Books On Books Collection – Kathy Bruce

Valise for Mallarmé (1997)

Valise for Mallarmé (1997)
Kathy Bruce
Valise, altered book, X-ray film, wood, glass, die, collage. H8.5″ x W10.5″ x D5″. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 3 November 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Any artist who flirts with surreality is likely to begin or end up carrying Marcel Duchamp‘s bags or bearing Joseph Cornell‘s boxes. Cornell himself was influenced by Duchamp. He assisted Duchamp with the latter’s Boîte-en-Valise series, 1935-41, and assembled a few of his own suitcase- or valise-based works, such as Untitled (The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria), 1941-52, and Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice), 1934-67. Boxes though became his forté. Although Cornell sourced a substantial amount of collage material from books, he did not frequently use altered books (especially excavated ones) as an object within an object, a container of objects or object in itself. One excavation example is his Object (glass, dust and plastic spoon), 1939. Another, which however embodies all the permutations, is Untitled (To Marguerite Blachas), c.1939, a thorough-going alteration of the Journal d’Agriculture Practique (Volume 22, 1911). A variation with Volume 21 was discovered after his death in 1972.

So, since 1972, how to make anything not merely derivative? Hefting the influences lightly, Kathy Bruce takes Duchamp and Cornell in an original direction and replaces their mysterious surreality with the mysteries of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) and with her own surreality arising from chance-found objects and chosen juxtaposition. Cornell remarked that his boxes “are life’s experiences aesthetically expressed”. Valise for Mallarmé and the four other of Bruce’s works described below are aesthetic expressions of her experiences of the poem that “made us modern”.

This Duchampian valise opens to show that it has been pressed into a Mallarméan voyage. In the deeper compartment sits a Cornellesque glass-covered wooden box. It contains a red die; collage of an engraving of penguins, a spouting whale, a ship under sail against towering glaciers and a flight of birds; scraps of paper marked with Chinese ideograms and handwritten numbers and symbols; and mechanical diagrams. A reflective, smoky blue sheet surrounds the glass-covered “raft”. It is a piece of X-ray film discarded from Gramercy Hospital in New York City. The film is face down and affixed to a sheet of paper that later developed ripples. The artist “liked the way it looked– like waves in the water, so it stayed” (correspondence with the artist, 11 December 2021).

On the shallow side of Valise for Mallarmé is an altered book, excavated to fit around the “raft” and show a passage from Un Coup de Dés pasted at the bottom of the excavation and covered with translucent paper. The book is John L. Stoddard’s Lectures (Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Supplementary Vol 1). Stoddard was a prolific writer (16 volumes in his lecture and photograph series) and prodigious traveller (26 countries and multiple states in the US visited). The lecture series appeared 1897 to 1898, haply coinciding with Mallarmé’s poem and death. Strangely enough, where Mallarmé ended his spiritual voyage from Catholicism to atheism, Stoddard ended his from atheism to Catholicism. The combination of coincidence and divergence from this found readymade no doubt confirmed it to Bruce as the right choice of color, shape and material to echo the poem’s last line — Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés (All thought emits a roll of the dice).

Conmoción, Contución y Compresión Cerebrales (1998)

Conmoción, Contución y Compresión Cerebrales (1998)
Kathy Bruce
Framed, altered book, surrounded by white cloth and containing an embedded box containing another box with dice and collage. H15″ x W12″ x D3″. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 3 November 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Were it not for the preceding work, the presence of dice and and the image of a ship pasted to the back of the glass-covered box embedded in the altered book framed here, we might miss that Mallarmé’s poem inspired Conmoción, Contución y Compresión Cerebrales. The altered book’s title, difficult to make out on the spine, is Patología y clínica quirúrgicas (1873), a medical manual by Joseph-Auguste Fort, a French contemporary of Mallarmé. Fort had travelled in Spain, voyaged to South America and studied medical education and practice in several countries there, hence the Spanish of his book.

The shredded book pages packed around the box within the box embedded in the medical manual could be compared to The Wasteland‘s “fragments I have shored against my ruins”, but T.S. Eliot’s fragments are snippets of civilisation (lines from a nursery rhyme, Dante’s Purgatorio, a Latin poem, etc.) that his speaker uses to shore against his contemporary wasteland. Bruce’s snippets come from that medical manual and serve a dual purpose. First, to provide the title of her work. Second, to insulate and secure the box containing the dice and print of the ships under sail. The title appears in the bottom space between the boxes and comes from a section heading in the book, a phrase that “speaks to the chaos and confusion of the wrecked ship at sea” (correspondence with the artist, 12 December 2021).

So, from what is the packing insulating that inner box? Loose in the tilted embedded box, the dice can still roll; tilted in the box, the ships are continually bound to founder. How can conmoción, contución y compresión cerebrales (cerebral concussion, contusion and compression) protect against chance that any roll of the dice can never abolish or against the “bookwreck” in which they are embedded? What surrounds the altered book implies that they cannot. The crumpled white cloth (from the poem’s velours chiffonné) evokes not only a fallen sail but also a coffin’s lining in which the book lies. How appropriate then that Mallarmé’s poem confronting le néant (nothingness) and inspiring this work of book art is here but not here.

Solitary Plume Lost (1998 or 2000)

Solitary Plume Lost (1998 or 2000)
Kathy Bruce
Small cigar box, feather, pine wood, collage, cloth. Closed H1.5″ x W6.5″ x D3.5″. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 3 November 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Inside the box:

Lining the cigar box, a piece of white crumpled velvet, which refers to the poem’s velours chiffonné.

A scrap of stiff, dark blue, glittering felt, a kind from which a toque de minuit (a hat or cap the color of midnight) might be made.

A triangular block of pine wood on which three translated lines of the poem are pasted along the hypotenuse surface, a 1998 commemorative stamp with Mallarmé’s likeness is pasted on the top surface, an image of the Aquila constellation with its main stars Altair, Tarazed and Alshain is pasted on the bottom surface, and constellation markings for the hypergiant stars of Draco are pasted along the two remaining sides.

A white feather, which refers to (plume solitaire éperdue/solitary lost plume), attached to the inside surface of the box’s top.

Among the best known images of Mallarmé is the portrait by Edouard Manet in 1876. Cross-legged in an armchair, the poet leans toward his right hand resting on a side table and holding a cigar from which smoke curls. It is so well known that, after puzzling over the constellations and text on the other sides of the block, it is a surprise that the image on the stamp has not somehow changed into it.

Navigating the Abyss I (1998)

Navigating the Abyss I (1998)
Kathy Bruce
Altered book, wood, lenses, collage, thread. H7.5″ x W5″ x D3″. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 3 November 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Bruce brings her sculpture outside any enclosure with Navigating the Abyss I. Rigging-like thread wraps around a copy of Intermediate Reader, a relic from a series of readers compiled between 1867 and 1927 for the Brothers of the Christian Schools, headquartered in Montreal, which recalls Mallarmé’s school-teaching days. Three triangles of wood panelling are attached to the book’s back cover, a deft choice of material for the sail-like seams and shape. A glossy piece of postcard or a cut from the cover of an art book depicting a gilded hand, open as if having just rolled the dice, occupies one corner of the cover. It’s impossible to say whether it is the lower or upper, left or right, as the book has been turned upside down and back to front in its altering (note the photos above). The three loose lenses add to this effect of shipwreck detritus, as does the convex lens embedded like a porthole in the book and revealing a torn page and part of a handwritten letter presumably left in the book. Across from the convex lens, the pasted-down diagram is a scaled drawing of a template for what appears to be a rigging pulley with a diameter of 9 and 3/4 inches. The collaged precision diagram alludes not only to the ship but also to the poem’s reference to anciens calculs. It adds to the artifice and abstraction of poem, book, ship and flotsam that Bruce has created.

The paragraph pasted on the book’s front cover (the artwork’s “back cover”) comes from the Intermediate Reader. The content is uncannily apt:

Far in the horizon, they thought they saw a beautiful lake, with branching palm-trees. They longed for the water and the cool shade; but their ____ guide told them there was no lake in the place where it seemed to be; that it was only the mirage — a seductive illusion floating in the air.

The small rectangle excised from this passage is pasted face down among the other detritus on the opposite side. It is another bit of controlled artifice that not only alludes to the use of empty space (les blancs) in Un Coup de Dés but contributes to the work’s surreality.

Navigating the Abyss II (1999)

Navigating the Abyss II (1999)
Kathy Bruce
Altered book, camera lens, collage, thread. H9″ x W7″ x D5″. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 3 November 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

A withdrawn library copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 18th century bestseller Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse, with one-sixth leather binding over marbled boards, provides Bruce with the raw “stone” for her second sculpted version of Navigating the Abyss. Headed for the graveyard of pulping or burying in landfills, this culled copy, stamped WITHDRAWN in black on all of its faded marbled edges, is destined never to be opened again, a point underscored by the tangle of black thread holding it closed. The inaccessible content is the epistolary tale of Julie d’Étange, an aristocrat who falls in love with her tutor Saint-Preux, is married off to the tolerant atheist Lord von Wolmar, becomes devout to overcome her attraction to Saint-Preux, and dies of hypothermia after plunging into water to save her child. The inauthenticity into which Rousseau throws religious belief makes Bruce’s choice of this marbled stone appropriate for paying homage to Mallarmé who chose to navigate the abyss without God.

Although both versions of Navigating the Abyss have a similarity, somehow this second version is bleaker than the first. Looked at on edge, the black lens and marbled book appear to be a funerary sculpture on a plinth. Unlike the embedded lens in the first version, a single Cyclopean camera lens sits atop the book into which a hole has been bored. The darkness at the lens’ center evokes the idea of an abyss or whirlpool, especially as the words and letters from the torn pages circle around the edges like detritus being pulled down. A black-and-white version of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son provides the ghostly image floating in the lens. While it isn’t necessary to know the source of the image or that the series from which Goya’s mural painting comes is called The Black Paintings, the details add to the funereality evoked by the black thread, the black stamp and decayed state of the book.

Further Reading

Bloch, R. Howard. 2017. One toss of the dice: the incredible story of how a poem made us modern. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Lloyd, Rosemary. 2000. “Mallarme at the Millennium“. The Free Library. 2000 Modern Humanities Research Association. Accessed 01 December 2021. 2021.

Solomon, Deborah, and Joseph Cornell. 1997. Utopia parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications.