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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

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  • 15 Sep 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    “Set-up sheets are the sheets a printer uses to ‘set-up’ the press: to get inking, pressure, position, registration or other elements of the printing process coordinated. Many printers reuse these sheets several times, creating elaborate overprinting effects of random patterns which can be treated as ‘found art’ or poetry, cut up, bound, and made into a book. Dieter Roth used this approach in a number of works, and it is an idea which I have seen occur to many people who see the set-up sheets around a press.”

    When I first read the above endnote in Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books, I saw myself—the idea to use the set-up sheets had occurred to me as well. I have also seen it occur to others. As Drucker notes, the idea is a cliché. A similar cliché is used by the novice printer who declares that they “like” the textured, too-light printing of wood type or a linoleum block, when in reality they didn’t take the time to add more packing or ink. I always teach my students to print “correctly,” at least to start, but I also have to admit that even in the context of an educational environment that “correctness” feels disingenuous to me. I too “like”—or really I am absolutely fascinated by—those too-light, too-heavy, or accidental marks that the press/matrix creates along the way. Mistakes have potential. The set-up sheets themselves might not make for a particularly interesting book, but the processes, marks, and collisions that they contain are something that can be used intentionally.

    The idea that “bad printing” can be good/interesting is nothing new. The concept actually appears in a later endnote in that same chapter from Drucker’s book (endnote #14). The printer Amos P. Kennedy, Jr. has been advocating for “bad printing” for many years, and his work shows a mastery of the approach. Kennedy’s way of working is a major influence on my own—he improvises, he tests, he builds layers and layers of color, he paints and monoprints with brayers and ink knives, and he combines and recombines elements to play with repetition and difference. The primary lesson that I have learned from Kennedy’s work is that the consistency of the edition is not as important as the generative power of the multiple and the markmaking possibilities of the press. “Ink on paper,” as Kennedy often says.

    “Good” printing has a result that we already know. What I love about “dirty” or “bad” printing is that it can always be elaborated and worked into. The variations of bad printing that I am working with now are “emergent” and “dislegible” printing.

    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. The dislegible is the flicker or the blur, one thing becomes another, then another. The dislegible is (ideally) not a code to be broken or a puzzle to be solved, but a constant, recursive wandering in the process of reading. Dislegibility is an important tool in constructing emergent form.

    The emergent is something that is always in the process of being made—a state of being that is constantly in transition, or on the edge of exceeding its imagined boundaries. The emergent work of art resists a static state (as perceived by the viewer) through complexity, movement, lack of finish, unpredictability, failure, disintegration, the generation of noise as part of the system, etc. A classic example of emergent form is “analytic” Cubist painting. At no point do those paintings congeal into an image of the still life or person. They require constant movement of the eye and active—but futile—assembly by the viewer. The impossibility of that assembly is what keeps the paintings engaging. 

    For me, bad/emergent printing is an approach that has the chance material beauty of facture in drawing and painting, but that also uses the iterative nature of printing and the multiple to produce objects not possible in drawing and painting. An approach that purposefully loses control—that embraces noise, chance, failure, and difference through repetition.

    Work Cited

    Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004) 15, 17.


    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.


  • 01 Sep 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    Letterpress Printing students sharing their Small Beauties collage projects created with Visiting Artist Lindsay Schmittle of Gingerly Press

    The COVID-19 pandemic has created unforeseeable challenges, but out of the darkness opportunities have grown for expanded and deeper connections. In Spring 2020 colleges and universities across the world made the unexpected, but wise, choice to move to remote learning. With little to no warning, educators were faced with a difficult transition to the digital environment, particularly studio-based courses that rely on specialized equipment and value physical making processes. Feeling uncertain about how to shift my letterpress printing and design courses, I turned to the printing community as a source of strength and support. I organized virtual meetings for comradery and commiseration, and created a Remote Letterpress Drive to serve as a hub for collaboration. Educators are encouraged to contribute remote teaching materials, and to use, add, and edit content and resources for the benefit of all.  

    Since early March, people teaching all levels of design, studio art, printmaking, and book arts, as well as representatives from printing museums, libraries, and archives have gathered for conversation. Each session has had about five to twenty participants, and over 70 individuals have attended at least one Letterpress Edu Chat. The international community has continued to grow to an email list of 180 people. Over the summer, a team and I founded LEAD: Letterpress Educators of Art & Design and will continue to host Chats. Email info@letterpresseducators.com if you would like to participate—all are welcome.

    Chat sessions have been a time to discuss concerns, celebrate successes, and to offer support. Collective concern includes how to help students feel engaged and not have to rely on digital media while meeting learning outcomes from a distance. Educators discussed the need to provide empathy and flexibility and help students keep making and exercising creativity. The group shared ideas for finding parallel design processes without access to printing presses and type. Taking a digital approach, some faculty used Adobe software to simulate the printing process including the relationship of ink/color and composing with restraints of building a form with a limited type collection. David Wolske of University of North Texas, Globe at MICA, and others generously provided wood type scans, digital files, and typography references to the Shared Drive. Some faculty quickly put together supply kits of materials to DIY print and bind. Others encouraged the use of found materials and honored the role of the hand in the work through collage, stamping, and drawing letterforms. Facilitating collaboration at a distance and hosting virtual visiting printers was another important way educators helped remind students that we are all connected even when apart.


    Remote Supply Kit assembled by Beckloff for Letterpress Printing at Miami University for Spring 2020.

    Well before the Spring term had ended, discussion in the Letterpress Edu Chats turned to planning for the still uncertain 2020–21 school year. The Provisional Press created by Steve Garst arose as a significant solution for accessibility and adaptability for the continuity of letterpress education. Originally Steve developed the press as open source plans to be built inexpensively for anyone with little wood shop skills and access to a laser cutter. He hoped it would become a transitional press to enable students to continue to print once they no longer had access to studios. In the Provisional Press, the chat participants saw a solution to the need for remote and socially distanced face-to-face teaching. Steve collected feedback through a combination of the Chats and educators building the protypes and testing the presses. With the help of Scott Moore of Moore Wood Type, he adapted the design to fit a standard American galley or steel bed plate, increased the strength and durability, and produced 165 Provisional Press Kits for 21 schools. Other faculty are building over 100 of their own kits from the plans for the Fall term.

    In the Chats, we discussed focusing on the importance of proactive planning and collective support of our community to be prepared for our institutional changes and challenges; as well as taking time to reflect on why we teach letterpress printing and letting that inform our future goals. Now more than ever is the time to share resources and expertise, to find and create opportunities within our current situation, and to communicate the value of the letterpress experience for students and institutions. Helen Ingham, Letterpress Technician at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, reflected that we all seem to be faced with the same battles, “Often I’ve felt I was in isolation, but now know this is far from the case.”


    Character Prints Spring 2020
    Maya Fenter, digital letterpress elements: wood type and wood engraving
    Delaney Heisterkamp: tissue paper, digital typography
    Maggie Walkoff: digitized wood type, hand stamping 


    Erin Beckloff is a designer, educator, printer and filmmaker (Pressing On 2017) who preserves anecdotal and technical knowledge of printing history and culture with a focus on education and community. She serves as an Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Miami University and has an MFA in Graphic Design from Vermont College of Fine Arts. http://www.erinbeckloff.com/ | @ebecks

  • 15 Aug 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 1962, Poet and provocateur Ed Sanders purchased his first used, hand-operated mimeograph machine and Fuck You Press was born. Pre-digital office duplicators like the mimeograph, “Ditto” machine, and small offset presses freed Sanders and other 60’s radical artists and writers from the publishing industry’s constraints and led to the creation of the underground press. 

    Sanders was not the first to use cheap copying technology to transgress against the aesthetic mainstream. Earlier producers of what would later be labeled “Democratic Multiples” may have found inspiration in an unlikely source… science fiction (SF) fandom. These young, mostly blue-collar fans of far-fetched adventure stories utilized cheap copying technology and created an international network of amateur “fanzines” well before World War II.

    There is an oscillation between the tandem sine waves of the Avant-Garde and SF fandom throughout the 20th century. One can find many fascinating cultural commonalities in the development of both that beg for more in-depth scholarship. In the period between the world wars, artists’ publications and SF fanzines utilized a similar visual language to reflect on the debates surrounding socialism and fascism. The inclusion of non-white/hetero/male artists and the depiction of “others” in these genres is simultaneously far ahead of the mainstream and sometimes frustratingly puerile. Unfortunately, taking a deep-dive into these topics is beyond the scope of this blog post, but hopefully, it can provide a stepping-off point for further discussion. 

    During WWI, Dada artists began to use copying technology to produce handbills and pamphlets. Russian Futurists embraced the hectograph as an ideal way to print the crude, dynamic graphics that became a trademark of their publications. A few years later, in the US, young SF fans discovered self-publishing using the hectograph and mimeograph. Two parallel underground print cultures began to develop; on the one hand, avant-garde artists, revered by intellectuals and misunderstood by the masses, and on the other, “fandom,” the street-level popular movement that was reviled by the academy. The cultural thread that stretches from Dada through Futurism, Fluxus, Situationism, concrete poetry and artist books runs alongside the thread that connects science fiction fandom to punk rock graphics, Riot Grrrl zines and the “Maker” movement.

    1943 was a critical point on the literary front of the mimeograph revolution. It was when “William Everson … helped run the mimeograph machine to produce his own X War Elegies, among other small volumes” in the conscientious objectors’ camp at Waldport, Oregon. [1] After the war, Everson and other “beatniks” laid the groundwork for further development.

    During the 1960s, SF finally co-mingled with experimental poetry, avant-garde art, performance, and film. Shannon Davies Mancus describes it well in her essay “New Wave Science Fiction and the Counterculture”: [C]ounterculture figures such as Abby Hoffman and the Diggers in San Francisco and New Wave (SF) writers such as Judith Merril and J. G. Ballard looked to other artistic movements that had rejected canonical methodologies in search of new realities which might prove less violent than the 'real world. ' . . Merril, Pamela Zoline, and Giles Gordon sampled methodologies such as textual collaging: the surrealists believed that odd juxtapositions and rearrangements of symbols reveal more about the original subject of inquiry than the narratively unified whole, and that exploring the subconscious creates a kind of cognitive estrangement that allows for a break with old, violent forms of thinking and creates new realities.” [2]

    In the introduction to An Author Index to Little Magazines of the Mimeograph Revolution, 1958-1980, Michael Basinki wrote that: “The Mimeo Revolution did not instantaneously precipitate. Throughout the 1950s, there were little magazines publishing innovative poetry. They existed in the shadows of Eisenhower and McCarthyism. . . . The university system was expanding and was both inspirational and an easy target for those craving a frank poetic engagement. It was a heady time…. Their publishing was meant to be rebellious and, therefore, a romantic aura surrounds the Mimeo Revolution. Its legitimate parameters have yet to be fully established. Its full impact has yet to be considered. The context, materiality, and the history of the Mimeo Revolution await documentation. The stories of the editors, poets, and their mimeo magazines need to be written.” [3]

    Were the teenage cover artists of 1930s fanzines aware of Russian Futurist art books? Were any of the poets and artists of the 1960s mimeograph revolution directly involved in SF fandom in their youth? More research is needed. Nevertheless, we can clearly see that there is a shared zeitgeist at work, a common revolutionary aesthetic, and a love of “cheap copies.”

    [1] Clay, Steven, and Rodney Phillips. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: a Sourcebook of Information. New York: Granary Books, 1998.

    [2] Mancus, Shannon Davies. “New Wave Science Fiction and the Counterculture.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, 338–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 

    [3] Harter, Christopher. An Author Index to Little Magazines of the Mimeograph Revolution: 1958-1980. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.


    Rich Dana is master’s candidate in the University of Iowa MLIS/Book Arts MFA program. He is a Robert A. Olson Graduate Assistant at UI Special Collections working with the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry and is the former Curatorial Assistant to the Hevelin Science Fiction Collection. 

     



  • 01 Aug 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In critical writing about book art, sculptural books tend to surface in introductions and footnotes. For example, in the introduction to The Century of Artists’ Books, Drucker argues that the book as sculpture or installation is “just beyond the zone of artists’ books. I am concentrating here on understanding what a book is when it functions as a book, when it provides a reading or viewing experience sequenced into finite space of text or images.” [1] In a footnote to Bookworks Revisited, Ulises Carrión emphasizes that “I do want to underline the idea of “series of pages” in order to exclude so-called “object books.” These works express a sculptural approach and should be treated as such.” [2] In his analysis of the bookwork Space + Time, Tate Shaw argues that while “each physical opening of such a book is perhaps equal in space . . . books are a time-based art form.” [3] 

    None of the authors above would claim that space is unimportant to bookworks. However, their critical writing about artist bookwork rests on the assumption that time is perhaps more key – in particular, the linear sense of time that sequencing creates. This isn’t surprising – in fact, it aligns with what the geographer Edward Soja identified as “a persistent epistemological bias” across disciplines, “favoring time over space.” [4] Why does this bias often go unexamined in our best critical writing about artist bookwork? Of all fields, book art should be the first to insist that space is as essential to reading as linear time. 

    Unfortunately, developing a more robust critical framework for writing about sculptural books is a larger project than one blog post. In the meantime, this post proposes we borrow critical writing about concrete poetry to frame discourse about sculptural books. Exemplifying a critical approach that avoids what Soja calls an ‘anti-spatial bias,’ at least two such manifestos – Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry and Dom Sylvester’s Houédard Concrete Poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay – articulate space as the text’s “structural agent,” rather than linear time. [5] Although ‘space’ in concrete poetry manifestos often refers to the two-dimensional space of the page, to instead work toward a theory of ‘concrete books,’ we might investigate how three-dimensional volumetric space can structure a book-object as a whole.

    The first work I’ll analyze using concrete poetry manifestos is Buzz Spector’s piece Unpacking My Library. The piece is an “installation where he [Spector] lines up his library around the perimeter of a space with the spines organized tallest to shortest.” [6] If a concrete poem is “not a poem about something or other” [7] but rather an object in itself, [8] Unpacking My Library is not an essay of the same title about unpacking one’s library – it is simply the unpacked library itself. Foregrounding books as concrete volumes, rather than representing them with text, is most of what turns Spector’s piece into a clever comment on that essay. Thus, in Unpacking My Library, volume structures what is communicated–much the same way the space of the page structures what is communicated in a concrete poem. Additionally, Unpacking My Library offers a reading experience of curated, found text fragments in the language visible on book spines. In organizing its text fragments by volume alone, Unpacking My Library, like a concrete poem, issues “no orders to reader who has to provide his own mind-gum syntax. Readers not bossed.” [9] 

    An example of an editioned ‘concrete book’ might be the board book ABSENCE by the architect Jeannie Yoon. Like a concrete poem, the book creates a precise problem [10] (how to make “a portable personal memorial?”) [11], but instead of solving the problem “in terms of sensible language,”  it solves the problem in terms of sensible volume: the number of pages in ABSENCE was determined by the number of floors in the world trade center. A scale model of grief, ABSENCE is about as expressive as a blank book can be. Lacking any language besides its title, the book takes “total responsibility before language” [12] to an extreme, creating a site where “poet & reader meet in maximum communication with minimum words.” [13]

    One of the benefits of framing the sculptural book as a ‘concrete’ mode is an understanding of volume’s potential for adding meaning to any publishing project. For example, volume can be a literary reference: consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (“I ended up making it the exact same size and bulk of the paperbound Harvard edition of The Arcades Project”) [14] or THE SADDEST THING IS THAT I HAVE HAD TO USE WORDS: A Madeline Gins Reader, which mimics the dimensions of Gins’ artist book, WORD RAIN.  

    Furthermore, an ordinary experience of books is often a concrete one: look no further than the post office or the library. The USPS Domestic Mail Manual defines ‘book’ almost exclusively in terms of weight and volume. Likewise, library stacks are an experience of books as mass, volume, and specific location. Perhaps sculptural books harbor a unique potential to make “a critical comment, implicit or explicit, on books in general”– what Ulises Carrión claimed that “every real, good artist’s book” must do. [15] 

    ----------

    Working definition: a ‘concrete book’ is a book, bookwork, book-object, or sculptural book that uses location, weight, or volume structurally. 

    ---------

    [1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary, 2004), 14.

    [2] Ulises Carrión, “Bookworks Revisited,” in Quant aux livres: On Books, ed. Juan J. Agius (Geneva: Éditions Héros-Limite, 1997), 156.

    [3] Tate Shaw, Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books (Victoria, TX: Cuneiform Press, 2016), 19.

    [4] Edward Soja, “Author’s Response: Writing Geography Differently,” Progress in Human Geography 30, no. 6 (2006), 818. 

    [5] Both manifestos use the exact same phrasing. 

    [6] Shaw, Blurred Library, 64. 

    [7] Eugen Gomringer, “From Line to Constellation,” trans. Mike Weaver, in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 67.

    [8] Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos, “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry,” trans. the authors, in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 72. 

    [9] Dom Sylvester Houédard, “Concrete poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay” in Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, ed. Nicola Simpson ([England]: Occasional Papers, 2012), 159. 

    [10] de Campos, Pignatari, and de Campos, “Pilot Plan,” 72. 

    [11] “Jeannie Meejin Yoon: Absence” Printed Matter Catalog, Printed Matter, Inc., accessed July 30, 2020, www.printedmatter.org/catalog/16965/. 

    [12] de Campos, Pignatari, and de Campos, “Pilot Plan,” 72. 

    [13] Houédard, “Concrete poetry,” 159. 

    [14] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 119.

    [15] Ulises Carrión, “On Criticism,” in Quant aux livres: On Books, ed. Juan J. Agius (Geneva: Éditions Héros-Limite, 1997), 178. 


    India Johnson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. 





  • 15 Jul 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    “What happens when the book is stripped away of centuries of preconceptions and is allowed to reveal something else: playfulness, utility, invention? Expanding the notion of the book is what the structures in [The Art of the Fold] attempt to do. . .  . [T]he book as a structural object is celebrated while content is considered in a new and unconventional way"  (Hedi Kyle, Preface, The Art of the Fold).

    As a long time fan of Hedi Kyle’s folded book structures, I was thrilled when The Art of the Fold, How to Make Innovative Books and Paper Structures by Hedi Kyle and Ulla Warchol was published. Hedi Kyle was born in Berlin, graduated from the Werk-Kunst-Schule in Wiesbaden, Germany with a degree in graphic design, and shortly thereafter emigrated to the United States. The 1970s in New York City were an amazing time of revival and experimentation. In The Art of the Fold’s preface Hedi recalls teaching at the Center for Book Art, where under the direction of founder Richard Minsky the mission was “to push concept, materials, printing and making of artist books in a new direction.” Bridging her training in traditional binding and conservation with innovation, Hedi shaped, folded, manipulated and formed paper, creating new structures. Throughout her 45-year career as Head Conservator at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and as a professor in the MFA Program for Book Arts and Printmaking at the University of the Arts, Hedi has taught and mentored a generation of conservators and book artists. As a pioneer, an inventor, and a generous teacher Hedi has revolutionized the field of books arts.


    As a designer I am captivated by the-angle-cut-and-folded, belly-band book jacket with its red text ‘FOLD’ on a powder blue ground, folded over the black on tan text ‘The ART of the FOLD.’ This design element on the book itself demonstrates Hedi’s interest in creative folding that reveals content. In her preface she says, “Expanding the notion of the book . . . [e]xploring its tactile, sculptural form, primarily through folding methods, the book as a structural object is celebrated while content is considered in a new and unconventional way.” At a workshop I took from Hedi, she emphasized that the structure exists to support the art and content of the book. With innovative structures content is possible that would not otherwise be conceivable.

    Ulla Warchol, Hedi’s daughter, graduated from the Cooper Union in New York City with a degree in architecture; befittingly she is interested in a multidisciplinary approach to structure, from large scale works—buildings and interiors—to small scale works—books, fabrications and collaborations with artists. Mother and daughter team tell how they created their ground breaking book on folding-based book structures by “going back through 40 years of archives of Hedi’s structures, taking models apart, hundreds of hours of folding, fine tuning proportions and dimensions, and then drawing, first by hand and then in Adobe Illustrator” (artofthefold on Instagram). The result is an admirably clear and inspiring book of unique designs from flag books to blizzards and fishbones to nesting boxes. 


    Top: Hedi Kyle, Maze, hand drawings, facsimiles of mazes; Mica Flags, Mica Sheets.

    Bottom: Ulla Warchol, The Memory Palace, collaborative installation; Stationery Departures, collaboration with Hedi Kyle. Images courtesy of Hedi Kyle and Ulla Warchol. 

    In her preface, Hedi talks about the beginning of her structures, “I can still remember the thrill I experienced when my first folded book structure emerged from my fingers—how eager I was to explore its possibilities and to share it with whoever was interested. The Flag book . . . I now call it. . . . Little did I know that this simple structure would have legs and be the catalyst for the next forty-plus years of thinking about and making books.” The Flag Book, created by Kyle in 1979, is referred to by the Guild of Book Workers as “the single most influential structure in the world of contemporary bookmaking.” 

    Shortly after the publication of The Art of the Fold, Alicia Bailey created an international exhibition of artists’ bookworks utilizing structures found in the publication. Many artists created works just for exhibition—I know I did. The well-managed exhibition was shown at multiple venues in the Denver metro area; an online catalog was produced and fully a third of the artists’ bookworks were sold. Alicia Bailey is an artist, publisher with 60 titles under the imprint of Ravenpress, and a gallerist, dealer, and curator for Abecedarian Artists’ Books. Germane to her keen interest in creating The Art of the Fold exhibition, Alicia defines “artists' books as unique, interactive, sculptures realized in the form of the book.” 


    Top: Alicia Bailey, Anguine, Slotted Zig Zag; R. D. Burton, Verdigris, Panorama.

    Bottom: Connie Stricks, Labyrinth, Fishbone Fold; Kathy T. Hettinga, DISPLACEMENT, One-Sheet, Eight-Section Offset Cut. Images courtesy of Alicia Bailey/Abecedarian.

    Briefly, I will describe how the Hedi Kyle structure—One-Sheet, Eight-Section Offset Cut—inspired my work for DISPLACEMENT, which received an award at Intersections: Book Arts as Convergence, CBAA Member’s Juried Exhibition, NOLA. The book is about removal from the normal location or position, and shows bleak mid-winter trees with farmhouses perched precariously near highways and dense woods in PA, overtaken by high-voltage lines, power plants and pipelines. The offset cuts, reminiscent of an Advent calendar, conceal and reveal, small creatures and environmental hazards hidden within: an endangered/deceased brilliant, orange-headed, female Western oriole, the Three Mile Island towers, and the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline cutting between suburban homes. Yet, the branches of sycamores create white lines out of the dense woods—tiny pathways of hope in a bleak time.

    For information on how each artist used their selected structure to support, reveal, and expand their content in new and unconventional ways please visit the Art of the Fold exhibition on the Abecedarian Artists’ Books website. 


    KT Hettinga is an award-winning artist in design, artist’s books, digital images/prints, and photography. Twice awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, she designs for non-profits. Her books are in collections from NMWA to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.


  • 01 Jul 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    During this extended time of ‘sheltering in place’ I have been re-examining artists’ books in my collection. Johanna Drucker’s The Word Made Flesh is a marvel of type play, like an enigmatic, poetic crossword puzzle. I have the facsimile reprint of the original letterpress edition. The inherent quality of the large wood letters and metal type were kept in the offset version, printed on a Heidelberg GTO in 1996. Johanna hand printed the book jacket from polymer letterpress plates at Druckwerk in New Haven; and it was published by Granary Books. She believed the second cover was more sympathetic to the aesthetic tone of the interior pages. Each letter of the title The Word Made Flesh is featured per page, five-inches high in a field of small red type. The background text quotes sacred and secular passages at once both literal and allusive. The spaced, red lettered ground is difficult to read, forcing me to read the way my mother reads—one letter at a time, due to macular degeneration. Indeed, Drucker states, “The typographic format of the Word Made Flesh was meant to trip the eye, return one constantly to the plane of discourse, of material production” (Artists' Books Online). 

    During my fellowship at Yale, Johanna told me that she was influenced by the 8th century monk, Hrabanus Maurus. His illuminated manuscripts have fields of evenly spaced text from which emerge sacred figures. The format of her book, “invokes a reference to the carmina figurata of the Renaissance—works in which a sacred image was picked out in red letters against a field of black type so that a holy figure could be seen and meditated on in the process of reading” (cover notes). Drucker made the book “out of a complete love of letters…. [an] absolute celebration of the beauty and expressive capability of type” (Artists’ Books Online). The large black letters arranged like figures on a red ground announce their materiality—visceral, earthy, and emotive embodying tongue, breath, and flesh. Language becomes matter/material/image. 


    Johanna Drucker, The Word Made Flesh, letterpress cover with offset interior page.


    Hrabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sanctae crucis, manuscript, 11thc. for the abbey of Saint-Denis, held by Bibliothèque nationale de France.

    Her title The Word Made Flesh, points to the first century Biblical book, The Gospel According to John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, …, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Incarnation Theology is the doctrine that Jesus Christ assumed human form and is completely both God and man. Reinforcing the religious overtone, Drucker states that text and materiality, “the two are intimately bound, in the incarnate word” shown in her artist’s book and that “the black texts are meant to "figure" against the red ground, as the images of Christ, a cross, or other devotional images are called out in carmina figurata” (Artists’ Books Online, editions). 

    De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the only poetic work of the prolific scholar Hrabanus Maurus (780-856), one of the greatest teachers of the Carolingian period. As abbot, the Benedictine monastery of Fulda housed around 600 monks and became a preeminent center of scholarship and book production. Maurus’ De Laudibus is comprised of thirty figured poems that draw on the ancient tradition of Greek pattern poetry that we looked at in the last blog. The elaborate work embodies and celebrates the cross with verse forming the grid of letters from which emerges new words, phrases, shapes and figures. Geometric shapes, circles, triangles, squares and more figure prominently in the series often in a cruciform pattern. Composed around 810, the manuscript exists in several exquisite copies: one thought to have been done under the direction of Maurus himself for the abbey of Saint-Denis in France, which is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France seen at the Public Domain Review. Another notable version held by the Vatican features many pages in deep purples with lighter type. And a strikingly brighter, Christ figure lined in black text emerges from a golden field of red letters. The British Library’s 12th-century copy features decorative borders with pristine spaced black lettering (www.publicdomainreview.org).


    Left: Hrabanus Maurus, Four red crosses from De Laudibus, 10thc., British Library.

    Right: Robbin Ami Silverberg, Memorial, eggshell fragment cross, printed by Beles, 1998.


    Robbin Ami Silverberg, Memorial, eggshells, needle threader, handmade papers.

    Maurus’ thirteenth figural poem, bordered by foliate roundels, depicts four red crosses arranged in a cross pattern. The intricate texture of white lettering in the equal-armed Greek cross, also known as the square cross or peaceful cross reminded me of another book in my collection, Robbin Ami Silverberg’s Memorial. The book is a deep lament in grays and reds formed from alternating small squares nested in larger squares of deckled handmade papers. An exquisite square cross is formed by broken eggshells, followed in sequence by two squares of brown eggshells. Some pages have eggshell fragments, some painstakingly stippled with black ink. Dark halftone dot textures from photographic images are printed on paper and on film. The colophon states that the book was printed by Beles, Mor Art Residency, Hungary. One graffiti fragment forbodes, “the living are the dead on vacation.” The dark pacing and intricate textures build layer upon layer to create a profound remembrance, similar in this way to the carmina figurata of Hrabanus Maurus. Robbin Ami Silverbergis known for her artist books on anamnesis, the opposite of forgetting. Her thirty-year retrospective at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn Campus show the “two major lines she is following… in her abstract yet poetic work, intersecting time and again within it: the facets of remembering and forgetting, memorial and loss” (Susan Padberg, catalog essay for Read Me, Like a Book). 2020 is the 30th anniversary of Robbin Ami Silverberg, artist and founding director of Dobbin Mill, a hand-papermaking studio, and Dobbin Books, a collaborative artist book studio. View the thoughtful site-specific virtual online tour at Read Me. Like a Book, 30 years of Dobbin Books.


    KT Hettinga is an award-winning artist in design, artist’s books, digital images/prints, and photography. Twice awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, she designs for non-profits. Her books are in collections from NMWA to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.




  • 15 Jun 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Words that form tornados and wings, this is what I have been drawn to and have discovered in my looking and reading. During these last months of sheltering in place, I am recalling a prior time. [Are we sheltering from a tornado? Once here is south central Pennsylvania, my neighbor and her then young daughter came over from their mobile home to shelter in my old farmhouse basement. Over thirty years, we have had warnings and watches, but never actually seen or experienced one. This is the experience of many of us now. We have been sheltering in place, but have not seen or experienced the COVID-19, except through the media.] As a woman who came of age in the 1970s in rural Colorado, this sheltering in place has put me back in touch with a simpler, more focused time, where the days are yours for—being and thinking.

    In working on a new book series and thinking about structure, I pulled out from my collection Saturday Nights in Marietta, published by Minnesota Center for Book Arts in 1999. The collection of fifteen poems by Robert Bly provides the conceptual basis for the collaborative visual interpretation by fifteen book artists and printmakers. What caught my eye and my imagination is the red tornado of words, like a red tumbleweed from the desert southwest, created by Steve Miller. His artist statement says, “The first time I read Bly’s poem, Singing Late at Night at Chuck and Phil’s Farm, I saw a thunderous tornado sweeping across the fields, and poem lines swirling from it. No matter how hard I tried to rid myself of the image, it stayed. And so I made the reduction linocut with words swirled in photopolymer types around it. The words all come from several of Bly’s poems in his book Iron John, and one of his translations of Kabir [and of Rilke] in the same book. What I saw in Singing Late at Night… unleashed a riff of Bly words for me.” 


    Steve Miller, reduction linocut with photopolymer type for Robert Bly’s, “Singing Late at Night at Chuck and Phil’s Farm.” 

    The tornado formed with type recall the English pattern poet and Anglican priest, George Herbert’s shaped poem, “Easter Wings.” Interestingly, the shape of Miller's words also evokes wings to me. Herbert was influenced by the Renaissance revival of pattern poems, dating back to the Hellenistic era of the 3rd and 2nd BCE preserved in Greek Anthology texts. The content expressed by shape in “The Axe” and “The Wings” by the Greek poet Simias of Rhodes deeply informed Herbert’s work. 


    George Herbert, “Easter Wings,” published in The Temple, 1633.

    In Herbert’s set of “Easter Wings,” the lines mimic each other in meaning across the pair of wings. The visual shape recalls angels. The text reveals fallen man who then rises, like Christ on Easter. Herbert exclaims, “O let me rise, As larks, harmoniously, And sing ….” The shape mimics the poem’s sense, and though self-contained opens inner possibilities. Likewise, the allusive Greek poem “The Wings,” describes the winged god of love’s coming to be, by “gentle-persuasion,” “a judge among gods” of “Earth, deep Sea, and brazen Heaven” (translation by J.M. Edmonds, Greek Pattern Poems). Whether the resulting visual poem is termed pattern, material, or concrete poetry—the desire to expand meaning is both old and new, and yet, culturally and aesthetically specific to its many situations.


    Simias of Rhodes, “The Axe” and “The Wing,” about 300 BCE. (In “The Axe,” the lines are read alternating from the top to the bottom, working to the middle, following the numbered lines.)

    In “Singing Late at Night,” Steve Miller creates a tornado in red words, with the line: “No matter how deeply I go down into myself my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots, that drink in….” The tornado of words rises like wings—creating a place of emptiness where lament and hope meet. Fittingly, Robert Bly’s poem ends with, “We sing ‘Red Wing’ and ‘If I Had the Wings of an Angel.’” Nowhere does the poem mention a tornado. Maybe it is the green corn smoldering in the hazy summer heat. Maybe it is the irrepressible singing late into the night with friends gathered under dark skies.

    Robert Bly’s poem “Singing Late at Night at Chuck and Phil’s Farm”:

    “While the green corn smolders in hazy summer,

    We stay up singing by tables under trees.

    Is this the way it should be?

    What should we be doing?

    There must be something!

    And the one I love is lost among thieves!

    Half the night around the table at Chuck’s farm,

    We sing “Red Wing” and “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.”


    Detail, Steve Miller, for Robert Bly’s, “Singing Late at Night.”

    I was struck by Robert Bly’s questions: “Is this the way it should be? What should we be doing? There must be something!” These seem like apt questions for us now. 

    The discussion of shaped text continues in the next post: Shapes of Words/Eggshells in Fields of Type.


    KT Hettinga is an award-winning artist in design, artist’s books, digital images/prints, and photography. Twice awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, she designs for non-profits. Her books are in collections from NMWA to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.


     


  • 01 Jun 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 1912, after surviving the sinking of the Titanic, Gertrude Jean Hippach was quoted as saying, “Yes, it was terrible, but it still seems like a dream to me.” 

    For artists, who traffic in dreams and the collective imagination, disaster rarely comes as a surprise, simply because suffering is ever present, even if occurring in some otherplace or othertime. This is not to say that this is a comfortable or even conscious process, especially when the othertime is the future. In my own work I have often had the experience of being drawn to subject matter that I couldn’t explain, which later emerged in the world. My project Titanic, for example, an altered edition of the Wall Street Journal, which explored the relationship between disaster and denial, was completed in 2004, just three years before the collapse of the sub-prime market, another ship considered “too big to sink.” 

    Often the role of artists is to “see” what others refuse to. In Eric Drooker’s 1992 novel-in-pictures Flood, the artist envisioned—through graphic black and white images—a Manhattan of the future sunk by deluge-like rains. The power of Drooker’s work lay not in his ability to predict rising sea levels—that work had already been done—but to depict it in a way that IPCC reports couldn’t.


    Flood, Eric Drooker, image courtesy of the artist

    For many artists, seeing means looking to the past and wielding knowledge / information as a weapon. In Sharon Gilbert’s Nuclear Atlas, the pages are dizzying, a visual pile-up of facts, figures, and news clippings relating to nuclear disasters. On one spread, Gilbert makes use of a map of the United States to chart accidents that occurred or could occur across the country. The resulting assemblage is overwhelming, too much to take in, a terrifying cartography of danger. It is telling to note that Gilbert’s book was published in 1982, just four years before the meltdown at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 


    Nuclear Atlas, Sharon Gilbert, image courtesy of Women’s Studio Workshop

    Using a similar strategy toward more conceptual ends, Miranda Maher funnels rage into data, listing every war and armed conflict that she could find “After Reasonable Research.”  The text describing these events is printed in type that—by necessity, owing to the super-abundance of information—is miniscule, barely legible. A series of floral elements is surprinted over the text, drawing the reader’s attention away. The artist’s research recedes, appears to be yet another pattern, and perhaps it is: the dark backdrop of violence that we all live with.


    After Reasonable Research, Miranda Maher, image courtesy of the artist

    Frances Jetter’s Cry Uncle is a protest of a different sort. The disaster she was responding to—the tortures at Abu Ghraib—was already a national sensation, the photographs circulated by the media understood to be horrific, pornographic in their sadism. Jetter’s hand-engraved images are equally painful to look at, but they approach the event from the opposite direction, through the inner life of the tortured. Her accompanying text is spare, almost prayer-like in the face of such unspeakable acts. By bearing witness and reaffirming the humanity of her subjects, Jetter plays the role of magician, restoring order to a broken world.

     


    Cry Uncle, Frances Jetter, images courtesty of the artist

    For many of us in this era of cyberdivide, disaster is only real when we are the ones in danger. Several times during the COVID crisis, I have heard references to “the last time there was a pandemic this terrible”—only to learn that the allusion was to 1918, not the AIDS pandemic. (I can’t help wondering how things might have been different if AIDS had been met with the kind of action and resources that COVID-19 has.) 

    Within marginalized communities, which are often abandoned during crises, artists take on unusual roles, becoming activists, educators, spokespeople, leaders. In 1996, Eric Rhein began his project Leaves, a communal tribute to friends and lovers who lost their lives due to the AIDS virus. To quote Rhein: “One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen was gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers that they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes.” The project, which has grown to encompass over 300 “portraits,” is both monumental and heartbreakingly intimate. By honoring the dead and celebrating the beauty of their lives, Rhein took on the role of healer, helping his community—and the world—grow whole again. 


    Life Altering Spencer (Spencer Cox), Eric Rhein, courtesy of the artist


    Maureen Cummins has produced over 40 limited edition artist books on topics as diverse as slave narratives, the Salem witch trials, turn of the century gay love letters, and patient records from McLean Hospital, the oldest mental hospital in the United States. The artist currently lives in upstate New York.



  • 15 May 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    An interdisciplinary mindset is arguably necessary in the art world today. As either a cause or a consequence of this, an increasing number of programs in academia are encouraging cross-pollination, particularly within the arts, but also across adjacent fields of study. Even when programs are less interdisciplinary, a greater number of students seem to be finding value in expanding their abilities by taking more diverse electives on their own. The job market has had a dramatic impact on this shift as well, as more jobs in all career paths are requiring employees to perform a wider variety of tasks.

    I find this migration toward an interdisciplinary mindset extremely exciting for book art in particular because books are such perfect conduits for other mediums. By expanding the assumptions of how an artist book is produced and what an artist book is, we can make room for processes and materials to become additional avenues of meaning within the works.

    While there are many examples of this being done with all mediums, I have a particular interest in cases where paper becomes a conceptual support for the artist book. Paper feels a little taken for granted in artist books. While it is a consideration when producing a project, the reasons for choosing a paper type are almost always based around the printing or binding structure of the book. This is a valid and excellent way of deciding what paper to use, but I find myself more excited when I see artist books that pass a paper version of the Bechdel test: the paper brings its own value to the book other than being a carrier for the printing.

    William Kentridge. Sheets of Evidence, 2009.

    One of the more universally recognized ways paper is used to enhance the experience of artist books is by incorporating papermaking techniques in the image making process. Dieu Donné is a non-profit that focuses on creating fine art works using hand papermaking techniques. Over their 40+ years, they have produced many incredible artist book editions that bridge the worlds of papermaking and book art. William Kentridge’s work titled Sheets of Evidence looks like a blank book until the viewer flips the page and the light reveals the watermarked drawings hidden within the sheets. In this way, the papermaking process itself has acted as the conceptual lens to view the artwork through.


    Sue Carrie Drummond. A Darning Stitch, 2017.

    Women’s Studio Workshop is another notable source for beautiful works intersecting papermaking and book art. The best example that comes to mind being Sue Carrie Drummond’s book A Darning Stitch. In this book, the use of the blow-out technique allows the viewer’s sense of touch to inform the way they are thinking about the work conceptually. The abaca begins to feel like skin, especially where it is only revealed surrounded by cotton.


    Robbin Ami Silverberg. Haiku de Nuit, 2015. Image by Dorka Hubner.

    Robbin Ami Silverberg’s book titled Haiku de Nuit is one of my favorite examples of handmade paper heightening one’s experience through paper alone. The book includes a poem by Carole Naggar about her mother; while the poem sets the stage for the work, the paper itself gives incredible weight to the piece—the inclusion of hair within some pages and the removal of fibers from others creates the feeling of absence mirroring the poem.


    Kyle Holland. Hunted, 2018.

    Paper fibers can provide such a unique quality to all senses when interacting with artist books, giving even more support to the case for heightened consideration. Kyle Holland’s work often has hidden layers of meaning within the materials and processes used and his artist book Hunted is no exception. The cotton blow-outs are couched onto abaca paper and as the viewer turns the pages, the sound of the abaca becomes the rustling of leaves in the forest.


    Cynthia Nourse Thompson. Grievous Injuries, 2010.

    Added meaning can come through in the materiality of the works as well. The paper in Cynthia Nourse Thompson’s girdle book titled Grievous Injuries is made from unblessed purificators and corporals. While the importance of the fiber is not obvious from just looking at the artist book, the piece is still imbued with the history and significance of the material while acting as a kind of Easter egg for the viewers that spend the time reading about how the book was made.


    Beth Sheehan is an artist living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work investigates memory and perception to explore her lack of episodic memory. Sheehan’s work has been exhibited internationally and is held in 37 public collections. She has worked as a professional printer and bookbinder and currently workshops around the country.



  • 01 May 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Memes are often fun, funny and lighthearted, but they can also be insightful critiques of their subjects. They’ve become omnipresent, particularly in our digital lives and are affecting much of our society, even changing socio-linguistics and communication IRL. Meme-culture is so influential, it is being exploited in marketing campaigns for many major corporations.

    As memes permeated mainstream culture, the expansion of niche memes followed immediately. Rule 34 has a brother and it is: if it exists, there’s a meme about it. While book-art-focused memes are fairly new, general art memes have been around for a while, exemplified by the use of classical art history works as the basis for some of the earliest meme formats.

    This Last Supper parody is one of the earliest examples.

    The meme format that I feel paved the way for art memes AND for memes as art criticism is another early one known as Art School Owl.


    The image on the left  is the original Art School Owl, created by Kendra in 2011 while the image on the right is a slightly later reiteration of the meme format.

    Art School Owl gained popularity because of its relatability as well as a way to jokingly critique major topics in the art world, including the lack of non-toxic materials or even what should be considered art.

    Since the late 2000s, social media meme accounts have grown exponentially but the book art world has been slower to pick up on the trend. In 2016 @greasylithomemes started the first* Instagram account solely focused on printmaking memes with occasional posts about book art, papermaking, and general art topics. The account has since grown in popularity among the print community with the current number of followers being at 3,876—no small feat for such a niche interest.

     

    This is one of the post popular  recent posts from @greasylithomemes.

    Even with the blessing of @greasylithomemes supplying us with such excellent print-meme content, they were the only account focusing on the disciplines of printmaking, papermaking, and book art until last year. In February of 2019 @bookbitchmemes popped up as the first* book art-focused Instagram meme account followed closely by a flood of printmaking-, papermaking-, and/or book art-focused meme accounts including, @pvahands in April, @silk.memes.dude in May, @smallcupwilson in June, @mediumrelief in July, @fineartstudent in August, and @shit_print_posting in February of this year.

                        

    The image on the left is an original post from @bookbitchmemes exemplifying the feeling of being an insider that comes with understanding niche memes. The image on the right is an example of a post by @pvahands that offers insider information to the reader while poking fun at the specificity of the knowledge.

    Memes are an expression of people’s feelings toward topics and this influx of print/paper/book meme accounts mirrors the resurgent interest in those mediums within the art world and academia. They can also act as a window into the print/paper/book community, thereby expanding its audience. Being mostly short text or image formats, memes are easy to consume and often easy to relate to which in turn encourages the reader to feel like an insider, building loyalty to the community. 


    Reposting another creator’s post that relates to your own audience can be a great way to build relationships and encourage cross-pollination of viewers. Here @metalsmithmemes has reposted and credited @bookbitchmemes for their post.

    Additionally, there is an expectation that reposting and cross-posting will occur with memes because of their role in online culture. While this can be seen as a negative thing when credit is not given, it becomes a tool to foster relationships and build a more diverse network when done conscientiously.


    On the left, @bookbitchmemes addresses the potential challenges that artistic disciplines face when having to transition to distance learning. On the right, @pvahands draws attention to the elitist nature of bookbinders and book artists when it comes to materials while also reminding us how few bookbinding tutorials are available that use professional materials and tools.

    By presenting criticism of a flawed system in the format of succinct, funny text and images, memes can be an avenue to open discussions about ways to improve that system. They also provide insight into widely-held opinions of the larger book/print community. If a new bookbinder sees a popular post that expresses disgust regarding perfect binding, for example, they are likely to choose a different book structure for their next project.

    This sweet spot of humor and critique is a powerful tool but there’s a thin line—because of the nature of memes, they can also dismiss any nuanced discussions and act as justification for gate-keeping. Additionally, social media platforms do not encourage respectful debates and the character limits of comment sections make it almost impossible to present a well-rounded viewpoint. 

     

    On the left is a post from @fineartstudent of a meme that was anonymously submitted to them. The post received a lot of attention and was reposted with credit by @bookbitchmemes. While the comment section in the original post was fairly tame, the image on the right is a screenshot from the comments section of the repost where much more heated conversations occurred.

    On the whole, I think memes are fantastic, funny tools for encouraging a sense of community while occasionally providing light critique, but I also wonder how we can use them to expand and deepen conversations to better our communities?

    *Because there is no organized archive or database for this kind of digital information, the assertion that these accounts were the first of their kind is based on my own research.


    Beth Sheehan is an artist living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work investigates memory and perception to explore her lack of episodic memory. Sheehan’s work has been exhibited internationally and is held in 37 public collections. She has worked as a professional printer and bookbinder and currently workshops around the country.


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