“Total Expansion of the Letter”, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review

The 125th anniversary of the publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) approaches, and Trevor Stark’s book is a welcome harbinger. Its title comes from Mallarmé’s essay/poem “The Book, Intellectual Instrument”:

The book, total expansion of the letter, should derive from it directly a spacious mobility, and by correspondences institute a play of elements that confirms the fiction (p. 6).

Often with Mallarmé, context is all (not to mention translation in the face of elliptical syntax!) — context is wrapped in self-enshrouded context. His seemingly cryptic sentence above becomes clearer only when the precedent to the word “it” (elle) is understood as la composition typographique from the essay/poem’s preceding paragraph, extolling the alphabet, language and typography.

Un miracle prime ce bienfait, au sens haut ou les mots, originellement, se réduisent à l’emploi, doué d’infinité jusqu’à sacrer une langue, des quelque vingt lettres — leur devenir, tout y rentre pour tantôt sourdre, principe — approchant d’un rite la composition typographique. (my emphasis)

So, the sentence is a proscription for what “the book” should get from typographic composition. Metaphorically (fictionally), the book is a total expansion of the typeset letter, or mark. As such, it should derive from the “near rite of typographic composition” a spaciousness and mobility and a play among elements that confirms the metaphor that it is a “total expansion of the letter”. Still a bit cryptic, but after all, this is what Mallarmé calls a “critical poem”, and the sentence is hardly more cryptic than the opening pronouncement: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”.

It is a good choice of title for Stark’s endeavor. “Total expansion of the letter” juggles Mallarmé’s “heroic” vision for the book with the material world of metal type, idea with ink, the sacred with the profane. In painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater and film, the avant-gardists certainly brought together intellectuality and physicality forcefully. Stark shows that, in doing so, they also consciously and unconsciously raided Mallarmé’s open larder of skepticism about language and communication. The letter (or any mark of signifying, for that matter), scraps of newspaper, musical scores, dance notation, dresses and costumes (or lack thereof), wanted posters, financial bonds, and much more became ready objects for avant-garde art but only on the condition of their “becoming dysfunctional and incommunicative” (p. 7). Stark wants to know why.

Total Expansion of the Letter : Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé
Trevor Stark
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020)

Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication is Stark’s touchstone throughout: that language has an “ineradicable degree of chance built into” it; that there is inherently a suspension — a temporal gap, blank, void, lacuna, an “unfinished” state — between the sign’s expressed materiality and its meaning; and that, therefore, every act of communication as a historical and aesthetic phenomenon is like an anonymous, “impersonified” throw of the dice, “tossed into eternal circumstances’” (p.29). Applying that touchstone, he crosses the borders insightfully time and again “between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between dance, music, and letters, and between art history, the philosophy of language, politics, and poetics” (p. 30). Never reductive, he explores the continuities and variations between Mallarmé’s achievements and those of Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, F.T. Marinetti, Marcel Duchamp, the Laban school of dance and others of the avant-garde. As he offers a reciprocal interpretation of Mallarmé and of avant-garde art, individual poems, paintings, collages, performances of dance and theater yield new clarities and sharpened expression of received assessments.

Consider Stark’s comparative reading/viewing of Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en X” (1887) and Picasso’s The Dressing Table (1910). Across eight pages of text and photographs of art, Stark helps the reader to follow Mallarmé’s “quest for a word that literally means nothing, ptyx, a word produced by the frolic of language”, a signifier that “attains a materiality and an opacity, allowing the poem to display a linguistic Void, to raise it from the latent to the patent.” The materiality to which Stark draws our attention is twofold: the bright rhymes (-yx, -ix, -ixe) that almost single-handedly drive the invention of the word ptyx and the mirror on the credenza in the poem that captures the empty room, its window and the constellation Ursa Major showing through it. Across the same pages, Stark conducts the viewer through Picasso’s painting — again a mirror, the surface of a dressing table, the drawer from which a key protrudes, a drawer handle, a glass with the long handle of a toothbrush and its bristles poking out, but all scattered into planes of reflection and refraction, their shapes “mutually implicated to the point of structural ambiguity”. Then, he draws them together: “In Mallarmé and Picasso, representation destroyed the object in order to proclaim its own mute materiality and, thereby, regain continuity with the world by becoming simply one more thing within it”(pp. 101-108).

In pursuing these reciprocal readings of Mallarmé and his avant-garde descendants, Stark keeps a bright light on the “between” — between an object and its reflection, between a word’s or sound’s utterance and its meaning, the blanks between words, the blanks between brushstrokes or those between them and the boundary of the painting, between the cosmic and domestic, between one media and another when brought together in a work, between the individualism of subjective imagination and impersonal modes of production, between author/artist and word/image and reader/viewer. His term for these spaces is intermedial. In her endorsement of Stark’s book, Julia Robinson (New York University) calls his neologism “luminous”. The term refers to “the zone of indeterminacy between mediums, social practices, and temporalities” into which Mallarmé found himself outwardly propelled even as he inwardly sought “absolute language”.

Looking back on the avant-gardists and his own contemporaries, Dick Higgins — the late twentieth century language-, book-, and publishing-artist — rejuvenated Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s term intermediation, a neologism similar and related to intermedial. It is not the same thing as intermediality or mixed media. As Higgins expressed it, “Many fine works are being done in mixed media: paintings which incorporate poems within their visual fields, for instance. But one knows which is which. In intermedia, on the other hand, the visual element (painting) is fused conceptually with the words” (p. 52). It can be argued that works of intermedia are one way in which artists address intermediality — that zone of indeterminacy.

The argument is ultimately a phenomenological one, a perspective that Stark embraces. When he applies the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Theodor Adorno, Maurice Blanchot and others to Mallarmé’s poems and the artistic expressions of his “descendants”, both the philosophers and the artists become more accessible. Consider this passage summarizing Maurice Blanchot’s account of the history and function of language and its four stages:

The first was that of an Adamic or nomenclaturist model of language, which conceived words as names for the objects of the world. The second, dominant from Plato to Descartes, was the idealist model in which language constituted the link between sensible reality and the eternal realm of the Idea, and thus the guarantee of our ‘entrance into the intelligible world.’ [fn 223] Third, the ‘expressionist model’ of Hegel and Leibniz considered language itself the embodiment of what is sayable, thinkable, and possible at any given historical juncture, serving, therefore, as the medium of the progress of Spirit. Finally, illustrated with a quote from Valèry, the fourth stage was the ‘dialectical function of discourse,’ in which language regained an ‘essential power of constestation’ in the negativity of modern literature:

‘Literature seeks to revoke from language the properties that give linguistic signification, that make language appear as an affirmation of universality and intelligibility. But it doesn’t arrive at this goal (if it does arrive at this goal) by destroying language or through contempt of its rules. It wants to render language to what it believes to be its veritable destiny, which is to communicate silence through words and to express liberty through rules, which is to say to evoke language itself as destroyed by the circumstances that make it what it is.’ [fn 224] (pp. 110-11)

Clearly that passage links back to the touchstone of Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication. The strength of the touchstone is that it can also be fruitfully applied to the numerous works of homage to Mallarmé from contemporary book artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Michael Maranda, Michalis Pichler, Eric Zboya and many others. Likewise it can used to shed light on the “material text” approach to understanding book art. A case in point is the first issue of Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History, a work of book art in its own right.

Consider the hole drilled through the center of the journal. Does it not echo Stark’s reminder of Braque’s citing Mallarmé’s utterance: “‘The point of departure is the void'” (p. 88)? Consider the journal’s spatial challenge to the act of reading (a dos-à-dos binding, a text block that rotates around that hole). Does that not echo this passage from Total Expansion of the Letter?

But what remains after the ‘suspension’ of the represented object and the objectification of the means of representation? For Mallarmé, the ‘residuum’ was the act of reading itself, conceived not as a process of cognitive reconstruction, but instead as a gamble on the very possibility of forging meaning out of opacity and contingency of linguistic matter. As Mallarmé wrote in ‘The Mystery of Letters’

‘To read —

That practice —

To lean, according to the page, on the blank, whose innocence inaugurates it, forgetting even the title that would speak too loud: and when, in a hinge [brisure], the most minor and disseminated, chance is conquered word by word, unfailingly the blank returns, gratuitous earlier but certain now, concluding that there is nothing beyond it [rien au-delà] and authenticating the silence –‘” (pp. 108-109).

Not since Anna Sigrídur Arnar’s The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (2011) has there been as useful a tool for appreciating Mallarmé, art and artist’s books as Trevor Stark’s Total Expansion of the Letter. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of Un Coup de Dés, it will be interesting to see whether Stark and others extend his work to art and book art after the avant-garde.

Further Reading

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Higgins, Dick, and Hannah Higgins. “Intermedia“, republished in Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54.

McCombie, Elizabeth. Mallarmé and Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). It would have been interesting to see how Stark would relate his exploration with McCombie’s exploration of Mallarmé’s views on poetry and music.

Willette, Jeanne. “Cubism As Applied Design: Sonia Terk-Delaunay“, Art History Unstuffed, 16 August 2019. Although Robert and Sonia Delaunay are briefly mentioned in the third chapter (p. 248), it would have been interesting to see how Stark would use his touchstone to explicate the first “simultaneous poem”: La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

Books On Books Collection – “La Prose du Transsibérien Re-Creation” by Kitty Maryatt

It was 1913. Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted. The Cubists, Constructivists, Suprematists, Futurists all bound onto the art scene, many of them showcased in the Armory Show in New York that year. The Nouvelle revue française (NRF) attempted the first book form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, which revived that 1897 typographic disruption of the page and prepared the ground for dozens of works of book art since. And Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk announced and published what they called le premier livre simultané. It was La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France.

From the Bodleian Library collection
Photos: Books On Books

From the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert
Photo: Books On Books

La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913)
Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk
Photo: Swann Gallery Auction “19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings Featuring Property from the Ismar Littmann Family Collection“, 5 March 2019.

Like Mallarmé, Cendrars disrupts the page with multiple typefaces (thirty distinct ones in his case) and scattered placement of lines and stanzas. But La Prose presents an even more physical and structural disruption of the page and book than Un Coup de Dés. Unlike the latter, La Prose unfolds — twice — in an accordion format to over two metres in length or rather height since the text descends on the right and ends alongside the interlinked images of the Eiffel Tower and a Ferris wheel at the foot of the accordion. Cendrars and Delaunay had aimed to produce 150 copies of La Prose because, placed end to end, that would have equalled the Eiffel Tower’s height.

More than this monumental, sculptural, typographic and physical disruption of page and book, La Prose presents a temporal disruption. By le premier livre simultané, Cendrars meant a simultaneity of the verbal and visual — the way that text and image appear all at once — en un éclair. Early Bohemian that he was, Cendrars was co-opting a fair bit of artistic and literary theorising by the Cubists, Futurists and others. Most important and of the moment was his co-opting of Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s colour theory of simultanéisme. The “couleurs simultanées de Mme Delaunay-Terk” had also appeared in her 1913 robe simultanée and paintings. Building on a French scientist’s exposition on how perception of colours changes depending on the colours around them, the Delaunays claimed that rhythmic, musical and spatial synaesthetic elements were also at play. Sonia Delaunay asserted that the artwork produced for La Prose was not in response to reading the poem but hearing it from Cendrars. (Listen to it for yourself here.)

La robe simultanée/“The Simultaneous Dress” (1913)
as displayed in ”Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April – 9 August 2015
Photo: © LondonArtFile.

In presenting the adolescent Cendrars travelling physically eastward on the Transsibérien, travelling mentally to Flanders-Basle-Timbuctoo-Auteuil-Longchamps-Paris-New York while still registering the landscape outside, seeing the maimed and wounded returning from the front of the Russo-Japanese war, conversing with a prostitute named after Joan of Arc, doubting himself as a poet, and so on until a sudden transposition back to Paris, the process poem juxtaposes the sacred and profane, past/present/future, stationary and dynamic, national and international in outlook and locale. In short, simultaneously. In a format that is bound and unbound, the poem mirrors the swirling, interacting shapes and colours beside and in which it moves — and vice versa.

However more disruptive of the page and book La Prose may have been, it did not inspire the profusion of direct re-interpretations (or appropriations) that Un Coup de Dés prompted from artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Ellsworth Kelly, Man Ray, Didier Mutel, Michel Pichler, Eric Zboya and dozens of others.

Bennequin, Kelly, Man Ray, Mutel, Pichler and Zboya on the shoulders of Mallarmé.

Not until 2001 did a re-versioning of La Prose appear. Tony Baker and Alan Halsey published an English translation and codex re-formatting. Its black on white imagery is reminiscent of the Russian Futurists, the type is monochromatic, and the typefaces, fonts and weights vary but not as much as in La Prose.

Baker and Halsey note in their colophon:

So far as we’re aware no translation of the poem into English has ever been attempted to give a sense of Cendrars and Delaunay’s original conception, not the least reason for which may have been the difficulty until recently of seeing the first edition, even in reproduction. Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne de France (Sheffield: West House Books, 2001)

A well-founded lament — at least for the book art community. Not until 2000 had there been a reduced-scale reproduction of La Prose. It appeared in Granary Books’  A Book of the Book by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay across a four-page foldout in the embrace of Ron Padgett’s English translation. Only in 2008 was there a full-scale, full-colour offset facsimile, produced by Yale University Press with an appended translation. It is now out of print.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

With her work La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation (2019), Kitty Maryatt has changed all that. With this deuxième livre simultané, she has more than caught the echo of Cendrars/Delaunay’s original and its arrival. As scholar, artist and veritable impresaria, she has reinvigorated the book art/arts community with the legacy of La Prose

Her blogspot documents the research and production with rich details about sourcing the type, learning about stencil-cutting from Atelier Coloris (one of the few remaining businesses devoted to pochoir), determining the recipes for the ink colours, testing papers (Zerkall Crème, Biblio, and Rives HW), creating a census of the existing 1913/14 originals and their locations —  all that and more, including the use of bacon fat and a wine bottle filled with lead shot. She also organized a documentary by Rosylyn Rhee: “The Pochoir Re-creation of La Prose du Transsibérien”. It brings the importance of the original and this re-creation to life in the expressions and voices of prominent collectors, librarians and scholars, artists, rare book dealers and the project’s funders.

In addition, Maryatt has been either a contributor to, or the motivating force behind, several symposia and exhibitions such as “Paris 1913: Reinventing the Artist’s Book” (at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, 2018) and “Drop Dead Gorgeous”. The latter is a travelling exhibition resulting from invitations to twenty-four book artists and designer bookbinders to design and create bound copies of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. For the San Francisco venue, Maryatt prepared a workshop on traditional French pochoir and provided text for the exhibition catalogue (available from the online store of the San Francisco Center for Books).

Announcement of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” exhibition at the San Francisco Center for Books, showing Dominic Riley’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation

Monique Lallier’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation 
Photos: Courtesy of Monique Lallier

The pinnacle of Maryatt’s efforts, of course, is the standard and deluxe editions of La Prose. Both editions consist of 4 pages, glued together to create the tall single page. For the standard edition, the page is folded into 21 sections and loosely placed in a painted vellum cover with a booklet describing the project and production. An acrylic slipcase houses the covered bundle.

The standard edition
Photo: Books On Books

Photo: Books On Books

Photos: Books On Books

For the deluxe edition, the single page is left double-wide, accordion-folded double-tall between aluminum covers and housed in a clamshell box. A separate case holds the painted vellum cover, colour cards, Sonia’s visual vocabulary, 27 progressives for page one, 5 pochoir plates with tracing paper and registration system, the booklet with introduction and colophon, and the list of 30 typefaces Cendrars used. A large clamshell box houses this separate case and the boxed book. The colour cards include the recipe for mixing the gouache, and Sonia’s visual vocabulary shows the numbered steps of operations. The progressives for page one show the steps for doing the pochoir stencils and handwork.

The deluxe edition
Photos: Courtesy of Kitty Maryatt

Any institution with a focus on book art or the graphic arts should seek out the standard edition of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. Any institution with a focus on teaching and practice in those domains should seek out the deluxe edition. As indefatigable as Cendrars and as productive as Delaunay, Kitty Maryatt has provided the basis of master classes for generations. Now it is up to the book art community to respond as it has to Un Coup de Dés.

A shorter version of this essay appears in Parenthesis 39, Fall Issue, 2020.

Further Reading

Ashton, Doré. “On Blaise Cendrars. . . But I Digress.” Raritan 31, no. 2 (2011): 1-42,164. An entertaining extended anecdote sketching Cendrars and his milieu.

Gage, John. Colour and Meaning : Art, Science and Symbolism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). Despite her works’ better quality and representation of simultanéisme, Gage focuses on Robert and mentions Sonia only in passing or footnotes. (Telling that the Tate chose Sonia not Robert for a retrospective in 2015.) Nevertheless, there are passages that place her work in context.

P.198: Chevreul’s “privileging of the harmony of complementaries was essentially in the context of ‘painting in flat tints’, a method developed largely in the decorative arts, but which was increasingly integrated into many branches of French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century …”.

P.254 “When, probably early in 1912, Delaunay wrote to Kandinsky outlining his theories, he had shifted to a rather different approach, claiming: ‘the laws I discovered … are based on researches into the transparency of colour, that can be compared with musical tones. This has obliged me to discover the movement of colours.’ …

P.256 [Delaunay’s] Essay on Light, which was composed in the summer of 1912, attributed the movement of colours less to transparency than to the qualities of hue: ‘Movement is given by the relationship of unequal measures, of contrasts of colours among themselves which constitute Reality. The reality has depth (we see as far as the stars), and thus becomes rhythmic Simultaneity.’”

P.257 “For Chevreul in 1839 such painting [in flat tints] had only a decorative, accessory function, but the Delaunays did not feel the distinction, and Sonia had recently been experimenting with flat colours in appliqué textiles and in bookbindings decorated with collage.”

Maryatt, Kitty. “A Bookmaker’s Analysis of Blaise Cendrar’s and Sonia Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, The Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2016), The Book Club of California. Online version available here.

Maryatt, Kitty. Interview with Steve Miller, Book Arts Podcasts, School of Library Information and Sciences, University of Alabama, 13 January 2006.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Along with Shingler’s essay, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Rothenberg, Jerome; Clay, Steven. A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing (New York City: Granary Books, 2000). Contains an excerpt from Perloff’s book above, Ron Padgett’s translation of La Prose and a four-page foldout showing a full-color photo-reduction of the 1913 original.

Shingler, Katherine. “Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s
La Prose du Transsibérien
“, e-France: an on-line Journal of French Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28. Accessed 15 November 2019. Along with Perloff’s book, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Sidoti, Antoine. Genèse et dossier d’une polémique: ‘La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France’. Blaise Cendrars – Sonia Delaunay (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1987). Provides the compressed time line within which the poet and artist created the work.

Slevin, Tom. Visions of the Human: Art, World War I and the Modernist Subject (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015). Provides a lengthy discussion of la robe simultanée and La Prose.

Woodall, Stephen. “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, Insights from the de Young and Legion of Honor (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2020. A spectacular website presenting the original work in its context and its influences on subsequent book art. The work can be viewed panel by panel, and its overall structure is presented in an animation of its unfolding and refolding.

Books On Books Collection – Brian Larosche

Un Coup de 3Dés (2012)

Un Coup de 3Dés (2012)

Brian Larosche

H500 x W350 mm. Edition of 200, of which this is #162. Acquired from the artist, 15 April 2019.

In size, Larosche’s Un Coup de Dés outdoes most other versions and homage — except those that are installations. The large black cover suggests a dark movie screen on which Larosche’s version of the poem will play out in 3D. But why 3D? Trying to read Un Coup de Dés while wearing a pair of 3D glasses challenges the eyes’ patience just as much as the poem’s ambiguities challenge the mind’s. Within the Coup de Dés genre, there is a necessary strain of strained humor. Without it, art runs the risk of taking us too seriously.

L: Ultimate History Project; R: The_National_Archives_UK. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Confirming this joking intention behind his version, Larosche commented to Books On Books:

I originally handmade the book so that it was to worn on the nose like a large pair of glasses, which was another practical joke because the letters were too close to read, as in so 3D that it was literally in your face. — Brian Larosche, 2 April 2020.

Even with puns and slapstick there is often a point. The anaglyphic print technique and sheer size of Larosche’s version draw attention to Mallarmé’s sculptural play with type size and layout on a 2D surface as well as the poem’s spatial metaphors that align with it. In Mallarmé’s original, the staggering and dispersal of lines and single words on the page buttress, and are buttressed by, the word images of a roiling sea, shipwreck and constellation. Other artists with other techniques have drawn attention to that sculptural play and those spatial metaphors: Marcel Broodthaers‘ superimposed black bars, Michalis Pichler‘s and Cerith Wyn Evans‘ cut-outs, Sammy Engramer‘s sonograms sculpted in PVC and Eric Zboya‘s computer graphic “translation”.

Other artists have also poked serious fun at Un Coup de Dés and each others’ homage. Jim Clinefelter teases the sonority of the poem with his A Throw of the Snore Will Surge the Potatoes (1998). With her Rubik’s cube version (2005), Aurélie Noury needles the poem’s and poet’s puzzle pose. With their piano-roll versions, Rainier Lericolais (2009) and Pichler (2016) pick on Broodthaers (1969) as well as Mallarmé (1897) for their spatial metaphors and, in Mallarme’s case, his assertions of musicality. In Rodney Graham’s version (2011), Popeye substitutes for le Maître as the ship’s captain.

Larosche’s perceptively humorous rendering of Un Coup de Dés has earned it a secure perch among the other birds of the homage feather, and the use of 3D glasses seems to invite another layer of homage from artists interested in virtual reality headgear and augmented reality devices.

Further Reading

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

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

French, Thomas. “3-D : Of Decidedly Victorian Origins“, The Ultimate History Project. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Rodney Graham“, Books On Books Collection, 2 July 2020.

Noury, Aurélie. Un coup de dés (rubik’s cube) (Rennes: Éditions lorem ipsum, 2005). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Pichler, Michalis. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (SCULPTURE) (2008). Accessed 27 June 2020.

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

Books On Books Collection – Rodney Graham

Poème : “Au Tatoueur” (2011)

As with many of the homage to Un Coup de Dés, the subtitle here matters. For Bennequin, it was “Homage” with it missing “m” from the French; for Broodthaers, “Image”; for Engramer, “Wave”; for Pichler, “Sculpture” and “Musique”; for Zboya, “Translations”. Graham’s subtitle, being in quotation marks, indicates that what follows is a missive, not a form. The missive addressed to a local tattoo artist was arranged à la Mallarmé and described an image of Popeye that Graham wanted. But the twist that makes Graham’s version work is the translation of the instructions into French and their publication in the 1913 format of Mallarmé’s poem. This is an intricate “set-up”. In a way, it is analogous to Mallarmé’s careful attention to the positioning of words and lines, the kind of mise-en-scène that characterizes much of Graham’s photography and painting.

The set-ups extend across time and works as well. Au Tatoueur inspired Tattooed Man On Balcony 2018, the story of which is told here. Further evidence of Graham’s humor in book art and intricate set-ups can be found in White Shirt (for Mallarmé) Spring 1993 (1992), [La Véranda] (1989) and The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story (1987), all at the Tate Modern.

Further Reading

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

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

French, Thomas. “3-D : Of Decidedly Victorian Origins“, The Ultimate History Project. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Gardner, Allan. “Confessions Of A Window Cleaner: Rodney Graham Interviewed“, The Quietus, 21 October 2018. Accessed 28 June 2020.

Rodney Graham Art Exhibition“, NY Art Beat, 11 January 2019. Accessed 28 June 2020.

Brian Larosche“, Books On Books Collection, 2 July 2020.

Noury, Aurélie. Un coup de dés (rubik’s cube) (Rennes: Éditions lorem ipsum, 2005). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Pichler, Michalis. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (SCULPTURE) (2008). Accessed 27 June 2020.

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

Books On Books Collection – Derek Beaulieu

Tattered Sails (2018)

Tattered Sails (2018) Derek Beaulieu

Saddle-stitched, one staple, colored endpapers; 12 unnumbered pages. H217 x W140 mm. Acquired from Above/Ground Press, 12 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Few book artists inspired by Broodthaers’ homage to Mallarmé have seized on aligning a key textual and visual metaphor of the poem with a distortion of Broodthaers’ treatment. That is what Beaulieu has done with Mallarmé’s metaphor of the shipwreck, his typographic replication of it and Broodthaer’s black bars. Tattered Sails also recalls Broodthaers’ A voyage on the North Sea (1973).

Photos: upper, Books On Books Collection; lower, Artists’ Books. Accessed 18 June 2020.

In one sense, Tattered Sails seems to underline the notion that image has supplanted text (W.J.T. Mitchell), which is a little less extreme than image’s having saturated all cultural space (Frederic Jameson) or than art’s just being now a “leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general” (Rosalind Krauss). But in another sense, by harking back to the low-tech era of democratic multiples and, nevertheless, enriching the interplay of text and image that spans four different artworks (counting the image on the cover) across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Beaulieu pushes back on those 20th century critical notions.

Away from the critical theories’ abyss, Tattered Sails refreshes perception — of the work in itself and those on whose metaphors and techniques it stands. Turning our eyes into hands, it is part of a book art genre –“a genre of Un Coup de Dés“– in which works not only recall the original’s words, their shapes on the pages, the shipwreck tangling and untangling of syntax, the images and meanings bouncing into view like numbers on the side of rolling dice but also recall the rolls of the dice by others before.

Further Reading

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

Bright, Betty. No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America, 1960-1980 (New York: Granary Books, 2005)

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artist’s Books (New York: Granary Books, 2013)

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

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

Jameson, Frederic. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998 (London: Verso, 2000)

Krauss, Rosalind. A voyage on the North Sea : art in the age of the post-medium condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000)

Michaud, François. Alexandra Leykauf: Chateau de Bagatelle (Nürnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010)

Mitchell, W.J.T. The Language of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Guido Molinari”, Books On Books Collection, 13 April 2020.

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

Books On Books Collection – Benjamin Lord

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)
Benjamin Lord
Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread;
70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4.
Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?

Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?

Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.

Blocking out Mallarmé’s words with black bars of varying sizes corresponding to the poem’s typography and turning Poème into Image, Broodthaers’s homage has provided the starting point to several works of visual homage: Derek Beaulieu, Jérémie Bennequin, Klaus Detjen, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rainier Lericolais, Alexandra Leykauf, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari, Michalis Pichler and Eric Zboya. To their common starting point, each brings to bear his or her own approach. For Lord’s approach, the term “starting point” is more properly “seed”. In Conway’s Game of Life, a seed is any pattern of square cells, some filled (“live”), some unfilled (“dead”). Here are two basic patterns:

On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:

Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.

Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,

The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.

This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,

Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new. Chapter XXV

Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.

Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:

His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI

Further Reading

Derek Beaulieu”, Books On Books Collection, 19 June 2020.

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

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

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

Michaud, François. Alexandra Leykauf: Chateau de Bagatelle (Nürnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010)

Guido Molinari”, Books On Books Collection, 13 April 2020.

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

Books On Book Collection – Sammy Engramer

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard: Wave (2009)

Mallarmé’s strange poem, first published in the London-based journal Cosmopolis in 1897, had to wait until 1914 before appearing in a format close to the one Stéphane Mallarmé envisioned with the gallerist and publisher Ambroise Vollard.

Taking the poem’s self-referential line about its words appearing as a constellation, first Ernest Fraenkel, then Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers transformed the poem into a series of images by substituting solid blocks of ink in place of the poem’s lines of verse.

From left to right: Ernest Fraenkel, Les dessins trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé, à propos de la typographie de Un coup de dés. Avant-propos par Étienne Souriau, avec 68 planches en hors-textes (1960); Mario Diacono, a MeTrica n’ABOOlira (1968/69); Marcel Broodthaers, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard: Image (1969).

Subsequently, dual homages to Mallarmé and Broodthaers arose. One of them is Engramer’s. Where Fraenkel, Diacono and Broodthaers focused on layout, size and space to generate their visual translations, Engramer added a sonic element, albeit by visual display. Recording his own reading aloud of the poem, Engramer then ran the recording through sonographic equipment. The rendering of each line’s soundwave became his graphic substitute for Mallarmé’s line of verse and, by extension, each black block that Broodthaers used to displace Mallarmé’s text.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Wave (2009)
Sammy Engramer
H340 x W240 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Florence Loewy, Paris, 27 March 2019.

In 2010, Engramer took his inspiration one step further and put together an exhibition called “JAMAIS”. As soon as the idea or sensation of visualizing the sound of a poem is mooted, the choice of ink, type, brush, paint, surface, chisel, mold, material, camera, computer and, again, surface opens up. In JAMAIS, Engramer chooses a multiplicity of tools and media (or they choose him): sound recording, computer output, ink, printed book, mold and plastic, camera and animation.

In the video below, pages of the book undulate in a wave along the wall to which they are loosely attached. Alongside them are eighteen 3D PVC renderings of the sonograms. At the end of the hall, a large screen shows a 3D animation of a rolling die whose dots spell out hasard in Braille. The juxtaposition of fluttering pages of sonographs, the physical instantiation of the sonograms and the animated Braille die that cannot be read by touch generates a confounding conundrum for the senses. Text has become sound, sound has become image, and image has become object and animation.

Video: Courtesy of the artist.

Since, according to the artist, his recording of the poem was not played in the exhibition, the conundrum focuses on perception of sound through the eyes. Whether listening/hearing can be performed by seeing a visual or physical representation of what has been listened to/or heard (or is being listened to/or heard) is a neurological question. Rendered in ink and plastic, Engramer’s sonographic images and objects are metaphoric assertions: “hear with your eyes the words no longer printed or carved before you, hear through your eyes the decibels increasing or attenuating according to an unheard recording of those words spoken”.

Further Reading

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

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

Dick Higgins, Hannah Higgins, “Intermedia”, Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54.

Pichler, Michalis. Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (Berlin: “Greatest Hits”, 2008).

Rasula, Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Schaffner, Anna Katharina and Kim Knowles, Ulrich Weger and Andrew Michael Roberts, “Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives“, Writing Technologies, vol. 4 (2012), 75-106.

Books On Books Collection – Eric Zboya

un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard: translations (2018)

un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard: translations (2018)
Eric Zboya
Perfect bound; 60 pages printed on Rives Design 170 gsm Brilliant White.
H280 x W204 x D85 mm. Edition of 120 of which this is #42 and signed. Acquired from the artist, 1 April 2019.

Eric Zboya is poet, writer and artist. Years before this book, he wrote for Ubu Web about the dialogues between Mallarmé’s groundbreaking poem and artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Guido Molinari and Michalis Pichler, who explore “the higher-dimensional characteristics of the poem”. Broodthaers’ and Molinari’s solid-colored horizontal blocks take the place of lines of text and, reflecting its typographic size, deliver the poem’s page-oriented image(s) without its words. Pichler goes a sculptural step further and excises the lines altogether.

In one sense, Zboya returns to the traditional “collaborative” livre d’artiste, where the artist’s images illustrate the author’s text. But Zboya’s process for generating the images and his handling of the text are anything but traditional.

Just as Mario Diacono runs parallel to Broodthaers, so too do Didier Mutel (2003) and Sammy Engramer (2009) to Zboya. His Ubu Web essay appeared in 2011. While similar, the three artists’ approaches to images differ far more from one another than those of Diacono and Broodthaers differ. Mutel’s sonographs come from recordings of three different speeches. Engramer’s come from the recording of his reading of Un Coup de Dés. Although Zboya’s images come from the translated text of Un Coup de Dés, they do not come from sound recordings.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème (2005)
Didier Mutel
Consists of three volumes: the first entitled “2003 — may god bless america — 4 speeches by George Walker Bush”; the second, “2003 — 4 speeches by Tony Blair”; the third, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”. Each engraved in drypoint on steel and printed on Velin Arches 300 gsm.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Wave (2009)
Sammy Engramer
H340 x W240 mm, 32 pages.
Recording his own reading aloud of the poem, Engramer then ran the recording through sonographic equipment. The rendering of each line’s soundwave became his graphic substitute for Mallarmé’s line of verse and, by extension, each black block that Broodthaers used to displace Mallarmé’s text.

Zboya uses graphic imaging software to transform each letter, mark of punctuation and pixel into an abstract image based upon the original topographical placement of the type on the space of the page. Text mutates into a graphic, nonlinear entity. Zboya calls this Algorithmic Translation. Due to a randomization function, the program never yields the same image from the same input. In keeping both with the title (Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard) and the poem’s last line (Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés), no run of the program ever abolishes chance, and every input (thought) generates a roll of the dice.

Zboya’s artist book presents more than these graphic, constellation-like translations of the text. Literally shadowing the right-reading English translation of the title is the French text set in reverse. Drawing the reader closer to the synaesthesia promoted by Mallarmé, Valéry and, before them, Baudelaire, the contrast of black (English) and gray (hcnerF) echoes the tonality of the algorithmically translated images; the reversed letters of the French emphasize the physical reversing that occurs when printing text; and the movement from the original hcnerF to the translated English urges the “mind’s ear” to play along with the mind’s eye. The choice to print everything on the same highly textured Rives Design, Brilliant White, enlists hand and eye in support of a synaesthetic equation of text, page and image.

Just as important in another dimension is Zboya’s creative manipulation of the poem’s English translation by Basil Cleveland and preface by Charles Bernstein. The preface is the first clue. Only words selected by Zboya appear in black, left in their original position on the page and creating an envoi to Zboya’s book:

This Note beyond the space of the page vanishes. Narrative is avoided. Intonation falls. Courageous Poem, open a few eyes to this unforeseen symphony.

Zboya has done the same with the text of the translated poem. He erases certain lines and leaves those not erased in their topographical position as close to Mallarmé’s intention as interpreted by Zboya’s numerous predecessors (Broodthaers in 1969, Pichler in 2008, Meillassoux in 2012, Bononno and Clark in 2015, Bloch in 2017 among others). In this way, Zboya’s appropriation occurs across multiple dimensions.

By “erasing” text to select text that syntactically creates new content, Zboya is also following in the footsteps of Tom Phillips (A Humument, 1966-2016), but the effect and result of doing so differs distinctively from Phillips’ work, which is decidedly narrative. The concept of translation in Zboya’s book is closer to Ezra Pound’s approach in Personae (1926). The fragments and sentences created by the “translated” words are close but not the same as those in the source. In Pound’s case, not the same sentences as those of the troubadours. In Zboya’s case, not the same as Mallarmé’s, Cleveland’s, Bernstein’s, etc. The appropriation/translations make something new.

Occurring in its several dimensions, Zboya’s manipulation of text, image and surface recalls Valéry’s description of reading and looking at the worksheets for the book version of Un Coup de Dés:

It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in a finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness…. there in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word! — Paul Valéry, Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 8: Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé (1972).

That is the effect of reading and looking at Zboya’s work of book art.

Further Reading

Bibliography: Synaesthesia in Art and Science”, Leonardo Online, updated 26 July 2012. Accessed 22 May 2020.

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Fraenkel, Ernest. Les dessins trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé : a propos de la typographie de Un coup de dés (Paris: Nizet, 1960). An earlier example of blacking out the text of Un Coup de Dés.

Funkhouser, C.T. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).

Higgins, Dick and Hannah Higgins, “Intermedia”, Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54.

Pichler, Michalis. Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (Berlin: “Greatest Hits”, 2008).

Rasula, Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Schaffner, Anna Katharina and Kim Knowles, Ulrich Weger and Andrew Michael Roberts, “Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives“, Writing Technologies, vol. 4 (2012), 75-106.

Books On Books Collection – Buzz Spector

With the exception of Unpacking my Library, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. Unlike much other ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, these items have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.

The Book Made Art (1986)

The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary Artists’ Books, exhibited in the Joseph Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago, February through April 1986.
Curated and edited by Jeffrey Abt; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector.
Saddle-stitched, staples; H200 x W200 mm.
Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1986.

Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:

A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses”).

While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.

Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.

The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:

The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a more than passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — “Art Readings”.

The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.

Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus.
The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.

The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:

Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.

By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire. Including this catalogue.

The Library of Babel (1991)

The Library of Babel
Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector.
Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm
Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991.

As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.

The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.

The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.

As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalog to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.

Marcel Broodthaers (1990)
Buzz Spector
An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers. Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Cente/Rizzoli, 1989.

He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogs, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.

North Sea (for M.B.) (1990)
Buzz Spector
Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.

Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.

When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic:  “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse. 

Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogs in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.

North Sea (for M.B.) (1990)
Buzz Spector
Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.

Unpacking my Library (1995)

Unpacking my Library (1994-95)
Buzz Spector
Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.
Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994.

Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.

From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.

Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:

This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.

So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.

The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:

So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.

Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.

As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:

The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.

Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.

The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)

The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book
Buzz Spector
Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing.
Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches.

Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.

The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.

Between the Sheets (2003)

Between the Sheets (2003)

Buzz Spector

Cloth over boards, Japanese stab binding, 15 folded sheets, outer sides offset printed with enlarged “artist photos” clipped from dust jackets of art books repurposed by Spector for his bookworks, inner side printed (recto only) with text by and selected by Spector. H157.5 x W216 x D12.7 mm. Edition of 40, of which this is #40. Acquired from Olive Branch Press, 26 June 2020.

Further Reading

Buzz Spector“, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 March 2016.

Benezra, Neal. “Buzz Spector: The Library of Babel and Other Works“, [exhibition] 16 February – 17 April 1988, The Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed 26 March 2020.

Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 160.

Krauss, Rosalind. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999). Accessed 26 March 2020.

Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.

Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.

Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.

Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.

Platzker, David. “Marcel Broodthaers : A Voyage on the North Sea”, Specific Object, New York, New York, 28 January — 20 March 2009. Accessed 31 March 2020.

Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.

Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.

Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.

Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).