Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Art of Typewriting

[Marvin Sackner, Ruth Sackner]
The Art of Typewriting
London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2015
352 pp., 25 x 31.5 cm., hardcover
Edition size unknown

In 1979, Marvin Sackner discovered a book on the top shelf at Jaap Rietman's New York bookstore and excitedly turned to his wife: "Ruth, this is what we are collecting. It even has a name". The book was An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, edited by Fluxus artist Emmett Williams and released by the Something Else Press in 1967. The volume presented the first international overview of the medium, collecting works by Eugen Gomringer (Switzerland), Dieter Rot (Iceland), Daniel Spoerri, Claus Bremer and Hansjörg Mayer (Denmark), Bob Cobbing (England), bp Nichol (Canada), and many others. It was reissued last year by Primary Information, and can be downloaded for free, here.

Five years later, in 1972, the Something Else Press released Typewriter Poems, edited by Peter Finch. "As far as I know it was the very first book to anthologize typewriter work," Finch told me over email last year. Unlike An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, the slim Typewriter Poems concentrated entirely on British artists.

Typewriter Art followed in 1975, edited by Alan Riddell, an Australian poet who grew up in Scotland and was introduced to Concrete Poetry by one of it's most celebrated practitioners, Ian Hamilton Finlay. It is now long out of print. Darren Wershler-Henry, a Montreal-based poet and cultural critic who was once the senior editor at Coach House Books, wrote The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, in 2005. Last year graphic design scholar Barrie Tullett published Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology.

The Sackner's The Art of Typewriting, gathering hundreds of works by both artists and poets, is the largest overview to date. The works come from the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, which exists in their home (it has been suggested that they exist in it) in Miami, Florida. Their archive of books, critical texts, periodicals, ephemera, prints, drawings, collages, paintings, sculptures, objects, manuscripts, and correspondence relating to Concrete Poetry contains over 75,000 items. Amassed over four decades, it is the largest collection in world.

The couple met on a blind date when Ruth was studying English at the University of Pennsylvania. They married in 1956 and had three children. They were together for almost sixty years. Ruth died in her sleep last Saturday, at the age of 79.

“Miami lost, today, one of its real cultural giants,” South Florida art collector Dennis Scholl told the Miami Herald. “Ruth was one of those people who really cared about culture in our community. Together they built the greatest collection in the world. That is a hard thing to do.”

Marvin Sackner, now retired, was a successful pulmonologist who also invented medical devices. The royalties from these inventions provided the couple with the money ("play money" they called it) to invest in their art collection. Their holdings, while all text-based, include a wide variety of techniques, including hand-written artists' books, rubber-stamped works, artists' stamps and mail art.

The Art of Typewriting focuses on the works from their collection made with the manual typewriter. A chapter titled "A History of Ornamental and Art Typewriting", begins with a history of the machine itself, patented in 1869 and available commercially a few years later. Somewhat ironically, a condescending advertising campaign ("easy enough for a woman!") actually led to an influx of women in the workforce. In 1874, less than 4% of US clerical workers were women. Fifteen years later that number had climbed to 74%.

Unfortunately, the female artists in the book don't fare as well - by rough estimate their work makes up less than 20% of the almost 600 colour reproductions. Several of the earliest examples in the collection, however, were produced by women, including the first example of typewriter art ever published in a periodical. The work, an image of a butterfly, was by Flora F.F. Stacey, an English stenographer who had been 'drawing' with the typewriter for many years before winning an open competition in 1898.

Canadians, often omitted from international surveys, or represented by a token inclusion, fare much better here. The book features work by Derek Beaulieu, Earle Birney, bill bissett, jw curry, Paul Dutton, David W. Harris (also known as David UU), Steve McCaffery, bp nichol, and Mark W Sutherland. Interestingly, all but the latter come from the country's poetry, not visual art, communities.

Following the introductory texts is an expansive plate section, illustrating key works by over 200 poets and visual artists, beautifully rendered. These are divided into sub-sections, including sound poems, punctuation pictures, overtyped characters, canceled texts, textured texts, patterns, three dimensional objects, maps, erotica, love poems, typed artists books and many others.

Some categories work better than others. The 'erotica' is mostly nude photography with typewriter character shading, and the 'political' section includes a rudimentary tank fashioned out of slashes and dashes. The thirteen pages of 'typed representations of artistic works' features tributes and parodies of paintings and sculptures by Jasper Johns, Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Brancusi and Mondrian. The 'sound poems' scores resonate simply from the suggestion that they be read aloud. Here solo works by nichol and Dutton (half of the Toronto sound poetry group The Four Horsemen) are included, alongside works by Bernard Heidsieck and Ernst Jandl.

But I find myself most drawn to the works at the extreme ends of the categorization: unstructured, expressive works and simple, restrained gestures. There are several pieces, for example, by Tom Edmonds, a concrete poet who died in his late twenties in 1971. They are striking dense, messy layered pages that appear almost three-dimensional. Inversely, the stark pieces in the 'punctuation pictures' section, benefit from their limitations. A simple and beautiful work by Claus Bremer retypes the alphabet twenty-six times, each time starting one space in but ending in the same place, a hard right margin. The characters that do not fit are overtyped. The work is part of his book Texte un Kommentare, which can be seen in the Youtube video below.

The Art of Typewriting is rounded out by an extensive bibliography and twenty-nine pages of illustrated biographies, including Tom Phillips (one of the Sackner's all-time favorites), Mary Ellen Solt, Emmett Williams, Carl Andre, Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing.

An interesting, and undoubtedly costly, feature of the volume is that no two covers are alike. The book’s layout was created by the London-based graphic design studio Graphic Thought Facility, who utilized an algorithm to ensure that a unique combination of front and back image graces each copy
of the book.

The Art of Typewriting serves as a useful introduction to the art form, an essential addition to any library dedicated to the subject and a fitting tribute to Ruth Sackner. The book will be released by Thames and Hudson on the 26th of October. It can be pre-ordered now, from Amazon, for $45.18, here.

Images from the Sackner's home, published earlier this year in Apartemento, to accompany an interview with Leah Singer, can be seen here.


  1. I am an avid reader who likes engaging content. That's why I am here. Your original views on this topic are refreshing and interesting. You've done a great job of expressing your views. Thank you.

    cheap writing service

  2. you missed Gustave Morin in yr list of canadian contributors...