Book Art

Among the more valuable traditions established in the late sixties was the practice of consequential vanguard artists creating imaginatively designed books primarily about their own work and aesthetic position—not only Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenberg, but Andy Warhol’s Index (1967), Iain Baxter’s A Portfolio of Piles (1968), Dick Higgins’ foew&ombwhnw (1969), and John Cage’s Notations (1969), among others. (The last book, by accepting within its own frame everything offered by selected other composers, is perhaps aesthetically more self-appropriate than Cage’s two collections of essays, despite the patent compromise, in Notations, of such an unenhancing convention as presenting the contributions in alphabetical order.)

Merce Cunningham and Frances Starr’s Changes: Notes on Choreography (1969) resembles its predecessors in the crucial aspect of being as much like as about Cunningham’s dance. The inside front cover has overlapping lines of crossing type on top of a photograph, a form reminiscent of the beams of light passing over dancers in Winterbranch (1964). A page in the middle has a column of type running down the center, superimposed over both a photograph and the program of Variations V (1965), very much like the disconnected simultaneity of the piece itself. The structure of the entire book is as concentrated in discrete detail (the page) but as plotless and non-climactic in overall form as Cunningham’s choreography.

—“Artists’ Self-Books”(1969)

I’ve long ranked L. Moholy-Nagy among the greatest modern artists, not only for the value of his individual works but for the incomparable quality of his esthetic adventure, with exploratory consistency, through several media. Because he excelled at several nonadjacent arts, among them painting, kinetic sculpture, photography, film, book design and writing, Moholy should be considered a modern exemplar of the polyartist. Asked to identify a single work that epitomizes his achievement, that represents the sum of his imagination and intelligence, I would choose, without intending to deprecate anything else he did, not a work of primarily visual art but the big book written in Chicago that, appearing posthumously, concluded his short life as only a book can do.

Vision in Motion (1946).

It is scarcely surprising, remembering Moholy’s pioneering realization of Bauhaus book design, that Vision in Motion should represent the epitome of his book-making style in all respects but one (the use of serif typography, rather than the sans-serif he traditionally favored). Its blocks of type, both roman and bold, with different widths, are distributed among shrewdly selected rectangular illustrations, usually in close proximity to commentary about them, under the assumption that text and image should be seen together. The pictures included modern masterpieces along with examples of his own works and, generously, those of his students. For all of its intelligence about modern art in general, Vision in Motion is also an “artist’s book,” or book-art of the highest order, about Moholy’s rich esthetic experience, and needless to say perhaps it is a book that only he had enough experience to write and design as well. If we accept the revelations of Conceptual Art that a prose description of artistic experience could constitute, in and of itself, an esthetic object, then Vision in Motion has yet other resonances that not even Moholy could have foreseen.

—“To End in a Book” (1992)

Commercial obstacles notwithstanding, I am surprised that double-fronted books don’t appear more often. Consider that piggy-backing, where a book by a newcomer is tied to one by a more prominent author, might be appropriate in publishing poetry, where teacher/disciple loyalties are stronger than elsewhere. The moviehouse analogy is a double-feature where one film is more likely to attract an audience than another. (A colleague and I were once commissioned in Germany to make a twenty-minute film that would accompany a feature film for its tour. Unfortunately, since the feature didn’t travel very far, our short didn’t last either.)

Since any object with both a front and a back can have two fronts, it seems to me that the possibilities and implications of the double-front book have only scarcely been explored. First of all, it is quite different from the book in which two or more works appear in succession, as in the collected novels of a single author; for double-fronting lends itself to complimentary structures.

Consider as well extending the form to have one author’s text(s) appear continuously on right-hand pages and another author’s words appear on the left-hand pages upside down (though left and right obviously become reversed when the book is turned over). Whether for art or commerce, double-front book are finally about alternative opportunities.

—“Double-Fronted Books” (2003)

[Marshall McLuhan’s] The Medium is the Massage is a cross between an art book and a comic—more precisely, a twentieth century version of the medieval illuminated manuscripts. Since the medium comprises a good deal of the message, I should note that the hardbound version, nearly three times the surface size of the paperback, and seven times the price, seems a more formal and serious work, which would be more suitable to the library or the coffee table than to the subway or bathroom, although the two editions differ not at all in text. The pictured messages of Massage are accompanied by McLuhan’s prose glosses and occasional quotations from other prominent sages, and the visual and printed dimensions have various degrees of relation to each other.

—“Marshall McLuhan” (1967)

There is a familiar tradition of the book as a repository for words, customarily set in uniform typography that is cast into rectangular blocks, sometimes accompanied by illustrations; there is a secondary tradition of books with pictures, customarily captioned. Whereas the first could be described as words sometimes accompanied by pictures, the second exemplifies the principle of images sometimes accompanied by words. There is another, less familiar tradition in which words and pictures have equal status, accompanying each other, so to speak; so that the words remaining in your head long after you have read the work—the afterimage—are as strong as the visuals, or vice versa. The classics in this third tradition include The Book of Kells, Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, and the visual books of William Blake.

It seems odd in retrospect that Wyndham Lewis, who was a great painter as well as a major writer, never broached this third tradition; but given the compartmentalization of contemporary criticism, it is scarcely surprising that none of his critics, to my recollection, address this omission.

—“Paul Zelevansky’s Trilogy” (1991)

While appreciative of Cage’s work as both a visual artist and a maker of esthetically special books (such as Notations [1968]), I’d not until recently come to consider Cage’s scores apart from their initial purposes as instructions for performance. In this respect, the masterpiece, which is really one of the most extraordinary books of its kind produced by any composer ever, is Song Books. . . .What the score contains is a wealth of inventive instructions that can be read apart from musical realization, which is to say that the Song Books can be appreciated as a book.

My general sense is that the greatest Cagean compositions are the maximal pieces. Especially compared to other scores of his, which often follow only a single structural line, Song Books is a wealth of uniquely Cagean processes that page by page offer a succession of surprises. That is one reason why it can be read with pleasure.

—“John Cage’s Song Books Score” (1995)