21 January 2014


I’m currently assembling a show on Book Arts at Hamilton College’s Burke Library.  The show is drawn from the holdings in the Burke’s Book Arts collection.  The collection is incredibly varied.  Curation of this collection has changed hands several times, and the vision for the overall collection has therefore changed several times as well.  To assemble a show out of this set of holdings, I’ve had the awesome opportunity to simply walk the stacks and pull or open anything that looked interesting.  As I see it, the collection divides into at least three major categories: (1) historical, academic, or instructional resources related to printing and book making; (2) book “objects” with unconventional bindings, inclusions, or other elements; and (3) experimental, craft, or fine press printing of literature.  This last section divides into two subsets: reprints of canonical texts, and original works.  In the show, I’ve tried to draw evenly from each of these three emphases, focusing in the last upon original poetry in a book arts context.  All told, the show will have about 35 items on display.  I’m sending the greatest hits—10 amazing examples of printing and book construction, or the items from which I’ve learned the most—to The Dinsinhibitor, along with the exhibition text.  The collection is actively seeking acquisitions; for those printers reading this, consider sending a catalog or a prospectus to the Director of Special Collections and Archives (contact info here: http://www.hamilton.edu/library/collections/specialcollections)

A Ludlow Anthology
Compiled by Steven and Meryl Chayt.  Winter Haven, FL: Anachronic Editions, 1986.

The Ludlow Typograph was one of several hot-metal typesetting systems that developed in the first decades of the twentieth century.  Unlike cold-metal typesetting, in which a compositor selected individual characters from a drawer, the various forms of hot-metal typesetting involved setting molds for on-the-spot founding of single characters (Monotype), lines of characters (Linotype), or other variations, such as the Ludlow system, from which A Ludlow Anthology was printed.  As the editors of this anthology note,

“…The earliest printers were their own typefounders, but this handicraft eventually became a separate trade.  And it was not until after the long uphill struggle to mechanize the operations
of typemaking and composing in the 19th century that the printer again became his own typefounder.  Because of a few highly workable systems; Linotype, Monotype, and Ludlow, the printer of the 1920’s could be independent, if he wished, from the monopoly of the type foundry.  These machines continued to provide service throughout their tenure until they were all but replaced by the photographic based systems that accompanied the industry wide switch to photo-offset printing in the 1960’s and 70’s…”

The Ludlow system was unique in that it combined traditional hand-set type with a hot-metal system.  Unlike Monotype or Linotype systems, which used keyboard systems to select and set type, the Ludlow system relied upon a skilled compositor to select and set type-molds in a composing stick.  The composing stick was then inserted into the Ludlow Typograph; hot lead would be injected under pressure into the mold to ensure a clean casting, producing a single line of new type.  Among the advantages of the Ludlow system were that it could accommodate a wide variety of typefaces and point sizes in a single line, and that it made printing multiple colors far easier than cold-metal or other hot-meal systems.  The Ludlow was thus ideally suited for display applications such as ornaments, newspaper headlines, and more experimental forms.  This anthology was set and printed entirely from a Ludlow system (though no longer being manufactured, they are still widely available and easily serviced), with images printed from photopolymer plates or silkscreen.  To illustrate some of these features, display of this volume will alternate between pages 16 and 17, which demonstrate the advantages of the Ludlow in color, style, and size of type, and pages 50 and 51, which demonstrate the use of the Ludlow in printing ornamentation.

Anansi Company: a collection of thirteen hand-made wire and card rod-puppets / animated in colour and verse
Ronald King and Roy Fisher.  London: Circle Press, 1992.

Dedicated in part to “the Caribbean community of Notting Hill,” and derived from Walter Jekyll’s 1907 Jamaican Song and Story, King and Fisher’s Anansi Company presents an incredible material investigation into the processes of memory and cultural exchange that constitute the “black Atlantic”: 

           “In Africa, Anansi the Spider was a god, of the sort easily demoted by missionary theology to the rank of demon or imp: a spirit of ruses, deceits and evasions, of compulsive activity unimpeded by ethics.  Abducted by slave traders and shipped to the Caribbean, he there developed as a folklore character, the not-always-successful mover of hard-nosed comic and satirical tales whose tellers would habitually close with the disingenuously polite formula, ‘Jack Mantora, me no choose none’ - ‘Mr Listener, don’t think I’m getting at you’.
In these stories, Anansi still speaks with a shaman’s spirit voice, high and hoarse, and in a disheveled language that’s a travesty of whatever dialect he might be supposed to use.  But in this rural setting populated by creatures with suggestively human habits, he’s usually more of a man than a spider…”

The work is silk-screened, hand stenciled, letterpressed, collaged, and includes thirteen articulated hand-bent brass wire and paper puppets (also silk-screened, letterpressed, and stenciled).  The puppets, each in their own booklet, illustrate the collected anecdotes, and each puppet is secured within a set of brackets.  These brackets further allow either easy removal from the booklet or—more interestingly—operation of the puppet within the booklet, during which the booklet acts as a sort of stage or backdrop.  An Introduction and Colophon, each in their own separate booklets, accompany the thirteen puppets.  Non-paginated, and with no clear narrative arc across these fifteen items, like cultural myth and collective memory these booklets (including the framing Introduction and Colophon) may be shuffled and arranged at a reader’s or performer’s whim.  The entire bundle appropriately closes with a string.   

Werner Pfeiffer.  Red Hook, NY: Pear Whistle Press, 2006

In an “Addendum,” Werner Pfeiffer explains the rationale behind this fine-press reissue of a series of experimental prints dating from the 1960s:

“The idea of publishing Alphabeticum after a hiatus of over four decades was born out of a desire to make these pre-digital experiments available to a new and select audience… By issuing a small, limited edition it is possible to retain a sense of the handmade intimacy, which was part of the original concept.  It is a quality that is so often missing in the slick and glossy output of commercial productions.  The deckle edge, the print embossment, the smell of ink, even the occasional smudge are all part of this experience…”

In addition to these exciting explorations of the letterform, Pfeiffer gets at precisely the appeal of book-arts more broadly, as well as to the difficulty inherent in curating a show of this sort of work.  That is, the pieces beg to be picked up and turned over; the letterforms ask to be traced with the tip of a finger; and the prints are a visual, tactile, and even olfactory experience.

Ornamented types : twenty-three alphabets from the Foundry of Louis John Pouchée : the
specimens printed from the original wood-engraved blocks in the St Bride Printing Library :
with two additional alphabets from other sources.
Introduction by James Mosely.  London : I.M. Imprimit in association with the St Bride Printing Library, 1993.

The collection identifies a transitional moment in type history.  In the 1930s, following the refinement of modernity (represented in this show by the works of Frederic Goudy and Eric Gill; examples of their work are on display on the third floor), there was a renewed interest in the ornate typography of the early 1800s.  “In the late 1930s,” Mosely writes,

“…a new interest was developing in the robustly selfconfident [sic] type designs of the early nineteenth century.  Only a decade earlier, they had been denounced by Stanley Morison, who asserted that ‘The types cut between 1810 and 1850 represent the worst that have even been.’  The vigorous fat faces of the 1820s which had seemed the nadir of bad taste were more admired in the 1930s, perhaps partly for that very reason, by the new generation of designers for printers and publishers.”

Ornamented Types emerges from the collapse of one foundry (that of Caslon, which was much praised by Goudy) and the selling off of its holdings; among them were the many typefaces that are represented in this book, and it was eventually discovered that many were designed, cut and cast by Louis John Pouchee.

Aside from this sort of material-textual history, which traces printing practices at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is suggestive of the ways in which those practices influenced late modernist practices a century later, the decontextualized, collage-like aspect of these catalogs in a more general sense produces a particular sort of visual poetry.

Book-Making on the Distaff Side.
Various contributors.  New York, NY: Distaff Side, 1937.

As an ad hoc publication assembled to celebrate a gathering held by the Distaff Side (an association of female printers), the book reflects its occasion.  With contributions from dozens of printers working in their own shops with their own equipment, the volume contains multiple paper stocks, type-faces, levels of production-value and skill, and a wide variety in tone and aesthetic.  As noted in the “Introduction,”

“…Ever since the days of Mrs. Gutenberg, women have been involved in the art of printing; and now, more than ever, they are to be found in the offices and factories concerned with the making of books.  Yet never before, to our knowledge, have they been organized into a group for the express purpose of producing a book by, for, and concerning themselves.  Bookmaking on the Distaff Side is the product of their writing, their designing, their type-setting and their printing; and while it has sometimes been necessary to call in the men for the more menial tasks of the printing-office, it remains essentially a female book.”

Among other items, the book includes a remembrance of Bertha Goudy (wife and type compositor of Frederic), numerous essays (historical, critical, and comic), several printers’ manifestoes, poems, and images created using type elements.  Like the Worthy Papers sale catalog in this case, the form of this volume reflects the need to present an array of material practices.  Here, however, structure serves a critical rather than commercial purpose.  By presenting a highly varied material surface and a polyvocal text while omitting such standard organizational devices as an index, table of contents, colophon, and contributors’ page (though these all could have been added at any stage of the volume’s production), the Distaff Side publication suggests that these structural conventions of organization are bound up with the imbalances of gender, commerce, and aesthetic and cultural authority that the book takes for its object.   

A Landscape with Cows in it
Clifford Burke (poem) and Ruth E. Fine (linoleum cut).  West Burke, VT: Janus Press, 1987.

Known for his own Cranium Press, closely aligned with the Beat writers and with West Coast social and political activism, and his later, more ecologically oriented Desert Rose Press, Burke’s slim pamphlet with Claire Van Vliet’s Janus Press combines his own overt social and ecological concerns with Van Vliet’s structural investigations.  Like the Turnbull and Carson books on display in this case, Burke’s poem is a variation on the accordion fold.  The poem begins by recording the speaker’s occasional glimpses out his window of cows in a field, along with a barn, a row of fir trees, and a powerpole lighting the barnyard.  Much of the poem remarks upon the various daily configurations of the cows in the field: “The cows come down / from the barn / to the lower pasture, / arrange themselves / differently each day / … // Early cows and / late cows dark cows / and light cows all / alter / day by day.”  From these pastoral observations, the speaker shifts to outrage as he observes the culling of the herd for slaughter: “With the clarity of madness, or of rage / I know who’ll pay for those dead cows / … / They’ve slaughtered all the steers / or driven them off in trucks…”  At the same time, occasioned by this interruption and this outrage, the smooth linearity of the accordion-fold is transected by a small sheaf of unevenly sized leaves that perform a material and thematic intervention upon the pastoral continuity the poem sought to record.  After asking what in a poem can be done against the slaughter of those familiar cattle, the last of these leaves turns to the act of writing itself:

wanting to avoid the tidy ending the wrapup
            tat tum tum tum.  A lyric is the best I can do
each day in a long ribbon of writing that dis-
appears into the soft earth filling my grave.
So where’s the ending?

And then the writing moves back to the original “ribbon” upon which the poem began, and concludes as something of the status quo is dubiously restored: “Did I imagine [the cows] and their raw plaint / create them for a movement / in a scene as frozen in the mind / as dark frost on this late fall ground? // The same light pervades / Now I can see the cows / now I can see them moving.”  Yet the accreted rage and skepticism of those inserted leaves disrupts the continuity of experience, and also stitches the poem text closed in such a way as to obscure the image that accompanies the poem.  The result is an object that meditates upon the illusory continuity of either life, writing, or (especially) an accordion-fold book that takes these as its subject. 

Collation of specimens displaying the types and typography of broadsheets and some
other ephemeral printing all now hung out to dry
Graham Moss and Kathy Whalen.  Oldham: Incline Press, 2007.

Presses often issue specimen catalogs of offprints, proofs, and samples, often for commercial and archival purposes.  Though Incline Press primarily produces book works, this volume collects broadsides, handbills, leaflets, and other ephemera produced between or alongside those more substantial projects.  More than most, this catalog exceeds its purposes as a catalog, and serves as a remarkable design primer for the contemporary printer of broadsides.  For this reason, the pages displayed from this volume will be periodically changed, to present the contours of the work. 

Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued, Part Three
John Cage.  New York, NY: A Great Bear Pamphlet from Something Else Press, 1967.

As a piece with comparatively low production-value (commercially printed on cheap paper, and then staple-bound), Cage’s Diary stands in sharp contrast to much of the material in this show.  Known mostly for his radical approach to music (and especially his 4’33”, a “silent” piece for piano in which the lack of conventional musical sound is designed to draw the audience’s attention more closely to the ambient surrounding and their own biological and psychological “noises”), the choices of Cage and his publisher here present something similar. 

“…This pamphlet is an attempt to realize another of Cage’s ideas as closely as possible to his intention.  Dick Higgins, acting as printing technician, described the uses and limitations of the two-color process we have used and suggested feasible potentials, and in effect he provided Cage with an instrument on which to perform a visual realization of his idea.  Cage entered into the proposal gladly, employing color-changes which, like the indentations, type-faces and number of words given a single story or idea, are the outcome of chance operations…”

The resulting shifts in typeface, color, and margins do not correspond to narrative transitions, anecdotes, or even linebreaks, and the effect is that one must pay closer attention to the text—the partially-attentive reader, accustomed to the homogenous surface of conventional texts, risks losing the already-tenuous thread of continuity in Cage’s Diary.

The Alphabet: Fifteen Interpretive Designs Drawn and Arranged with Explanatory Text and Illustrations.
Frederic W. Goudy, New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1918.

Frederic Goudy (1865 – 1947) was and remains an enormously influential American type designer during the first half of the twentieth century, developing more than a hundred typefaces before his death in 1947.   

This book is divided into two major sections.  The first of these presents a history of letter-forms, from engraved capitals to the development of scribal forms and their national variations, to gothic or blackletter forms to moveable type in a variety of faces to, finally, Goudy’s own prescriptions for type-design.  The second half of the book presents fifteen discrete forms of each letter (several of them designed by Goudy himself), offering a visualization of the history narrated in the first half of the book.  In addition to representing their historical development, each letter in this section is also accompanied by a few sentences describing the letter’s relationship to the languages and speech-sounds it was meant to indicate.  For example, with regard to “A,” Goudy writes that it “corresponds to the first symbol in the Phoenician alphabet and did not represent a vowel, but a breathing, the vowels not being represented by any symbol.  This breathing not being necessary in the Greek language, the Greeks who adopted the Phoenician alphabet, used it to represent a vowel.”

Type Specimens of Caliban Press, on the occasion of its sixth anniversary
Mark McMurray (Class of ’76).  Montclair, NJ: The Caliban Press, 1991.

After years of receiving and restoring donated, purchased, and abandoned type, McMurray’s Caliban Press assembled this catalog, which includes sample pages of works published through the press as well as notes on the historical and aesthetic mission of the press.  Despite being almost entirely contingent upon circumstance and accident, the Caliban type collection is, if inconsistent, also exceptionally varied.  And McMurray has assembled a catalog that reflects these exciting eccentricities: the volume includes an array of printing stocks (including vegetable-fiber papers and synthetic Tyvek); pages are often hand-decorated (utilizing stencils, spray paint, and paint splatters); and there are several bi- or tri-fold pages throughout the volume.  In addition to these structural acrobatics, the volume showcases the Caliban type by printing quotations from numerous sources, including Lord Byron, William Carlos Williams, Mick Jagger, Jorge Luis Borges, Captain Ahab, and (of course) Shakespeare’s Caliban.  Throughout, the Caliban catalog offers a stunning verbal, visual, and structural collage that illustrates the remarkable potential for letterpress and book arts in an era when it could be argued that both are obsolete.

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