The Burning of the Books(2009) George Szirtes (poems) and Ron King (prints) Slipcase with sewn hardback, duotone letterpress reproduction of the 2008 artist book version. H220 x W160 mm, 66 unnumbered pages. Edition of 1000, the first 100 signed and numbered by the author and artist and presented in a specially designed slipcase. Acquired from the artist, 28 January 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
The Burning of the Books is the harshest of Ron King’s work in the Books On Books Collection. According to the artist, this work’s genesis was his long fascination with Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe (1946). King commissioned Szirtes to respond to Canetti’s work with a text to accompany the etchings that King had been holding in abeyance. The result in 2008 was a large format artist book, of which this work is a reproduction.
With its photo-collages of a Guernica-like fold-out, newspaper clippings of shamed collaborators, fists and human limbs, The Burning of the Books delivers a visual indictment of the 20th century that creeps into the 21st century with the added images of celebrity police ID photos and Euro currency notes. Szirtes’ take on King’s take on Canetti’s take on his main character’s solipsistic slip from obsession into madness in a world of alienating -isms is the work of art with which we — sadly, more than a decade later — keep catching up.
This work’s fascination with horrors may have its roots in a childhood experience in Brazil — seeing a photograph of a bandit gang’s mass beheading — but, more often than not, King’s works emphasize a humor in blackness (as does this work in its recurrent image of Mr. Punch-like figures). Most often, though, a sheer joy of making and material prevails.
alphabeta concertina miniscule (2007)
alphabeta concertina miniscule (2007) Ron King Printed, cut and creased onto Heritage paper and glued to Heritage Museum board. H170 x W110 x D30 mm,stretching to 3 meters. Edition of 600. Acquired from Sophie Schneideman Rare Books and Prints, 27 November 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The “abc” series displays the restrained, minimalist side of King’s inventiveness. With more than one of these works to hand, his enjoyment and humor come through — especially in the subtle and not-so-subtle variations. Take alphabeta concertina miniscule as an example. It arrived like a long awaited chuckle after the majuscule version — Alphabeta Concertina (1983) — which had been expanded into the poster versions Alphabet I and Alphabet II (below). Size and surprise seem to matter in King’s sense of humor. For size, see the large-scale steel version of the alphabet in 2016. For surprise, consider his catalogue raisonné Cooking the Books.
Cooking the Books (2002)
Cooking the Books: Ron King and the Circle Press (2002) Ron King, Andrew Lambirth Paperback with end flaps, sewn with headbands. Pop-up and metallic paper inserts. H225 x W165 x D20 mm, 180 pages. Acquired from the artist, 24 December 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
King’s catalogue raisonné does not merely illustrate his work, it illustrates it. Inserts of mirror paper, wax paper and a pop-up letter E transform what appears to be a simple codex into a treasure chest.
Alphabet II (1999)
Alphabet II (1999) Ron King Pop-up poster. H760 x W500 mm. The letters have been cut onto a 190lb Waterford paper and mounted onto a heavier version of the same stock. Edition of 200 signed. Acquired from Circle Press, 26 June 2015. Photo of Cooking the Books, p. 101: Books On Books Collection.
The collection’s framed poster interferes with photography, but Cooking the Books provides the alternative.
Matisse’s Model (1996)
Matisse’s Model (1996) Ron King An edition of 50 signed book-works made by the same process as Acrobats. 23 x 17 cm with mirror-foil, sprayed pages, and a removable freestanding figure in collaged cardboard box.
The sculptural element toward which King’s work has always turned is on display in the title and forms of Matisse’s Model. The mirror paper appears as it must for any attractive model.
Pop-up insert of “Scenes from the Alphabet” by Roy Fisher. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
As with Cooking the Books, this catalogue raisonné, prepared by Cathy Courtney, provides samples of the artist’s work. They appear in the wire debossed cover and this centrepiece of “Scenes from the Alphabet” done with Roy Fisher, which led to a full-scale alphabet book at Fisher’s suggestion.
Turn Over Darling (1994)
Turn Over Darling (1994) Ron King Slipcase (H204 x W153 x D28 mm) containing a light brown paper portfolio (H195 x W150 x D24) into which are hand-sewn six sheets (H190 x W282) of J. Green RWS hand-made paper, folded in half, bearing embossed and debossed images of a female figure. A signed copy from the limited edition of seventy five. Acquired from the artist, 1 December 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.
The six embossed and debossed drawings were created from wire forms pressed into dampened sheets of paper. Turn Over Darling elegantly combines King’s sculptural skills with his printer’s skills. When folded and juxtaposed in sequence, they make for eleven reclining female nude images that change position from front to back view as the pages turn. Determining the folds and sequence is a form of imposition, although quite different from the usual imposition for a single sheet with twelve pages on either side as shown below. Again, here is a work that evokes a joy in the material and in its handling.
JBG 1984 watermark in J. Green RWS paper
Earth Birds (1981)
Earth Birds: forty six poems written between May 1964 and June 1972 (1981) Larry Eigner (poems) and Ron King (plates) Fifty hard-bound copies, I-L, printed on pure rag-made paper with six plates printed blind intaglio and one hundred and fifty copies, 51-200, printed on Glastonbury Book stock with the same plates printed relief, in one color.
As with George Szirtes, King has collaborated more than once with Larry Eigner. Looks like nothing, the shadow through air (1972) was the earlier joint effort. Compared to Earth Birds, later works like The Burning of the Books (2008) and Anansi Company(1992) with Roy Fisher show King’s development toward more deeply collaborative efforts.
Earth Birds does recall the wide range of similar works by others at Circle Press that King made possible: Hadrian’s Dream (1990) by Asa Benveniste and Ken Campbell and Machines (1986) by Michael Donaghy and Barbara Tetenbaum.
Chaucer’s The Prologue, 2nd Edition (1978)
Chaucer’s The Prologue, 2nd Edition (1978) Ron King Casebound sewn, letterpress printed on 190 gsm Queen Anne Antique White. Hand-set in Monotype Plantin series 110. H405 x W281 mm, 72 pages. Edition of twenty separate versions I-XX each of 250 copies, of which this is XI, #131, and includes a folder of Buckler Light Grey Plain with a poem by Roy Fisher and screen-print on 190 gsm Bockingfordby Ron King entitled “Webbe”. Acquired from private seller, 27 February 2021. Photos of work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of artist.
King originally prepared The Prologue for Editions Electo in 1966, then published a limited edition of 125 copies in 1967 under the Circle Press imprint. In this collection, the work represents King’s straightforward fine press work and a successful livre d’artiste. The screenprints of Chaucer’s characters and Chaucer himself are based on African and Brazilian masks as well as heraldic symbols. King’s inspiration to match these richly colored masks to the personae captures the pageantry and individuals within the social hierarchy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Opening this oversized fine press edition, turning its stiff, creamy pages with their 18 pt Plantin type and confronting these human-sized masks are reminders of the monumentality that this human-scale work of literature has achieved.
Knight and Squire masks
Nun and Monk masks
Chaucer’s mask and King’s original print “Webbe”
Almost always, small gifts of ephemera arrive with purchases from the Ron King Studio. They illustrate how King marshals his artistry even in marketing his art and that of those he has published.
Hare (single-fold card, H125 x W180 mm), blind-embossed. 2021.
Announcement (single-fold card, H216 x W140 mm) with blind embossed image of a fulmar. Describes artist book Sednar and the Fulmar with Richard Price’s poems. 2017.
Invitations (four-fold pop-up cards) to Pallant House Gallery opening preview. 2005.
Announcement (wax and paper pamphlet, H174 x W134 mm) of Lettre de la Mer Noire/Black Sea Letter by Kenneth White (poem) and Jean-Claude Loubières (images and wax dipping). 1997.
Announcement (card, line block reproduction, H150 x W125 mm) of the 200 portfolios of fifty-one woodcut designs reproduced from the only remaining proofs of Brazilian Miniatures, an unpublished book with a bilingual introduction; printed in two versions. 1973?
“Squire” (single-fold card, H235 x W165 mm) with hand-printed serigraph from Chaucer’s “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. 1969?
The Black Page Catalogue(2010) Coxwold, UK: Printed by Graham Moss (Incline Press) for The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 73 numbered leaves in a matte black card box (H235 x W168 mm). The leaves are glossy cards (210 x 148 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a single-sheet folded pamphlet (“Printing the Black Page” by Graham Moss, Incline Press) and two cards, one of which is the invitation to the exhibition inspired by the ‘black page’, p. 73 of the first edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, held at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire, 5 Sept.-31 Oct. 2009, and the other, sealed in an envelope, being the index of the contributors and their page numbers. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Collectors come up with the most ingenious reasons for acquiring things. In this case — along with astrological, numerological and other rational rationale — Rebecca Romney’s reminder that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the earlier instances of book art led inevitably to my acquiring Shandy Hall’s The Black Page Catalogue. But it took time.
Several months after enjoying the Romney essay, I met Brian Dettmer in January 2015 by happenstance at a book art exhibition in New Haven, CT. As we chatted about past inspirations of book art, Tristram Shandy came up, so he told me of an upcoming event called “Turn the Page” in Norwich, UK, where I could more easily see some of his work — and one in particular having to do with Tristram Shandy. So in May 2015, I went.
Tristram Shandy (2014) Brian Dettmer Carved and varnished, two copies of the 2005 Folio Society edition of Tristram Shandy. H230 x W190 mm Commissioned by The Laurence Sterne Trust, Coxwold, UK. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The marbled page, an “emblem of my work”, p. 169. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne Illustrated with wood engravings by John Lawrence. Set in ‘Monotype’ Plantin, printed by Cambridge University Press on Caxton Wove Paper. New York: Folio Society, 2005.
So a year passed. Another visit to “Turn the Page” was made. And as I was leaving, lo, a sign and small display came unto me:
Only a negligent collector would ignore such clear signs.
Parson-Yoricks-to-be can select their own favorites here.
Emblem of My Work (2013)
Emblem of My Work (2013) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Consists of a 24-page booklet and 170 numbered cards in a hinged blue paper-covered box (H160 x W105 x D60 mm. The leaves of this catalogue are bright white cards (152 x 92 mm) on which the artwork is printed; the reverse of each provides the “page” number and the contributor’s comments on the art. The booklet provides alphabetical and numerically ordered indexes listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 225, of which this is #79. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 1 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Volume III of Sterne’s work was the first to be handled by a publisher. Presumably the famous success of the first two self-published volumes helps to explain James Dodsley’s agreement to printing copies in which each page 169 and each page 170 showed uniquely marbled squares. Images from an original copy held at the British Library can be seen here. As Patrick Wildgust, director of Shandy Hall, explains in the booklet:
The central section of p. 169 was laid upon the marbled mixture in order that a coloured impression could be taken as cleanly as possible. This was left to dry and then reverse-folded so the other side of the paper could also receive its marbled impression. This side of the paper became page . As a result, the marbled page in every copy of Vol. III is different — each impression being a unique handmade image. In the text opposite on p. 168, Sterne tells the reader that the marbled page is the “motly emblem of my work” — the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.
Two favorites — one for page , one for  — artists with other works in the Books On Books Collection. Left: Ken Campbell. Right: Eric Zboya.
Paint Her To Your Own Mind (2018) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 147 numbered leaves in a brown paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (145 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 200. Acquired from Shady Hall, 6 June 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Page 147 of Sterne’s sixth volume of Tristram Shandy is blank. On the preceding page, he metaphorically throws up his hands over any attempt to describe the most beautiful woman who has ever existed and exhorts the reader: “To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me—please your own fancy in it.” So, accordingly, Shandy Hall invited 147 artists/writers/composers to follow Sterne’s instruction to fill the blank page 147. From the 9th through 30th of September 2016, their efforts were displayed in the Shandy Hall Gallery, Coxwold, York.
The curious reader can choose his or her own favorites here.
The Flourish of Liberty (2019)
In Volume IX on p. 17, the reader reads Corporal Trim’s advice to Uncle Toby, who stands at the Widow Wadman’s threshold about to propose marriage:
Nothing, continued the Corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life — or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty. Nothing, Trim — said my Uncle Toby, musing — Whil’st a man is free — cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus —
The Flourish of Liberty (2019) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 103 numbered leaves in a gray paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (148 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (black and white, several in colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 150, of which this is #133. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 26 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Ken Campbell’s works hold a special place in the Books On Books Collection. Some connect with other artists’ works in the collection. Some connect with techniques, structures or themes pursued in other works. One, however, lays claim to being the original seed to the collection.
Sometime in 1987, after the Radcliffe’s neuropsychologist Dr. John C. Marshall introduced me to his associate Dr. Ruth Campbell, she invited my wife and me to dinner. A growly, jovial bear in hearing aids welcomed us at the door, and by the time we left, I had purchased a proof of his print called “In the Door Stands a Jar”. The artist’s book Ken Campbell describes below was in the works, but at the time, I had had no exposure to this form of art that a life with books and ebooks would finally teach me to appreciate.
Over the years, the print’s blend of textual and visual puns played out from the wall. A door that stands ajar is partly open, partly closed. Half-open, half-closed, the door exposes its hinge and the hour-glass shape the hinge makes. A shape that suggests “a jar” or a pair of breasts, the nipples being the screwheads. The center line of the hinge is askew, a visual pun on “ajar”. Until 2012, I had been happy enough to have the print. But then I finally woke up to book art, and it felt a bit alone, hanging on the wall — or rather “in the door … a jar”.
In the Door Stands a Jar (1987)
In the Door Stands a Jar(1987) Ken Campbell Slipcase (245 x 245 mm) enclosing handsewn casebound book (240 x 240 mm, 44 pages unnumbered). Edition of 40, of which this is #18. Acquired from Vamp & Tramp Booksellers, 2 March 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.
It took three years to track down a copy. After the initial sense of accomplishment, and looking from print to book and back, I had to ask: Why a book? Instead of being printed back to back and casebound, the images could have been served up in a portfolio as prints to be framed; the text of its poem, in a chapbook tucked inside the portfolio. But they weren’t. As a book, they stand almost three dimensionally, served up as, and in, an object to be held half-open, half-closed, sequences to be puzzled out and followed, and colors and shapes shifting and overlapping like the syntax of the poem. Later, coming across Campbell’s description of the work, I learned that there was much more than that going on:
There’s usually some kind of formal problem in the books – a way of dividing space up for good clear reason and for making things work in a useful sequence. I had a notion of putting a reduced version of the book’s two-page spread, which is a designer’s term for an opened book, on one page and putting the same two-page spread reduced on the opposite page, so you’re looking at a kind of visual pun: two spreads on the whole spread.
Left: Double-page spread with title, author and date. Right: Final page, numbered and signed, and pastedown endpaper.
The last two lines of the poem across two double-page spreads: A MAN AMEN IN THE DOOR STANDS A JAR
The centerline of the grid on each page provides the visual key to the double-page spread embedded in each single page. The centerline itself and the images falling across it almost encourage the reader/viewer to fold the single pages in half to see how the halves of the image match up or shift. Like closing and opening a door. And so the page and double-page spread become elements in the composition itself. Campbell goes on to explain that there is even still more to it:
On each page is another, smaller two-page spread printed on a black background. In each smaller spread is what is left after I have printed black solids as a window over and around the female forms. Black over colour gives ghostly images of the complete form. The poem runs laterally through the colour and bleeds off into the darkness on either side. There are very large dark borders. I had started to play with borders both as ways of containing the work in a field and as a dark space at the edge of things; a free-fire zone in which things seen in other parts of the book and things remembered can affect that which stands in the light.
I wanted to bury words in those borders as a kind of visual echo of the words being used in the poem, a metaphor for where words come from in one way of creating poetry: hearing echoes of sound and meaning from other places. This process is pursued in other, later books.
I cut a female form out of a background of zinc and wood, and then cut it in half so that there were four blocks which were then manipulated and printed in a variety of colours. The jar that stands in the door is both a woman’s thick-waisted torso, and a jar which is cut up, dismembered and moved around. It was a tilt back to my designer past, making a page move almost in a cinematographic way through the book, in the spaces between the two verses. It was a very formal piece, a very sculptural thing to do. So the book is about joy and darkness, and the sensual face of this world, and the fact that death moderates all. — Ken Campbell
For some, Campbell’s door will recall Marcel Duchamps’ various door/porte works, in particular Porte, 11 rue Larrey (1927), which Duchamps had a carpenter build. The door is hinged at the angle between two walls, each of which has a door frame to receive the door, making it a door that is always closing and opening at the same time. The direct reference to sexual engagement in Campbell’s door (and many of his other works) will also recall Duchamps’ eroticism in his Given (1946-66) doorway work. Conceptually, Campbell’s comments on the hinge, grid and edge of surfaces will draw comparison with Duchamps’ infrathin principle: “both a surface and an interval, whose deictical character points in two different directions at the same time” (Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamps).
In an insightful review of Campbell’s body of work (Parenthesis 22, Spring 2012, Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books at the Library of Congress, notes these verbal, visual and conceptual doubles:
contemplation of the double emerges in several of [his] works. Opening phrases reappear in reverse at the close of a text. Positives are given counterpoint by a negative. Images flip, rotate and respond to each other as they move across the page. Phrases repeat, disassemble, and then reunite.
With its twenty-two double-page spreads, the book In the Door Stands a Jar not only doubles and re-doubles down on the visual layering of doubles — the “two spreads on the whole spread” —it also doubles and re-doubles down with its centering poem on the verbal/visual punning that hinges joy and darkness, opening and closing, and love and death together in this work. What an introduction to this form of art.
AbaB (1984) Ken Campbell Formed from 17 joined sheets as one leporello, pasted onto heavy endboards of varnished wood, in a cloth slipcase. Silkscreened by Jim Birnie at Norwich School of Art on Heritage Rag acid-free paper. Edition of 50, of which this is #9. Acquired from the artist, 18 December 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.
Campbell’s fourth work of book art, AbaB is the earliest of his works in the collection. It is certainly the most lighthearted of the works in the collection and, possibly, among all Campbell’s works. The text relays a conversation between ‘A’ (Campbell) and ‘B’ (Bruce Brown, a colleague at the Norwich School of Art), a conversation probably driven by the Cutty Sark to which it refers:
A: Think of a sea.
B: You mean the letter?
A: No, an ocean made of paper, upon which sits an open book: made of glass. On the water in the book bobs a bottle made of paper. The ship, afloat upon the label, we name the Cutty Sark.
B: Is that what you are going to do?
A: It just got done.
While the work is the only example of an accordion structure and silk-screen printing in Campbell’s work, and its use of varnished plywood for binding appears only in Father’s Hook (1978), the choice of the two typefaces reflects two processing characteristics to be found in almost every one of Campbell’s works.
I had two cases of woodletter, of different printing heights: one Anglo-American, an extra fatfaced serif; the other Didot, a Continental sans serif, very condensed and beautiful. They were so different in their respective fatness and thinness that they represented the polar ends of type design. As an act of cussedness I thought to do a book that brings the two together and see what happens.Ken Campbell
So, cussedness (or contrariety) and chance intertwined. The chance of two cases of woodletter, of different printing heights, contrary in weight and style, meets Ken Campbell, cussed and contrary enough to bring them to bear on a pun that launches an inside-outside pun: the message in a bottle becomes a message on a paper bottle afloat on an open book made of glass that sits on a sea/C of paper.
Another element of technique in AbaB stands out as recurrent in almost every one of Campbell’s works. It is an effect Campbell calls “stammering progress”. In AbaB he achieves it by running the conversation at different starting points in overlapping parallel lines that break awkwardly across the accordion’s panels. In other works, the awkward breaks come from words split across grid sections (as above with In the Door) or lines of verse split across recto to verso pages (again, as above, and below in -s wings, -s wings). Again, for Campbell, the page is not simply a surface, it is an element in a sculptural composition.
Hadrian’s Dream (1990)
Hadrian’s Dream (1990) Asa Benveniste (text) and Ken Campbell (design and art) Folded stiff paper cover over handsewn chapbook. Cover: H298 x W202 mm. Text block: H292 x W197 mm. Twenty pages unnumbered including two three-panelled fold-outs. Edition of 120 published by Circle Press Publications, of which this is #16. Acquired from Circle Press Publications, 22 June 2015.
In interviews and in most of his works, Campbell comes across as a solitary worker, possessed by tenacious vision, images, metaphors and engagement with the tools of his craft (one printing press he named “Lucille”). Hadrian’s Dream and the two exhibition flyers in the collection, however, shed light on moments of collaboration besides Jim Birnie’s screenprinting in AbaB.
Asa Benveniste was an expatriate American poet (1925-90), introduced to Campbell by Ron King in 1977. Later, King wanted to produce a series of chapbooks to celebrate the move of his studio to London and asked Campbell to take on “Hadrian’s Dream”. Benveniste’s poem is a striking one, actually about the creative process, and given Campbell’s recollection of a key line from the poem in a 2017 interview with Nancy Campbell (no relation, see below), it must have struck a lasting chord in his imagination. In the final result, though, Hadrian’s Dream is more Campbell than Benveniste.
A simple single-fold folio embracing all the other folios opens the chapbook. The half-title of the chapbook falls on the first recto panel. After that, things become less simple — either by virtue of image or fold. A second single-fold folio follows the first, and the full title page falls on its first recto panel, but inside this second folio on the copyright page (the fourth panel in the chapbook) is a glimpse of dark brown bricks that continue behind the other folios onto that second folio’s last recto panel (see below). Here the bricks turn a lighter brown then back to dark brown as they build an image of a wall, brick path or stairs, on which is superimposed a black print — an old-fashioned shadeless electric bulb emitting a jagged black corona of light and musical notes.
In correspondence (26 December 2020), Campbell notes, “the ‘bricks’ are the underside of the type used for the poem turned upside down and used to print from”. Delving into and repurposing his material at hand is a characteristic feature of Campbell’s art.
But who reads a book this way? Perhaps anyone who is puzzled after that copyright page by the succession of panels in which the seventh panel is actually part of a six-panel foldout opening leftwards. Inside the foldout on panel nine appears Benveniste’s poem, which with lines about “sunlight in the window”, a “desk lamp” and “everywhere there is only music” begins to shed light on the images. On closing this foldout and turning panels eleven and twelve, another surprise comes: a new foldout opening rightwards. It seems to be a four-panel foldout but is actually six. The missing two have already shown up before the first foldout! The complete image on the inside of this second foldout folio can be seen only when the folios it embraces are pinched together (see below).
This is the clue to go back to the copyright page and pinch together the folios between it and the penultimate panel (see below).
In the catalogue for his 1996 Yale exhibition “The Word Returned”, even Campbell comments: “the way the thing folds and unfolds is a bit confusing”. Nevertheless, Hadrian’s Dream provides lessons on reading Campbell’s art. Image, text and structure connect in multiple, meaningful dimensions. Where Benveniste’s last line reads “the start of the endless poem”, Campbell’s images facing the poem are two desk lamps connected by a single cord — light feeding light. For Campbell, “sunlight in the window” evokes the four quadrants through which the sun moves daily and, thus, the four panes of the window through which Benveniste sees Hadrian’s dream. With Campbell, in looking/reading and reading/looking, there are always more than “a few ways through the window”.
A few ways through the window: An exhibition of books, related prints and sculpture by Ken Campbell (1990)
The title of this exhibition flyer is also the title of the first book in Campbell’s catalogue The Maker’s Hand (on which more below). The flyer and entry in the catalogue intensify the desire to see that book from 1975 — whose text is printed letterpress in Univers type on the rough side of poster paper and photos of tall inward-opening windows and outward-opening wooden shutters printed on the smooth side. The flyer’s main text comes from the neuropsychologist John Marshall, who introduced me to Ken and Ruth Campbell all those years ago.
Execution: The Book: An exhibition of limited edition artists’ books, related prints and small sculpture (1990)
The title of this exhibition flyer is also the title of a book described in The Maker’s Hand. The year 1990 must have been one of Campbell’s most productive; it certainly brought recognition from the book and art worlds (Circle Press, London; Granary Books, New York; MoMA, Oxford). As will be expanded below, the exhibition flyers serve a particular function alongside Campbell’s bookworks in the collection.
-‘s wings, -‘s wings (1999)
-‘s wings, -‘s wings (1999) Ken Campbell Black laserprinted images overprinted with polychrome letterpress. Bound by Charles Gledhill using an adaptation of the seventeenth-century limp vellum form and wrapped in a folded black cloth. H197 x W140 mm, 64 pages unnumbered. Edition of 30, of which this is #18. Acquired from the artist, 20 December 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.
-‘s wings, -‘s wings is a dark, rich and more than tactile work. Following what happens in it demands more of the reader/viewer’s faculties. Unwrapping it from the cloth that envelops it, you feel engaged in some sort of rite. The feel of the binding lies somewhere between softcover and hardcover. An oily ink smell emerges. So precisely aligned with the grid image, the long stitches of beige or white thread exposed down the center of unnumbered pages 4-5 and 60-61 (both shown below) barely register to the eye.
When, however, pages 10-11 are reached (shown below on the left), the threads emerge more plainly against a dark background. The whiter vertical lines elsewhere on the page highlight the threads’ drawing function — or grouting function. By now, the oily smell is stronger, and fingers feel an almost sticky thickness to the pages. As light moves across the turning page’s surface, layers and pock marks appear and disappear much like the rising and falling of the threads. As In the Door but more so, it has an impasto effect from layering and layering brought about by Campbell’s aforementioned cussedness and chance-taking in running the sheets through the printer over and over.
Against this background, images of wings dance and pull away from the center. Over those images and background, the letterpressed text introduces a chant to Agni (the Hindu fire god) and Kali (goddess of love and the great mother) and a poem describing a forest fire spread by birds with wings aflame and falling into the undergrowth. As in other works, Campbell breaks words, punctuation and lines across multiple pages and double-page spreads. In this instance, seventeen pages carry the text. The loose transcription below does not replicate the word and line breaks within pages, only those from page to page; the double-page spreads are indicated. The chant and poem reverse themselves (not quite verbatim) after the first double-page spread, which reminds me of the palindrome In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni (“We go round and round at night and are consumed by fire”).
-S WINGS AGNI I KALI I
I KALI I AGNI -S WINGS
-S WINGS AGNI KALI I
BIRDS FLY OUT (THE) FO
REST FIRE (THEIR) WING
S AFLAME FALL DEAD (T
O) IGNITE THE AWAITING
AGNI I THANK [double-page spread]
IN MY BONE
FIRE BONE [double-page spread]
ME IN (YOU)
THANK I KALI
ITING IGNITE (&) DEAD F
ALL (A)FLAME FIRE FORE
ST OUT FLY (THE) BIRDS
I KALI I AGNI -S WINGS
I KALI I AGNI -S WINGS
-S WINGS AGNI I KALI I
The chant and poem also remind me of the image of birds and animals fleeing a forest fire in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” (a very different poem), but other readers will bring different memories to bear, and yet again this work of art will make a fine thing of chance.
The Maker’s Hand (2001)
The Maker’s Hand: Twenty Books by Ken Campbell (2001) Ken Campbell Perfect bound paperback. H305 x W240 mm, 104 pages. Acquired from the artist, 20 December 2018. Photo: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.
Like the exhibition flyers above, The Maker’s Hand is a work of ephemera — a catalogue of a selection of Campbell’s output. They are nonetheless important to the collection, not only because it wants certain key works by Campbell but also because together the ephemera document an important characteristic of Campbell’s oeuvre. The image on the cover should look familiar. It appears reproduced in whole and part in solid colors in the exhibition flyers above. It is an emblem of connectedness, the physical, conceptual and spiritual continuity of one work with another. It is also a reminder of the personal-ness of the art. The last book covered in The Maker’s Hand is Pantheon (2000), from which the catalogue’s final image is taken:
The self-portrait of the artist drives home the pairing of a life-long consistency of image and vision with life-long artistic growth and development. Life in art, art in life. For which this curator is grateful.
Dimunation, Mark. “Breaking Rules: The Insistent Vision of Ken Campbell”, Parenthesis 22, Fine Press Book Association. Accessed 13 December 2020. Clear commentary on Broken Rules and Double- Crosses (1984), AbaB (1984), A Knife Romance (1988), Father’s Garden (1989), Execution (1990), Firedogs (1991), Skute Awabo (1992), Ten Years of Uzbekistan (1994), The Word Returned (1996), Pantheon (2000) and Wall (2008).
A day’s visit with one hundred exhibitors hosted at the Arnolfini in Bristol leaves me reeling like a drunken sailor — drunk on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry. Appropriate given the Arnolfini’s location on Narrow Quay in Bristol’s floating harbour.
Lucy May Schofield talked to me about her “search for the indigo that is infinity”. The Distance of Us is only one of several pieces demonstrating how close she is coming. The Longest Day on her site is one among many by which to enjoy her progress.
Mick Welbourn took time to explain how his search among inks, paper and geometric shapes kept leading him from a unique work (oil-based) to multiples and back to uniques. These colours reminded me of the work of Sonia Delaunay.
Bodil Rosenberg, a member of the Danish collective CNG (Anna Lindgren, Bertine Knudsen, Birgit Dalum, Pia Fonnesbech, Susanne Helweg), appeared delighted that I was surprised by the colour and texture of Vandstand (“water level”). Somehow after the saturation of the paper with layer upon layer of paint, each page has a supple leather- or cloth-like feel — a coolness to the touch. I think Ken Campbell would relish Vandstand.
Caroline Penn’s works comprised by Notes from Chesil Beach made me reach out to pick up one of the pebbles on the page. The trompe l’oeil effect of turnable pages in the photos is enhanced in one variation by inclusion of an actual small gathering of pages. The role of trompe l’oeil in book art is one worth investigating.
Eileen White’s Haptic Narratives and her lumen prints for Printed Matter made a nice segue from texture to ghostly light. Printed Matter also looks forward to the “artistry” section here as book’s images are un-fixed and eventually fade away. To use the book form — the traditional form of permanent record — to present a language and reminder of material ephemerality: that is artistry.
Helen Douglas (Weproductions), fresh from exhibitions at Printed Matter in New York and Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, was displaying her 2017/2018 series Field Works as well as a new book Summer Alight. The photographic effects, the visual narrative and structure achieved in Douglas’s works define artistry.
Elena Zeppou’s Parallels first caught my eye because of its size, but closer inspection yielded appreciation of line — vertical as well as horizontal — and its union with text and form. Note how the lines of poetry read across the accordion.
Listening to Mandy Brannan talk about custom papers, French fold books and modified flag books is almost as good as handling them. The work30 St Marys Axe (inspired by the building fondly known as the “Gherkin”) was what first drew me to her table. It has two variations — Diagrid and Cladding — which reward repeated handling as well as regarding.
At the ArtistBooksOnline table, the shape-changer Inside/Outside by Susie Wilson kept me as busy as if it were a Rubik’s cube or paper puzzle with a medical mystery inside — or outside.
Puns, slippery words and slipperier concepts seemed to explode from Guy Bigland‘s table.
My inner metaphysician of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and Post-Deconstruction found its element(s) at the Atlas Press.
AM Bruno, run by Sophie Loss, and of which John McDowall is a founding member, is always a rich vein of artistry. The works from the 2018 theme-driven project, Cover, appear in the box below but warrant a closer inspection at the link behind the word. John McDowall had a new book on hand: Time-lapses. As I turned the brilliantly white pages, each segmented into squares like a comic-book page but only one square in each page holding an old black-and-white photo, the title began to sink home. And then came the idea that all the meaning that could possibly explain any one photo, its relation to the other squares or to other photos or to the author or to the reader/viewer — all of it — has to take place in the empty spaces between.
Janet Allsebrook displayed a Duchampian box with the Delaunay-esque title Nichoir. Although the drift of this work (“waste time making your own useless nest box”) is echoed in her other works, the echo reverberates with a deeper tone — often political or philosophical. The variety of book forms is impressive.
Next door was the artist of Zen book art — Julie Johnstone – Essence Press. In addition to extensions of her percentage tint series, she had on hand several explorations of breath, print and paper: each breath, a page; quietly breathing; five breaths; and ten breaths. Wherever they are, her books make a Zen garden.
Sarah Bodman and Arnolfini brought together a rich collection of talent and should be thanked for doing so and encouraged to repeat it in 2021. And to the artists mentioned — and those not — who took the time to share their thoughts on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry: Encore!
The seventh biennial Codex book fair and symposium in Berkeley and Richmond, California have come to a close. Of what use it is now to explain how to enjoy them, you be the judge. Your first step is to read the story in Mark Twain’s Roughing It of “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”. Being the story of a story — book art being so self-reflexive and all — it is the best way to commence:
Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram—but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time—just comfortably and sociably drunk.
Not to advise drink before the fair.
For the start of this Codex, rain and mist hover outside the hangar. The polished concrete floor looks wet but isn’t — so first-time visitors step to avoid slips that won’t really occur. The old-timers though stride from table to table arms wide, bussing each other on the cheek or humping crates around and placing and re-placing their works for the right effect. Arriving early to watch adds a certain enjoyment.
At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that … he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk—not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder- keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. … On the pine table stood a candle, and its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said: “Sh—! Don’t speak—he’s going to commence.”
‘I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois—got him of a man by the name of Yates—Bill Yates—maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon—Baptist—and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west.
‘Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson—Sarah Wilkerson—good cretur, she was—one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was—no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all—it was a galoot by the name of Filkins—I disremember his first name; but he was a stump—come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary …
Which reminds me of Emily Martin and her politically biting King Leer —
There is plenty more somber work to go around: Lorena Velázquez from Mexico has followed up her powerful Cuarenta y tres with Exit, her hope in our turbulent times;
Barcelona’s Ximena Perez Grobet has 2.10.1968-2018on display, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City; Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison from Australia offer Phantomwise Flew the Black Cockatoo, an indictment of a cruel welfare system; and there is Islam Aly from Egypt with Inception, Bedaya, inspired by stories and journeys of refugees. Book art everywhere wears its heart on its cover.
Still, book artists are a convivial bunch and cheerful in their internationality. On Monday evening, Mary Heebner (Simplemente Maria Press) and her husband photographer Macduff Everton are in the Berkeley City Club’s off-limits members’ room settling down to a bottle of Santa Barbara red, and here come upstate New Yorker Leonard Seastone (Tidelines Press), Anglo-German Caroline Saltzwedel (Hirundo Press), Irishman Jamie Murphy (The Salvage Press) and Geordie David Esslemont (Solmentes Press). Macduff is launched on a tale about running into Queen Elizabeth on her horse-riding visit to Ronald Reagan’s ranch, when David remembers rounding down a path in the Lake District during an art residency to find Prince Charles legging it up the same — by which time Macduff has just returned from his room with a bottle of single malt — which reminds Caroline of a stormy weather hike along Hadrian’s Wall, where Macduff diverts onto a tale of nearly being blown off the same and making his shaky, near-death way back to a bed-and-breakfast for a hot bath and terrible food from the grumpy owners, which launches Leonard onto the story about his local Russian butcher/grocer/refugee who refuses to sell him salad but insists on providing chiropractic services one day and adopts Leonard as his only friend in the US with whom he can have true political debate. Jamie still wants to know why the Russian wouldn’t sell Leonard any salad.
Speaking of greens — Robin Price’s prototype for Witnessing Ecology: the agave plant book again displays that thread of social concern, but this work and Price herself draw attention to another thread of enjoyment to pursue: the recurrence of collaboration among book artists. One artist leads to another.
As with the now-famous The Anatomy Lesson by Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Price has joined forces again with Daniel Kelm on the agave plant book, Kelm also collaborated with Ken Botnick on the long-gestating Diderot Project on display here just a few tables away, Botnick collaborated with the novelist and translator William Gass on A Defense of the Book, who in turn with the photographer Michael Eastman — who lives over in Oakland — created the digital-only book Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. Whatever the medium, the book just naturally encourages collaboration — and chance. As Price’s book Counting on Chance implies and as so many book artists echo — as does Jim Blaine —
‘… There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog—I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd—or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd—splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him.’
Chance, luck or accident — if you are to enjoy this book fair, you need to count on them, not just allow for them. How likely was it that in pursuit of Mary Heebner’s Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from stone, I would be caught up with that crew in the off-limits members’ club?
Or if I weren’t staying a good walking distance from the symposium, how would I have come across a hummingbird in the cold of February after being delighted with Sue Leopard’s Hummingbird?
Hagar is a common Nordic name. But how likely was it that Twain would use that particular name in his California mining-camp story and that Codex VII is hosting “Codex Nordica”? Mark my words it was a put-up thing.
That not one of the symposium presenters introducing us to “Codex Nordica” is named Hagar should not be held against the organizers. Their choices — Åse Eg Jørgensen (co-editor of Pist Protta, Denmark’s longest running contemporary artists’ journal), Tatjana Bergelt (multilingual, of German-Russian-Jewish culture and settled in Finland), Thomas Millroth (art historian from Malmö) — are entertaining, informative and good humoured (proof at least for the Danes that they can’t all be Hamlet or Søren Kierkegaard). What they have to say and show speaks to book art’s uncanny rhyming across geographies and times.
With every issue the outcome of guest editing, artists’ contributions and a mandate to be unlike any previous issue, Pist Protta is a cross between Other Books and So, the collaborative, gallery-challenging venture of Ulises Carrión in the last century, and Brad Freeman’s US-based Journal of Artists’ Books.Printed Matter has faithfully carried every issue of Pist Protta, so there is little excuse to be unaware of it and its liveliness. Fitting for someone who thinks of herself as a collage of cultures, Tatjana Bergelt’s barfuß im Schnee-álásjulggiid muohttagis (“Barefoot in the Snow”) is a photo-collage of old maps, satellite maps, poetic texts, landscapes and portraits of the Sámi, the dwindling inhabitants of the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast. It reminds me of UK-based Nancy Campbell’s Vantar/Missing.
Both works delve into the vulnerable and disappearance — be it culture, gender or environment. Vantar‘s cold diptychs recording the mountain snow cover and barely perceptible signs of life in the ghost town Siglufjörður chime with Bergelt’s final slide:
The bus from the symposium in Berkeley to the fair itself in Richmond is another chance for chance to play its role. One day I’m sitting next to Amanda Degener (Cave Paper), who delights in our common acquaintance with Ioana Stoian and Eric Gjerde; the next, it’s Jeanne Drewes (Library of Congress), who introduces me to Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), who regales us and the collector Duke Collier with tales of the British artist Ken Campbell. But the terrible thing about chance is that it takes up so much time and, at the same time, shows you what you wish you had more time for.
Or to Russell Maret discussing his work Character Traits and Geoffroy Tory’s Champ Fleury: The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face (1529):
Sam is kind enough to introduce me to his colleagues at ARC Editions (Victoria Bean, Rick Myers and Haein Song). Individually and together, they are forces to watch. Myers’ An Excavation, which I’d had the pleasure to see previously in The Hague, can be partly experienced in these videos, and Song’s fine bindings and artist’s books must be seen. Bean’s symposium talk is on Check, her portfolio of typewriter prints featuring fifty writers, from Oscar Wilde to Joan Didion, and the checks they wore, and on Flag, the follow-up series of artist’s books that takes a writer from Check and uses colour, cloth and typewriter prints to explore an individual work by that writer.
Check and Flag illustrate that bright enjoyable thread that shows up again and again at Codex and book art at its prime — the integration of letter, image, material, form, process and subject in a way that self-consciously calls attention to them yet yields a work of art that simply is — on its own terms.
Which, if you have read “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”, ought to remind you that
… Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece.
‘She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so—full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him—they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument.
With its 222 exhibitors here weaving the threads of book art and the book arts, Codex VII is a monument to enjoy. As for that old ram, you will have to read the story — and prepare for Codex VIII.
With apologies to the preacher: Of making many books [on books] there is no end.
With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.
The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh? For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art? Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.
Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.
Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?
To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)
In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:
its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).
But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it.
In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.
With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)
At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground. As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.
As such, works of book art
have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)
Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117). These “flashpoints” are William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).
Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes. Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.
Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)
Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)
Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)
One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China) — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Storyby Sam Winston (UK). As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.
For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.
Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.
Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).
The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.
Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and and the text animation of American Emmett Williams‘ Sweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s TheReadies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).
A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machine. In her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.
Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more. Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically. In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.
Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum:
I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)
To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes(2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments. Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.
There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘sMi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.
The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence. Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.
Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read(Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends. Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless:
Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)
Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.
Borsuk reminds us:
Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)
Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.
At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:
Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)
Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:
The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)
How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1(2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?
That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.
The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier. The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.
The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.
The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand. The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book. And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.