Books On Books Collection – Aaron Cohick

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.

The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press (first iteration) (2009)

The second iteration emphasizes the starting points of physicality and more so the role of the reader:

  • [The book] is shot through with sunlight, hooks, teeth. It blinds, catches, gnaws.
  • From the book we gather the scraps of ourselves
  • [T]he reader is both a consumer and a producer.
  • Our existence is a constant generating of text.
  • A book read is a book alive — breathing, beating, shining and reverberating through its readers.

But the second iteration’s most important additional starting point is this:

  • We find [books] participating more & more in the world of visual art. This is extremely dangerous, but also potentially revelatory.

The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press (second iteration) (2013)

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.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 1)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 July 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 2)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 July 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 3)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 August 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 1)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 September 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 2)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 October 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 3)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 October 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Pichler, Michalis, ed. 2019. Publishing manifestos: an international anthology from artists and writers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Books On Books Collection – Raffaella della Olga

LINE UP (2020)

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.

T28 Alphabet (2019/2020)
Raffaella dell Olga
Typewritten on paper and silk paper with carbon paper 485 x 435 mm. Image:
© Raffaella della Olga and reproduced with the artist’s permission.

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.

Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009)
Raffaella della Olga
Hand made work, white acrylic paint, phosphorescent powder, glue. H320 × 500 mm. Photos: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

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.

Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010)
Raffaella della Olga
Randomly generated computer graphic.

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.

Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018)
Raffaella della Olga
Unique. Typewritten on tracing paper with fabric and carbon paper, 320 × 500 mm. Image: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

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.

Further Reading

Total Expansion of the Letter, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review“, Books On Books, 19 October 2020.

Epps, Timothy, and Christopher Evans. 1970. Alphabet (Typeface … designed by Timothy Epps in collaboration with Dr. Christopher Evans). Hilversum: Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co.

Owens, Sarah. “Electrifying the alphabet“, Eye, no. 62, vol. 16, 2006. Accessed 23 November 2020.

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)

“Total Expansion of the Letter”, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review

The 125th anniversary of the publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais 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.

Total Expansion of the Letter : Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé
Trevor Stark
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020)

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)

Clearly that passage links back to the touchstone of Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication. The strength of the touchstone is that it can also be fruitfully applied to the numerous works of homage to Mallarmé from contemporary book artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Michael Maranda, Michalis Pichler, Eric Zboya and many others. Likewise it can used to shed light on the “material text” approach to understanding book art. A case in point is the first issue of Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History, a work of book art in its own right.

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.

Further Reading

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

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.

Willette, Jeanne. “Cubism As Applied Design: Sonia Terk-Delaunay“, Art History Unstuffed, 16 August 2019. Although Robert and Sonia Delaunay are briefly mentioned in the third chapter (p. 248), it would have been interesting to see how Stark would use his touchstone to explicate the first “simultaneous poem”: La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

Books On Books Collection – Antoine Lefebvre Éditions

I Can’t Breathe (2015)

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.

Tatin (1920), Flavin (1964), Lefebvre (2015)

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.

木 (2016)

木 (2016) Antoine Lefebvre H209 x W209 mm, 12 pages. Unnumbered edition of 250. Acquired from the artist, 2 October 2020. Photos of booklet: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

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.

Artiste Éditeur (2018)

Lefebvre first came to this collection’s attention at the exhibition “Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox, Vienna, 28 January 2018”. His entry was an entire library —  La Bibliothèque Fantastique (2009-2013).

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).

Artiste Éditeur (2018)
Antoine Lefebvre
H297 x W210 mm, 176 pages.

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.

Further Reading

Challis, Ivy. “Artist Interview: Antoine Lefebvre of Everything is Index Nothing is History”, Recession Art, n.d. Accessed 15 September 2020.

Gilbert, Annette (ed.). Publishing as Artistic Practice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).

Lefebvre, Antoine. Artiste Éditeur (Saint-Mâlo: Strandflat, 2018).

Lefebvre, Antoine. “I want to write a book“, La Bibliothèque Fantastique, 2011.

Lefebvre, Antoine. “La Bibliothèque Fantastique“, La Bibliothèque Fantastique, No. 13, 22 October 2009.

Matheny, Lynn Kellmanson. “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Accessed 15 September 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Michael Maranda

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème, Image, Livre (2008)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème, Image, Livre (2008)

Michael Maranda

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 inks 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 filled with cream-colored ink.

This strange reversed-out palimpsest recalls a passage from Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” (1975):

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.

Further Reading

Jérémie Bennequin”, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

Michalis Pichler”, Books On Books Collection, 19 August 2020.

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books” (1975), reprinted in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void, 1980).

Scherer, Jacques. Le “Livre” de Mallarmé; premières recherches sur des documents inédits (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).

Wieland, Magnus. “Sculpture Lecture Reading Un coup de dés“. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Exhibitions

“Excision,” Twenty+3 (Manchester UK), 2008. Curated by Cheryl Sourkes.

“Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé”, Kunstverein Milano. Curated by Maria Anguelova.

Books On Books Collection – Michalis Pichler

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (2008)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (Sculpture) (2008)

Michalis Pichler

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).

Le Vite dei Libri 26 directed by Giulio Maffei, 12 January 2016. Accessed 14 August 2020.

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’s preface, 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”.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (2009) Michalis Pichler

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.

Further Reading

Durgin, Patrick. “Witness Marcel Broodthaers: The docile aphorism“, Jacket2, 24 October 2014. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Gilbert, Annette, and Clemens Krümmel. Thirteen Years: The Materialization of Ideas from 2002 to 2015 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2015).

Sartre, Jean-Paul; Ernest Sturm, trans. Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004).

Sowden, Tom. “Exploring Appropriation as a Creative Practice,” MDPI Arts / Issue 8 / Volume 4 (2019). Accessed 6 August 2020.

Wieland, Magnus. “Sculpture Lecture Reading Un coup de dés“. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Among the other artists in Pichler’s Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé were these whose works are also represented in the Books On Books Collection: Jérémie Bennequin, Jim Clinefelter, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rodney Graham, Brian Larosche, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari and Eric Zboya.

Books On Books Collection – Brian Larosche

Un Coup de 3Dés (2012)

Un Coup de 3Dés (2012)

Brian Larosche

H500 x W350 mm. Edition of 200, of which this is #162. Acquired from the artist, 15 April 2019.

In size, Larosche’s Un Coup de Dés outdoes most other versions and homage — except those that are installations. The large black cover suggests a dark movie screen on which Larosche’s version of the poem will play out in 3D. But why 3D? Trying to read Un Coup de Dés while wearing a pair of 3D glasses challenges the eyes’ patience just as much as the poem’s ambiguities challenge the mind’s. Within the Coup de Dés genre, there is a necessary strain of strained humor. Without it, art runs the risk of taking us too seriously.

L: Ultimate History Project; R: The_National_Archives_UK. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Confirming this joking intention behind his version, Larosche commented to Books On Books:

I originally handmade the book so that it was to worn on the nose like a large pair of glasses, which was another practical joke because the letters were too close to read, as in so 3D that it was literally in your face. — Brian Larosche, 2 April 2020.

Even with puns and slapstick there is often a point. The anaglyphic print technique and sheer size of Larosche’s version draw attention to Mallarmé’s sculptural play with type size and layout on a 2D surface as well as the poem’s spatial metaphors that align with it. In Mallarmé’s original, the staggering and dispersal of lines and single words on the page buttress, and are buttressed by, the word images of a roiling sea, shipwreck and constellation. Other artists with other techniques have drawn attention to that sculptural play and those spatial metaphors: Marcel Broodthaers‘ superimposed black bars, Michalis Pichler‘s and Cerith Wyn Evans‘ cut-outs, Sammy Engramer‘s sonograms sculpted in PVC and Eric Zboya‘s computer graphic “translation”.

Other artists have also poked serious fun at Un Coup de Dés and each others’ homage. Jim Clinefelter teases the sonority of the poem with his A Throw of the Snore Will Surge the Potatoes (1998). With her Rubik’s cube version (2005), Aurélie Noury needles the poem’s and poet’s puzzle pose. With their piano-roll versions, Rainier Lericolais (2009) and Pichler (2016) pick on Broodthaers (1969) as well as Mallarmé (1897) for their spatial metaphors and, in Mallarme’s case, his assertions of musicality. In Rodney Graham’s version (2011), Popeye substitutes for le Maître as the ship’s captain.

Larosche’s perceptively humorous rendering of Un Coup de Dés has earned it a secure perch among the other birds of the homage feather, and the use of 3D glasses seems to invite another layer of homage from artists interested in virtual reality headgear and augmented reality devices.

Further Reading

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

French, Thomas. “3-D : Of Decidedly Victorian Origins“, The Ultimate History Project. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Rodney Graham“, Books On Books Collection, 2 July 2020.

Noury, Aurélie. Un coup de dés (rubik’s cube) (Rennes: Éditions lorem ipsum, 2005). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Pichler, Michalis. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (SCULPTURE) (2008). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Eric Zboya“, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Rodney Graham

Poème : “Au Tatoueur” (2011)

As with many of the homage to Un Coup de Dés, the subtitle here matters. For Bennequin, it was “Homage” with it missing “m” from the French; for Broodthaers, “Image”; for Engramer, “Wave”; for Pichler, “Sculpture” and “Musique”; for Zboya, “Translations”. Graham’s subtitle, being in quotation marks, indicates that what follows is a missive, not a form. The missive addressed to a local tattoo artist was arranged à la Mallarmé and described an image of Popeye that Graham wanted. But the twist that makes Graham’s version work is the translation of the instructions into French and their publication in the 1913 format of Mallarmé’s poem. This is an intricate “set-up”. In a way, it is analogous to Mallarmé’s careful attention to the positioning of words and lines, the kind of mise-en-scène that characterizes much of Graham’s photography and painting.

The set-ups extend across time and works as well. Au Tatoueur inspired Tattooed Man On Balcony 2018, the story of which is told here. Further evidence of Graham’s humor in book art and intricate set-ups can be found in White Shirt (for Mallarmé) Spring 1993 (1992), [La Véranda] (1989) and The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story (1987), all at the Tate Modern.

Further Reading

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

French, Thomas. “3-D : Of Decidedly Victorian Origins“, The Ultimate History Project. Accessed 27 June 2020.

Gardner, Allan. “Confessions Of A Window Cleaner: Rodney Graham Interviewed“, The Quietus, 21 October 2018. Accessed 28 June 2020.

Rodney Graham Art Exhibition“, NY Art Beat, 11 January 2019. Accessed 28 June 2020.

Brian Larosche“, Books On Books Collection, 2 July 2020.

Noury, Aurélie. Un coup de dés (rubik’s cube) (Rennes: Éditions lorem ipsum, 2005). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Pichler, Michalis. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (SCULPTURE) (2008). Accessed 27 June 2020.

Eric Zboya“, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Benjamin Lord

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)
Benjamin Lord
Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread;
70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4.
Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?

Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?

Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.

Blocking out Mallarmé’s words with black bars of varying sizes corresponding to the poem’s typography and turning Poème into Image, Broodthaers’s homage has provided the starting point to several works of visual homage: Derek Beaulieu, Jérémie Bennequin, Klaus Detjen, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rainier Lericolais, Alexandra Leykauf, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari, Michalis Pichler and Eric Zboya. To their common starting point, each brings to bear his or her own approach. For Lord’s approach, the term “starting point” is more properly “seed”. In Conway’s Game of Life, a seed is any pattern of square cells, some filled (“live”), some unfilled (“dead”). Here are two basic patterns:

On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:

Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.

Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,

The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.

This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,

Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new. Chapter XXV

Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.

Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:

His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI

Further Reading

Derek Beaulieu”, Books On Books Collection, 19 June 2020.

Jérémie Bennequin“, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

Michaud, François. Alexandra Leykauf: Chateau de Bagatelle (Nürnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010)

Guido Molinari”, Books On Books Collection, 13 April 2020.

Eric Zboya“, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Books On Book Collection – Sammy Engramer

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard: Onde/Wave (2009)

Mallarmé’s strange poem, first published in the London-based journal Cosmopolis in 1897, had to wait until 1914 before appearing in a format close to the one Stéphane Mallarmé envisioned with the gallerist and publisher Ambroise Vollard.

Taking the poem’s self-referential line about its words appearing as a constellation, first Ernest Fraenkel, then Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers transformed the poem into a series of images by substituting solid blocks of ink in place of the poem’s lines of verse.

From left to right: Ernest Fraenkel, Les dessins trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé, à propos de la typographie de Un coup de dés. Avant-propos par Étienne Souriau, avec 68 planches en hors-textes (1960); Mario Diacono, a MeTrica n’ABOOlira (1968/69); Marcel Broodthaers, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard: Image (1969).

Subsequently, dual homages to Mallarmé and Broodthaers arose. One of them is Engramer’s. Where Fraenkel, Diacono and Broodthaers focused on layout, size and space to generate their visual translations, Engramer added a sonic element, albeit by visual display. Recording his own reading aloud of the poem, Engramer then ran the recording through sonographic equipment. The rendering of each line’s soundwave became his graphic substitute for Mallarmé’s line of verse and, by extension, each black block that Broodthaers used to displace Mallarmé’s text.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Wave (2009)
Sammy Engramer
H340 x W240 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Florence Loewy, Paris, 27 March 2019.

In 2010, Engramer took his inspiration one step further and put together an exhibition called “JAMAIS”. As soon as the idea or sensation of visualizing the sound of a poem is mooted, the choice of ink, type, brush, paint, surface, chisel, mold, material, camera, computer and, again, surface opens up. In JAMAIS, Engramer chooses a multiplicity of tools and media (or they choose him): sound recording, computer output, ink, printed book, mold and plastic, camera and animation.

In the video below, pages of the book undulate in a wave along the wall to which they are loosely attached. Alongside them are eighteen 3D PVC renderings of the sonograms. At the end of the hall, a large screen shows a 3D animation of a rolling die whose dots spell out hasard in Braille. The juxtaposition of fluttering pages of sonographs, the physical instantiation of the sonograms and the animated Braille die that cannot be read by touch generates a confounding conundrum for the senses. Text has become sound, sound has become image, and image has become object and animation.

Video: Courtesy of the artist.

Since, according to the artist, his recording of the poem was not played in the exhibition, the conundrum focuses on perception of sound through the eyes. Whether listening/hearing can be performed by seeing a visual or physical representation of what has been listened to/or heard (or is being listened to/or heard) is a neurological question. Rendered in ink and plastic, Engramer’s sonographic images and objects are metaphoric assertions: “hear with your eyes the words no longer printed or carved before you, hear through your eyes the decibels increasing or attenuating according to an unheard recording of those words spoken”.

Further Reading

Eric Zboya“, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

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

Pichler, Michalis. Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (Berlin: “Greatest Hits”, 2008).

Rasula, Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Schaffner, Anna Katharina and Kim Knowles, Ulrich Weger and Andrew Michael Roberts, “Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives“, Writing Technologies, vol. 4 (2012), 75-106.