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).
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 ))) 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.
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).
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.
The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) (2017)
The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) (2017) Aaron Cohick Booklet, saddle-stapled, risograph, letterpress/collagraph, and hand painting. H165.1 x W139.7 mm (closed), 20 pages. #000611, unlimited, iterative edition. Acquired from New Lights Press, 11 December 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) has multiple starting points. Even in its first iteration, we have
The book is a dangerously unstable object, always between, continuously opening. It is interstitial, occupying many planes at once.
Digital technology has killed the book, finally.
The book is an impossible thing — comprised entirely of edges and full of holes. It moves. It happens in between.
Readers move through authors and books. Books move through readers and authors. Authors move through books and readers. They exist between each other’s pages. They only exist in between.
The form of the book, the history of the book, and the processes involved in its production provide a foundation for rethinking and re-evaluating the dominant discourse(s) of contemporary art.
The book … exemplifies a model that expands beyond form and content…. It is a field, whose axis points [form, content, production and reception] are always held in tension. In this model a piece or practice is a “zone of activity.”
Moreover, there are ten refinements on these starting points, touching on Julia Kristeva’s “intertextuality”, Roland Barthes’ “death of the author”, Michel Foucault’s “death of the book” and much more in the same vein. Each iteration even has diagram and footnotes, underscoring the academic nature of the starting points.
By its third iteration, The New Manifesto‘s words been further refined as a combination of announcement, exposition, lyric and prayer. It soars beyond literary theories and finds birds of a closer feather among Ulises Carrión and Michalis Pichler.
The book is a dangerously unstable object // It is a series of edges // Once clustered and knotted // Now open and spreading // Now cutting and bending // Mostly // The book betrays // Mostly // The book howls // The book falls apart in the face of our anguish // In the face of our quiet // In the silence of our slipping // Mostly // It will also always be something else // That we did not // Can not yet // See // The book is a remarkable technology // It is a shimmering substance // It is a noise of the hands and thought // The book is perhaps now a dead thing // In the hands of the dead // So be it // We never mattered much anyway // Beyond our capacity to consume // Our capacity to labor // We are fuel // So be it // We remain in the dark // With these books // The original autonomous window technology that is us looking through // At // In // Against // With care // The book returns our labor to us //
If a new edition of Publishing Manifestos is ever issued, Cohick’s hortatory words should be considered. The words, however, cannot be considered alone. Over the three iterations, The New Manifesto — the only one in the collection and, therefore, the only one tangible for the visitor — has “participated more & more in the world of visual art”. Cohick’s use of the collagraphic technique increases. It adds painterliness to the booklets as well as a sense of depth and spatial play within the page, across the gutter and from recto to verso pages. In a series of online essays for the College Book Art Association, Cohick confirms the pleasure and intent here:
Collagraph is a well-known technique and is usually taught as part of introductory letterpress courses. It has an immediacy and fidelity that is very exciting—you can stick a leaf or other flat object to a block, print it, and get a decent image of that object. Unfortunately it usually stops there. Those flat objects are hard to push beyond that initial single-color print. Linoleum, photopolymer, wood and metal type, and to some extent woodcut are all made to be “neutral” printing surfaces—flat and smooth. Trying to get collagraph to be flat and smooth begs the question: why use collagraph at all? In collagraph the material that makes the plate is not neutral—the material is exactly the point. That embrace of material and its many, varied effects and marks is what moves collagraph closer to the direct markmaking of drawing/painting. It makes all of those “unacceptable” (or abject?) marks readily available. Relief collagraph printed with letterpress equipment can be a method of painting or drawing in multiple, with control as good as—if not better than, but also different from—the hand. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 2)“
From the first iteration of the manifesto, black & white details of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage appear and are manipulated on the cover and throughout. Although they recede in the second iteration, they move strikingly to the fore in the third. Constantly alongside the Arnolfini details has been the ampersand, enlarged, reversed, in different colors, and present — almost ornamentally — within the text line. The increased visuality of the third iteration announces itself on the booklet’s cover and inside with the grainy enlarged detail of the mirror from The Arnolfini Marriage. What do the Arnolfini details signify? Although Van Eyck’s original itself is straightforwardly representational, its meanings are not always any clearer than that of its use in Cohick’s collage. With his slices of black (“a series of edges”) obscuring the image of the groom, perhaps Cohick is compounding obscurities to present “something else // That we did not // Can not yet // See”.
And what about the large overlapping ampersands in red and gray, systematically reversed and alternating in color? Are they emphasizing the “and so on and so on” of tradition in Cohick’s painterly printing technique? Are they alluding to the joining of hands in the marriage? Are they alluding to, and performing, a marriage of the book and visual art? On a verso page in the manifesto’s first iteration, he writes, “The form of the book, the history of the book, and the processes involved in its production provide a foundation for rethinking and re-evaluating the dominant discourse(s) of contemporary art.” On the facing recto page, the Arnolfini bride in reverse from the original extends her hand to a reversed ampersand.
In perhaps the most important enhancement of the third iteration’s visuality, Cohick’s full-blown typographic redesign of the alphabet occupies the visual foreground, middle ground and background. It is as if Cohick sets out to demonstrate Mallarmé’s proposition that the book is the “total expansion of the letter”. The first iteration’s completely legible Palatino, Arial and Placard Condensed typefaces used in the text line have yielded to what Cohick calls a “dislegible” font, which he often reverses, lays out as occasional “running sides” rather than “running heads”, and subjects increasingly to collagraphic layering. In his “You’re doing it all wrong” series, Cohick explains:
If “legible” and “illegible” are binary opposites, then the term “dislegible” is about looking at the space between those two poles. Dislegibility displaces, dislocates, deforms, and/or disrupts the process of reading, with the ultimate goal of making that process of reading (dis)legible to the reader. The dislegible can be read, but it resists closure or certainty. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 1)“
Also contributing to dislegibility is the reversal of images, the ampersand and letters. More than that, the reversal reminds us of what is involved in letterpress production — the inked relief surface and its reversed image or letter to be transferred to paper. Always in tension with form, content and reception, production makes up the open field from which the artist’s book emerges. The third iteration exudes production’s physicality. A black saturated endleaf bleeds over onto a stark white sheet that faces a stamped title page, intensifying a feel of mechanical working. Letterforms behave as so much raw material — as if they were oil, acrylic, brick or mortar — to be re-seen from different angles, noted for more than one function and their text read for more than one meaning.
According to Cohick, “For art to thrive, form and content must be in a dynamic relationship… It must contain enough disruptions, ambiguities, and peculiarities to resist the deadly state of stable signification.” The iterations of The New Manifesto enact that statement.
Alphabet One: A Submanifesto of the NewLights Press (2017)
Alphabet One: A Submanifesto of the NewLights Press (2017) Aaron Cohick Booklet, center-stapled. Letterpress printed from woven collagraph blocks on newsprint. H165 x W140 mm, 28 pages. Acquired from the artist, 11 December 2020. Edition of 250, unnumbered. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.
Alphabet One, “companion book to the third iteration of The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press”, presents Cohick’s “complete ‘noise’ alphabet, in order, in condensed and full form”. In The New Manifesto, Cohick has described the book as “a noise of the hands and thought”. Well then, being a book, Alphabet One demonstrates that the manifesto is the alphabet, and the alphabet is the manifesto, and “woven collagraph blocks” could hardly be less “a noise of hands and thought”. Lest those inferences seem strained, continue reading the passage Cohick reproduces from The New Manifesto immediately after the reference to the “complete ‘noise’ alphabet”:
This is not a utopian program // This is not an alphabet for saving the world // Such a thing is a dangerous lie // This is one possibility // Not a tool // But a movement-between // An object-between // A growing // Changing thing // Meant to do just that // It is about attention and its revitalization // It is about structure and our being in it //
A, B, C, D. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
W, X, Y, Z. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
It cannot be an accident that the “noise” alphabet’s letterforms arise from varyingly shaded bricks: rose, gray, reddish gray and reddish black. To left and right of each letter, the rose color dominates. A reddish gray bar tops and tails each letter. The color gray forms the “strokes” of each letter. Reddish black fills the counters. Extracting the signal from the noise of the alphabet or books does not come easily. This is intentional. Just as The New Manifesto says,
With these books // The original autonomous window technology that is us looking through // At // In // Against // With care //The book returns our labor to us //
Days Open Air (2016)
Days Open Air(2016) Aaron Cohick Booklet, center-stapled, H203 x W152, 12 pages. Edition of 100, of which this is #40. Acquired from the artist, 11 December 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.
Days Open Air is one of those books returning our labor to us that The New Manifesto announces. Cohick call it “an artists’ book/poem thing … an experiment: with our new Risograph, with the alphabet, with writing, with random numbers, and with noise.” Letterforms stretch. Words run sideways, they break in the middle across lines, even across pages.
Look-See (REAED) (2014)
Look-See (REAED) (2014) Aaron Cohick Print. H300 x W456 mm. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.
More evocative of barcode stripes than bricks, the letterform strokes in this poem-print-poster stretch even more than in Days Open Air. Printed on a Vandercook 219 from vinyl and gesso collagraph blocks, the letterforms challenge us to “look” and “see”. An angle at the top right, two angles midway on the right and two counters condensed to small squares suffice to define the first letter — R. The letters E and A are more efficient, requiring only the placement of two counters each. Note how the textural effect of the gesso and letterpress printed collagraph on chipboard joins The New Manifesto‘s celebration of the physicality and noise of production.
In Cohick’s world, the book and art make, and should be perceived as, a “strange” continuity. His vision and embrace of the collagraph suggest a 21st century version of William Blake. He names his nearer contemporaries as Ken Campbell, Walter Hamady, Amos P. Kennedy, Jr., Karen Kunc, Emily McVarish, Dieter Roth and Nancy Spero. In the Books On Books Collection, those far and near can also be found in Eleonora Cumer, Raffaella della Olga and Geofroy Tory.
LINE UP (2020) Raffaella della Olga Cloth on board with spiral binding of 28 card folios. H270 x W290 mm (closed). Edition of twenty-six, of which this is #8. Acquired from Three Star Books, 4 November 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.
Formerly a lawyer, Raffaella della Olga turned from the manipulation of legal text to the artistry of the letter and its “total expansion” — the book — as well as its manifestation in light and textiles. Her chief tool of art is a set of customized typewriters. Most of her works are unique pieces, each entitled with the emblematic letter T followed by the ordinal number of its creation — up to T28 as of this writing.
The limited edition of LINE UP offered an unusual opportunity to add to the Books On Books collection a work that resonates with its subset of abecedaries and one by an artist who shares a deep interest in another theme in the collection: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. Since 2009, she has created bookworks that reveal an artist’s and careful reader’s appreciation of the poem.
Title page and colophon from LINE UP. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.
LINE UP is very much a collaborative work between Raffaella della Olga and Three Star Books, founded in 2007 by Christophe Boutin and Mélanie Scarciglia with Cornelia Lauf (2007-2015). The edition consists of twenty-six spiral-bound copies, each with a unique cover produced by rubbings on canvas and differently colored. The title page and colophon take up two of the card folios in the volume, which leaves twenty-six for the printed content. Blocks of vertical blue lines turn the pages into letters based on the Epps-Evans alphabet, designed in the 1960s with only horizontal and vertical strokes in an attempt at machine readability.
Alphabet (1970) Timothy Epps and Dr. Christopher Evans Hilversum: de Jong & Co., 1970. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Discerning the letters in LINE UP feels sometimes like squinting one’s way through an optical illusion. The eye is bewitched by a color-shifting, almost stroboscopic effect created by four squares of embossed lines printed from the reverse side, always in the same position. Della Olga credits Christophe Boutin (Three Star Press) with introducing this effect.
The letters “a”, “b” and “c”.
Left: The four embossed squares seen from the verso. Right: The color shift between the embossed and flat squares.
The letter “k” at different angles of light.
The first of della Olga’s works reflecting the influence of Mallarmé’s poem was Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009), which was shown in the Gulbenkian’s “Pliure” exhibition in Paris in 2015. In a darkened room with an attendant turning the pages, the poem’s words, painted in phosphorescent powder, flickered into existence.
A year later came this rendition: Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010). Although the link goes to an online presentation, the work is analogue and unique. In correspondence (9 December 2020), Della Olga writes, “I took apart the book the Gallimard edition as a whole, without the paratext. I folded the double pages and deleted with white paint the part of the poem that appear.” A close look at the framed pages reveals the faint shadows of the painted-over text. On the wall, the permutation arises in the changeable order of hanging, which the online algorithm permits the viewer to perform.
Her most recent homage to Mallarmé’s poem is Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018). Like Constellation with its reference to and enacting of the poem’s constellation metaphor, and like Permutation with its reference to and enacting of chance, Trame well reflects della Olga’s penetration of the poem and transformation of it into artwork that stands strongly on its own and in comparison with other works of homage by Marcel Broodthaers, Michalis Pichler and Cerith Wyn Evans.
The word trame is le mot juste in its application to the work and its referent. Its meanings — frame, woof, weft and weaving — shift across the work’s technique and material and evoke the poem’s typographical weaving as a framework with which to realize the “total expansion of the letter”.
Here’s hoping for further expansion into limited editions.
Spencer, Herbert, and Colin Forbes. New Alphabets A to Z (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974). Source of the artist’s first encounter with the Epps-Evans alphabet. (Correspondence with Books On Books, 6 December 2020)
The 125th anniversary of the publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de DésJamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) approaches, and Trevor Stark’s book is a welcome harbinger. Its title comes from Mallarmé’s essay/poem “The Book, Intellectual Instrument”:
The book, total expansion of the letter, should derive from it directly a spacious mobility, and by correspondences institute a play of elements that confirms the fiction (p. 6).
Often with Mallarmé, context is all (not to mention translation in the face of elliptical syntax!) — context is wrapped in self-enshrouded context. His seemingly cryptic sentence above becomes clearer only when the precedent to the word “it” (elle) is understood as la composition typographique from the essay/poem’s preceding paragraph, extolling the alphabet, language and typography.
Un miracle prime ce bienfait, au sens haut ou les mots, originellement, se réduisent à l’emploi, doué d’infinité jusqu’à sacrer une langue, des quelque vingt lettres — leur devenir, tout y rentre pour tantôt sourdre, principe — approchant d’un rite la composition typographique. (my emphasis)
So, the sentence is a proscription for what “the book” should get from typographic composition. Metaphorically (fictionally), the book is a total expansion of the typeset letter, or mark. As such, it should derive from the “near rite of typographic composition” a spaciousness and mobility and a play among elements that confirms the metaphor that it is a “total expansion of the letter”. Still a bit cryptic, but after all, this is what Mallarmé calls a “critical poem”, and the sentence is hardly more cryptic than the opening pronouncement: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”.
It is a good choice of title for Stark’s endeavor. “Total expansion of the letter” juggles Mallarmé’s “heroic” vision for the book with the material world of metal type, idea with ink, the sacred with the profane. In painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater and film, the avant-gardists certainly brought together intellectuality and physicality forcefully. Stark shows that, in doing so, they also consciously and unconsciously raided Mallarmé’s open larder of skepticism about language and communication. The letter (or any mark of signifying, for that matter), scraps of newspaper, musical scores, dance notation, dresses and costumes (or lack thereof), wanted posters, financial bonds, and much more became ready objects for avant-garde art but only on the condition of their “becoming dysfunctional and incommunicative” (p. 7). Stark wants to know why.
Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication is Stark’s touchstone throughout: that language has an “ineradicable degree of chance built into” it; that there is inherently a suspension — a temporal gap, blank, void, lacuna, an “unfinished” state — between the sign’s expressed materiality and its meaning; and that, therefore, every act of communication as a historical and aesthetic phenomenon is like an anonymous, “impersonified” throw of the dice, “tossed into eternal circumstances’” (p.29). Applying that touchstone, he crosses the borders insightfully time and again “between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between dance, music, and letters, and between art history, the philosophy of language, politics, and poetics” (p. 30). Never reductive, he explores the continuities and variations between Mallarmé’s achievements and those of Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, F.T. Marinetti, Marcel Duchamp, the Laban school of dance and others of the avant-garde. As he offers a reciprocal interpretation of Mallarmé and of avant-garde art, individual poems, paintings, collages, performances of dance and theater yield new clarities and sharpened expression of received assessments.
Consider Stark’s comparative reading/viewing of Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en X” (1887) and Picasso’s The Dressing Table (1910). Across eight pages of text and photographs of art, Stark helps the reader to follow Mallarmé’s “quest for a word that literally means nothing, ptyx, a word produced by the frolic of language”, a signifier that “attains a materiality and an opacity, allowing the poem to display a linguistic Void, to raise it from the latent to the patent.” The materiality to which Stark draws our attention is twofold: the bright rhymes (-yx, -ix, -ixe) that almost single-handedly drive the invention of the word ptyx and the mirror on the credenza in the poem that captures the empty room, its window and the constellation Ursa Major showing through it. Across the same pages, Stark conducts the viewer through Picasso’s painting — again a mirror, the surface of a dressing table, the drawer from which a key protrudes, a drawer handle, a glass with the long handle of a toothbrush and its bristles poking out, but all scattered into planes of reflection and refraction, their shapes “mutually implicated to the point of structural ambiguity”. Then, he draws them together: “In Mallarmé and Picasso, representation destroyed the object in order to proclaim its own mute materiality and, thereby, regain continuity with the world by becoming simply one more thing within it”(pp. 101-108).
In pursuing these reciprocal readings of Mallarmé and his avant-garde descendants, Stark keeps a bright light on the “between” — between an object and its reflection, between a word’s or sound’s utterance and its meaning, the blanks between words, the blanks between brushstrokes or those between them and the boundary of the painting, between the cosmic and domestic, between one media and another when brought together in a work, between the individualism of subjective imagination and impersonal modes of production, between author/artist and word/image and reader/viewer. His term for these spaces is intermedial. In her endorsement of Stark’s book, Julia Robinson (New York University) calls his neologism “luminous”. The term refers to “the zone of indeterminacy between mediums, social practices, and temporalities” into which Mallarmé found himself outwardly propelled even as he inwardly sought “absolute language”.
Looking back on the avant-gardists and his own contemporaries, Dick Higgins — the late twentieth century language-, book-, and publishing-artist — rejuvenated Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s term intermediation, a neologism similar and related to intermedial. It is not the same thing as intermediality or mixed media. As Higgins expressed it, “Many fine works are being done in mixed media: paintings which incorporate poems within their visual fields, for instance. But one knows which is which. In intermedia, on the other hand, the visual element (painting) is fused conceptually with the words” (p. 52). It can be argued that works of intermedia are one way in which artists address intermediality — that zone of indeterminacy.
The argument is ultimately a phenomenological one, a perspective that Stark embraces. When he applies the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Theodor Adorno, Maurice Blanchot and others to Mallarmé’s poems and the artistic expressions of his “descendants”, both the philosophers and the artists become more accessible. Consider this passage summarizing Maurice Blanchot’s account of the history and function of language and its four stages:
The first was that of an Adamic or nomenclaturist model of language, which conceived words as names for the objects of the world. The second, dominant from Plato to Descartes, was the idealist model in which language constituted the link between sensible reality and the eternal realm of the Idea, and thus the guarantee of our ‘entrance into the intelligible world.’ [fn 223] Third, the ‘expressionist model’ of Hegel and Leibniz considered language itself the embodiment of what is sayable, thinkable, and possible at any given historical juncture, serving, therefore, as the medium of the progress of Spirit. Finally, illustrated with a quote from Valèry, the fourth stage was the ‘dialectical function of discourse,’ in which language regained an ‘essential power of constestation’ in the negativity of modern literature:
‘Literature seeks to revoke from language the properties that give linguistic signification, that make language appear as an affirmation of universality and intelligibility. But it doesn’t arrive at this goal (if it does arrive at this goal) by destroying language or through contempt of its rules. It wants to render language to what it believes to be its veritable destiny, which is to communicate silence through words and to express liberty through rules, which is to say to evoke language itself as destroyed by the circumstances that make it what it is.’ [fn 224] (pp. 110-11)
Consider the hole drilled through the center of the journal. Does it not echo Stark’s reminder of Braque’s citing Mallarmé’s utterance: “‘The point of departure is the void'” (p. 88)? Consider the journal’s spatial challenge to the act of reading (a dos-à-dos binding, a text block that rotates around that hole). Does that not echo this passage from Total Expansion of the Letter?
But what remains after the ‘suspension’ of the represented object and the objectification of the means of representation? For Mallarmé, the ‘residuum’ was the act of reading itself, conceived not as a process of cognitive reconstruction, but instead as a gamble on the very possibility of forging meaning out of opacity and contingency of linguistic matter. As Mallarmé wrote in ‘The Mystery of Letters’
‘To read —
That practice —
To lean, according to the page, on the blank, whose innocence inaugurates it, forgetting even the title that would speak too loud: and when, in a hinge [brisure], the most minor and disseminated, chance is conquered word by word, unfailingly the blank returns, gratuitous earlier but certain now, concluding that there is nothing beyond it [rien au-delà] and authenticating the silence –‘” (pp. 108-109).
Not since Anna Sigrídur Arnar’s The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (2011) has there been as useful a tool for appreciating Mallarmé, art and artist’s books as Trevor Stark’s Total Expansion of the Letter. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of Un Coup de Dés, it will be interesting to see whether Stark and others extend his work to art and book art after the avant-garde.
Higgins, Dick, and Hannah Higgins. “Intermedia“, republished in Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54.
McCombie, Elizabeth. Mallarmé and Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). It would have been interesting to see how Stark would relate his exploration with McCombie’s exploration of Mallarmé’s views on poetry and music.
I Can’t Breathe (2015) Antoine Lefebvre Éditions Saddle-stitched with staples. Digital print. 16 pages. H218 x W178 mm. Edition of 100 copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
I Can’t Breathe is the first publication made under Lefebvre’s imprint. He labels it a “zine” and calls it a “gut reaction” to the murder of Eric Garner. Lefebvre is one of several book artists who have lifted up Garner’s last words or his name since 17 July 2014. The work makes its simple but powerful statement by bordering the cover’s monumental black square with white and enveloping the eleven utterances of Garner’s last words in a field of white.
Monument to the Third International (2015)
Monument to the Third International (2015) Antoine Lefebvre Éditions Book object, 200 x 150 x 50 mm (closed), 350 mm diameter (open). Edition of 12 + 4 AP, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artist, 29 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
The second work under his own imprint, this sculptural artist’s book pays homage to Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist tower design for a monument to the Communist International, known as the Comintern or Third International, which lasted from 1919 to 1943.
When opened along its horizontal axis, the work echoes the shape of Tatin’s tower design. Also, when closed, the book’s fore-edge mimics the 1964 version of Dan Flavin’s “Monument” For V. Tatlin, bringing it into the category of “homage to an homage”, such as Michalis Pichler’s homage to Marcel Broodthaers’ homage to Stéphane Mallarmé or, from genres other than book art, Johan Karlsson’s homage to Vera Molnár’s homage to Albrecht Durer or, to stretch a point, Nam June Paik’s homage to Albers’ Homage to the Square or Andrew Wenrick’s homage to the same.
Lefebvre’s Monument is a ludic masterpiece to be read with the hands as well as the eyes. Its physicality and whiteness might remind the viewer “The White Heat”, organized by Marc Straus. Held, or looked at, in its closed state, it might recall the more somber Absence by J. Meejin Yoo.
Opening the work.
Closing the work.
The kanji sign 木 on its own means “book”. During his residency at the Palais de Paris in Takasaki, Japan, Lefebvre became obsessed with the character and photographed it whenever he could. Eventually he not only created this work, influenced by Sol LeWitt’s PhotoGrids (1977), but used it to name his bookshop in Paris.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Lefebvre thinks of himself not as an artist and publisher but rather as an “artist publisher” — artiste éditeur — which is the title of the book based on his dissertation. Lefebvre not only expounds his thesis in the pages of the book, he demonstrates — or rather realizes — it in La Bibliothèque Fantastique (LBF).
The works in LBF appropriate covers, titles, images and arguments in a way to enacts conversations among the appropriated, with Lefebvre and with the reader. The works draw on a wide variety of artists and writers: Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Beuys, Jorge Luis Borges, Ulises Carrión, Noam Chomsky, August von Cieszkowski, Guy Debord, Jacques Derrida, Marcel Duchamp, Michel Foucault, Ernst Gombrich, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, Joseph Kosuth, Jacques Lacan, Marshall McLuhan, Stéphane Mallarmé, A. Mœglin-Delcroix, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Paul Sartre, Ferdinand de Saussure, Ludwig Wittgenstein and many others.
Photos of book: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
More than “drawing on” the appropriated, LBF draws their thoughts into the digital twentieth and twenty-first centuries conversation about artists’ books and book art. Two of Lefebvre’s more discursive contributions to LBF constitute an “artist publisher” statement and a manifesto for LBF and himself:
… the books of LBF have no predetermined physical existence, they exist in a state of potentiality on the web, awaiting to become. They cost nothing, you can get them without spending a penny. They have no ISBN either, because they are works of art. They have no color, so that they can be printed in any printer. That’s what LBF books don’t have, which is almost more important than what they do, because our approach is conceived as a negative of that which is habitually proposed by the market spectacle society. The idea is to show various poetic singularities as opposed to the flashy commodities which our society feeds us.
What the LBF books do have is above all a great freedom of content, revealing a very large and global conception of art. They contain all forms of expression usually found in print, i.e., drawing and photographs, as well as essays, novels, journalistic investigations etc.
The covers of LBF books are invariably appropriated from existing sources, the published artists just select one and use it as a cover for their book. The author’s name is deleted and replaced by the name of the artist, the name of the original publisher is also cleared since the new book is no longer its property. The artist can also change the title of the book to enhance it. The content of the book is completely open, the artist develops it through the pages to meet his or her project. The books are produced with bits and pieces from other books, developing a discourse on the ontology of the book. This project seeks to examine the nature of the book by submitting it to the approaches similar to those used by minimalist artists to test the limits of painting and art. The purpose of LBF is to explore the boundaries of what is a book and and what is not.
In 2015, Lefebvre chose Antoine Lefebvre Éditions as the name of his imprint and his artist name, but 2018 must have felt like his true annus natalis if not mirabilis. Not only did LBF appear in the Vienna exhibition and Artiste Éditeur arrive, he opened a shop in Paris and called it 本 \hon\ books. Even in his entrepreneurship, Lefebvre is an appropriator/hommageur. The name 本 \hon\ books pays homage to Japanese second-hand bookstores but also, and not surprisingly, to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). Like Kosuth’s work, the shop’s name provides the same information in three formats: an ideogram, its Japanese pronunciation, and its translation (本 = book).
Perhaps it is because he works, thinks and creates with equal comfort in the digital and physical worlds or that he is international in outlook and language or that he happily inhabits the multiple roles of artist publisher, collaborator, appropriator, impresario and entrepreneur — for whatever reason, Antoine Lefebvre and his work bring a welcome élan to book art and this collection.
Hand bound. H325 x W250, 32 pages. Edition of 400, of which this is #8. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Look carefully at this work’s text and images. On its cover, the author’s and artists’ names are hard to make out, overlapping one another as they do, as do the subtitles: Mallarmé and Poème in red, Broodthaers and Image also in red, and Maranda and Livre in black. Between Mallarmé and Broodthaers, it is hard to say technically whose name and subtitle came first in the printing; who and what are overprinting whom and whose? Unbroken as the letters are, though, Michael Maranda and Livre must have come last.
The title page offers a bit more legibility, but the printing hijinks continue. Poème/Mallarmé and Image/Broodthaers no longer occupy the same space and are just perceptible in white lettering created by the ocean of cream-colored ink surrounding them. Along with the poem’s title, Livre/Maranda appear in black.
Then comes the Foreword, and the hijinks strain the eyes even more. At first, it seems that the Foreword has been badly printed. Not only badly printed, but badly translated from Mallarmé’s original: “I would want that one did not read this note or that pass through, even one forgot it”!? Only Maranda’s online artist’s statement explains the how and why of the poor translation:
To highlight the transformation of the reception of the poem by Broodthaers edition, the preface of this edition is Mallarmé’s original one, translated from French to Dutch and then to English using the online translator, Babble [sic] Fish. Michael Maranda, “Statement“, 2008. Accessed 6 August 2020.
That may explain the poor English translation, but what about the poor printing job? Actually, the printwork is precise, and the cover and title page offer the clues to this in their overprinting and reversed-out inking, respectively. The mangled English of the foreword has been printed in black, but the French of the préface appears as the absence of the cream-colored ink. Organizing the printing so that the black ink is broken up by those letters formed from the absence of ink is precision indeed.
Maranda calls his work a “meditation on les blancs“, the term that Mallarmé used in his 1897 preface to Un Coup de Dés to draw attention to the blank spaces surrounding the carefully scattered lines of verse. Taking Mallarmé at his word, Broodthaers drew attention to les blancs by blacking out the text with rectangles and parallelograms reflecting the type’s sizes and styles. In all of the pages that follow the preface, Maranda fills in Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ blancs with cream-colored ink. Paradoxically, Mallarmé’s text and Broodthaers’ black stripes have become blank spaces, and les blancs to which they drew attention have been printed in cream.
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. Carrión.
Maranda’s Livre stands among several works of erasure and excision paying homage to Un Coup de Dés in its 1914/1969 iterations — think of those by Jérémie Bennequin, Cerith Wyn Evans and Michalis Pichler — but by titling his work as he does, Maranda also pays homage to Mallarmé’s lifelong conceptual holy grail of le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be. By overlaying Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image with his meditation on les blancs, Maranda may be implying that visual language is the complete language in which that most beautiful and perfect book can be written.
Yet Maranda’s Livre ends with a colophon that suggests he takes himself no more seriously than his immediate predecessor in the palimpsest did:
This edition is published by Art Metropole. It was not printed in Belgium.
Offset and laser gravure, perfect binding. H325 x W250 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Printed Matter, 10 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Appropriated and sculpted bookwork was taking off in numerous forms even before 1964 when Marcel Broodthaers half-embedded the last fifty copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête in plaster. Bruno Munari had introduced libri illeggibili (“unreadable books”) in 1949. John Latham had already encased books with plaster in Shelf Number 2 (1961) and much else in his various skoob works. Tom Phillips’ line-by-line, found-book alteration A Humument was underway, first appearing in 1970, as was Dieter Roth’s string of sausage books Literaturwurst (1961-74). So Broodthaers could have taken any of several directions before deciding to replace Mallarmé’s lines of verse in Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Poéme (1914) with printed and engraved placeholders in paper and anodized aluminum, respectively, to create Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Image (1969).
Son of Giorgio Maffei (bookseller, curator, scholar and book artist in his own right), Giulio Maffei has made video catalogues for Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei since 2015. Each catalogue is a work of video. In this twenty-sixth outing, Maffei has created a video from the 1914 edition and Broodthaers’ 1969 Image version of Un Coup de Dés.
By 2008, Michalis Pichler had an even greater wealth of forms from which to choose for his double appropriation/homage to Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image. Since the ’80s scores of book artists had been introduced to ingenious structures by Hedi Kyle and Keith A. Smith, among others, so why not an Aunt Sally’s shipwreck of string, canvas and torn paper? Long-Bin Chen had been sanding books and phone directories into busts since the ’90s, so why not a bust of Mallarmé from old editions of Un Coup de Dés and a bust of Broodthaers from catalogues of his works (a variation on Buzz Spector’s treatment)?
Instead Pichler appropriates Mallarmé through Broodthaers’ design and production: an efficient and direct double appropriation. He follows the trim size and layout of the 1914 and 1969 works. Further underscoring the double appropriation, he reprints verbatim Broodthaers’ preface (the full text of Mallarmé’s poem set in small type as a single paragraph with obliques separating the lines of verse). Like Broodthaers, he produced limited editions of three versions: 10 copies in plexiglas (rather than Broodthaers’ 10 in anodized aluminum), 90 copies in translucent paper (just as Broodthaers had done) and 500 copies in paper (rather than Broodthaers’ 300). Where Broodthaers had solid black stripes, though, Pichler substitutes laser cuts in the translucent and paper editions and engraving or abrasion in the plexiglas edition. Hence Sculpture (2008), rather than Image (1969) or Poème (1914).
Not until 2016, though, was Pichler able to cap his double appropriation. Just as Broodthaers had held an exhibition entitled “Broodthaers: Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Antwerp, December 1969), Pichler held one entitled “Pichler: Exposition Littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Milan, December 2016). Like the Broodthaers exhibition, Pichler’s was an opportunity to showcase his own work: it was his first solo exhibition in Italy. Like Broodthaers, he included the Nrf 1914 edition, but also included numerous other editions and translations that had occurred since. Also, key to Pichler’s artistic intent, he included a host of other artists who by appropriation had made homage to Un Coup de Dés … Poème and, in some cases, Broodthaers’ … Image.
Book art is so self-referential in its instances (think of Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes) and as a genre (think Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman) that appropriation offers a natural next step. In Pichler’s case, the subtlety of that step comes in how he reaches through Broodthaers’ Image all the way back to elements of Mallarmé’s Poème to achieve his aims.
When Broodthaers first appropriated Mallarmé’s layout, type sizes and roman/italic styles, he was engaged in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. Usually ekphrasis runs from the work of art (say, a Grecian urn) to the text in response (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Here, the poem and its shape come first, then the work of art — the Image of the poem. By calling his exhibition an exposition littéraire, Broodthaers underscored this. By calling out the shapes on the page, he elevated the original’s semblances of waves, an abyss, a foundering ship and a constellation and, in exposing them, performed a kind of literary study as well as artistic work.
Count it down from Pichler’s appropriation of Broodthaers’ exposition littéraire, from the inclusion/appropriation of other artists’ appropriations of Poème and/or Image, from his own work of book art Sculpture, from his own other works: Pichler’s appropriative ekphrasis is squared, cubed or perhaps raised to the fourth power. Clearly, book art and appropriation are Pichler’s chief palettes — or rather his twin decks from which, as DJ, he mixes what he calls “Greatest Hits”. The phrase simultaneously names Pichler’s imprint on Sculpture‘s cover and the series on his website. The series includes other appropriations such as Every Building on the Ginza Strip (2018) from Ed Ruscha and Some More Sonnet(s) aka Poem(s) (2011) from Ulises Carríon. “Greatest Hits”, however, suggests another subtlety in Sculpture, albeit one best appreciated in the context of all the exhibitions.
The first instance of Broodthaers’ exhibition in Antwerp included a continuous playing of the artist’s tape-recorded reading of the poem. In Cologne for its second instance, Broodthaers renamed it Exposition littéraire et musicale autour de Mallarmé. Broodthaers was simply taking Mallarmé’s musical cue in Un Coup de Dés’spreface, which advises reading the poem as if it were a “score” for music to be heard at a concert and its blank spaces as “silences”.
Taking Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ musical cues and that of his piano-roll-like slots in Sculpture, Pichler created for his exhibition Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique, a piano-roll version of the poem to be played by any visitor who cared to sit and pedal the pianola on which it was installed. So in further appropriation of Mallarmé through Broodthaers, Pichler’s piano roll turns the empty spaces, where the words and black strips would be, into music while the blanks around them become what Magnus Wieland calls “white noise”.
In traditional literary ekphrasis, the referring text can stand on its own. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield does not require a side-by-side engraving or painting of what Hephaestus forged. Nor does Auden’s exposition of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) need an art history book to hand.
But without the context of the exhibition, the presence of other appropriations, or even Pichler’s translucent and plexiglas editions, what to make of Pichler’s paper edition on its own? The traditional Nrf cover design suggests no surprise to come, although the trim size looks non-traditional in today’s market. The book’s slimness, subtitle and preliminaries also warrant a raised eyebrow: how can this be a sculpture? Turning the pages, the reader/viewer comes to the cuts and sees through to the pages beneath. Shadows move through the leaves. The laser cut technique hints at something that a die cut does not. Do the burnt edges where the laser has cut suggest a more surgical approach to book burning, an allusion to burning decks, or a 19th century and 20th century legacy to the white spaces?
Both Mallarmé and Broodthaers noted the intent to draw attention to the white space of the page. Pichler appropriates both the poet’s and artist’s form and intent. He sculpts a conceptual double-palimpsest not by overwriting the first level of overwriting but by removing it and the original layer altogether. The core subtlety of Pichler’s paper edition of Un Coup de Dés lies in those empty spaces defined at their burnt edges and by the blankness around them. For Sartre, Mallarmé was the poet of nothingness. Broodthaers appropriated the nothingness with black ink. Pichler has appropriated both. The paradox is a work that stands on its own by invoking and eliminating what it appropriates.