Fluid Horizons (2021) Nif Hodgson Slipcase. Modified dragon-scale concertina. Slipcase: H91 x W158 mm. Book: H90 x W156 mm, 20 panels. Variable edition of 10, of which this is #1. Acquired from 23 Sandy Gallery, 2 September 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
The opportunity to add another dragon-scale binding (see Rutherford Witthus and Zhang Xiaodong below) to the collection would have been incentive enough. The binding of Fluid Horizons is not, however, the usual dragon-scale binding as applied to multi-leaved scrolls. It comprises an effective accordion spine with leaves attached to the inside folds. What made Fluid Horizons irresistible is the effect the structure achieves with the unusual technique and material: screenprint and archival pigment ink on Arista II transparency film, Duralar polyester film and Lexan polycarbonate film.
Each book in an edition varies because its twenty images are selected from hundreds of photographs taken by Hodgson with the same horizon-dimension. Although not in sequence, each image influences the selection of the next, which creates a sense of progression. With the gradation of light and transparency across the selection, the sense of progression increases. But it is not a “film-like” progression of images, or snapshots taken one after another in sequence. Like memory and our sense of time, on which this work meditates, the progression is a fragile reconstruction. The transparent materials, expandable accordion spine and fluttering panels reflect the ephemeral, flexible and fragmentary way in which memory is shaped while also being affected by perception in the moment.
There is a further material ephemerality to the work. The panel surface is delicate, subject to dissolving from contact with moisture, smudging from fingers and scratching from grit. As Hodgson puts it, “the sensitive materials lightly wear with viewing and play, just as memory faintly fogs with time and recollection”. Fluid Horizons is a stunning union of form and metaphor.
Skip for Joy (2021) Rutherford Witthus Dragon-scale scroll bound to bamboo rod. H306 x W477 mm, 11 panels. Edition of 5, of which this is #1. Acquired from the artist, 18 August 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Rutherford Witthus’ work is strong, quiet, broad and distinctive. It blends Eastern and Western traditions of the book arts. It joins the blackletter fonts of the Cistercian monks with the typography of Hermann Zapf. It joins John Cage’s chance-determined selection in the creation of art with a group of physicists’ fascination with the crumpling of paper. It experiments with abstract art and Japanese fore-edge illustration and binding. It offers a meditation on Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque through an intricately folded reprinting. The artist’s eclectic appreciation of the work of Sappho, Walt Whitman, St. Francis, Gilles Deleuze, Søren Kierkegaard, Ernst Haeckel, Robert Herrick, Miguel de Unamuno and others finds an impressive unity across his body of work. Skip for Joy is the first of his works to be added to the Books On Books Collection.
Compounding its compelling structure, Skip for Joy displays accumulating lines of text one by one until there are ten lines of text on the tenth panel. For each line, Witthus draws its words and expressions from an entry in Roget’s Thesaurus. As each panel grows in width to play its part in the dragon-scale binding, each line grows, too, repeating words and adding more synonyms from its entry in Roget’s. Compounding the scaling of structure and text, Witthus varies his lines in color and position. Starting with the phrase “skip for joy” in orange on the first panel, he then adds the phrase “grit one’s teeth” in violet on the second panel beneath the orange line; then “desire” in red on the third above the orange line; then “do up and do” in turquoise on the fourth; and so on.
What does Roget’s Thesaurus have to do with dragon-scale binding? The scroll’s first phrase and title provide a clue: an imperative to play. Anyone interested in playing with the dragon-scale (or whirlwind) binding usually goes to the site of the International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online. Among its descriptions so far of the forty thousand works found in the Buddhist cave library near China’s Dunhuang on the western edge of the Gobi desert in 1900, there is this passage:
Old Chinese accounts of whirlwind binding are very rare. However, there was a trail of clues left by a Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) rhyme dictionary called Kanmiu buque qieyun (Corrected rhymes), by Wang Renxu. … From the earliest accounts from the Song dynasty up to the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911), references to whirlwind bound books have always been connected with this text. … / Several examples of what is believed to be whirlwind binding have now been discovered in the Dunhuang collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library. Most of these have not been rebound, so it is possible to get a clear impression how these manuscripts were bound and why they were bound in this manner. — IDP
Where Western reference works are organized alphabetically, the Qièyùn rhyming dictionary is organized phonologically. But that phonological organization is complex: starting first by grouping characters according to the five tones, then grouping them into rhyming groups according to a character’s initial consonant, and then into groups according to the rhyme of a character’s final consonant. And determining those rhymes requires instructions — the fanqie method that explains via other characters how a character entry should be pronounced. In short, organization by phonological similarities — of tone, initial rhyming consonant and final rhyming consonant.
So to follow the lead of the dragon-scale bound Qièyùn, Witthus picks an English-language reference work whose entries offer plenty of content based on similarities — such as synonyms. Skip for Joy is playful art. Its “rhymes” are the repetitions and synonyms in a line of text. Its lines of text jump into the panels where they will and in whatever color that suits. In the tenth panel, the seventh line even breaks into a dragon-like undulation.
As the dragon-scale scroll returns to its archival box, its colors and undulating line unite with the dragon in the box’s silk onlay.
“Nif Hodgson“. Books On Books Collection. 27 October 2021.
Housed in acrylic tube, eight pages including letterpress printed colophon page, seven pages of USGS topographic maps inscribed with sumi ink by hand, bound with a small piece of Fabriano Tiziano green in Japanese side-stitch. H184 x W679.5 mm unfurled. Edition of approximately 65, of which this one is dated and initialed on 7 November 2012. Acquired from the artist, 25 March 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
When as you continue first appeared, Jen Larson wrote of it in Multiple, Limited, Unique: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Center for Book Arts (2011):
… this work serves as an elegant meditation and metaphor on the subject of life journeys — and orienting oneself in the midst of landscape or circumstance that can only be apprehended by survey and the will to move forward.
The year 2012 marked the centennial of composer and artist John Cage’s birth. An aficionado of “chance”, Robin Price revisited this work that had begun in December 2010 when she discovered on the Crown Point Press’ Magical-Secrets website the quotation by Cage. Cage had made this remark to Kathan Brown in 1989 after the Crown Point Press’ building was condemned following an earthquake. By chance, it now seemed fitting as a centenary birthday wish to this artistic master of “the purposeful use of chance and randomness”. Also by purposeful chance, Price turned to a technique that seemed entirely fitting for the work, its history and her personal perspective. Price writes:
… I took up the project anew and practiced writing on several different occasions, feeling dissatisfied with various trials. Eventually I found my way to writing with my left (non-dominant) hand as the most authentic expression I could bring to the content, as visualization of struggle, fear, and acceptance of imperfection.
Perfect bound. H305 x W229 mm. Acquired from the artist, 25 March 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The very covers of the book were created by chance operations. Generated solely on press using three of the four process color printing plates from the book’s interior via “make-ready”, areas of image were built up on the paper by repeatedly passing the sheets through the press, and consistently rotating the sheets prior to their feeding through ensured variation among the covers within the edition.
In addition to the theme core to Price’s art, Counting on Chance embodies another aspect key to her work: choice and collaboration. Published in conjunction with the exhibition held at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center, the volume includes a brilliant essay by Betty Bright, interview by Suzy Taraba and a catalogue raisonné prepared by Rutherford Witthus. Like choosing the right colors, the right combination of fonts, the right layout, the right weight and opacity of paper, and the right structure, Price’s choice of collaborators (or their choice of her) in her work and publishing is an artistic practice itself.
Housed in a custom-made, engraved stainless steel box (H370 x W326 x D44 mm), concertina binding co-designed with Daniel E. Kelm and Joyce Cutler-Shaw, produced at The Wide Awake Garage; twelve signatures of handmade cotton text paper, the central ten signatures each made up of one sheet H356 x W514 mm and one sheet H356 x W500 mm glued to the 14 mm margin of the first sheet, for a total of 96 pages, each measuring H356 x W253 mm. Binding of leather covered boards (a hologram embedded in front cover) with an open spine, taped and sewn into a reinforcing concertina structure: H361 X W259 mm. The hologram, produced by DuPont Authentication Systems, features an early eighteenth-century brass lancet. Edition of 50, of which this is a binder’s copy. Acquired from the binder, Daniel E. Kelm, 15 October 2018.
Generating two double-page spreads, one for the Fasciculus Medicinae on the left and Cutler-Shaw on the right, the foldout pages extend to 1016 mm.
Responding to the 1993 Smithsonian challenge to book artists to create a work in response to a scientific or technical work in the Dibner Library, Joyce Cutler-Shaw approached Price for assistance in creating a unique book based on Shaw’s response to the Fasciculus Medicinae (1495), the first printed book with anatomical illustrations. A decade later, Price was convinced to issue this 50-copy edition. In Counting On Chance, Betty Bright recounts the story behind this brilliant collaboration. Detail and additional images about the work can be found here.
Bright, Betty. “Handwork and Hybrids: Contemporary Book Art,” in Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, edited by Maria Elena Buczek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Essay highlighting the work of Robin Price and Ken Campbell.
For 2014-15, the New England Guild of Book Workers have organized a traveling exhibition: Geographies: New England Book Work, its itinerary covering each of the 6 New England states. Last year, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Wishcamper Center at the University of Southern Maine and the Bailey Howe Library at the University of Vermont hosted it. This year, the show has appeared at Williams College Library and is scheduled for Dartmouth College Library and the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, CT. Criss-crossing geographical boundaries as well as those of book art and the book arts, Geographies calls to mind the last line of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map“:
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
Or, in this case:
More delicate than the historians’ are the [book-artists’] colors.
Although born in Nova Scotia, Elizabeth Bishop grew up as a New Englander in Massachusetts with her paternal grandparents. As a far-traveller and visual artist as well as poet, she would have enjoyed this exhibition and found it fitting if it had included a broadside of “The Map”.
Nevertheless, what a range of “colors” from all the New England states and beyond – from historic to modern, from fine and design bindings to traditional and creative bookbinding, from artist books to calligraphic manuscripts, from masters to apprentices and from object to narrative. The latter finds a wintry exemplar in Snow Bound in September: A Re-Imagining by Laurie Whitehill Chong, retired Special Collections librarian and curator of Artists’ Books at RISD.
The artist made this book the same size as her grandfather’s Appalachian Mountain Club hiking guide. Snow Bound is an invented ancestral narrative, in which the artist uses a surviving photograph and her grandfather’s notes about being stranded with his wife for five days on Mount Washington by a hurricane-driven snowstorm in September 1915 to re-imagine the ordeal from her grandmother’s perspective. Note the slotted front cover into which the flap extending from the back cover fits to keep the book closed, snug against the elements.
Julie B. Stackpole’s creative re-binding of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Spring Tides takes us from the New England mountains to the shore as can be seen from the layered binding.
In Stackpole’s words:
The traditional tight-joint binding is covered in navy blue Niger goatskin with waves in the lower parts created by paring before covering. Cut-outs in the onlays of the lighter blue leather of the water help it transition from the dark of the navy to the sky’s azure. Onlays of other leathers create the forested landscape of the shoreline and hills. These blues were chosen because the only blue leather in a large enough piece to cover the whole binding was the dark navy, while I only had scraps of the water and sky’s blue. The endpapers are a Cockerell marbled paper over-painted with blue, with leather hinges.
Pictures of the works in the catalog (and others not) can also be found at the Williams College Flickr site (for now). I say “for now” because they will be pushed downstream inevitably in the way of today’s digital flow. They may even disappear; although as Matthew Kirschenbaum has explained in Mechanisms, something digitally forensic will remain. That boundary of the tangible and the digital, the haptic and the virtual, is only lightly but evocatively touched in this collection.
When Julia Stackpole writes in the online catalog about that Cockerell marbled paper that it “felt to me like the waves and the shoals and ledges of Maine waters”, you long to lay hands on the Spring Tide. Anne McClain’s Place includes photographs taken digitally of places on Maine’s midcoast that have been special to her her “entire life and will continue to be a constant as other things change and move on”. What is captured digitally is reproduced physically to fix those places that will “continue to be a constant”. But places do change.
Rutherford Witthus’ contribution touches the boundary between the digital and physical most directly. His artist’s book is entitled 28 Fort Square: What Charles Olson wrote on the window casings of his apartment in Gloucester, Massachusetts, of which there are eleven copies.
In these 11 copies, Witthus digitally reconstructs the windows of Charles Olson’s apartment at 28 Fort Square where he wrote his main work, The Maximus Poems, and covered the window casings with meteorological data. The artist book “presents for the first time all of the images of the window casings”.
Athena Moore, chapter secretary of The New England Guild of Bookworkers, produced the catalog for this itinerant exhibition organized by Stephanie Wolff, Exhibitions Coordinator and Todd Pattison, Chapter Chair. If you have the chance to see the exhibition in its next venue, take it.
Just as Elizabeth Bishop questioned the depiction of the boundary between land and water on her map – “Shadows or are they shallows at its edges …”, you will find the juxtaposition of these works reminds you that the boundary between book art and the book arts can be shadowy or shallow indeed.