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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.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

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

    Schulz, Christoph Benjamin (ed), The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art [Die Geschichte(n) Gefalteter Bücher: Leporellos, Livres-Accordéon und Folded Panoramas in Literatur und bildender Kunst]. Georg Olms Verlag: Hildesheim, Zurich/New York, 2019.

    It was an exciting day when this wonderful book about accordion books dropped into my mailbox. Coming in at just under 600 pages, The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art is comprised of nineteen texts by eighteen authors, with thirteen chapters in German, four in English and two in French. This book is exactly what this neglected area of artists’ book publishing has needed for many years, and it succeeds admirably in beginning to fill out a history of this bookform ranging from the fourteenth century to the contemporary moment, with an emphasis on accordions coming out of a variety of artistic and literary contexts in the twentieth century. I'm also happy to have a chapter included in which I examine three artists’ accordions that address issues associated with immigration.

    Christoph Schulz introduces the book with a substantial and deeply researched survey of the history of the accordion fold throughout different time periods. His text is presented in twelve sections and he explores the use of the accordion format across different genres including the accordion as panorama, chronology, picture gallery, children's book, and an exploration of both nineteenth and twentieth century book art projects, among others. Coming in at one hundred and seventeen pages this introduction is both an original and substantial contribution to this emerging field of study. 

    Schulz also contributes another chapter titled “Folded Texts and Leporellos in the literary Avantgarde and experimental Poetry,” in which he surveys the use of the accordion fold in experimental literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, and then concentrates on accordions coming out of the visual and concrete poetry movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In this section he examines the works of assorted artists who produced books in the accordion format at different times during their careers, including Emmett Williams, Hansjörg Mayer, Arrigo Lora-Totino, Richard Kostelanetz. Once again this is a deeply researched survey text that succinctly outlines the experimentation with this format in the twentieth century, with a deeper exploration of the works of its experimental and literary-based practitioners during the 1960s and 1970s. 

    Since I'm under a strict word count for this article I will briefly mention four chapters that appealed to me, including my own. These four texts all examine accordions created by visual artists rather than those coming out of the century’s literary environments. I should also mention that my understanding of some of the chapters in the book, particularly those in German and to a lesser degree French, was not very comprehensive. I would assume that many English readers would also have the same issues with translation across two languages.

    Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, a longtime writer on all aspects of artists’ books opens her text with the following, "The leporello is in itself only a binding, a way of folding the pages of a book so that it opens, as we say, 'like an accordion'. Nothing more. The word belongs to the technical vocabulary of the book and designates one of its modalities, one of its manifestations, one of its ways of 'making a book'. But, although it is tempting to think so, this does not determine a priori a function, nor does it privilege a priori a content.” This is a provocative opening statement, and one I would readily take issue with since the accordion's roots lie in other areas as well as the history of books. In her text Moeglin-Delcroix presents a succinct and insightful look at the accordion works of three contemporary artists: Peter Downsbrough, Bernard Villers, and Hamish Fulton.

    Stephen Bann, another writer with a long interest in artists’ printed matter, contributes a brief, but nuanced overview of a selection of eleven of what the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay described as his ‘concertinas.’ Bann befriended Finlay in 1964 and has written widely on him. This text presents a fascinating and detailed account of these 'concertinas' and their place within Finlay's larger printed matter practice, with the concertinas developing from his early 'standing poems,' to folded cards with texts on both sides, and finally to fully fledged concertinas.

    Jean Fremon contributes a rich text exploring the works and writings of Etel Adnan, and in examining her accordions she situates them within Adnan’s larger artistic ouevre which includes continuing activities as a painter, novelist, poet, and essayist. It was not until the early 1960s that Adnan encountered the accordion format, and this chapter includes an English translation of her fascinating 1998 essay "The Unfolding of an Artists' Book," in which she recounts her meeting with an old sailor in a cafe in San Francisco's North Beach, who introduced her to the accordion format, along with the rich possibilities inherent in this medium.

    My own text looks at three accordions that tackle issues of immigration from three different viewpoints and I explore how the format has been used to express these stories. I spend some time exploring the interwoven themes in Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felica Rice's wonderful Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Control (2014). The second accordion, Migrant (2014) by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro, is a vertical accordion that is taken up with a large drawing depicting a young mother, with her son and daughter, making the dangerous journey to the North. Finally, Eroyn Franklin’s Detained (2011) is a graphic novel about two detained immigrants in a deportation center who are slated for deportation, and the book recounts their interactions with other individuals in the center.

    In conclusion, Schulz should be congratulated for bringing into the world this first book that so thoroughly explores the rich and multifaceted history of this unique bookform, and medium, and for laying such a solid foundation for further research.

    Further Reading: See this post on my  Accordion Publications Blog for a complete list of the book’s chapters and the publisher's statement.

    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery, Subspace.

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

    When I developed an interest in artists' accordion books I searched around for writings on the subject and found, with the exception of one very recent book (see Part 2 of this blog post), there is a paucity of literature on the subject. It was against this background that I started my accordion blog in 2010 in an effort to bring artists' accordion books out from under this cloak of invisibility and to document their fascinating and vibrant history.

    With regard to that history, artists do not start using the accordion format until the early 1960s. From my preliminary research, the decade opens with an accordion by Yoko Ono titled Painting Until It Becomes Marble, which was collectively created by the visitors to her exhibition at the AG Gallery, New York in July 1961. This was one of her early 'instruction pieces,’ and aside from its beauty, it represents a radically alternative publishing model in which chance and audience participation are two vital ingredients.

    The following year, Timm Ulrichs and Warja Lavater created their own very different accordions, respectively titled Fragment and William Tell. This early Lavater work establishes her pictographic style that would become a central feature of the accordions she created throughout her extensive artistic career. And, finally, let's not forget Etel Adnan who created her first accordion work in 1963 and has used the accordion format in her painting practice ever since.

    The accordion book is a strange creature. Variously called an accordion, leporello, oriental-fold, zigzag, or concertina, it is a hybrid of the scroll and the codex, and it combines both the compactness of the traditional book and the expansiveness of the scroll. But it has one feature that neither of them possesses: when opened up, it reveals its sculptural presence.


    Joe Tilson, Proscinemi Oracles, Edizioni del Cavallino, Venice, 1981, ed. 200.

    The accordion format improved upon the scroll by offering the reader a greater ease of access to different parts of the story or text. One commentator has observed that the scroll has “a sequential access format” and the codex has “a ‘random-access format.’” Notable features of the accordion that improved upon the scroll include the ability to use both sides of the page and its protective covers, which enabled it to be transported safely.

    The accordion book is defined by one crucial and elemental feature, the fold. The fold gives the accordion not only its compactness, but is instrumental in creating the accordion's most pronounced attribute — expansiveness. In their open state, accordions fundamentally challenge the idea of the traditional book, and in a very literal sense they function as ‘expanded books,’ and they provide a space in which a richer play of texts, images and pages is possible than in the ordinary codex.

    Accordions also offer the viewer a very different reading experience than a regular book. Moving beyond our ingrained way of reading from left to right, the accordion offers the viewer a flexible way of approaching the book that includes reading and scanning the book from right to left, opening it up and viewing it as a whole, examining the individual pages and turning it over to discover what's on the reverse. An accompanying feature in any encounter with an accordion book is the high degree of handling and physicality required of the reader in their interaction with the book.

    The accordion format makes possible a huge variety of page pairings and sequencing across its length. At one end, there is the seamless panoramic space when fully opened, at the other, with one image per page, the accordion is turned into a mini gallery, all of this coupled with the many different combinations in between.

    Accordions also question the role of the reader, interrogating whether they are simply ‘readers’ or whether they become ‘viewers’ when confronted by these often very long bookworks. Accordions, in their own unique way, collapse any clear distinctions between the two terms and their associated modes of perception. To read, or to view, an artist’s accordion is to engage simultaneously on a number of levels with a multi-faceted bookform.

    Acknowledgements: "Scroll," Wikipedia search, 8.7.90; Leporellos, Etel Adnan, Galerie Lelong & Co., Paris, 2020; and Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books, Granary Books, New York, 1995.

    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator, and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery Subspace.


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

    Can artist books be categorized as activist art? This question nagged at me during the early part of 2019 as I began planning the Center for Book Arts’ summer exhibition, Poetry is Not a Luxury. Poring over a range of work by U.S. based women artists, I frequently came across examples that explore socio-political subject matter through a personal lens. The artist books, zines, and correspondence art that resonated most with me are unmistakably political given that they draw attention to critical issues, and yet most of these works have not been included in previous exhibitions or publications devoted to activist art. Searching through art historical monographs did not provide answers. What I found was that scholarly writing on book arts tends to privilege formalism, leaving little room for political content. Yet one can argue that the formalism of book arts in itself is political in the sense that artist books, zines, and correspondence art are accessible media, open to all levels of artistic ability and easily distributed to a wide audience. Reviewing the exhibition’s preliminary artworks—from Citizen 13660, a 1946 graphic memoir detailing a Japanese American artist’s incarceration in a concentration camp in Utah during World War II, to Survey (2010), a honeycomb-shaped accordion book that alludes to an artist’s experience as a recently arrived immigrant in New York—I was reminded of the feminist mantra “the personal is political.”

    Abandoning my initial art historical research, I turned to the writings of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, and June Jordan, radical thinkers who were central to shaping Third World Feminism, the twentieth-century movement that mainstreamed terms like “intersectionality,” “identity politics,” and “people of color.” Third World Feminism embraced creativity as a way of documenting, addressing, and amplifying the experiences of women, including how racism and socioeconomic marginalization often intersect with gender-based discrimination. Adopting Lorde’s idea that creativity is thus a necessity for women allowed me to approach the exhibition’s featured works in a way that honors the emotive (and political) power of subjectivity. Creativity, as Lorde reminds us in her 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” reveals “what we feel within and dare make real.” This understanding of the profound nature of creativity combined with the analytical lens of Third World Feminism seemed most apt for an exhibition that brings together a diverse group of artists who articulate the intersectionality that shapes everyday life in the U.S. for so many. By doing so, these artists encourage viewers to consider issues like war, migration, gentrification, mass incarceration, and xenophobia outside of statistical information and news headlines, to which Americans have become desensitized, bringing them instead into the realm of lived experiences. This leap from representation to engagement, from information to knowledge, is one of the essential aims of activist art.

    In “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” (1980), Gloria Anzaldúa reflects on the difficulty of addressing her peers, the Black and Brown women who were her friends and allies: “How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form?” Anzaldúa chose a poetic letter as the most effective medium for her task in the same way that the artists of Poetry is Not a Luxury turned to book arts. Later in the text Anzaldúa warns that “[t]he danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision.” My hope is that by bringing together these artists and presenting their works through this analytical lens that I’ve communicated how intimacy and immediacy are crucial to navigating our current political moment.

    Maymanah Farhat is the curator of Poetry is Not a Luxury. Organized by the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan in 2019, the exhibition is currently on view at the San Francisco Center for the Book and will travel to the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in 2022. 

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

    Audre Lorde’s 1977 essay Poetry Is Not A Luxury is compact in its 1,242 words, urgent in the delivery of its main message: that the “revelation or distillation of experience” –  the poetry that women carry within themselves –  is “not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.” 

    The exhibition POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY currently installed at the San Francisco Center for the Book showcases work of female artists who weave these aforementioned revelations and distillations through the core of their art practice. “There are no new ideas,” Lorde writes in her essay, “There are only new ways of making them felt…while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.” Curator Maymanah Farhat explains in her introductory catalog essay that artist books, correspondence art, and zines provide a landscape for female artists to explore ideas of feminism, personal autonomy, and artistic vision, often with an eye to easily sharing these narratives with others. For this exhibition, themes of community, collaboration, and communication are essential to Farhat’s curatorial choices, as well as Lorde’s message that “poetry,” for women, is an urgent necessity of one’s own personhood.

    Exhibited in SFCB’s gallery, the artist book Ana Mendieta (2004) by Cuban publishing collective Ediciones Vigía in collaboration with Nancy Morejón is striking in appearance: tall, slender, with a silhouette of a woman criss-crossed in ropes on the cover. Flaming items surround her body: a cross, a dove, a lamp. Upon opening the book, a reader is confronted with a wealth of materials which reference Mendieta’s earthworks: sand, egg shells, earth colored paper. A true collaboration between poet (Nancy Morejón) and publisher (Ediciones Vigia), the reader also becomes a willing third collaborator, experiencing Ana Mendieta with each page turn.

    Ana Mendieta :: Ediciones Vigía, Nancy Morejón

    Oakland, CA artist Patricia Tavenner was best known for her work in the worlds of correspondence art and zines. Tavenner actively corresponded with other feminist artists such as Eleanor Antin, Lucy Lippard, and Kathy Acker; her publication “Mail Order Art” was one of the first collaborative magazines of the correspondence art genre to feature essays, artworks, and interviews. 

    As part of the current exhibition, Tavenner’s self-published Four Years and More (1979) is a collection of personal musings and artworks. Reading through Four Years and More, one quickly realizes that community building and fierce independence were important paths for Tavenner. Proclaiming “I AM NOT A CONVENTIONAL ARTIST AND I NEVER HAVE BEEN,” she writes about the early collaborative beginnings of “Mail Order Art”: “I had no idea whether other artists were into the concept of art-by-mail…what I wanted most from this art shopper/newspaper was dialogue. As it turned out, so did others.” Patricia Tavenner’s life exemplified Lorde’s idea that one’s personal poetry is the “skeleton architecture of our lives,” the inner scaffolding upon which we hang everything else we create, live, and do. 

    Four Years and More :: Patricia Tavenner

    Jana Sim’s Language Möbius (2011) is an elegant 3D representation of communication and learning a language outside of one’s native tongue. Sim states:"The most difficult part of learning another language is everyday conversation where an immediate response is needed. Language Möbius is about my conversation process.”

    Three Möbius strips housed in a Jacob’s Ladder clamshell box represent the parsing out of language, the different phases Sim goes through (she calls it “the loop in my brain”): hearing English, thinking in Korean, then translating and speaking a reply in English. Two smaller Möbius strips (which are halved versions of the complete third) symbolize, in Sim’s words “the two languages tangled up in my head while in translation, which is why the sentences (on the Möbius strips) can’t be read.” 

    Language Möbius :: Jana Sim

    As an exhibition, POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY is a reminder that, for women, the printed word is crucial to sharing embodied ideas. The strengths and beliefs of each exhibited artist show us where we have been, where we currently are, and where we hope to be. Sharing women’s narratives – revelations and distillations, as it were – via the medium of artist books presents itself as one of the most viable options for illumination. Curator Maymanah Farhat writes: “accessibility (of artist books) not only implies the ability to reach a wide audience but also the ease and immediacy with which viewers are engaged.” It is this ease and immediacy which makes POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY a powerful, thought provoking exhibition, the embodiment of Lorde’s “new possibilities and strengths.”

    POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY: July 10–December 20, 2020

    For information regarding gallery appointments,

    Jennie Hinchcliff is the Exhibitions Manager at the San Francisco Center for the Book. She has curated numerous correspondence/artist book exhibitions. She currently lives in San Francisco. 



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

    To my surprise this series of posts has become a love letter to collagraph as a process. I am going to keep following this direction, because I see the “atom level” aspects of process as being critically important to the construction of the social and discursive parts of the field. Collagraph is about access and possibility. It is about creative reuse of materials, and about embracing chance. Collagraph allows emergent form and dislegible texts, and it encourages beginners and experienced printers alike to find their own way through process. It can be a metaphor for a whole studio practice.

    This post is technical. It gets into the details of how to make these ideas work  and is structured around discarding some basic assumptions about letterpress printing:


    You need a place to start, time, and a willingness to fail, to keep going, and/or redo things. Stay with the process of printing to see where it leads.


    I am framing my descriptions here around the use of a cylinder or platen press, but I realize that unrestricted access to that equipment is not a given. I think that it would be possible to adapt many of these approaches to hand printing because they don’t necessarily rely on large amounts of evenly distributed pressure to print. In fact—hand printing might open up even more markmaking possibilities. We are already seeing this with so much pandemic-era printing at home. (See Erin Beckloff’s post from September 1).


    Variability in matrix height is one of the main ways to produce marks with variety. A lower matrix will catch less ink from the rollers and print with less force. A higher matrix will catch more ink and print with more force. In collagraph you can control the height and amount of relief on the block by adding or removing material from the plate itself. Height can also be adjusted by packing under the base block that the plate is attached to (or adjusting bed height if you have a press with that capability). This can also be done with a platen press—you can use a base block made of multiple layers, and add or remove sheets of paper between those layers to make adjustments to height. (More on the multi-layer base below.)

    A single matrix can be printed at multiple heights to build up (or push back) color. A mark could be printed in one color, and then in the next run the matrix can be dropped in height, and printed with a new color. Building up color this way in painting is called scumbling. It produces a different color and surface effect than the layering of transparent solids and/or direct printing. There are other painting terms/techniques to explore in print-based markmaking: facture, pentimento, sfumato, impasto, manipulating edges, etc.


    or solid, or flat, or even, or consistent, or hard, or dry, or sealed against the ink, or composed of a single layer. The matrix is anything that can make a mark. A mark does not have to be pressed into the sheet—it can be brushed on, squeezed on, etc. There are so many possibilities—brush matrices, soft matrices, flexible matrices, multi-layer matrices, and things still to be invented. Matrices can be made to move, change, and/or decompose to produce a variable edition. A soft or flexible collagraph plate can produce marks of stunning delicacy and subtlety. Collagraph plates can also be made to glop ink on in impasto blobs. Dimension in letterpress can go both ways: into the sheet and coming off of it. (Pro tip: use oil-based inks or add cobalt free drier.)

    A reduction process for linoleum or woodcut is great way to make multi-color prints. With collagraph you can use an additive process instead, or both additive and reductive at the same time.


    The current remote teaching situation has shown that movable type can be a flexible and accessible material to work with. I am excited about all of the ways that people are combining hand techniques, digital design and fabrication, and what are essentially collagraph principles to make new type.

    Here is a formula that I have been using to quickly get close to type high with blocks/type:

    3/4 (0.75) inch MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard)

    + 1/8 (.125) inch masonite/plywood/acrylic

    + this barrier board from Talas (.056) inch

    = .931 inch—slightly above type high (reduce packing on your press to compensate, and don’t be afraid to adjust the rollers too).


    3/4 (0.75) inch MDF

    + 3 sheets of barrier board from Talas (.056)

    = .918 inch—exactly type high

    The above layers can be combined to make a base block—the MDF and either the masonite or barrier board, and then the last layer is whatever is being used for the type. A multi-layer base can be used on a cylinder or a platen press, and layers can be further split or subbed out with paper to manipulate height. The letterforms can be cut out of the masonite or barrier board, by hand or with a laser cutter or CNC router. Stick them to the base block with Boxcar photopolymer adhesive or double-sided tape. You can have type that you keep and reuse, and/or type that isn’t precious and can be destroyed in the process. This type can be combined with the collagraph matrix ideas described above. Type, like any matrix, does not have to be solid and perfect and precise—but it can be—or at least precise enough.

    “Precise enough.” That is really the point here—as the printer, that choice is yours. You don’t need permission, “proper” training or “proper” materials, and you definitely don’t need to follow a pre-determined aesthetic. You only need a vision and a desire to chase it. Do it all wrong, and keep doing it wrong until you push through the doubt and criticism—the field will be better for it.

    Aaron Cohick (he/him) 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 Oct 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The first post in this series ended with a description of two ideas: dislegibility and emergent form. How can these concepts be applied? How might one experiment with dislegible text and emergent form in letterpress and books—two related disciplines that seem to demand careful planning and “clean” execution?

    I started the answer to the above questions in a series of posts on this blog a little bit more than a year ago. (It seems I’m still stuck in that rut.) Those posts considered the process of bookmaking through the lens of the “emergent,” looking at the whole process of making a book and how it might be injected with more flexibility, immediacy, directness, and improvisation. This series of posts will focus more on the process of letterpress printing. 

    The traditional logic of printing says that there are only two options for marks: on or off, black or white, dot or no dot. A mark must be evenly inked, texture-less, and the ink must not exceed the boundaries of the mark as defined by the matrix. In letterpress the impression should range from not visible to maybe just enough of a bite to activate the three-dimensionality of the page. The diagram [above] shows the “acceptable” marks of printing—the singular “off/no mark” and the slight range of “on/mark.” The range in “on” comes from variability in impression and inking, usually determined by a printer’s personal preference.

    Any mark outside of that binary is considered unacceptable—unintentional, not fully there, not controllable. These are stray marks, uneven marks made from a damaged or improperly made matrix, underinked or overinked marks, marks made with too little or too much force, dirt, variable marks, blobs of ink, etc.—all of the marks that we would treasure and cultivate in drawing and painting. 

    Drawing/painting involves markmaking with a tool pressed into or brushed against a surface. Relief printing is the same thing—a tool (matrix) pressed into or brushed against a surface. Yet most relief printing methods never seem that direct—they either require special materials and tools (woodcut, linoleum, wood/resin engraving) or expensive and environmentally questionable chemical processes (photopolymer). Relief collagraph, however, can be very direct, but it requires a reframing of approach, away from “imitating” linoleum or woodcut and toward a kind of direct markmaking.

    Collagraph is a well-known technique and is usually taught as part of introductory letterpress courses. It has an immediacy and fidelity that is very exciting—you can stick a leaf or other flat object to a block, print it, and get a decent image of that object. Unfortunately it usually stops there. Those flat objects are hard to push beyond that initial single-color print. Linoleum, photopolymer, wood and metal type, and to some extent woodcut are all made to be “neutral” printing surfaces—flat and smooth. Trying to get collagraph to be flat and smooth begs the question: why use collagraph at all? In collagraph the material that makes the plate is not neutral—the material is exactly the point. That embrace of material and its many, varied effects and marks is what moves collagraph closer to the direct markmaking of drawing/painting. It makes all of those “unacceptable” (or abject?) marks readily available. Relief collagraph printed with letterpress equipment can be a method of painting or drawing in multiple, with control as good as—if not better than, but also different from—the hand. That control can also take advantage of the wild materiality that collagraph has to offer and use those “unacceptable” marks— consciously or unconsciously, carefully or recklessly. Collagraph and an embrace of all kinds of possible marks also opens the door to experimental printing without the use of a press. Collagraph and its roots (collage, drawing, bricolage) can even be a lens to reconsider what a press and movable type can be.

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

  • 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 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. | @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, 

    [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. 

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