In his review in Domus, Zachary Sachs describes this MoMA exhibition which “courses through the history of twentieth-century art animated by language and language given artistic form.” The works of art “tease apart the connection between sign and signified through modes of interruption largely inspired by the technology of printing.” And the catalogue includes “texts that attempt at intervals to rationalize and idealize language, at once to purify it and to demonstrate its essential muddiness.”
Why bookmark this exhibition?
It is apropos to our unease, excitement or dismay about the digital metamorphosis of the book. As Sachs puts it, “The historical works here swing between anxiety and ambivalence, emotions seemingly inevitable in response to the immense power (and attendent limitations) of written communication.” The same is true of our reaction to the moiling of books, ebooks and apps.
And the MoMA exhibition is one of those “full circle” phenomena, a recapitulation, a reminder of how, in trying to ground the history or evolution of the book, in reading its situation, we often go right back to the alphabet, the word, language itself.
Of David Diringer‘s two substantial volumes on the history of the book, the first is entitled The Alphabet (1968). In Helmut Lehmann-Haupt’s brief but important One Hundred Books about Bookmaking (1949), an entire section is given to writing and lettering, and that is preceded by a bibliographical entry for Edward Chiera‘s They Wrote on Clay (1938), on how the tablets of the Babylonians still speak to us today. For another instance, see also the posting here on Norma Levarie‘s The Art & History of Books (1968).
Art can be a means to, or cause of, ecstasy — extasis, to stand outside one’s self. Book art and specifically in this case the “ecstatic alphabets” exhibition can encourage us to stand outside what is happening to the book in order to reflect on it. If the exhibition were open to further curation, two “bookend” additions the exhibitors might agree would fit are
the Holy Kinship, c. 1470, panel painting, 69x144cm, Westphalian school, Maastricht, St Servatius Cathedral Treasury, which exults in the letter, scroll and book in the service of sacred art, and
Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) by Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson (New York: Kevin Begos, Jr., Publishing, 1992), which “even compared with other artist books . . . is an unusual textual artifact. Beyond the materiality of the book and realia themselves lies the issue of authorship. The text of the poem on the self-erasing diskette is by the novelist William Gibson, and the copperplate aquatint etchings inside the book were created by artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Gibson and Ashbaugh are most frequently cited as the book’s “co-authors.” However, the project was conceived by publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., and the code for the software that scrolls Gibson’s poem as well as for the encryption program (sometimes mistakenly called a “virus”) that subsequently erases that poem was written by a programmer signed “Brash” (who desired to remain anonymous) with help from John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore (founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation).” [James J. Hodge, “The Agrippa Files, an online archive of Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)]