Books On Books Collection – Joel Shapiro and Arion Press: The Bridge by Hart Crane

In the fifth show of his series Raw Craft of visits and interviews to celebrate craftsmen and craftswomen, the late Anthony Bourdain met with Andrew Hoyem, poet, master typographer and now retired printer of Arion Press. Although the Arion Press production of Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge” does not feature, the episode is worthwhile background for enjoyment of this collaborative work of book art.

The Bridge (1930/2017)

The Bridge (1930/2017)
Hart Crane
Design, Arion Press. Woodblock prints, Joel Shapiro. Introduction, Langdon Hammer. Scroll, 13-1/2 inches by 50 feet, wound on aluminum spool with bookcloth wrapper, housed in a box. Edition of 300, of which this is #97. Acquired from Classic Editions, 10 June 2020.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Arion Press.

From first sight, this work of art evoked thoughts of an earlier acquisition — the dragon scale binding of the Diamond Sutra, done by Zhang Xiaodong in 2017.

Diamond Sutra, Dragon scale binding (2017)
Zhang Xiaodong
In 32 zhuan (seal) fonts, 152 x 382×160mm. Edition of 300, of which this #197. Acquired from Sin Sin Fine Arts (Hong Kong), 31 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

It was more than the similarities of scrolls stored in boxes. Despite the differences in texts and images, something resonated –still resonates — between the two works. The Arion Press prospectus for The Bridge holds the clue to what that something is:

The publisher, Andrew Hoyem, conceived of a scroll format for “The Bridge” while he and senior editor Diana Ketcham were on a two-week tour of China in April 2017 organized by the Grolier Club, an association of bibliophiles in New York City. The theme of the trip was the history of paper, type, printing, binding, and the collecting of books, both private and institutional, in China.

During the first week they visited the Red Star Paper Company in Wuxi, Anhui Province. The Chinese government has recently sought to revive and support traditional crafts. Red Star is the fore-most producer of handmade paper in the nation, using ancient methods and many plant fibers in exacting proportions to make sheets of beautiful thin paper, used mainly for calligraphy and ink and watercolor painting.

In Beijing they visited the most important book collector in China, who showed them an unmounted scroll from the eighth century. Hoyem was inspired to order handmade paper from the mill and to make “The Bridge” in a single-spool scroll format.

In each case, content, image, structure and handmade paper more than complement one another. Even though they do so in different ways, the rightness and thoroughness with which it is done and the feel of the paper strike that resonant chord. A comparison of the texts of the two works would not ordinarily arise, but once it is made, the prayerfulness of Crane’s “Proem” stands out even more in its French Elzevir handset by Hoyem himself and printed on handmade paper of his choosing. Hoyem’s choices of material and structure put him on an equal artistic footing with Shapiro and Zhang. Note the scroll end’s echo of Shapiro’s woodcut, which itself may be an allusion to the Black Sun Press, first publisher of The Bridge (1930). What is it that bridges the precision mechanical fixture and the wood grain revealed by hand and ink if not Crane’s words? In pairing Crane with Shapiro, Hoyem made as canny and artistic a choice as any that book impresario Ambroise Vollard ever made.

In his comments at the opening of his 2018 exhibition at Pace Prints, which featured The Bridge, Shapiro refers to the rapture and ecstasy of the poem as his chief challenge. Here he is in an earlier interview that speaks to how he approaches such a challenge:

Visual art can be tricky – the goal is not simply to illustrate, but, in this case, to create images which correspond to profound and historically significant prayers and material. My role here is that of mediator – attempting to capture the meaning I see in the material, and translate it into form. — “Artist Joel Shapiro Discusses the Art in Mishkan HaNefesh”.

Alongside those comments, the interplay of artists Hoyem and Shapiro, Crane’s text, the continuous scroll, the French Elzevir typeface and the Chinese handmade paper suggests an entirely new meaning for Dick Higgins’ term “intermediation”. In his 1965 essay “Intermedia”, republished in Leonardo in 2001, Higgins adopted the term from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 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). With The Bridge — as with Diamond Sutra, Dragon-Scale Binding — the fusion goes beyond the visual and textual and yields two exceptional works of art.

Further Reading

Joel Shapiro and Hart Crane“. 19 December 2017. Graphic Arts Collection, Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. Accessed 4 August 2020.

Playing Against Type“. 2 November 2017. Antiques: The Magazine. Accessed 4 August 2020.

Hammer, Langdon. 24 November 2017. “Hart Crane’s View From the Bridge“. The New York Review. Accessed 4 August 2020.

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

Person, Rabbi Hara. 22 June 2015. “Artist Joel Shapiro Discusses the Art in Mishkan HaNefesh“. RAVBLOG. Central Conference of American Rabbis. Accessed 4 August 2020.