Books On Books Collection – Robert Cottingham

A-Z: Robert Cottingham: An American Alphabet (1997-2012)

A-Z: Robert Cottingham: An American Alphabet (1997-2012)
Robert Cottingham
Hardcover. H x W mm, pages. Edition of 100. Acquired from Tandem Press, 10 September 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist and Tandem Press.

I had completed a number of canvases for AN AMERICAN ALPHABET and began to experience storage problems. The paintings were leaning against all available walls and were in danger of being damaged. For protection, I hung them as a group on one wall, stacking them four high by four across, … sixteen canvases that reached to the ceiling and formed a monumental mosaic of letterforms. This arrangement of tightly packed images created an energy I hadn’t anticipated. As I looked up at it for the first time from my studio floor, I was immediately transported back to those moments when my father and I ascended from the 42nd Street subway station. The sight lines in my studio matched the ones I’d experienced as a child looking up at the signs and lights of Times Square. (Cottingham, A-Z)

Cottingham’s time travel creates a longing in the viewer for travel in time and space. What that wall must have looked like. Those who might have enjoyed the 1996 show at the Forum Gallery in New York or the installation at the New York Print Fair in November 2011 or the Tandem Press exhibition at Madison, WI, in 2018 would have a limited idea (the images were not stacked four high). A-Z: An American Alphabet is as close as the rest of us will come to visualizing it. The artist book does have the advantage of letter by letter commentary from Cottingham.

Another plus in the book is Cottingham’s exploration of his process, tools and material:

The photograph is the starting point. Once I’ve chosen a specific image, I’ll do at least one preliminary sketch in black and white. This drawing familiarizes me with the image and allows me to make the first formal adjustments. The drawing acts as a value study — a sketch that helps determine the tonal range of the image, how dark or light the various elements should be. …/ Next comes the preliminary color study. This may be a watercolor or a gouache, sometimes handled loosely, sometimes treated as a more finished work. …/ I can now move on to the canvas. My preferred medium is oil. … The painting quickly takes on a life of its own, demanding further adjustments to color, tonal value, and form. But the preliminary work, like a map, guides me towards the new and always unexpected version of my original concept./ … / I consider printmaking an important adjunct to my painting. Many times, when I’ve completed a painting, I feel the need to do more work with the image — to dig deeper, exploring other aspects of its structure. Printmaking offers this opportunity. … / … An old world sensibility and craftsmanship is brought to the selection of paper (often hand-made), the mixing of inks, the preparation of plates or lithographic stones, and other steps in the process.

Cottingham also draws out the collaborative nature of printmaking, which in this case involved four Master Printers (Andy Rubin, Bruce Crownover, Joe Freye and, for the digital, Jason Ruhl) and, for the book design and layout, Linda Endlich. Another form of collaboration is influence, and Cottingham is generously open about his debts: Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian and, of course, the design of the signs from which the letters come. Along with his contemporaries such as Chuck Close, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack and John Salt, Cottingham represents the movement of Photo-Realism.

An American Alphabet also finds cousins in the Books On Books Collection. For found letters as objects, there is The Typographic Universe (2014), compiled by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson. For found letters recreated with pastels and watercolor, there is Stephen T. Johnson’s Alphabet City (1995). For color and form (albeit in totally different media), there are Karen Hanmer’s The Spectrum A-Z (2003) and Tara McLeod’s ABC (2015).

Left: The Typographic Universe (2014) by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson. Right: Alphabet City (1995) by Stephen T. Johnson.
Photos of the works: Books On Books Collection.

Left: The Spectrum A-Z (2003) by Karen Hanmer. Right: ABC (2015) by Tara McLeod.
Photos of the works: Books On Books Collection.

The artist and Tandem Press have been kind enough to provide images of the letters A and Z to compare with those in the book, a comparison that underscores the quality of the book and Cottingham’s art.

An American Alphabet: A (2001)
Robert Cottingham
Lithography, Edition of 40, 32 x 23 inches
Image courtesy of Robert Cottingham and Tandem Press

An American Alphabet: Z (2008)
Robert Cottingham
Lithography, Edition of 40, 30 1/2 x 23 inches
Image courtesy of Robert Cottingham and Tandem Press

Further Reading

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

Stephen T. Johnson“. Books On Books Collection. 30 November 2021.

Meisel, Louis K. 1993. Photorealism since 1980. New York: H.N. Abrams.

Meisel, Louis K., and Helene Zucker Seeman. 1989. Photo-Realism. New York: Abradale Press.

Books On Books Collection – Stephen T. Johnson

Alphabet City (1995)

Alphabet City (1995)
Stephen T. Johnson
Casebound, sewn and glued. H276 x W226 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Blackwell’s, 17 August 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

A Caldecott Honor Book and New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 1995, Alphabet City goes beyond the alphabet letters as found objects, a sub-genre documented by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson in The Typographic Universe (2014). Johnson transforms his found capital letters with pastels, watercolor, gouache and charcoal into photo-realistic pictures in varying but similar sizes; for example, 26.5 x 22.5 inches for the A and 25.25 x 21.5 inches for the Z. These appeared in an inaugural exhibition in 1997 at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. Johnson’s works are held in numerous permanent collections (mostly in the US) and private ones (mainly US-based but increasingly Europe as well), but they are closely tied to his children’s books: Alphabet School (2015) and A is for Art (see below). Most impressive is how he lifts the alphabet book from ordinary trade status to artist book.

Along with Robert Cottingham, Johnson established the photo-realistic alphabet as its own sub-genre, which has been explored by other artists such as Stephen Magsig in The Urban Alphabet: Paintings from Postcards from Detroit and Simon Jennings in Outdoor Types: An Urban Alphabet (2010)

A is for Art (2008)

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet (2008)
Stephen T. Johnson
Perfect bound in case with doublures. H310 x 235 mm, 40 pages. Acquired from Amazon E.U., 4 September 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

In his review in American Art, Philip Nel coins an apt name for Johnson’s art — “alphabet expressionism” — which, on closer examination of texture and technique, applies also to Alphabet City. Go back and look at the foreground of the letter A in Alphabet City.

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet has the feel of Moussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Although each movement “depicts” a different painting, the composer’s style comes through; although each letter alludes to different artists (for example, but not complete for each letter: A – François Dufrêne, Kurt Schwitters; B- Jim Dine, Willem de Kooning , C- Arman, Félix Gonzáles-Torres; D- Udomsak Krisanamis; W- Man Ray; X- Robert Rauschenberg; Y- Tom Wesselman, Robert Indiana; Z- Beatrice Mandelman, Mimmo Rotella), the artist’s vision comes through. To pull that off requires considerable versatility. Several of the images in A is for Art derive from sculptures and large-scale installations. Take a look, too, at his triptych of mosaics in the City Center Public Library of Lenexa, Kansas.

Also a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year, A is for Art demonstrates two subgenres of alphabet books: the hidden and alliterative alphabet. An interesting, perhaps intentional, effect — even more so when the letters are difficult to find — is to make the viewer linger over the image longer than the museum goer’s average of less than 30 seconds per object. The ingenuity of Johnson’s alliterative sentences is almost as engaging as the images; even so, its main effect directs the eye back to the images. Here is the text for the letter A:

A a
Arrangement No. 1
Affixed across and around an angled letter A are an array of abstracted and assembled bits of advertisements, and apparent among them are apostrophes, ampersands, accents, and an asterisk.

If you spend only 13 minutes in this book (30 seconds per letter), you are missing out.

Music and numbers have also piqued Johnson’s creative curiosity, but another of his series works leads in a more intriguing, roundabout way back to A is for Art: the Kana Card series. On a trip through Japan, the artist acquired a set of Japanese flashcards for learning Katagana and Hiragana. Each 2 x 3 inch card becomes a canvas for paint and collage.

Alphabet School (2015)

Alphabet School (2015)
Stephen T. Johnson
Hardback. H286 x W236 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Book Depository, 5 November 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

Using monoprints on paper with digital enhancements, Johnson shifts technique yet again here. The photorealism yields to a graininess, but as with Alphabet City, the effect of making the reader look not just at the images but also at his or her environment remains.

Some letters are contrived (two bookends posed for the letter M). Most of the scenes, however, deliver an authentic sense of found letters (the C in the support of the globe atlas). Johnson has raised the bar on the hidden-letter theme, common in the genre of alphabet books, by several notches.

Further Reading

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

Robert Cottingham“. Books On Books Collection.

Paul Cox“. Books On Books Collection.

Heller, Steven, and Gail Anderson“. 8 May 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Mackey, Bonnie, and Hedy Schiller Watson. 2017. Alphabet books: the K-12 educators’ power tool. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Nel, Philip. 2008. “The Fall and Rise of Children’s Literature.” American Art 22, no. 1: 23–27.

A Is for Art: Stephen T. Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet“. 31 August 2010. Nine Kinds of Pie.

Zerkin, Becca. 9 November 2008. “Alphabet City.” The New York Times Book Review. The review actually covers A is for Art.

Books On Books Collection – Tana Hoban

A, B, See! (1982)

A, B, See! (1982)
Tana Hoban
Hardcover, casebound. H252 x W286 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Cattermole 20th Century Children’s Book, 7 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Made in dark-room conditions with light-sensitive paper, actual objects and cutouts, these photograms lift this simple ABC book to the plane of object recognition and to the level of art. Other artists who have applied photographic techniques to the abecedary are Anthon Beeke, Eileen Hogan, Peter Hutchinson, Simon Jennings or Stephen T. Johnson. Each has a distinctiveness of eye, technique or conceptualizing. Hoban’s seems to lie in extracting something more from that simple imposition of white on black.

Further Reading

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

Anthon Beeke“. Books On Books Collection. 21 June 2021.

Books by Tana Hoban and Complete Book Reviews“. Publishers Weekly. Accessed 19 August 2021.

Photogram“. Art Terms. Tate Gallery. n.d. Accessed 19 August 2021.

Allison, Alida & Hoban, Tana. 2000. “I” of the Beholder: An Interview with Tana Hoban. The Lion and the Unicorn. 24. 143-149.

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2016. Emanations. The art of the cameraless photograph. München: Prestel Verlag.