Books On Books Collection – Barbara Henry

Walt Whitman’s “Faces” (2012)

Walt Whitman’s “Faces”: A Typographic Reading (2012)
Barbara Henry
Case bound in boards in quarter-leather. H270 x W182 mm, 34 pages. Linocuts by Barbara Henry. Edition of 80, of which this is #69. Acquired from the artist, 11 April 2022.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission.

Although Whitman knew some of Victor Hugo’s work (in translation), it is unlikely that he knew of Hugo’s declaration “man in his entirety is in the alphabet … The alphabet is a source”. If he had, and if he had the French text as well, he would have appreciated that that last word in the original is font.

Man and his World in the Alphabet (1991)
Victor Hugo
Design and production by Kenneth Hardacre. Translation by Paul Standard for Hermann Zapf’s Manuale Typographicum (1954).
Photos of the work: Books On Books.

Working in a printing shop, Whitman could hardly overlook the metaphors on offer: the font or fount as source or mine, the typeface for the human face and vice versa. Barbara Henry has harvested from the Leaves of Grass the two short poems — “A Font of Type” and “Leaf of Faces” — that explore those metaphors. Bringing them together alongside an essay by Karen Karbiener (New York University) and one of her own, Henry embeds them in a well-crafted fine press book and embodies “Leaf of Faces” in its own set of typographic fireworks.

First though come the two essays. Karbiener’s sets the familiar biographical stage for Whitman and provides a sympathetic reading of Henry’s “typographic reading” to come. Henry’s is an earnest and plausible justification for her explication of the typographic references in each section of “Leaf of Faces”. Her essay closes with a paragraph explaining that many of the typefaces Whitman would have known are no longer available, that today’s measure of type size (the point) did not exist in Whitman’s day and that in homage she has mostly used 12 point Bulmer, a typeface from “the American Type Founders Company, a conglomerate of most of the type foundries formed in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death”. Also, she has set the type for “Leaf of Faces” by hand in a composing stick as Whitman would have done.

Then on the following pages comes a list of the names by which Whitman and his fellow print workers knew the various sizes of type. Without the list, the reader would miss the parenthetical allusions in “A Font of Type” — “nonpareil, brevier, bourgeois, long primer” — to what today are known as 6pt, 8pt, 9pt and 10pt type sizes. Whitman’s clever choice of names that have connotations beyond his extended metaphor possibly makes the lines comprehensible even without the finer points of the allusion. Or perhaps the reader still needs to be familiar with loose hot metal type and how the slivers of individual letters rest all sorted into their sections of a wooden typecase before they are mined or pulled from their latent slumbers to form words and expressions to be voiced.

Then, after this prefacing short poem, the fireworks begin with Henry’s orange and black linocut of Whitman’s face over the title of the second poem, underlined with green fleurons (like leaves of grass).

In the poem’s first double-page spread, Henry’s postcard-size digital photo of pedestrians and signs on Bleecker Street in 2012 not only illustrates lines of the facing poem, it echoes the postcard-size vintage photo by Marcus Ormsbee of Lower Hudson Street in 1865 used at the start of her essay. Her photo’s startling colors contrast with Ormsbee’s black and white and complement the bold colors and foundry typefaces that follow in her treatment of the poem. A true book artist, Henry is making these features in her book refer to what she is doing in the book — bringing her 21st century eye to eye with Whitman’s 19th century.

These are but three of the six spreads across which Henry transforms Whitman’s “Leaf of Faces” into her typographic spectacle. It and the whole of the book bring to life what Anne M. Royston calls “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”.

One last observation: Just as there is no evidence that Whitman knew Victor Hugo’s mystic reference to the alphabet as source, there is also no evidence that he knew the Sufi poets. But Ralph Waldo Emerson did know them. His Complete Works, Volume VIII, has a section entitled “Persian Poetry” and translates a key passage of Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (1177). As Karbinier notes in her essay, Whitman called Ralph Waldo Emerson the “Master”, so perhaps it is not so uncanny that “Leaf of Faces” includes a similar recognition of divinity at which the birds arrive when they finally meet the Simorgh, lord of all birds, whom they have been seeking, only to be told by the Simorgh:

It is yourselves you see and what you are.
(Who sees the Lord? It is himself each sees; …)

Or as Whitman more egotistically puts it:

And I shall look again in a score or two of ages,
And I shall meet the real landlord perfect and unharmed,
every inch as good as myself.

Further Reading

Behbehani, Farak K., and Farid ud-Din Attar. 2009. The Conference of the Birds: A Study of Farid ud-Din Attar’s Poem using Jali Diwani Calligraphy. London: Thames & Hudson. Uses the translation by Dick Davis from the 2005 Penguin edition, which is used above — not Emerson’s.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1903/1979. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: AMS Press.

Henry, Barbara. 1 March 2011. “Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaf of Faces’“. Book 2.0, Vol.1, No. 2, pp. 127-137.

Hugo, Victor, and Kenneth Hardacre. 1991. Man and his World in the Alphabet. Moreton-in-Marsh: Kit-Cat Press.

Royston, Anne M. 2019. Material Noise: Reading Theory as Artist’s Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bookmarking Book Art – “Darkness Visible”, Sam Winston’s performative installation

Sam Winston’s Darkness Visible at the Southbank Centre aims to give its “viewers”/participants a taste of what the artist has experienced during seven-day stretches of living and working in his studio plunged in total darkness. Despite the title being taken from one of the best of blind John Milton’s lines in Paradise Lost (“No light, but rather darkness visible Served only to discover sights of woe.”), Winston’s work has little to do with blindness and even less so with hell.

Come along and see.

IMG_1194
Entrance to the commissioned dark room on Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre

The weighted black curtain I pushed aside swept quickly closed behind me. I fumbled to find the parting in the second black curtain and, briefly switching on then off the flashlight provided by the attendant, found my place on a bench in darkness.  Two young women stifled nervous giggles as we waited for the first recorded poet to speak. It was surprising how time seems to stretch in the darkness.

IMG_1195
Second curtained entrance
IMG_1196
Interior of the commissioned dark room

It seemed a long time before my eyes’ biophotonic activity from staring and blinking settled down. Then my peripheral vision picked up a leak of light in the lower right hand corner of the booth. At first I felt an urge to turn toward the light, but then an urge to look up and to the left toward more profound darkness took over. I thought of holding up my hand in front of my face, but did not. I wanted to see the dark, not what I knew I couldn’t see. I wondered why my ears also seemed, at first, to want a silence as profound as the dark but then accepted almost any sound as part of the darkness.

George Szirtes began to speak his twelve strophes of plain lines, at least the ones that were not muffled seemed plain (“I have not talked about blindness./ I can’t see how I could”) and reminded me in the darkness of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (“It was evening all afternoon”). Then silence, broken by a train or trains crossing the Thames. Kayo Chingonyi, second to speak, intoned words of praise, again difficult to follow on this one-off hearing, which allowed another poem to intrude, W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” and its last line “And bowing not knowing to what”. Then silence, broken by an announcement from the nearby auditorium telling theatre-goers to return to their seats and an airliner passing. Emily Berry, the third poet, innovated with a snatch of the hymn “Jerusalem” and uhms and uhs to mimic her words groping in the dark against a “continuous hum” and finally stopped mid sentence, the overall effect being to evoke Denise Levertov’s “O taste and see“. Another silence, now broken by a child squealing (laughing or shrieking?) somewhere in the building, by more giggling until one then the other young woman parted the curtains to leave, breaking the darkness briefly.  My eyes “readjusted” to the dark — that is, accepted it and again looked into it without seeking light. I re-membered in it half the image I’d seen of the recently invented carbon nanotubes surface. If you wondered, as I did, how the artist managed

Untitled
Mask coated (and uncoated) with Vantablack S-VIS
SurreyNanoSystems

the unrelenting darkness for a week, he has written about it here and spoken of it here.

fullsizeoutput_6e3
Darkness Visible installation (2017)
Sam Winston
Text piece on walls and floor
Three months of transcribing sensations outside of sight. Starting with sounds and touch (wall) then moving into abstracted thoughts and emotion (floor)
fullsizeoutput_6ea
Detail of Darkness Visible (2017)
Sam Winston
fullsizeoutput_6e4
Darkness Visible (2017)
Sam Winston
Installation at Southbank Centre, London

Reading Closed Books (2018)
Sam Winston
Set of three artist books Acquired from the artist, 31 May 2019.

Being reminded of other poems in the darkness, I was also reminded of two other artists (Maloney and Beuys) who had locked themselves away in pursuit of creativity. So I wondered whether there was a some tradition of this and, on the train home, searched and found:

Martin Maloney’s Intervention (Five Days and Five Nights at the Galerie MTL) (1971);

Joseph Beuys and his overnight stay with a coyote in a locked room, resulting in America Likes Me and I Like America (1974);

Het Observatorium’s Dwelling for Seclusion — New York (1997), “a pavilion erected in the gardens of Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, New York City, [that] arose from the desire to place art at the service of an individual experience of quietness, seclusion and prolonged observation”;

Alan O’Cain’s Hunting Schiele (2012), drawings, writings and a web recording of their creation during the artist’s overnight stay, locked in the cell where Egon Schiele was imprisoned in Neulengenbach in 1912.

fullsizeoutput_6e7
Untitled/ 7 days blind (2016)
Sam Winston
Coloured Luminance pencils on Fabriano Artistico paper
Drawn in complete darkness over seven day & nights
(In this work, Winston restricted himself to red, green and blue pencils to mirror the red-green-blue sensitive cones of the eye.)
fullsizeoutput_6e8
Untitled/7 days blind (2015)
Sam Winston
Graphite crayon and pencil on Fabriano Artistico paper
Drawn in complete darkness over seven days & nights

In a way, Sam Winston is Walt Whitman-like — expansively absorbing this tradition and its future: like those of Maloney, Beuys and O’Cain, Winston’s “aktion” has yielded tangible works of his own in multiple forms; like Het Observatorium, Winston has created a participative space for its audience and invited creators. How will any artists ever close themselves off, invite others in, without taking account of Darkness Visible?

Yet, he is utterly unlike Whitman: in the non-egocentric generosity of Darkness Visible, rooted in a genius for sharing, evident in the planned immersive performance with photographer Andy Sewell, composer Jamie Perera and film-maker Anna Price  (with live readings by poets Emily Berry, Kayo Chingonyi and George Szirtes) scheduled for 11 January 2018 at the Whitechapel Gallery. Somehow Winston’s “darkness visible” is not an invitation to influence, just an invitation to creativity.

Where this generosity and genius come from is hard to say, but it seems hardly an accident that much book art and many artists’ books have been the fruit of collaborative effort.

Further Reading

Hargrave, Lindsay. “Alone in the dark”, Eye Magazine, 13 December 2017. Accessed 15 May 2020.