In 2009, Rainier Lericolais created one of the more unusual works of homage to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1914). In Carton Perforé, the words and lines of Mallarmé’s poem take up their positions as perforations on a continuous paper roll used for a barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy.
For a multidisciplinary artist and musician, Lericolais’ choice of medium here is highly appropriate, as is the choice of Mallarmé’s poem for an artist in pursuit of “grasping the elusive“. The work is now in the permanent collection at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou.
In 2020, Lericolais revisited his visual barrel-organ homage to create a version that could be heard as well as seen. Under the Direct to Disk Éditions label, Lericolais published Carton Perforé as sheet music for piano along with a recording of it. Just as Broodthaers and other hommageurs signaled their homage by changing Mallarmé’s subtitle from Poème to Image, Sculpture, Musique, etc., Lericolais adds the subtitle Piano, paying homage to their tributes, Mallarmé’s poem and, humorously, his own earlier work. A performance of the piano version can be heard here.
Removed from its greyboard box, this artists’ book by Daniela Deeg and Cynthia Lollis appears clouded by its overlapping layers of vinyl covers. As the top cover turns to the left and the next layer turns to the right, the shine of the covers’ slick side combines with the dull side to create an impression of wet fog, parting to reveal an equally cloudy translucent double-folded leaf of Cristalla paper on which is printed Übergang and transition in the typeface Sabon in roman font and gray. With the Übergang/transition page turned over rightwards, the inner double-page spread shows three words in blue italic: Fluß, flux and fleuve. If the whole Fluß/flux/fleuve spread is turned over leftwards, Übergang/transition reappears on the left along with stroom in blue italic in the center and transition and overgang in gray roman on the right. When the transition/overgang page turns rightwards, the words toeval and Zufall appear in blue italic.
What is going on? To be sure, an artist’s book entitled Ein Würfelwurf kann den Zufall nicht abschaffen / A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance implies an homage to Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. The most famous homage to date comes from the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, who replaced the lines of verse with black strips in an edition with translucent paper. Deeg and Lollis do include those redactive bars in their work. But what has that to do with all those gray and blue words?
The bilingual title suggests that questions of language are in play. Even if, however, the words are recognized as German, English, Dutch/Flemish and French — and understood as rough multilingual synonyms for “transition”, “river”, “flux” and “chance” — a few hints about the rules of the game would help. There is no colophon at the end of the book, but with all the turning over this way and that, one might think to turn the box over. And there it is.
So there is a lot going on. About the word list as a starting point, more later. Another starting point — not fully clear from the colophon — lies in the reference to the Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium. Collaboration at a distance and during joint travels over texts and visuals is part of the artists’ working process.
We often travel to other places to inspire our artists’ books, and we’ll select an author that we admire to act as our guide. Each of our books includes our native languages, English and German, plus the language that represents the place we visited. Ein Würfelwurf was a little different. We’d just completed a decade of making books together. Instead of going somewhere new, this book was to be a look back to places that we had traveled in those ten years. We were printing this book on a residency in Belgium, so this time we looked for a Belgian to lead us. Because our book would be focused on language, its poetic potential, and the translation of words, we chose an artist as our guide. Specifically, we chose one who translated printed words into visual form. Both of us admired Broodthaers’ conceptual work, and we thought that it was fitting to quote his Un Coup de Dés artwork. [Correspondence from Cynthia Lollis with Books On Books Collection, 4 April 2022]
Some of the photographs to which Lollis refers depict buildings from multiple locales, interiors, a desk with an open book, traffic lights, a landscape from on high, and other scenes difficult to recognize because all are rendered in screen prints as backgrounds to words or other photographs rendered as simplified outlines and silhouettes. Most of the outlines and silhouettes such as the ones of a cuckoo clock’s counterweights, a chandelier, mailboxes, crowd control stanchions, human figures, a park bench or buildings are easily recognizable even though they may be turned on their sides, split in two or enlarged. Two recurrent images that require some deciphering are of street lamps and signposts appearing as overlapping outlines and silhouettes from various perspectives and positioned at various angles. On the left below, the silhouette of a street sign topped with a wagon wheel of globe lamps is more easily detected if looked at from the side. On the right below, the silhouette of an ornate streetlamp seen from an angle below is transformed into a white outline, enlarged and turned on its side so that it seems to be a map. (The blue background is a screen printed photo of an interior with windows, tables and chandeliers.)
To return to the words scattered throughout, the images have detectible relationships to them — often with ease, sometimes only by pondering the synonyms. The outline of the street sign appears close to Übergang, which can mean “crossroads” as well as transition, which also appears on the same page, but on a double-page spread with the outline of the same street sign, the words Fluß/flux/fleuve appear. Making the connection here between image and words can be as challenging as deciphering Mallarmé’s metaphors, and that could well be the point. Also, there is something Mallarméan about the way the book requires the reader to hold a set of multilingual near-synonyms in suspension — like bated breath — while turning the pages. Sometimes a synonym appears for a set of words some pages later and in the context of other words. For example, stroom (Dutch for “flow”) appears only after the Fluß/flux/fleuve pages have been tucked away, and then it appears across from transition and Overgang.
The reason that some words are set in gray roman and others in blue italic goes back the work’s starting point and creative process. Not sure where it might lead, the artists began creating a list of English words in 2001. In 2011, with the aim of creating this book, Deeg and Lollis arrived at the Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium with design ideas and three lists in hand: the original set (5 words), another in English (5) and one in German (5). When they began the task of translation to create a final list of 30 (15 pairs), the realities of ambiguity and multiple meanings across and within languages arose. Undaunted, they handed over their lists to Belgian artist colleagues to see what clarification an injection of more perspectives, more languages (Dutch/Flemish and French) and therefore chance might bring. The 2001 list appears in gray roman, the 2011 in blue italic.
Another element of chance entered with the screen printing and folds of the translucent paper. The text and images seem to rise up through the folded pages and through each other to float on the surface. With all of these compositional, conceptual and material aspects, not only must this work be read and looked at carefully, it must be felt and listened to. Even as the book is lifted from its box, its Cristalla Transparent paper rustles inside the slippery covers, and every turn of page emits a symphony.
Bernadette O’Toole follows in a long line of distinguished “serial hommageurs”: Ian Wallace, Jérémie Bennequin, Marcel Broodthaers, Kathy Bruce, Marine Hugonnier, Jorge Méndez Blake, Alastair Noble, Michalis Pichler, Raffaella della Olga and Joëlle Tuerlinckx. Like many of them, she extends her work across multiple media. Like all of them, she is driven by the metaphysics and motifs expressed in Un Coup de Dés.
Variant Sail (2015); As If (2016)
Variant Sail (2015) and As If(2016) Bernadette O’Toole Presentation box. H240 x W172 mm. Acquired from the artist, 1 April 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Bernadette O’Toole’s two small booklets first appeared in Sharon Kivland’s MA Bibliothèque and are now out of print. The presentation case in which they arrived conveys her recurrent practice or technique of recontextualizing. A copy or copies from an edition may be re-presented so as to create a new work or works. Variant Sail and As If constitute a case in point.
Variant Sail (2015)
Variant Sail (2015) Bernadette O’Toole Booklet, two-staple saddle-stitch. H190 x W130 mm, 24 pages. Edition of 25, of which this is #6. Photos: Courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole. Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of artist.
The booklet Variant Sail contains reproductions of twelve digital prints (H38 x W57 cm). The prints were created by scanning and digitally manipulating each of the double-page spreads of Un Coup de Dés in Photoshop, producing twelve variants with each one foregrounding the gutter in a different way. The manipulation has made Mallarmé’s text faintly detectable but indecipherable and rendered the double-page spreads as entire blancs — variants, as it were, of the white spaces (les blancs) to which Mallarmé refers in his poem’s preface.
The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it. The paper intervenes each time as an image, of itself, ends or begins once more, accepting a succession of others, and, since, as ever, it does nothing, of regular sonorous lines or verse – rather prismatic subdivisions of the Idea, the instant they appear, and as long as they last, in some precise intellectual performance, that is in variable positions, nearer to or further from the implicit guiding thread, because of the verisimilitude the text imposes.
From Mallarmé’s marked-up proofs for his planned deluxe edition, we know that he viewed the double-page spread, not the single page, as the poem’s primary structural unit. Each of O’Toole’s blank double-page spreads can be seen as a voile alternative (“variant sail”), a phrase appearing on the NRF/Gallimard edition’s second double-page spread. With a different foregrounding of the gutter in each of her double-page spreads, O’Toole underscores both the variance within her Variant Sail and the important constancy of the double-page spread in the poem to which she is paying homage.
A bit more esoterically, the double-page spread suggests the quantity 2, an allusion to the result of thrown dice, their two faces up. It may also allude to the poem’s revolutionary versification, challenging French poetry’s Alexandrine, the traditional measure of 12 syllables usually divided into two hemistichs. It seem no accident that O’Toole has chosen a pattern of two-word titles for her booklets.
As If (2016)
As If (2016) Bernadette O’Toole Booklet, two-staple saddle stitch. H205 x W140 mm, 16 pages. Edition of 25, of which this is #6. Photo: Courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of artist.
The prints for Variant Sail in turn inspired paintings (same dimensions) that are reproduced in the second booklet As If, which takes its two-word title from the poem’s central double-page spread, the one beginning and ending COMME SI (“as if”). Mallarmé’s words are no longer detectable. What is detectable instead is each brushstroke on the painted surfaces. It is as if the work As If appropriates the work Variant Sail, just as Variant Sail appropriates Un Coup de Dés.
“Appropriation” may not be the right characterization. Re-contextualizing, re-purposing or re-cycling perhaps. Consider where O’Toole goes next with these two other works not in the Books On Books Collection at the moment.
Variant Sail II (2016)
For Variant Sail (II), O’Toole incorporates an inventive sculptural work that she calls a “gesture”. In a black presentation box, a translation of Un Coup de Dés rests beside a small painted gesture, oil on plaster. Here is her description of the process by which a gesture is created:
The process of making the work involved tracing my brush-stroke into a bed of clay, pushing into the surface which proved resistant at first. Plaster was poured into the indent, casting the absent gesture [brush-mark]. Once the form had set, I separated it from the bed of clay and took hold of the object. The absent gesture [brush-mark] had become embodied. The form was simultaneously liberated from the mould, and from the limitation of the painting surface. It was cast out, recalling the Japanese practice known as, ‘flung-ink’, which Norman Bryson observes is ‘thrown’ as one throws dice. — [Interview with Josie Jenkins, 22 November 2020]
Variant Sail II has appropriated, re-cycled, re-purposed or re-contextualized the works Variant SailandAs If in several ways — by transforming the surface brushstroke into a three-dimensional object, by juxtaposing those two works (through the gesture) with the translation
A Rare State (2018)
A Rare State consists of 12 booklets (H38 x W57 cm), each with its own cover and title. Each encloses 12 loose interchangeable folios. Each captures images from different performative readings (by the artist) of Un Coup de Dés or fromanimated patterns of marks and numbers appearing and disappearing. Some of the patterns occupy the positions of Mallarmé’s text on his double-page spreads. Others appear in sequences of 1-6 within a square or diamond suggesting the face of a die.
A Rare State expands on the idea of a numerical or mathematical principle at play — be it 1-6 on the face of a die, the 12 syllables of the Alexandrine that the poem explodes, the 2 of the double-page spread, or the 4 triangles constituting the face of a die across the double-page spread. This expansion is also an expansion of O’Toole’s technique of appropriation, re-cycling, re-purposing or re-contextualizing to create new artwork. It is as if her every thought emits a throw of the dice.
Cohn, Robert Greer. 1965.Toward the poems of Mallarmé. Berkeley: University of California Press. See in particular for his analysis of the relationship between Un Coup de Dé and the sonnet À la Nue Accablante Tu (pp. 229-36).
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD — ESPACE (2012)
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD — ESPACE (2012) Richard Nash Hand-cut concertina with inkjet printed turn-in cover. Closed: H286 x W204 mm; Open: W 11.2m. Unique. Acquired from the artist for donation to the Bodleian Library, 2 April 2022. Photos: Courtesy of Richard Nash; Books On Books Collection. Permission to display from the artist.
Credit goes to Rafaella della Olga’s Constellation (2009) for being the first homage to Un Coup de Dés to remind us that constellations appear against the blackness of space, not the whiteness of paper. But the first to apply this reminder in 180gsm Jet Black Canford paper to a double homage to Mallarmé’s poem and Marcel Broodthaers‘ version is Richard Nash’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard — Espace(2012).
The opening pages
COMME SI … COMME SI spread
Additional photos courtesy of Richard Nash.
On the flyleaf, Nash has added his own verse entitled “Espace”, which set in Didot Regular is equally a typographic and poetic . Espace has a monumentality to it that encourages imagining it at a larger scale in different material; for example, a sculpture of cut steel painted black, installed along a seaside strand and backlit at night. In that evocative physical characteristic, Nash’s homage evokes the oracular and vatic tone of
RIEN / N’AURA EU LIEU / QUE LE LIEU / EXCEPTÉ / PEUT-ÊTRE / UNE CONSTELLATION (“Nothing will have taken place but the place except perhaps a constellation”)
Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés (“All thought emits a throw of the dice”).
On Innards (2015)
On Innards (2015) Amanda Couch, Mindy Lee, Andrew Hladky and Richard Nash Limited edition publication individually stamped and numbered, digitally printed and cut, folded, bound and finished by hand. H260 x W205 mm, 200 pages of various intersecting formats and custom binding. Limited edition of 200, of which this is #74. Acquired from Richard Nash, 2 April 2022. Photos: Courtesy of Richard Nash; Books On Books Collection. Permission to display from Richard Nash.
Artists Amanda Couch, Mindy Lee and Andrew Hladky initiated the the project and presented initial results in a panel held at the interdisciplinary conference “Body Horror” in Athens, in 2013. Subsequently, Richard Nash joined the project to curate an exhibition and event in 2014, which included text by Carlo Comanducci, Giskin Day, Dr. Simon Gabe, Nathaniel Storey, and Jamie Sutcliffe; performance by Kerry Gallagher; and illustration by Jenny Pengilly. Drawing together the output and record of the project, Nash created this hybrid research journal and artists’ book, launched at the Whitechapel London Art Book Fair in 2015.
Like Espace, this work displays Nash’s sculptural approach to text, graphics, ideas and the book as raw material for an artistic creation. The bookwork interweaves, concertinas, folds out, pops up, gate-folds, roll-folds and unwinds. Used to reveal reflections on the project, recalled events, artefacts, images, and stories from the conference, these various “book innards” become an embodiment of digestion. It also somewhat resembles an expandable file folder, its contents secured by a long looping slip-knotted red thread sewn through a heavy card spine pasted to red endpapers that are pasted to brown cover papers. Despite the resemblance to a landscape portfolio, the contents proceed in portrait codex fashion with the tabbed half-title “page” below. The half-title, however, is the first panel of a double-sided accordion that extends from that tabbed half-title page all the way to the last (also tabbed) page of the book (also below). When the half-title turns, it reveals a description of the contents (also below) printed on the double-sided accordion.
Landscape view of the spine and external thread binding.
Portfolio view of endpaper and half-title page. Note the glimpse in the center of the spine’s interior.
Left: The verso page or panel gives a description of the contents of the double-sided accordion. Right: last panel of the double-sided accordion.
The valleys of the double-sided accordion hold the various other parts of the book, some of which are secured in their valleys by the red thread’s looping over and down their centers, and some of which are secured by being folded around or over the thread-secured parts. The dimensions of those parts vary, and other parts lie loose. This can lead to the guts of the book spilling out, surely not an accident! Nor is it necessarily a bad thing, for reading the other side of the accordion requires removing all of the contents from the binding.
The first interleaved artefacts and images come from Amanda Couch and Mindy Lee. Couch’s first item is a passe-partout construction displaying at the start “Organ-Offal Caecum Andouillette” (2015) and at the end “Organ-Offal Stomach-Tripe” (2015). The passe-partouts combine black-and-white photos of anatomical engravings with color photos of the gut (see above), and between them is a photo of an annotated recipe for beginner’s tripe or chitterlings. Her second item (see below) is a pamphlet entitled “Reflection on Digestion: The Mouth” (2013), recounting and illustrating a presentation/performance/tasting of a serving of tongue that Couch gave during the “Body Horror” conference.
Lee’s contributions appear (also below) on the larger pages embraced by and interleaved with Couch’s two items. The images display photographs of works entitled Better Out than In: Venus VI, IV & X (2012) and Splatter Platter (2009). In Better Out, Lee’s “canvasses” are paper plates, but the perspective from which Venus is perceived suggests the underside of a closed, soiled toilet seat.
Couch’s “Reflection on Digestion” pamphlet interleaved with photos of Lee’s Better Out than In series.
Detail from photo of Lee’s Splatter-Platter; enclosing page from Couch’s annotated and illustrated recipe for tripe.
Andrew Hladky’s contributions are prints of three-dimensional works made of oil and bamboo sticks on wood panels ranging from 3 inches to 10 inches in depth. To capture this, On Innards delivers the print of It ain’t us yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals (2015) as a pop-up box (see below), and the prints of Well, This is Goodbye (2007-15) and The Clearing (2011-14) are cut and folded such that they spill out well beyond the trim size of the portfolio (also below).
Hladky’s It ain’t us yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals (original work 12 x 18 x 10 inches). The other side of this box also bears a print of a detail view of the work.
Haldky’s Well, This is Goodbye (original work 8.5 x 10.5 x 3 inches)
Hladky’s The Clearing unfolded (original work 61.5 x 43.5 x 6.5 inches), with Giskin Day’s “End Notes” interleaved.
As mentioned, some works are loose inserts, but some of the loose inserts are folded over a panel of the core double-sided accordion. Nash uses that structural feature to emphasize one of the hallmarks of book art: self-reflexivity. Below, straddling a mountain fold in the core double-sided accordion is another double-sided accordion. On one side, there is a photo of Couch’s Entrail Troyen (2014), a three-dimensional tube knitted from leftover cured saucisson sec shredded into ribbon-like thread. The title is derived from the French sausage Andouillette de Troyes, which harks back to the pamphlet “Reflection on Digestion: The Mouth” (2013) and its andouillette and chitterlings.
In case the reader misses the connection to the earlier item, the other side of this double-sided accordion presents a condensed photo of Couch’s nine-meter long accordion book entitled Reflection on Digestion (2012), a continuous line of handwriting looping back and coiling like the villi of intestines (see the cover of On Innards), relief printed from photo polymer plates on 410 gsm white Somerset satin paper. Couch uses this work in her reading performances of the same name. (Did I mention self-reflexivity?)
Loose double-sided accordion fold item displaying Couch’s Entrail Troyen on one side and Reflection on Digestion on the other.
Continued commentary on and illustration of this addition to the Books On Books Collection would be to regurgitate the whole work, which is certainly the opposite direction the work takes and which would be unfair to the work’s artists and contributors. After all, On Innards is a limited edition, and as many copies as possible should be ingested by as many institutions possible that are intent on improving their clientele’s digestion of book art.
Signature page concluding the “bibliographical” brochure summarizing the project, sponsors, conference, Blyth Gallery event and the artists’ book in hand, providing its colophon and listing sources and works displayed; penultimate page of the core double-sided accordion.
Derek Beaulieu (No Press) first published Sam Sampson’s homage to Un Coup de Dés as a handsewn pamphlet in 2020. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mallarmé’s initial publication of “the poem that made us modern”, Sampson enlisted Jacinda Torrance of Verso Visual Communications for design, the firm Centurion for printing, and Louise James of The Binding Studio for hand binding to produce this deluxe edition.
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))) (2022)
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard ((( Sun-O ))) (2022) Sam Sampson Handsewn book, H300 x W225 mm, 28 unnumbered pages. Edition of 20 (10, each enclosed in a hinged-lid box with magnetic flap; 10 unboxed), of which this is boxed # 2. Acquired from the artist, 7 April 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
As with most creative works, (((Sun-O))) had multiple points of inception. One of them was an essay Sam Sampson read by Susan Howe and Cole Swensen. They quote Mallarmé’s preface to the poem (“nothing new except a certain distribution of space made within the reading” and speak of his aim to fuse sequential and simultaneous perception, to fully engage the eye and ear, as a result pushing poetry in two directions – toward visual art and toward musical performance. This resonated with a series of poems Sampson was writing and manifests itself in (((Sun-O))):
The physical design and analogy in my rendition is aligned with what I would call the ‘O Poems’. ‘O’ Zero, being the sound that runs through these poems, but I’ve also been interested in the numerical concept of zero: the beginning point, but also the point of departure, the ‘O’ as an ideogram, giving the text a pictorial as well as vocalised movement. [Correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Another of the “O Poems” is Zeroth. Sampson reads it here:
Zeroth leads to another point of inception: a conversation with Roger Horrocks, a New Zealand poet, writer, film-maker, educator and cultural activist, to whom (((Sun-O))) is dedicated. After reading Zeroth, Horrocks told Sampson that it reminded him of his favorite Seattle experimental metal band at the time – Sunn O))). Sampson describes their sound as slow, heavy, blending diverse genres including “drone, black metal, dark ambient and noise rock”. Sampson’s mulling over the very sound of the band’s name led to free associations with the secondary meanings of drone (surveillance, panopticon). Mulling over the name’s compression of word and the letter O led to his hybridized subtitle (((Sun-O))) “with its parentheses radiating out but never closing”. A potent visual and textual image for a poem touching on, if not touching, the sun, the abyss and the human.
But, of course, the zero point of inception is Un Coup de Dés. On a visually material level, (((Sun-O))) has a scaffolding of bullet-pointed rules, whose lengths are based on measuring each of Mallarmé’s lines, whose weights approximate the variable font sizes, and whose placement matches that in Un Coup de Dés. This lattice serves as the physical structure for the collage of words and O’s that Sampson layers like paint or screenprint onto the page. Some words and lines are upside down like the detritus of a shipwreck. Some words curve and drape between the lines like torn sails. Appropriately, some come from the precisely corresponding pages in Mallarmé’s poem. Faint lines of the circumferences of O’s leap across and down between the lines almost like musical notations.
Within this tangle, Sampson’s own elusive and allusive text plays. Some of its phrases come from traditional song; some fix the geographical location (“blue carbon” places the speaker in a coastal community); some “un-fix” the location (“over the hills and far away”); some are struck through, alerting the reader to be ready to discard and start again; some set the technological time frame (the reference to operating systems like Suse, Symbian and, of course, Solaris). As in Un Coup de Dés, the text’s syntax and placement on the page encourage reading in fits and starts, back and forth. As Sampson puts it:
I wanted [my] poem to somehow capture, as Mallarmé had described it, “the invitation of the great white space”, and the successive, incessant, back-and-forth motions of our eyes travelling from one line to the next, and beginning all over again. [Correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Indeed, before writing Un Coup de Dés, Mallarmé foreshadowed more expansively this phenomenon toward which Sampson strives:
Pourquoi — un jet de grandeur, de pensée ou d’émoi, considérable, phrase poursuivie, en gros caractère, une ligne par page à emplacement gradué, ne maintiendrait-il le lecteur en haleine, la durée du livre, avec appel à sa puissance d’enthousiasme: autour, menus, des groupes, secondairement d’après leur importance, explicatifs ou dérivés — un semis de fioritures. [Oeuvres Complètes, 2, 227]
“Why — couldn’t a considerable burst of greatness of thought or emotion, carried in a sentence in large typeface, gradually placed with one line per page, hold the reader’s bated breath throughout the entire book by appealing to his or her power of enthusiasm: around this [burst], smaller groups of secondary importance, explicating or deriving from the primary phrase — a scattering of flourishes.” [Arnar, 234]
Whereas in Mallarmé’s poem there is a primary sentence in large typeface (“UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD”) off which the secondary groups of phrases and sentences play, (((Sun-O)))‘s primary foil is the combination of two things: the collage made from shards of Mallarmé’s poem and that strange, enjambed subtitle (((Sun-O))). After all, the full title of Sampson’s work is UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))).
The “Comme si … Comme si” center double-page spread.
Sampson calls Mallarmé’s poem a form of metaphysical gambling, reproducing the sensation of being both in and outside time. Being both in and outside of time — that could be the defining state of human consciousness. Unlike the abstract representation of humanity in Un Coup de Dés, however, (((Sun-O)))‘s representation is concretely personal. The traditional song “Over the Hills and Far Away“, which Sampson cites at the start of (((Sun-O))), can be read as a reference to Horrocks’ departure from New Zealand for the United States in the 1960s. At one point, the speaker addresses Horrocks directly: “Roger / what of these / parallels of blue / sea shanties / masquerading mind-sets / …”. Sampson takes the image of Roger Horrocks’ signature from Horrocks’ copy of an edition of Un Coup de Dés, fragments it and reproduces it on the pages of (((Sun-O))). Did Sampson have in mind the story of René Magritte’s loaning his copy of Un Coup de Dés to Marcel Broodthaers, which led to Broodthaers’ Image version of Mallarmé’s poem? (See Marine Hugonnier’s retelling of the tale here.) The scaffolding of bulleted-pointed lines certainly pays homage to Broodthaers and other “hommageurs by redaction” such as Michalis Pichler, Sammy Engramer and others. (((Sun-O))) is a work of many conversations on many levels across time and time zones.
One of the main topics in (((Sun-O))), however, naturally seems to defy the bridging of the personal and abstract: climate crisis. It is hard to miss the allusions to the global shipwreck that is the climate crisis, engendering rising ocean levels and spastic efforts towards zero carbon emissions based on a computational chaos of competing environmental models and competing economic and political systems. It is clearly of personal concern to the speaker, but that does not take the issue from the abstract to the concretely personal in the way that Horrocks’s signature in a copy of Un Coup de Dés does. Making the climate crisis personal could, of course, run the risk of descending into small talk about the weather.
The references to music and the poem’s demonstration of musicality throughout are also hard to miss, and given its zero point of inception, the poem would be seriously remiss without them. The aim for union of text, sound and graphic image is as central to Sampson’s poem as the manipulation of syntax and les blancs is to Mallarmé’s. The aim’s importance in Sampson’s poem even has the last note and oversized word in the poem:
... the Never / rolling / listing / pitch / & / fall / A solitary / THRUM
The frequency of achieved union may be what puts Sampson’s homage in the front rank.
The special edition of (((Sun-O))) enhances that union in material ways. The design and materials play off Sampson’s cutting into and out of, sticking on and sticking through Un Coup de Dés. Six circles foiled in white on the front cover of the box turn the subtitle into an emblem — a mark maker. On the box’s inside lining, a design of circles and broken circles echoing the collage of O’s in the poem (even hinting at musical notation) is used to designate the number of the copy in the edition of 10. For this copy (#2), straight lines cut through 2 of the circles.
Like the white circles, six die-cut circles on the book’s front cover correspond to the six parentheses of the subtitle and likewise one face of a die. They also recall the hemistich of French poetry’s twelve-syllable Alexandrine, which Un Coup de Dés shattered. An image peeks through the die cuts and, as the cover turns, reveals itself as a collage of the cut-up cover of Horrocks’ copy of the poem and pages of (((Sun-O))). On the back cover, a single large die-cut circle centers on a black-hole sun with a faint, almost invisible ((( Sun-O ))) disappearing into blank/blackness.
By chance or by sly humor, the typeface used is DTL Elzevir. (((Sun-O))) is obviously not in the hunt for absolute fidelity to the edition planned by Mallarmé and Ambroise Vollard in 1896-97, which collapsed with the poet’s death. When Mallarmé’s son-in-law Dr. Edmond Bonniot issued an edition with Gallimard/NRF in 1914, the typeface was Elzevir, allegedly a face that Mallarmé detested. With this special edition of (((Sun-O))), Sampson is in the hunt on his own terms for his own more personal Mallarméan prism, constellation or radiant (((Sun-O))) that syntactically, auditorily, visually and physically scatters and focuses his response to the human condition.
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))) (2020)
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard: (((Sun-O))) (2020) Sam Sampson Handsewn pamphlet. H255 x W190 mm, 24 pages. Edition of 60. Acquired from No Press, 4 January 2021. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
[Mallarmé’s] work is a constellation and trying to unpack and explicate what went into my response hopefully doesn’t remove the joy of just jumping in. I like what John Ashbery said about his own work: “my work is accessible, if you take the time to access it.” [Sampson in correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Davenport, Philip. 27 March 2020. “‘France’, or… we are circles of cancelled stars’“, Synapse International: An international visual poetry gathering. Started by Karl Kempton and Davenport in February 2018, Synapse International quickly attracted online works of homage to Un Coup de Dés, including an early appearance in March 2018 of Eric Zboya‘s Translations and later a visually adapted essay by David W. Seaman and as well as an “ADVERTISEMENT” from Derek Beaulieu that links to his 3D rendering of Un Coup de Dés.
The Bedside Book Project is a quintuple homage — Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) — and approaches its subjects in cinematic fashion. It begins with this anecdote:
In 1945 René Magritte gave Marcel Broodthaers a copy of Mallarmé’s poem as ‘a way of explaining his art to a young admirer without explaining it literally’. In 1969, Broodthaers modified an edition of the poem by covering all its words with black stripes that correspond directly to the typographic layout used by Mallarmé to articulate the text. In this way, Mallarmé’s poem, which Broodthaers considered had unconsciously invented modern space, is reduced to its structure.
From here, Marine Hugonnier‘s imagination takes hold. As if in a film scene, she moves into the bedrooms of Redon, Schwitters and Hamilton, steals their copies of Un Coup de Dés from their bedside tables, alters each one by inserting images and then replaces them. The result is a series of installations in which the pages of their altered books are displayed on the gallery walls. Each has its “book title”: La forme du mystère (Odilon Redon), Altération (Kurt Schwitters) and L’espace social (Richard Hamilton). Here is Hugonnier’s description of Redon’s book and the installation performance in which it is presented:
Redon’s bedside book has been stolen and its pages have been folded to extend the space and time of the poem’s interlude bringing his dreams to a deeper sleep. ... The mise-en-scène is composed of a white space with an open window, a spider and a man dressed in a tuxedo who will change a solitary frame, containing a folded page of the poem, on the wall every hour. On the 12th hour, the room will be left empty.
Staging a performance in which the pages of Redon’s bedside book are parceled out over 12 hours is ambitious. As she introduces Schwitters and Hamilton into The Bedside Book Project, Hugonnier creates an even more ambitious immersion for the reader/viewer in different times, spaces and influence. Further temporal instability is involved as well: the pages on Redon’s 19th century bedside table come from a 2006 Gallimard edition of the poem.
Time travelling from Redon’s bedside table to that of Kurt Schwitters, Hugonnier also introduces a bit of temporal and linguistic instability: Schwitters’ bedside copy comes from the Tiber Press edition of Daisy Aldan’s translation into English, published in 1956 eight years after Schwitters’ death. Colored paper cut-outs conceal words, disrupt the gaps of the poem and alter its reading.
As ghostly film director and actress in the film, Hugonnier wonders how these altered bedside books might have affected the way those three artists perceived art and practiced it in their times. As Hugonnier’s audience, we must surely wonder how she has altered the way we perceive Un Coup de Dés and its influence and very possibly how we perceive time, space and art.
Besides being first out of the gate with an “homage by redaction” of Un Coup de Dés, Mario Diacono is perhaps the first hommageur to give a sociopolitical cast to the effort. In an interview in Ursula, Diacono comments
1968 was a year in which many things were abolished, or felt tempted to be abolished. Language was one of them, at least the traditional language of poetry, but also the language of ‘bourgeois/capitalist’ society. Berkeley is also present in the book through the reproduction of three frames from a cartoon in a local magazine, which functions as a kind of preface. The title alternates not only colors, black and orange, but also uppercase and lowercase letters. The wordplay in essence says: the absence of metrics, of language, will not abolish poetry. Neither will the American taboos.(Nickas, 2019).
Those comments align with the element of “pop” art and the underground comic in this homage.
Later in the 1970s, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub would pick up the thread of social critique by staging and filming a choral reading of the poem on the lawn of the Père Lachaise cemetery,
where there are the great memorials of the concentration camps: Ravensbrück, Auschwitz… it is in the corner of the cemetery where you can guess something about the city. Under this hill are buried the last members of the Paris Commune, who were shot in that same place. – Jean-Marie Straub
These three connected volumes explore graphic transpositioning from oral speeches to a visual representation. Though a new way to read/experience the speeches–to visualize their patterns–you can [still] not tell the truth from fiction. You can not tell what you are reading. “In the 3-part, 4 Speeches/Coup de Des, the images of audio waves are the same—but one purports to be a group of speeches by Bush 43 ; another, a group by Tony Blair; and the last—the real thing—is an unidentified man reading Mallarme’s “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard”, that modern masterwork that launched a thousand artists’ books. The concept is trenchantly funny; the books are beautifully executed. [from the preface to Didier’s Manifesto by Tim Young]
Like Huillet, Straub and Mutel, Diacono is trying to balance his socio-political drive with the visual and historical homage to Un Coup de Dés. Huillet/Straub’s performative vocalization delivers its message only through the visual of its location. Mutel delivers his message by muting the poem with its sonographic visualization and sleight-of-hand substitution for political speeches. a METRICA n’aboolira delivers its message by balancing the textual and the visual, reminding us that Mallarmé wanted Un Coup de Dés to be looked at as well as read.
Après Un Coup de Dés (2015) Michel Lorand Cover and gatherings, untrimmed and unbound, in glassine envelope. Cover: H362 x W260; gatherings: H362 x W256 mm; 32 unnumbered pages. Edition of 50, of which this is #19. Acquired from the artist, 22 October 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with the artist’s permission.
Since the 1960s when Ernest Fraenkel, Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers blotted out the text of Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) to create their works of homage, numerous others have expanded on the technique: substituting images of sonograms (Sammy Engramer, 2009) or algorithmically generated abstractions (Eric Zboya, 2018, and Benjamin Lord, 2019), or excising the text (Michalis Pichler, 2008, and Cerith Wyn Evans, 2008) or algorithmically erasing it (Jérémie Bennequin, 2009) — just to name a few.
In Après Un Coup de Dés (2015), the only printed marks are the cover’s traditional black and red borders and the printer’s registration and gathering marks on the sheets. Wherever else Mallarmé’s text would have been printed has been excised. In reply to a question about the process involved, Lorand explains that he had asked the designer Filiep Tacq to create a layout that would cover in black exactly the blocks of text as it appears in the current Gallimard book edition of Mallarmé’s poem, including the front and back covers (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). Lorand took a scalpel to the offset printed sheets, removed the blackened blocks, folded the sheets by hand into the four gatherings, assembled them in the correct order and laid them untrimmed and loose inside the cover. Each of fifty copies was placed inside its own handmade glassine envelope along with a flyer including introductory text by Jacques Sojcher (emeritus professor, University of Brussels) and the colophon for the work. It is a book that is not-yet a book.
Lorand’s and all of these other works of homage give us inverse ekphrasis. They are the visual, tactile and conceptual works of art that come after Mallarmé’s text. We are more used to ekphrasis where the object, painting or sculpture comes before the text — like Achilles’ shield before Homer’s description, or the Grecian urn before Keats’ ode, or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus before Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Homer, Keats and Auden vie with the art of the crafted object to put that object (and more) in front of us with words. With the inverse, the crafted objects vie without the words to put Mallarmé’s poem (and more — and sometimes less!) in front of us.
Many of the hommageurs hint at the “and more” with a subtitle to Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. With Broodthaers, it is Image; with Pichler, Sculpture; with Engramer, Onde (Wave as in soundwave); and with Bennequin, Omage (as in hommage with the “h” and “m” missing). With Lorand, there is no subtitle. Instead, we have the word après prefacing the truncated title of the poem. But, “after” Mallarmé’s poem, what is Lorand proposing? An homage in the form of something that restates, reproduces the poem but without the words? An homage in the form of something else presented in the manner of Un Coup de Dés but without the words? Or something else that simply occurs after the poem’s roll of the dice? As it turns out, all that and more.
Paul Valèry was probably the first of Mallarmé’s circle to see and hear Un Coup de Dés. His reaction picks out one of the themes that make up Lorand’s “and more”:
It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in a finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness…. there in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word! — Paul Valéry, Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 8: Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé (1972).
My <<Après un Coup de Dés>> introduces a corpus of approaches to what might be “the movement” that constitutes speech: “A language that speaks” as Martin Heidegger calls it (Unterwegs zur Sprache, Verlag Günther Jeske, Pfullingen, FRG, 1959).
How can we think, how can we imagine this movement within language itself? What path to take to allow us to experience this movement, the one that constitutes the word itself. This word is sound. The object of all my work is the identification of what could be the image of this movement, of this word. This exploration attempts to approach the nature of this movement: a word beyond language when the latter is silent. (Correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021.)
Like his others, Heidegger’s On the Way to Language is a dense book; more than the others, it is poetical, an invitation to experience language. In it is a series of lectures entitled “The Nature of Language” in which Heidegger uses two poems, one by Stefan George and one by Gottfried Benn, to question language about its nature. Although George’s poem is the one that Heidegger deeply explicates, Benn’s is the one that, echoing Valèry, sheds the most light on Lorand’s Après Un Coup de Dés — especially with its last two lines.
A word, a phrase –: from cyphers rise Life recognized, a sudden sense, The sun stands still, mute are the skies, And compacts it, stark and dense.
A word — a gleam, a light, a spark, A thrust of flames, a stellar trace — And then again — immense — the dark Round world and I in empty space.
Après Un Coup de Dés seems to be a wordless invitation to experience language. But in a sense, Mallarmé’s words have not disappeared, not entirely. Their shapes — embodied in the voids — move silently and rhythmically across the unfolded sheets; in the gatherings, they cascade over one another much as they do syntactically and typographically in print. And even though the text is not before (in front of) us, Lorand’s artwork delivers a wordless experience of a key paradox of language with which Mallarmé sought to imbue his poem: the language of the void or abyss — the void or abyss of language. One of the ways in which the poem presents this self-enveloping paradox is that it begins and ends with the words un coup de dés, the act that can never abolish chance and the act that all thought emits. Similarly, Après un Coup de Dés displays the presence of language by displaying the absence of language, or les blancs defined by and defining empty space.
Mallarmé’s invitation in Un Coup de Dés, however, beckons us to a slightly different concept of language than that articulated by Heidegger. For Mallarmé, chance plays a prominent role in what Heidegger would call the “neighborhood of poetry and thought”. But chance, hazard or a roll of the dice plays a much less prominent role for Heidegger, and in Lorand’s work of art, with its registration and gathering marks and glassine enclosure, there seems little allusion to it — perhaps naturally so since Lorand’s work comes after the dice have been rolled.
Even though it comes after Mallarmé’s completed poem and after the Gallimard book edition, Après presents as an unfinished work, a book not yet trimmed and bound, which reflects not only Mallarmé’s unfinished realization of the poem as a book but also his unfinished life’s pursuit: le Livre, the thing in which everything in the world would end up — the thing that, by virtue of a spacious mobility of typographic layout and the interplay of its elements, would be “the total expansion of the letter”. Lorand’s attention and manual precision in excising the blackened blocks where the text would otherwise appear evoke Mallarmé’s attention to the minute details of typeface, size and font shown in his handwritten mark-up of the proofs for the book edition he was planning before he died.
In the 2018 display of Après Un Coup de Dés, the previously gathered but now unfolded sheets and cover lie side by side under glass. Often this is cause for complaint about the distanced display of artist books. In the case of Après Un Coup de Dés, the distance effectively draws point-blank attention to what the privileged reader gradually discovers in handling the work. The unprivileged reader may have to imagine the making, unmaking and remaking of the book but, confronted with the gestalt of the undone gatherings and their registration marks, that reader immediately sees/witnesses the void defined by a void.
Après Un Coup de Dés in the group exhibition Reading Hand Writing Bodies at Les Abattoirs de Bomel, Centre d’art de Namur, Belgium, 8 February – 11 March 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
In relation to Broodthaer’s Image and Pichler’s Sculpture, Après comes both before and after. The positioning of the words après, image and sculpture vis à vis the poem’s title has been noted already. Of all three visual, tactile and conceptual works, Lorand’s stands as the chronologically “after” yet unfinished “before” to Broodthaers’ and Pichler’s finished works. In yet another “afterness” to Mallarmé’s poem, Lorand likens Après to a silent score of music or a piano roll (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). This echoes — if that is not too perverse a verb — Mallarmé’s reference to “score” in his preface to Un Coup de Dés. In premonitory, if not coincidental, irony, Lorand’s piano-roll-like 2015 work precedes a work that Michalis Pichler created for his 2016 Milan exhibition: a piano roll playable on a foot-pumped pianola and entitled Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (see video above).
The interplay of its philosophical roots with its mechanically produced print and its manual cuts makes Lorand’s AprèsUn Coup de Dés one of the more challenging works of homage to Mallarmé’s poem. To “hear” it side by side with the others in the Books On Books Collection (see below) is rewarding.
“Eric Zboya“. Books On Books Collection. 01 June 2020.
Heidegger, Martin, and Peter D. Hertz, trans. 1959/2009. On the Way to Language. San Francisco: HarperOne. Reprint. “No matter how we put our questions to language about its nature, first of all it is needful that language vouchsafe itself to us. If it does, the nature of language becomes the grant of its essential being, that is, the being of language becomes the language of being” (p. 72).
Ernest Fraenkel should have left it at visually mapping Un Coup de Dés and offered it up as simply an artistic response to the poem. Even if it is a mapping of the condensed single-paged Cosmopolis (1897) version of the poem, think of the various renderings in handset chapbook form printed on letterpress or as lithographs, or etchings on glass, or even sculptures. It could have been the “Prometheus bound” to the “Prometheus unbound” of those who paid homage by appropriating the more expansive double-page spread book version (1914) that Mallarmé intended. Instead, it lies tucked away with 44 pages del’explication. Professor David W. Seaman (Georgia Southern University), who has engaged with Fraenkel’s analysis, puts it well:
It must be said in [Fraenkel’s] defense that the idea is tempting: to make wordless patterns of the pages of the poem in order to see the ideogrammatic shapes more clearly. In addition, Fraenkel has contributed some worthwhile insights into the use of space and text in the poem, … However, there are three major objections to his project. First, he used, for most of his research, the text of the Cosmopolis edition of the poem, an edition which nearly everyone agrees is far from the author’s intentions, especially insofar as the ideograms are concerned; the preface to that edition gives ample warning of this. … / The second objection is that Fraenkel strays too far from the text, preferring to keep in mind a general idea of the meaning of the poem, and then go off according to the feelings the designs give him. … In fact, sometimes Fraenkel recommends turning the design on its side or upside-down to see what image may present itself! / The third objection is that these designs are then used more or less like Rohrschach ink blots. (Seaman, pp. 142-43)
In his nine sets of single-sided uncut sheets, Fraenkel offers seven different diagrammatic approaches to the poem as it appeared in Cosmopolis, whose editors could not allow the poem’s lines to cross over the gutter to the next page as Mallarmé imagined the layout. The opening pages of Fraenkel’s seven approaches are laid out below in sunlight and paired with the textual opening page.
Seven different diagrammatic renderings. The one at the lower right shows Fraenkel’s sideways view.
Left: a METRICA n’aboolira (1968) by Mario Diacono (1968). Right: Image: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1969) by Marcel Broodthaers (1969).
Fraenkel’s nine sets of sheets break down into eight of 8 pages and one of 4 pages. Below is the first set opened out.
The first set of eight pages
Compared with Diacono’s, Broodthaers’ and all the other works of homage to date, Fraenkel’s renderings retain a distinction and suggest other new directions not yet taken physically or digitally. Given the sculptural interpretations by Geraldo de Barros, Jorge Méndez Blake and Kathy Bruce, doesn’t Fraenkel’s first rendering call for a three-dimensional cantilevered homage constructed of slabs of blackened flotsam connected with brushed steel rods?
And Professor Jed Rasula (University of Georgia), who has also explored Fraenkel’s work, suggests yet another medium:
“Fraenkel’s sixty-eight seismographic and astral diagrams (or “stylizations”) practice a truly graphic mode of literary analysis. It was Fraenkel’s conviction that “a plastic text rests hidden in the extra-conscious layers of the poet, paralleling the verbal text of the poem” (9). … In their accentuation of the visual character of Un Coup de dés, Fraenkel’s designs are like watching a movie with the sound turned off, forced to rely on gesture rather than dialogue in order to follow the action.”
With the exception of Unpacking my Library and Between the Sheets, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. More than most book artists’ ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, Buzz Spector’s ephemera have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.
Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:
A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses”).
While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.
Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.
The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:
The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a morethan passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — “Art Readings”.
The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.
Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus. The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.
The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:
Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.
By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire. Including this catalogue.
The Library of Babel (1991)
The Library of Babel Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector. Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt (1985), further below, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalogue to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.
Marcel Broodthaers (1990) Buzz Spector An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers (Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Center/Rizzoli, 1989). Photos: Courtesy of Buzz Spector.
He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogues, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.
When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic: “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse.
Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogues in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Unpacking my Library (1994-95) Buzz Spector Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.
From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.
Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:
This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.
The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:
So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.
Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:
The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.
The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)
The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book Buzz Spector Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing. Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.
The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.
Detail of cover: Books On Books Collection.
Between the Sheets (2003)
Between the Sheets (2003) Buzz Spector Cloth over boards, Japanese stab binding, 15 folded sheets, outer sides offset printed with enlarged “artist photos” clipped from dust jackets of art books repurposed by Spector for his bookworks, inner side printed (recto only) with text by and selected by Spector. H157.5 x W216 x D12.7 mm. Edition of 40, of which this is #40. Acquired from Olive Branch Press, 26 June 2020. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Buzz Spector: Alterations (2020)
Buzz Spector: Alterations (2020) Buzz Spector Gretchen L. Wagner; Elizabeth Wyckoff; Andrea Ferber Brochure. H254 x W256 mm, 4 unnumbered pages. Acquired from the artist, 23 June 2020. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Two items of ephemera make up this entry: a pristine copy of the announcement for Spector’s retrospective at the Saint Louis Art Museum, held 20 November 2020 through 31 May 31 2021; and a copy of it with the front cover hand torn by the artist. Both are displayed in the images above and below. Again, Spector makes an ephemeral piece echo the works in the exhibition.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.
Between the Lines (2021)
Between the Lines (2021) Buzz Spector Elizabeth Wyckoff, Gretchen L. Wagner, Meredith Malone, Michael Garzel, Jane E. Neidhardt Perfect bound paperback. H268 x W 230 mm, 81 pages. Acquired from the artist, 10 March 2021. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection.
The Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, which has supported Spector’s work since 1995, sponsored this monograph following 2020/21 retrospective held at the Saint Louis Art Museum. As a slightly less ephemeral item, it neatly rounds off this entry. Its cover image shows one of Spector’s well-known alterations: Altered LeWitt (1985), one of five of the found and hand-torn catalogue: Sol LeWitt, Drawing Series I, II, III, IIII A & B (Turin, Italy, at the Galleria Sperone, 1974). Compare it with North Sea (for M.B), above, which Spector created five years after Altered LeWitt. Spector extends the technique and concept across the two works in distinctive ways to echo two distinctive artists and yet also speak to commonalities and originality among the three artists.
Photo of Between the Lines (pp. 12-13): Books On Books Collection.
Between the Lines‘ presentation of the works is spectacular. Recalling the effect in The Book Made Art (above), they seem to float three dimensionally on the page. The detail photo of Unpacking my Library across a double-page spread offers a good example, especially when compared with the images above.
Photo of Between the Lines (pp.16-17): Books On Books Collection.
Between the Lines also provides the opportunity to end this entry with an image of the work incorporating an image of the author and his generosity toward his fellow bookworkers. Note in particular the reference to Michael Garzel, the monograph’s designer and creator of the typeface used so strikingly on the cover, for chapter titles and here in the heading “Acknowledgments”.
Photo of Between the Lines (pp. 4-5): Books On Books Collection.
Revised entry, 24 September 2021; original entry, 31 March 2020.
Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 160.
Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.
Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.
Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.
Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.
Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.
Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.
Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.
Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).
Spector, Buzz. 25 March 2021. “Art Speaks“. Saint Louis Art Museum. Video series of artists’ talks. Accessed 23 August 2021.