Books On Books Collection – Reinhold Nasshan

Würfelwurf (1992)

Würfelwurf: fragmentarische Annäherung an Stéphan Mallarmé (1992)
Reinhold Nasshan
Slipcase, embossed spine, casebound in paper-covered boards, front cover decorated with title set on slip of paper woven into the cover, block sewn and glued, with relief prints as pastedowns. Slipcase: H360 x W248 mm; Book: 351 x 243 mm, 4 gatherings of folios of varying size cut, tucked or folded to fit within the binding’s dimensions. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

“Throw of the dice”, “dice throw” or “throwing dice” are all reasonable translations of Würfelwurf, but not “a throw of the dice”, which most German translators render as ein Würfelwurf when tackling Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés. But then Reinhold Nasshan is not translating the poem. As the subtitle indicates, he is making “a fragmentary approach”, an approximation.

The very structure and working of Nasshan’s Würfelwurf underscore his title’s distinction between a single act and repetition of the act. On its front cover, the word würfelwurf splits in two, one half printed over the other on the slip woven into the slits in the front cover. The slip angles downward from left to right suggesting action, which comes aplenty inside the book.

Some pages are cut, their corners folded and tucked in. One gathering consists of a sheet 688 x 470 mm that is creased with mountain- and valley-folds and untrimmed at the bottom edge so that it unfolds into a base that spills out beyond the covers. Pages take on dice-shaped edges and planes that seem to roll from within and against the book. The achieved effect of motion recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) or Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.

Although the title of Mallarmé’s poem appears, most of the text scattered across the surfaces comes from his other writings; for example, peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces”); tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre (“everything in the world exists to end up in a book”); and Das Buch ist eine totale Expansion des Buchstabens (“The book is a total expansion of the letter”). When that large folded gathering comes, though, the Mallarmé’s words begin to be jumbled: Ein Würfelwurf wird nie das Würfelspiel abschaffen (“A throw of the dice will never abolish the game of dice”) and Ein Wurf Gottes wird nie den Zufall abschaffen (“A throw from God will never abolish chance”).

Strangest of all is the mangling of émet from the poem’s final line Toute pensée émet un coup de dés (“All thought emits a throw of the dice”). The word becomes éinet. Not French, not German. Perhaps a typo of “in” for “m”? As it turns out, according to the artist, it is a fluke that the letter “m” available in the font on hand printed poorly, so “i” and “n” provided an alternative three vertical strokes.

Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997)

Un Coup: Stéphane Mallarmé (1997)
Reinhold Nasshan
Flexible triangular cloth-covered book boards, 4 cotton paper squares folded into origami water bomb base and glued. Triangle: 127 x 127 x 179 mm; Square “pages”: 166 x 166 mm. Acquired from the artist, 24 February 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

Nasshan also refers to this as a “letter sculpture”. Inviting the reconfiguring as with the works of Eleonora Cumer or Bruno Munari, or simply constant fiddling as with a paper fortune teller, Un Coup is more three-dimensional than Würfelwurf. As with Würfelwurf, this work lets the “moment of movement itself, the transition between the throw and the impact of the dice, emerge graphically” (moment der bewegung selbst den ubergang zwischen dem werfen und dem auftreffen der wurfel, graphisch hervortreten zu lassen). With less surface than Würfelwurf, though, it has fewer extracts from Mallarmé’s writings. Indeed, along with the physical shape shifting, the enlarged letters overprinted at multiple angles to one another combine to make this work more abstract than extract. But because text and book are material from which, on which and with which Nasshan creates, the abstract retains its links to the book.

Also a painter, Nasshan’s works fall into two categories or surfaces — painted books and painted canvases. Though lacking the shape of a book, his abstract paintings retain that link to “the world of Letters” in shapes and figures that evoke hieroglyphics, Chinese characters, typography and even cave paintings. His influences appear equally eclectic — though more Kandinsky, Klee and Miró than Pollock or Rothko — which matches up with his choice of substrates in fiction and nonfiction. When not choosing works from the ancient, classical or Romantic periods (from Gilgamesh to Seneca to Hölderlin), he chooses Apollinaire, Beckett, Celan, Joyce or Wittgenstein among others from the Modern period.

A wider audience would profit from Nasshan’s works. At least these two and others that might enter the Books On Books Collection will be available in the 2022 exhibitions celebrating the 125th anniversary of the publication of Un Coup de Dés in Cosmopolis (May 1897).

Further Reading

Bolton, Ama. 4 November 2013. “Saturday 2 November at the Oxford Book Fair“. Barleybooks.

Guckes-Kühl, Karen. September 2008. “Entdeckungsreise in die Buchkunst“. Buchbinderei Köster.

Klein, Thomas. 7 July 2019. “Die Sprache der Träume“. Wochenblatt-Reporter.de.

Möthrath, Birgit. 29 July 2019. “Reinhold Nasshan zeigt Malerie und Buchobjekte im Frank-Loebschen Haus“. Die Rheinpfalz.

Nasshan, Reinhold. 20 September 2021. Correspondence with Books On Books.

Books On Books Collection – Elisabeth Tonnard

One of the most literary and conceptualist of book artists, Elisabeth Tonnard fuses the textual and visual in ways that consistently demand and reward close attention and even meditation. The works so far in the collection do not yet represent the breadth of her techniques (missing, for example, is the digest of 15 literary works through Microsoft’s auto-summary function to create Speak! eyes — En zie!), but in their individual ways, they do represent all of her works’ ability to make constraints yield surprise.

In this Dark Wood (2008)

In this Dark Wood (2008) Elisabeth Tonnard, perfect bound, 196 pages, 90 halftones on recto pages. Acquired from the artist, 5 March 2018.

Tonnard pairs images of 90 solitary people walking alone in nighttime city streets with 90 different English translations of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. The images come from the Joseph Selle collection at the Visual Studies Workshop, which contains over a million negatives from a company of street photographers working in San Francisco from the 40’s to the 70’s. Male or female, Caucasian or Asian or African-American or Latino, the images are, as she puts it, “re-expressions of each other”. Likewise, the various translations are re-expressions of “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.”

In this video, Tonnard speaks of the work at the 21’25” mark.

The double-page spreads blur after a while of gazing on each face and reading the translation facing it. At the very start, though, the image has no facing text on the verso, and at the end, the last page of text has no facing image on the recto. Faced with this exception to the constraint of the double-page spread, the audience is torn between being reader/gazer and gazer/reader — precisely the thrust of Tonnard’s book artistry.

The Library (2015)

The Library (2015) Elisabeth Tonnard, exposed sewing, digital print, 56 pages. H105 x W148 mm. Edition of 150 copies. Acquired from the artist, 5 March 2018.

In the days before and after the end of World War II (May 1945), two fires in a flak tower broke out, destroying most of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum’s Gemäldegalerie artwork stored there. Starting in 1995, a multi-volume catalogue Dokumentation der Verluste recorded and illustrated as many of the losses as possible. The website of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has drawn from its pre-war images collection and posted authenticated images of over 100 of the more than 700 works lost. Tonnard’s work of book art memorializes the loss in a different way.

In the colophon, she calls her little book of images “a library”. The images are details from paintings, and each displays one or more books — sitting on a shelf, held in a hand or lying on a lap — and indecipherable. The illustrations from which Tonnard has taken the details are those of the paintings lost in the fires. Her book’s colophon ends: “Out of the smoke we think up this library of unknown books.”

Tonnard has also created a series of eight prints in archival ink of the details. More images from the book can be found here, and an image of the prints, here.

A Dialogue in Useful Phrases (2010)

A Dialogue in Useful Phrases (2010) Elisabeth Tonnard, softcover with blind embossing, 7.25 x 7.25 inches, digital print, 178 pages. Edition of 250, of which this is #94. Acquired from the artist, 5 March 2018.

They had no conversation properly speaking. They made use of the spoken word in much the same way as the guard of a train makes use of his flags, or of his lantern.” Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

Whether by Microsoft’s adjustable auto-summary function, by juxtaposition of photos and text or by compiling a library of lost indecipherable volumes, Tonnard probes at the nature of making and making meaning. A Dialogue in Useful Phrases probes both by generating text and structure under several constraints. One constraint restricts the author to “conversational phrases” found in Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases (1917), or “felicitous expressions for enriching the vocabulary.” A second constraint comes with the dialogic structure of “I” then “You”. The third constraint comes from alphabetizing the utterances of “I” down the verso pages.

By title and comment, Tonnard emphasizes that we are following “a” dialogue, not a series of dialogues: “A dialogue is formed from the random meetings of these phrases. It is a dialogue in the purest sense, a dialogue that expresses nothing other than itself.” Likewise, with a prefatory quotation from Malone Dies and the book’s “empty-room” square format, Tonnard pointedly places “I” and “You” in the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s dramatic dialogues. Going a step further in that direction, she has put together Project Gutenberg’s anonymous volunteers’ recordings of Kleiser’s book and staged audio installations in venues such as the Meermanno Museum in The Hague and the Sheffield International Artist’s Book Fair 2011. In this video, she speaks of the work at the 9’10” mark.

Further Reading

In order of the entries above:

Ladd, Jeffrey. “In this Dark Wood by Elisabeth Tonnard“, 5B4|Photography and Books, 14 November 2009. Accessed 3 June 2020.

Slade, George. “Book Review: In this Dark Wood“, Photo-Eye Blog, 6 March 2014. Accessed 3 June 2020.

Bodman, Sarah. “Artists’ Books #4: The Library by Elisabeth Tonnard“, A-N, 7 January 2016. Accessed 2 June 2020.

Elisabeth Tonnard: A Dialogue in Useful Phrases“, Bank Street Arts, 13 November 2010. Accessed 3 June 2020.

Partington, Gill. “What is Reading?“, London Review of Books, 11 December 2017. Accessed 3 June 2020.