If I told you there was a book about art produced on the typewriter, you’d probably say “Really?” in that tone of voice you reserve for when you want to sound interested out of politeness, but actually couldn’t give a damn. It carries with it the implication of, “Please don’t go on”.
Well, there is, and I’m telling you about it now. You’re envisaging a small, perhaps bijou volume, aren’t you? One of those things that’s put up to have a jewel-like quality and be a bit of a work of art in itself, rather like a slim volume of verse. Something to savour over a single espresso.
Well, you’re wrong. And you’re wrong. You do want me to go on, because this is a fascinating book and you’ll wonder how you managed to miss out on this by-way of art history. It’s also a large-format 350 page tome printed on quite heavy paper. It needs a coffee table and, indeed, a whole pot, so put the espresso cups away.
Typewriter art has a long and fascinating history. People have been doing it since the invention of, well, the invention of the typewriter. The earliest piece here is from 1890 and is an example of ornamental borders. It may not have been intended to be art at the outset – merely a practical illustration of what can be done, but art is what it is, in an almost inevitable way. And why shouldn’t a piece of text produced on the typewriter have artistic pretentions? Typewriting is, after all, only a mechanical way of writing and what mediaeval monks would have used on their painstakingly copied manuscripts if they’d been given proper equipment instead of quill pens and messy inks.
Looked at this way, when you start to embellish the presentation of the written word, it’s inevitable that someone’s going to start thinking that this could be an art form in its own right. Looking at the dates of the pieces illustrated here, the form started to flourish in the 1960’s and continued through the 70’s and into the 80’s. It tails off after that, probably not least because the machines weren’t so universal. People bought computers and then found what they can do with them and typewriter art became a bit niche and retro. Lomographic, if you like.
I hope that, by now, I’ve got you interested. My next job is a small act of forgiveness. I’m going to forgive you for thinking that typewriter art must be pretty limited and that, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It isn’t and you haven’t. This is an amazingly varied and constantly fascinating book and full marks to Thames and Hudson for giving it the extent and the format that allow it to breathe, spread its wings and tell you the extraordinary tale it has to tell.
I referred to typewriter art earlier as a by-way of art history. I suspect that, without the knowledge, understanding and, above all enthusiasm of the Sackners – onlie begetterrs of the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry – that’s how it would have remained. Of such things are the accidents of history formed. Be glad.
Click the picture to view on Amazon