora Cumer, Katsumi Komagata or Bruno Munari.
Würfelwurf: fragmentarische Annäherung an Stéphan Mallarmé (1992) Reinhold Nasshan Slipcase, embossed spine, casebound in paper-covered boards, front cover decorated with title set on slip of paper woven into the cover, block sewn and glued, with relief prints as pastedowns. Slipcase: H360 x W248 mm; Book: 351 x 243 mm, 4 gatherings of folios of varying size cut, tucked or folded to fit within the binding’s dimensions. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
“Throw of the dice”, “dice throw” or “throwing dice” are all reasonable translations of Würfelwurf, but not “a throw of the dice”, which most German translators render as ein Würfelwurf when tackling Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés. But then Reinhold Nasshan is not translating the poem. As the subtitle indicates, he is making “a fragmentary approach”, an approximation.
The very structure and working of Nasshan’s Würfelwurf underscore his title’s distinction between a single act and repetition of the act. On its front cover, the word würfelwurf splits in two, one half printed over the other on the slip woven into the slits in the front cover. The slip angles downward from left to right suggesting action, which comes aplenty inside the book.
Some pages are cut, their corners folded and tucked in. One gathering consists of a sheet 688 x 470 mm that is creased with mountain- and valley-folds and untrimmed at the bottom edge so that it unfolds into a base that spills out beyond the covers. Pages take on dice-shaped edges and planes that seem to roll from within and against the book. The achieved effect of motion recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) or Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
Although the title of Mallarmé’s poem appears, most of the text scattered across the surfaces comes from his other writings; for example, peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces”); tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre (“everything in the world exists to end up in a book”); and Das Buch ist eine totale Expansion des Buchstabens (“The book is a total expansion of the letter”). When that large folded gathering comes, though, the Mallarmé’s words begin to be jumbled: Ein Würfelwurf wird nie das Würfelspiel abschaffen (“A throw of the dice will never abolish the game of dice”) and Ein Wurf Gottes wird nie den Zufall abschaffen (“A throw from God will never abolish chance”).
Strangest of all is the mangling of émet from the poem’s final line Toute pensée émet un coup de dés (“All thought emits a throw of the dice”). The word becomes éinet. Not French, not German. Perhaps a typo of “in” for “m”? As it turns out, according to the artist, it is a fluke that the letter “m” available in the font on hand printed poorly, so “i” and “n” provided an alternative three vertical strokes.
Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997)
Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997) Reinhold Nasshan Flexible triangular cloth-covered book boards, 4 cotton paper squares folded into origami water bomb base and glued. Triangle: 127 x 127 x 179 mm; Square “pages”: 166 x 166 mm. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
Nasshan also refers to this as a “letter sculpture”. Inviting the reconfiguring as with the works of Eleonora Cumer or Bruno Munari, or simply constant fiddling as with a paper fortune teller, Un Coup is more three-dimensional than Würfelwurf. As with Würfelwurf, this work lets the “moment of movement itself, the transition between the throw and the impact of the dice, emerge graphically” (moment der bewegung selbst den ubergang zwischen dem werfen und dem auftreffen der wurfel, graphisch hervortreten zu lassen). With less surface than Würfelwurf, though, it has fewer extracts from Mallarmé’s writings. Indeed, along with the physical shape shifting, the enlarged letters overprinted at multiple angles to one another combine to make this work more abstract than extract. But because text and book are material from which, on which and with which Nasshan creates, the abstract retains its links to the book.
Also a painter, Nasshan’s works fall into two categories or surfaces — painted books and painted canvases. Though lacking the shape of a book, his abstract paintings retain that link to “the world of Letters” in shapes and figures that evoke hieroglyphics, Chinese characters, typography and even cave paintings. His influences appear equally eclectic — though more Kandinsky, Klee and Miró than Pollock or Rothko — which matches up with his choice of substrates in fiction and nonfiction. When not choosing works from the ancient, classical or Romantic periods (from Gilgamesh to Seneca to Hölderlin), he chooses Apollinaire, Beckett, Celan, Joyce or Wittgenstein among others from the Modern period.
A wider audience would profit from Nasshan’s works. At least these two and others that might enter the Books On Books Collection will be available in the 2022 exhibitions celebrating the 125th anniversary of the publication of Un Coup de Dés in Cosmopolis (May 1897).
Given the effectiveness of Svensson and Diaz’s Letters alphabet book-in-a-box effort, it is surprising that they did not follow up the alphabetical theme from Animals, especially since animals have made up the most popular category of alphabet books for centuries. Another 24 or 25 books in boxes beckon. Alphabetical cubes of birds, cats, dogs and the zemmi! And what about the ampersand? And what different paper artistry might Diaz have performed if requested to fill out the series with further innovation? Consider Claire Van Vliet’s alphabetical Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996), Helen Hiebert’s Alpha Beta (2010) and Karen Hanmer’s The Spectrum A to Z.
Before its acquisition by Harpers in 1985, William Collins & Sons settled on the less risky venture of four books in boxes: Animals, Letters, Numbers and Colors. First with Elgin Davis Studios, James Diaz was the paper engineer behind all four and later joined David A. Carter (see his tribute to Bruno Munari here) to produce The Elements of Pop Up: A Pop Up Book for Aspiring Paper Engineers (1999), still used as a primary textbook.
Of course, B. S. Johnson and Marc Saporta pioneered boxes containing loose pages or leaves to be read in any order, but to find contemporary books in boxes where the box is not just a storage mechanism but functionally integrated, we have to look to Ed Hutchins, Sue Johnson and Hedi Kyle among others.
Giorgio Maffei’s 2008 definitive collection of book designs by Bruno Munari brings together two of Italy’s renowned book artists. Giorgio Maffei’s own work, his writing and gallery/bookshop (highlighted by his son Giulio Maffei’s extraordinary video catalogues Le vite dei libri) warrant a catalogue raisonné in their own right. The Italian edition published by Munari’s long-time publisher Maurizio Corraini was followed up in 2015 by this translation by Martin John Anderson and Thomas Marshall in 2015. For the Books On Books Collection, one of the great pleasures of Munari’s works is its attention to the alphabet, which this book documents.
Although not shown in Munari’s Books, an alphabet-related work that underscores Picasso’s calling Munari “our Leonardo” is ABC con fantasia (1973/2000). If we are to believe Fra Luca Pacioli, it was Leonardo da Vinci who inspired his “straight lines and curves” exposition for creating letters. Following in their footsteps, Munari provides the linear and curvilinear basics for the collector and offspring to join the game.
Although there are no words on numbered pages that have to fall in the right order, An Unreadable Quadrat-Print still presents the author/printer/binder with a challenge in imposition. White and red alternate, which is easy enough, but to cut or not cut a folio on the left and right, how to cut it, how to place the differently cut folios in the right order to achieve the variation in images when the pages turn, how to ensure a sewable area down the center for each folio whether it has a horizontal cut extending into the spine or a diagonal one extending from some point along the spine — that is impressive. It speaks to the sculptural process and result in making books, as well as the sculptural process of reading them.
The following sequences — the book’s first five double-page spreads and then its last six — take a normal page-turning approach, always turning from the upper right corner of whatever shape/page is available. Note how, in the last six double-page spreads, the pages and shapes become more complex.
Libro illeggibile (1966), below left, calls to mind Katsumi Komagata’s A Cloud (2007), and the one in the middle foreshadows Eleonora Cumer’s subtle artistry with transparent paper in Circoscrivere lo spazio No. 3 (2021). While Munari’s rare works press modest budgets, some of it — in its simplicity and popular appeal — has led Corraini Edizionito put it within easier reach. Numerous reissues of the 1984 Libro illeggibile MN 1 have pushed its price to €5. Short of the artist’s signature (which would likely obstruct the aesthetic intention), a copy from the latest 5000-copy print run will “perform” and deliver the same experiential value as one from the earliest run.
Munari’s many series of illegible books tap into book artists’ longstanding and ongoing preoccupation with whether a book without words can communicate information, narrative, sensations or feelings through material, shape or color and their permutations. The colors, shape, feel and binding of Libro illeggibile MN 1 evoke simple and sophisticated pleasure in their juxtaposition and sequence. The unchanging straightness of the top edge and the anchoring red thread of the binding set off the changeability of shapes and colors.
The Square (1960), The Circle (1964) and The Triangle (1976)
Although not a book of Munari’s making, David A. Carter’s Le sculture da viaggio di Munari is one way of bringing the spirit of Munari’s “travel sculptures” into the collection. Carter’s homage carries the blessing of Corraini Edizioni, further justifying its inclusion.
Travel sculptures started off as small sculptures (some even pocket-sized) to carry with you, so you could take part of your own culture to an anonymous hotel room. Later they were turned into ‘travel sculptures’, five or six metres tall and made of steel. One of these was seen for a few months in Cesenatico, another one in Naples. Others are sleeping among huge trees in the Alto Adige region.’ This is how Italian designer Bruno Munari (1907-1998) described his ‘travel sculptures’, which in turn inspired American illustrator and designer David A. Carter for this pop-up book. –Corraini Edizioni website. Accessed 3 August 2021.
“The Poetics of Reason” was the title and theme for the fifth Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2019 (the first was in 2007). Awarded the ADG Laus 2020 Golden Prize in the category of editorial graphic design, this work stands well with Bruno Munari’s three small 1960’s books on the square, circle and triangle, now available in a single volume, and calls to mind several works testifying to the relationship between architecture and book art. In the first of the five volumes, Éric Lapierre even interweaves with his text on architectural rationality illustrations from book artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sol Lewitt and Ed Ruscha — all without comment, in itself conveying their implicit relevance. His similar display of a page from Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard — that progenitor of modern and post-modern book art — speaks to the role that space — les blancs, as Mallarmé calls it — plays in these adjacent communities.
The second volume, by Ambra Fabi and Giovanni Piovene, draws in Leon Battista Alberti, of course, whose columns ornament works by Mari Eckstein Gower, Helen Malone and many other book artists.
Drawing on Gaston Bachelard and Juhani Pallasmaa as it does, the third volume, by Mariabruna Fabrizzi and Fosco Lucarelli, calls to mind the work of Olafur Eliasson and Marian Macken here in the Books On Books Collection and elsewhere. Anyone familiar with Richard Niessen’s The Typographic Palace of Masonry will appreciate Fabrizzi and Fosco’s exploration of where architecture, imagination and memory intersect.
In the lengthiest of the five volumes, Sébastien Marot takes us into the territory of urban architecture and the anthropocene, also occupied by book artists Sarah Bryant, Emily Speed, Philip Zimmermann and many others.
The last and shortest volume, put together by Laurent Esmilaire and Tristan Chadney, consists mostly of photos that may remind the viewer of Irma Boom’s Elements of Architecture, with Rem Koolhaas, or Strip, with Kees Christiaanse — especially in conjunction with the tinted fore edges.
Referenced below, Pedro Vada’s review of the Triennale and the five separate sites across which it occurred in Portugal provides more insight into the five volumes themselves. Marco Ballesteros LETRA website provides additional images of the five volumes’ design.
“Architecture“. 12 November 2018. Books On Books Collection.
SOCKS Studio, an extraordinary website run by Fabrizzi and Lucarelli.