Pieśń Wawelu

 

Pieśń Wawelu
1980
National Publishing Agency of the Workers' Publishing Cooperative Prasa-Książka-Ruch, Kraków
180 pp.

design by Sławomir Lewczuk
printed in Poland

I’m skeptical that I can adequately write anything about this book. For one, I understand very little about what it is documenting. I believe it highlights a famous Polish riverside performance featuring an amalgam of pyrotechnics, theatrical puppetry, and music conducted by the Polish United Workers’ Party over multiple years in the 70s. Secondly, much like the occasion itself, the design of the book is wholly irregular in a fantastical, surreal, and psychedelic way which I doubt I can justly describe. And lastly, I’m also a bit drunk.

The book is a beautiful photographic essay unlike anything I’ve seen before. Everything from the use of the ungainly extended Akzidenz Grotesk to the pure CYMK coloration feels radically unique and without pretension. The low-quality, offset printing of the time has created a wonderfully bizarre rendering of Adam Bujak’s photographs while the bold floods of cyan, magenta, and yellow abruptly break the rhythm of the images. 

Even many of Bujak’s black and white photographs are printed in monochrome shades of alternating colors, furthering the surrealistic effect. The book also comes with a record featuring music from the event. It is packaged unceremoniously in an off-kilter red sleeve that vibrates against the somewhat garish combination of the spread’s magenta and yellow pages.

The book was originally derided as a cheap fever dream, showcasing a famed event through a kind of slipshod cacophony of various technical and budgetary limitations, or otherwise inexplicable choices. But the result today is an absolutely beautiful contemplation on the radical design of that era. It transcends its original constraints to create an otherworldly portrait of a bygone event. This is easily one of my most prized books in my collection, not for its value but its exceptional design. Rarely do I come across a work that feels as uninhibited as this.

 

L'art Vivant Aux Etats-Unis

 

L'art Vivant Aux Etats-Unis
1970
Foundation Maeght
164 pp.

design by  Hannes M. Anrig and Jacques Jouffroy
printed in Switzerland

I love a strong front and back cover relationship. This book uses Gill Kayo (the chosen font for the foundation throughout the period) to great effect here. Sitting on a kind of reverse-shadow of itself, the title is reflected on the back with an inverse relationship of the vibrant red and blue as on the front, creating an optical effect that is nothing short of arresting (and somewhat at odds with the formatting inside). Within, the tone is immediately quieted with a comparatively austere and airy preface typeset in Univers which is handsomely used throughout the rest of this exhibition catalog.

The design of the book, with the exception of the boisterous cover, is relatively reserved and straight-forward. What attracts me to it is its beautiful printing, pacing, and generous use of negative space. In fact, at times I see myself reading the negative space of certain spreads before the content themselves, due to the text and image seemingly retreating to the margins in an effort to avoid recognition, or at the very least create as much space as possible in this tiny catalog. Furthering the curious and quaint nature of this text, due to a publisher error, every copy is missing their 13th and 14th pages.

 

Donald Judd — Fifteen Works

 

Donald Judd — Fifteen Works
1977
Lone Star Foundation
Heiner Friedrich, Inc., New York. 
46 pp.

printed in New York

I consider this to be a very rare example of a perfect book. It's managed to achieve such a status by virtue of its satisfying feeling of completeness and congruence. Completeness in that the content of the book documents and presents the subject in a refreshingly total and holistic way. Congruence because the design of the book perfectly embodies the spirit of Donald Judd’s aesthetic and ideology without veering into pastiche. No decision feels out of place, overthought or heavy-handed. 

I found this book at Printed Matter's NY Art Book Fair a few years back. The Dia Art Foundation, as usual, had a particularly sparse display of catalogs on their table. But this one didn't look familiar. I hadn’t recognized it from years past, nor had I seen it on their site before. It turns out that someone at the foundation had unintentionally discovered a large box full of these old exhibition catalogs from the work's debut at the Heiner Friedrich gallery. And as luck would have it, Dia is now the owner of this series of fifteen plywood sculptures that are shown in this book. So the foundation promptly acquired and began to sell the books—a wholly unique and now somewhat mysterious record of one of Dia’s most prized series of works.

I struggle to think of ways I would improve on its design. Much like Judd’s work that is featured within, it lacks all ornament and flourish. The skeletal remains feel refreshingly pragmatic and devoid of any pretension.

The printing was unkind to Univers with ink spilling out and across the letterforms, neutralizing the more subtle qualities of the typeface, but in turn creating a kind of utilitarian and rough-hewn quality. In a way it reminded me of the plywood boxes themselves. The structure of the book is exceptionally simple. Each of the fifteen works are presented in an identical fashion: a spread is dedicated to an initial isometric sketch by Judd. This is followed by a second spread of technical drawings illustrating the central perspective of the piece as well as the plan and section view, with all accompanying material and dimension information. The final spread is reserved for a single photograph showing the end product: the wooden sculpture sitting unceremoniously in the quiet space of the gallery. The viewer is quickly ushered through the entire series from inception to execution, without any explanatory text. Paging through the book is a methodical and meditative experience. The relationships to Judd’s work are obvious. Like his sculptures, the structure of the book is laid bare. Additionally, ample space is provided to the drawings and photographs, asking the viewer to consider both the positive and negative image, exactly like how his sculptures invite you to simultaneously confront the foreground and background, interior and exterior.

A lesser designer could have suffocated this humble catalog with gimmicks and effects, overpowering the stillness of its contents. But instead, the anonymous designer has managed to channel Judd to create a catalog that telegraphs the tranquil and unadorned nature of the sculptures themselves.

 

Spiegel mit Erinnerungen

 

Spiegel mit Erinnerungen
1977
Künstlerhaus Bethanien
62 pp.

design by Christian Chruxin
Printed in Germany

Spiegel mit Erinnerungen translates to “Mirrors with Memories” (or so Google tells me). It features the daguerreotypes of artist Shinkichi Tajiris along with a history of the medium. Künstlerhaus Bethanien is the publisher, an institution that has released a number of adventurous book designs, particularly in the late 70s. The cover of this book immediately compelled me: austere and rigid, with its simple underlying grid revealing itself through a stark hairline stroke, carried throughout the entirety of the book. I've since come to learn this is somewhat of a trademark of the designer Christian Chruxin who has made some brilliant books that sadly don't seem to get the recognition that they deserve.

In many ways this catalog is a wonderful exercise in restraint with momentary, unexpected flourishes (such as the metallic ink used for the photo plates, giving off a luster reminiscent of the original daguerreotypes, or the single spread typeset in a beautiful blackletter) which create a pleasant rhythm of contrasts throughout.

 

Europa/America

 

Europa/America
1971
Galerie Beyeler Basel

design by Victor Vasarely
printed in Switzerland

I had the pleasure of discovering this catalog in an unassuming Hudson Valley bookstore. Its narrow, featureless spine is easily lost in a crowded shelf. Luckily, despite its seemingly willful indifference to being found, I pulled it out and began to explore an incredibly beautiful and idiosyncratic object. The catalog is indeed two separate books: one focused on European modernist art and the other, American. Both are wrapped by an acetate cover bearing only the prosaic title of the book on each side. The sheet rests atop two square paintings (which perfectly fit the book’s format), each representing their continent of origin. No further text is visible anywhere on the exterior.

The interior is a playful cacophony of text and image dancing alongside each other. No two pages are alike. Univers Regular is typeset simply throughout (like many Swiss books of the time) yet the type, unusually, defies a strict adherence to a grid for any discernible reason other than the pure delight of exploring new relationships to the positive and negative space on the page. Images also shape shift throughout the book from expansive, full-bleed spreads which feel far grander than they actually are, to smaller, tipped-in plates which sit comfortably within the white, square frame of the page.

Despite the starkness of the book and the undoubted love that went into its making, it lacks all pretension or preciousness. It’s a sensitive and playful study of form, material, and pacing, with a clear respect paid to each and every artist featured within. I can’t remember the last time I came across a book designed in the present-day that has matched all these qualities with such effortlessness.

The designer, despite his nuanced credits for the group that handled the photolithography as well as the printing and production, neglects to mention himself. In fact, it took a tremendous amount of sleuthing (and a degree of guess-work) before I was able to conclude with some certainty that the person responsible for the design was actually the op-artist Victor Vasarely who had a long-standing relationship with Galerie Beyeler and designed other books for their exhibitions around the same period.

I look forward to sharing more of Vasarely’s incredible work in the near future.