Profile, “Johanna Drucker: The Flesh of the Word,” written by Ellen Lupton, published in Eye magazine, 1995.
A flurry of activity has been rippling around the edges of the graphic design field in the U. S. during the past three or four years, as many designers who came of age in the mid-1980s have been looking to the written word as a place to test the future of experimental work. Johanna Drucker’s career provides a formidable example of a practice built built between and within existing disciplines.
Some of the formal devices developed in her artists’ books—produced in an avant-garde literary tradition—overlap with experimental typography as practiced by contemporary graphic designers. Drucker’s artists’ books achieve—in an extreme and hermetic manner—the ideal of “self-publishing” currently discussed by some designers as an alternative to client-based practice. Fueling her experimental work is an impressive body of scholarship on the history and theory of writing as visual form.
Since the mid-1970s Drucker has been quietly and methodically cutting a path through the terrains of art history, literary theory, and the books arts. The unique trajectory of her practice—pioneering in its crossing of disciplines—reached a dramatic summit during the past two years, with the publication of two major studies on the visual materiality of writing as well as the growing public recognition of her experimental books. In 1994 a complete series of her artists’ books was acquired by the Getty Center in Los Angeles, whose collection focuses on avant-garde printed matter. At age 43, Drucker has arrived at history by way of practice and at design by way of art and writing. Her work offers a compelling model for approaching design both as a medium of experiment and as a subject for serious scholarship.
Drucker’s academic publications are legitimate scholarly endeavors—not the marginal productions of an obsessed typophile or amateur historian—yet they are written in a manner accessible to designers, artists, and other outsiders to the university. In 1994 the University of Chicago Press issued Drucker©ˆs book The Visible Word, a definitive work on the theoretical sources of Futurist and Dada typography. In 1995 Thames and Hudson published The Alphabetic Labyrinth, a history of intellectual fantasies concerning the origin of letters, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the scientific to the spurious. Both books give design an important role in the realm of ideas by arguing that the visual features of the written word are crucial to the formation—and deformation—of Western art and philosophy.
Drucker began work on The Alphabetic Labyrinth in 1980 when she was a graduate student in the Visual Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley. “Visual Studies,” a tiny masters program offered by the School of Architecture, attracted people whose interests fell outside the normal boundaries of art and design. Drucker’s classmates there included Suzanna Licko and Rudy Vanderlans, who went on to carve their own unusual practices out of the fields of typography and publishing. The Alphabetic Labyrinth, which is lavishly illustrated with Enlightment diagrams and mystical speculations about the origins of the letter, is based on Drucker’s masters thesis. The Visible Word evolved out of her dissertation for a doctoral program in Ecriture (French for writing) that Drucker pieced together at Berkeley out of an unlikely team of advisers from departments of art, literature, and linguistics. After completing her dissertation in 1986 she took a series of jobs in art history, first at the University of Texas and then at Harvard, Columbia, and now Yale—a place she plans to stay.
If Drucker’s academic career is remarkable for its strange subject and its stunning recognition by the most disintinguished universities in the U. S., her academic path is all the more surprising because it runs along side an alternate route through the visual arts. Having studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in the early 70s, Drucker became involved with “artist’s books,” a tradition which operates on the forms and structures of the bound book. While most book artists bring concerns from painting, sculpture, or craft production to the book-as-object, Drucker’s work is unusual for its focus on text and typography. In these projects she serves as writer, designer, editor, and often illustrator and printer. While her scholarly publications take a conventional form, her artists’ books are complex poetic constructions whose visual and verbal language can be obtuse and hermetic. She explains, “Authoring is an important part of my practice as a book artist.
I think it’s pretty strange to take somebody else’s text and do really weird typographic stuff to it. What permission do you have? You can totally transform the meaning of the text through an extreme typographic treatment.”
In Drucker’s experimental books, which draw on the model of the poet-typographer explored historically in The Visible Word, formal, rule-based systems confront serendipitous elements endowed with lusty humour and an intense bodily presence. The theoretical and the profane erupt, for example, in her 1989 project The Word Made Flesh, in which voluptuous, massively scaled wooden initials inhabit a grid of tiny, precisely spaced Copperplate caps. Drucker’s writing vividly invokes the ambitions of typographic form to upstage and embarrass the message it is supposed to neutrally support: “The tongue lies on the table, writing, writhing, spelling out the breath of its efforts in an unseemly desire to be seen.” In History of the/my Wor[l]d (1990), Drucker articulates her personalized version of feminist theory by combining stock images of majorettes and fashion plates with a text that personifies language as an unabashedly physical, hopelessly fleshy medium: “In the beginning was the world, nursed on the warm breast of chaos fast followed by a night of hard publicity.”
Drucker’s book Through Light and the Alphabet (1986) is a “typographic fugue” which introduces a new typographic element on each page, climaxing in a crescendo of parallel elements. “The idea,” she explains, “was to crumble linearity from within.” Against Fiction (1988) organizes aspects of tabloid publishing according to a strict set of rules which “filter” large and small type across the page. Against Fiction, inspired by architect Peter Eisenman’s House X, is an exercise in typographic systems gone mad: “I wouldn’t let myself make any arbitrary or non-standard decisions until the stock of letters in the typecase had been exhausted. Then accidents—necessitated by technology—would begin to appear.” Drucker’s games of illogical economy often push literary form into the background, generating exquisite puzzles that are all but unreadable. A to Z (1977) is an arcane pseudo-“bibliography” that parodied the work of contemporary poets from the San Francisco Bay area. Drucker feared she would be forced to leave town after the book’s release, but few of the targets of her humour recognized themselves in the book’s obscure typography.
Drucker began her romance with the book via letterpress, a tedious medium over which she is a tireless master. The limitations of traditional metal composition—from the strict lock-ups of the type bed to the limited inventory of the type case—offered her a gilded cage from which to spin her curious inventions. Drucker’s most recent letterpress book, Narratology (1994), combines the compositional freedoms of Macintosh software with the material presence of letterpress production—she used QuarkXPress to produce polymer plates, and she colored the illustrations by hand.
Drucker started working with Macintosh equipment in 1990. She recalls the production of her book Simulant Portrait as a “technological nightmare” as well as the threshold onto new possibilities of typographic composition and manipulation. Simulant Portrait, an unrestrained, almost naive montage of photos, texts, condensed capitals, and bitmapped headlines rendered in black and acid green, initiated her collaboration with Brad Freeman, a photographer, printer, and book artist then working with Pyramid Atlantic, the project’s publisher. Freeman and Drucker, who are now married, are turning their home in suburban New Haven into a techno-mechanical laboratory of the book, with PowerMacs on the second floor and a metal type shop in the basement.
The visual and poetic structures developed in Drucker’s experimental books are organically linked to her scholarly works. According to Drucker, The Visible Word occupies the void existing in both art history and literary studies for dealing with typographic form. She explains, “I want people in the world of art history and the world of literature to know that typography belongs to both of those worlds.”
The discourse of modern art criticism, which reached its point of highest elaboration in the 1950s and 60s, was based around a notion of phenomenological “presence”—the autonomy and self-evidence of the aesthetic work. Critics like Clement Greenberg barred narrative associations from the realm of visual art and argued for the density and completeness of the modernist object—exemplified by abstract expressionism. In contrast, literary theory, invigorated by semiotics and post-structuralism during the same period, was grounded in a concept of “absence”—the idea that individual signs or objects have no inherent value, but depend on plays of difference within systems of representation. Roland Barthes and other critics, proclaiming the “death of the author,” pictured literature as a tissue of allusions caught in the web of ideology.
Drucker comments, “One needs both of these approaches to understand the way a work of art—literary or visual—functions. There’s the material fact of the work being physically present, inscribed, as a corporeal entity. But you can only interpret this entity through structures of mediation and context.” Experimental typography, by overtly combining the visual and the verbal, the material and the symbolic, brings home the necessity of realigning two modes of expression that were cleaved apart by modern criticism. Across the spectrum of avant-garde practice, artists mobilized the printed medium as a tool of publicity and a field for experiment. The physical form and social function of printing made it an ideal platform from which to challenge conventional distinctions between literary and visual form and between high art and popular culture. Drucker thus positions typography as not merely a strange interlude, an incidental sidebar, in the history of modern art, but as a crucial element of avant-garde strategy.
The Visible Word shows that the Futurist and Dadaist poets borrowed formal devices from commercial graphic design. Putting type on the diagonal, incorporating dingbats into text, manipulating size relationships, mixing typefaces—all these techniques were part of advertising typography by the late nineteenth century. Drucker’s book shows how the avant-garde borrowed these vernacular devices and rendered them theoretically self-conscious in the 1910s and 20s. Paradoxically, many of the same artists then turned their energy back into commercial art, creating a “professional identity” for graphic design by establishing schools, magazines, a canon of pioneers and great works, and so on.
As a physical object, The Visible Word is a drab and dry academic book; in contrast, The Alphabetic Labyrinth is fit for a coffee table, with two-color printing and hundreds of bewitching illustrations of letters, runes, and hieroglyphs. The Alphabetic Labyrinth is an epic history of Western Thought—from antiquity to the late twentieth century—with letters cast in the leading role. Phonetic writing is a piece of intellectual technology with profound consequences for the civilizations it has touched. Valued for its brilliant abstraction—its ability to translate the sounds of nearly any language into a concise, repeatable code—the alphabet would appear to be the most rational and transparent—even shallow—of devices. And yet, as Drucker shows, the alphabet has always been subject to fantasies claiming that its forms mask a mystical purpose or a natural, figurative origin. Strange precedents for contemporary fonts made from icons and symbols can be seen in theories that tried to naturalize the alphabet by linking the shapes of the letters to the organs of the mouth.
Living a double life, Drucker has kept her practice as an artist separate from her work as a scholar. “My colleagues at Yale think it’s fine that I make artists’ books,” she explains, “as long as I don’t confuse that with academic publishing. Eventually, it would be great to bring the two ways of working closer together.” Drucker’s experimental books are difficult works of art printed in small editions. If she were going to produce a more accessible book that still employed typographic interventions, Drucker would more likely aim for a popular novel than an academic text—“I always imagined I would become Judith Krantz.”
The possibility of merging typographic experiment with mainstream publishing goals suggests the relevance of Drucker’s work to the practice of graphic design. In a period when many graduate programs are trying to integrate serious research into design education without losing hold of practice, Drucker has successfully carved a path through divergent disciplines. Not a casual dabbler, she pursued a legitimate education in theory and history and built a rigorous practice in the literary and visual arts. Although Drucker’s example cannot be easily adopted by graphic designers frustrated with the intellectual limitations of the marketplace, people with similar skills and inclinations may find it easier to map their own routes across related territory now that she has gone before them.