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Trusky, Tom. "Ex Libris." Afterimage (July/ August 1997): 19.
In "Metaphor and Form," the last chapter of The Century of Artists' Books, Johanna Drucker recalls a scene in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847). The narrator, Mr. Lockwood, has discovered a jumble of books once belonging to Heathcliff's beloved Catherine Earnshaw and is surprised to discover Catherine made use of even unread volumes. Of Catherine's books, Bronte writes and Drucker quotes: "scarcely one chapter had escaped a pen and ink commentary —at least the appearance of one—covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left. Some were detached sentences; other parts took the form of a regular diary."
Not only does Bronte's story illustrate that the book, as Drucker phrases it, "has the potential to provide a private space for communication across vast spaces of time and geography," but it also illustrates how books engender, encourage and inspire—much as Drucker's book has affected me. Not only have I been exhilarated, reading Drucker's witty and pioneering (not-quite) global history of artists' books, but I have also been unconsciously creating my very own biblio stegosaur; on the book's attractive green dust jacket and from the book's head, tail and fore edge protrude scores of little lemon-colored Post-it notes laden with my scribblings.
Many of my Post-its simply contain a list of numbers, reminders to pay heed to Drucker's invaluable endnotes that follow each of her 14 chapters. Often opinionated, Drucker's commentary notes are welcome respites from the world of Ibid. and Op. cit. Some Post-its draw attention to Drucker's main contentions. Drucker provides a definition of what a book is, noting the dominance—"and with good reason, given its efficiency and functionality"—of the codex. But what is an artist's book? It is not just any book in which an artist may have had a small or large hand, Drucker asserts. It is "an original work of art," albeit a one-of-a-kind or multiple edition. It is not a livre d'artiste or "fine [letterpress] printing," though an artist's book may be finely printed—or finely mimeographed, Xeroxed, silk-screened or offset printed. According to Drucker, "artists' books are almost always self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form." Such books are animate, personified: "ultimately, an artist's book has to have some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book in order to succeed."
Drucker admits "various shaped books... have found their way into the world of artists' books with faithful regularity—polygons and fold-up works, boxes and accordion folds, scrolls, pop-up structures. and tunnel books," but endnotes herself, thusly: "I find many of these become gimmicky of form, except in the most whimsical or sophisticated works, but they are frequently big crowd pleasers and I will leave their detailed examination to someone more sympathetic to their virtues." Nevertheless, Drucker in no way excludes from her history eccentric (non-codex) book forms; for example, she perceptively analyzes Lucas Samaras's Book (1968), Clifton Meador's Book of Doom (1984), Scott McCarney's In Case of Emergency (1985), and numerous other brilliant biblio 'oddities' which pass her whimsy and/ or sophistication test, Drucker's gripe is not with oddball structure, per se, but with (would-be) book artists who employ a non-codex structure for its own sake. Pretenders, ignorant of the possibilities of relationships between form and content, produce mere novelties: Mood Rings, Scratch `n' Sniffs, Pet Rocks for the library.
Readers will find technical notes that detail printing processes and problems extremely useful. Drucker's first-hand experiences in printing, and her collaborations with printer/ bookmaker Brad Freeman, provide her with a practical expertise we can trust as she explains the mysteries of "split fountains," "stripping" and "overprinting," as well as the economics of production.
In approximately the first third of her work, Drucker focuses on the evolution of artists' books, citing forerunners and predecessors such as William Blake and William Morris, Gelett Burgess and the often mistaken attribution of the French livres d'artistes, to books which are both manifestations and expansions of the twentieth century's major -isms, from Futurism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Lettrism through Deconstructionism. The remaining two-thirds of Century chart how books have functioned, internally, as visual forms, verbal explorations, narrative and non-narrative sequences and externally, as agents of social change, conceptual spaces and documentations.
One of the most irritating features of artists' books has been their unavailability. Lacking national or international distributors, even multiple edition offset titles have remained often either invisible or difficult to obtain, only from small presses or the artist, for example. Most people have not seen most artists' books and, therefore, have not been able to appreciate what they have not seen. Drucker addresses this problem in two ways.
Drucker's first strategy is to fairly and lucidly analyze, in at least a paragraph, if not entire pages, each book she deems interesting and/ or important. Of La Prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913), the collaborative bookwork by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars (the nom de plume of Frederic-Louis Sauser), Drucker begins by summarizing the work's production (letterpress, pochoir decorations), describing its design (four square sheets of paper glued into a large square with "bright, dramatic watercolor decorations" on the left, multi-colored text on the right), and analyzing its effect (hung as a wall piece over six-feet tall, the work has a "binary character" with passages of text shaped into "large sweeping curved forms, whose play down the sheet moves the eye with a dramatic rhythmic grace which takes the whole work into account."). Drawing on her knowledge of art history, Drucker concludes:
That Delaunay [-Terk] and Cendrars could conceive of such a work in 1913 is remarkable, Paintings had shrunk from the grandiose history canvases of earlier centuries to a smaller, more domestic scale in the early Cubist period (with a few notable exceptions) and the only precedent for works of this scale in the graphic arts consisted of posters for the opera, theater, and other public events. No private reading experience had ever assumed such dimensions
. Usually, Drucker's pattern of analysis is effective because readers learn the how, what and why of each title to then be able to judge the validity of Drucker's "why X is significant" conclusion. Sometimes readers must also rely on reproductions of works, not just Drucker's descriptions, if they are to arrive at an accurate understanding. Fortunately, Drucker's second strategy for bringing difficult to obtain, seldom-seen books to her readers is to provide a plethora of photographs, primarily from books in her personal library. Although the illustrations are not in color, readers are usually able to reference the text with 228 black-and-white photographs. Bibliophiles hooked on Technicolor may have to settle for Riva Castleman's A Century of Artists Books for four-color peeks at livres des artistes, Susan Compton's The World Backwards: Russian Futurist Books 1912- 1916 (1978) and Russian Avant-Garde books 1917- 34 (1993), or infrequent issues of Print, Smithsonian, and other "glossy" art magazines and exhibition catalogs that include mention of artists' books.
Drucker describes Ida Applebroog's But I Wasn't There (1979) as consisting of page after page of a repeated drawing, "somewhere between a cartoon and a caricature," of a woman sitting on her bed, until a blank spread is reached and "But I wasn't there" appears. Then the image is repeated, Drucker notes, and the text reappears. Drucker's conclusion—"It is this interplay between static but repeated elements which constructs the sequential effect in many of Applebroog's small books" is valid. However, the caption accompanying the photograph of a page spread from Applebroog's A Performance (1979) is misidentified as being from But I Wasn't There.
Drucker's commentary about Dreaming Aloud, Book I (1985) and Dreaming Aloud, Book Two (1988- 89) is a compelling example of lucidity, if not fairness. After discussing the subject matter and production processes of the two-book series by West Coast artist and bookmaker Betsy Davids (to whom Drucker's volume is dedicated), Drucker suggests:
The gently manipulated images have much more variety in the second volume, the distance from earlier to more sophisticated Macintosh and image interface is apparent. The color, tone, and general richness of Book Two could even pass for a contemporary interpretation of the visual density of William Morris's ornate borders and complex pages.
Drucker's annotations found in Century are analogous to Catherine Earnshaw's writings in her library, and Drucker's writing and personal library, like Earnshaw's, are still marvelous. A sampling of A-B-C's from Drucker's usually helpful index illustrates the range of the author's library: Alatalo, Applebroog, Baker, Baldessari, Bernstein, Beube, Boltanski, Broaddus, Broodthaers, Burke, Butler, Campbell, Carrion, Chamberlain, Chance, Chen and Crombie. Although there are continental lacunae (South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa, to name four), the author admits she would prefer to have been more inclusive in the works she has presented. Democratic, then, is one of two final descriptors applicable to The Century of Artists' Books, as the above (abbreviated) listing of diverse book artists reveals. The other applicable term for what Drucker has provided us is 'standard text,' until her second, corrected-and-expanded (with bibliography) edition is printed. For now The Century of Artists' Books is sui generis.
Tom Trusky is Professor of English at Boise State University and Director of Idaho Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Center for the Book at Library of Congress. Currently, he is at work on a video and biography of Idaho deaf, illiterate, and self-taught artist/ bookmaker James Castle.
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