Johanna Drucker: Retrospective Celebrates 40 Years of Print Works

An exhibit at Columbia College showcases the information studies professor's innovative works of poetry, prose, and fine print.

Johanna Drucker says that her retrospective, “DRUCKWORKS: 40 Years of Books and Projects by Johanna Drucker” is a celebration of a long and productive career. On view until Dec. 7 at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago, the exhibit showcases her unique take on creating artists’ books and her writings that often dictated the books’ design.

“Forty years is a nice round number – it seemed like enough,” says Drucker, a professor of information studies and the Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “I think it’s important sometimes to draw a line and say, ‘I’m done with that’ and see what [happens].”

Drucker created “From A to Z” (1977) with 48 drawers full of lead type – using each letter only once. Courtesy of artistsbooksonline.org

Drucker says her recently completed book, “Stochastic Poetics” (2012) is, “a kind of summa. It’s a final work in terms of that particular technology and that particular world.” For an artist and poet who wrote and printed her 1977 book, “From A to Z” using 48 drawers full of lead type – with each letter only used once – that particular technology and particular world often defy description. Having earned her B.F.A. at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in printing, she says that her approach to the fine press tradition is a bit unorthodox.

“Fine press is a tradition in which the craft of printing is brought into the service of the presentation of works of literary merit or cultural value – and I don’t do that,” Drucker quips. “My books are conceptual works… that use a problem or a set of constraints as motivation.”

“What I’m doing is making the work as I go,” she says. “My writing is sort of innovative experimental writing; it’s not classic prose. I’m often changing the text when I’m composing it at the type case so that it looks better on the page. Or, I run out of letters, so I have to rewrite.”

For Drucker, rewriting also means reinterpreting other works. Her 2006 book, “Testament of Women” is a retelling of “Sarah Laughed” by Vanessa Ochs, which was written in 2004 as an updated version of Old Testament stories about women. Drucker says that while Ochs’s book was meant to provide guidelines for young women in contemporary life, she wanted to go further and retell the stories with “a really radical point of view.”

“For instance, there is Jephthah’s daughter, who doesn’t even have a name in the Old Testament,” says Drucker. “Her father goes off to war and promises that if he’s victorious, he will sacrifice the first living creature from his household that comes towards him on his return in order to thank God for his safety, [thinking] it would be the dog, or a goat.

“So he’s returning home, and his daughter comes towards him. She’s 17 years old. She’s never had a lover; she’s never been married. And he says, ‘I have to sacrifice you, because I made this promise to God.’ And she says, ‘Well, Father, if you have to do that, you have to give me a year so that I can go up into the mountains with my girlfriends. I’ll never have a husband; I’ll never have children. I’ll never know all these things about life. But give me a year to be with my girlfriends.’ And then she does this and she comes back and he sacrifices her.

“When [Vanessa] told this story, her tale was about the virtue of fellowship among women. My version of it was, ‘Get out of there! You didn’t make the promise to God, that’s your father’s problem. Why should a girl be sacrificed for a promise that her father made, even if it was to God?’ That’s what I mean by a more radical version.”

Drucker looks forward to pursuing more writing projects in different venues, including poetry, in order to reach a wider audience.

“One of the issues with artists’ books is that they are a unique genre,” she notes. “[Each is] an original work of art, and doesn’t exist in any other form; it’s not a reproduction. But it’s a tiny, tiny world. I’ll make 50 copies, 39 copies [of a book]. Even if it’s 500 copies, it’s such a tiny universe. I want my work to have the chance to be in a bigger world.”

The Old Testament story of Jephthah’s daughter is treated with a “really radical point of view” in Drucker’s “Testament of Women” (2006). Courtesy of artistsbooksonline.org

Despite the rarity of Drucker’s actual books – many of which are out of print – the Website Artistsbooksonline.org, which she established in 2004, is an Internet source of not only her works but those of her colleagues in the fine print world. She also shares her expertise with students at UCLA through her leadership of the Horn Press, a student-run letterpress club in the Department of Information Studies that is affiliated with the Department of Design Media Arts.

Drucker says that students who aspire to careers in libraries, archives, or special collections should have the hands-on experience of printing as part of their education, in addition to their training in digital library skills.

“It shifts their understanding into a whole other place – the relationship we have to labor, to time, to materials, is so different [now],” says Drucker. “It’s great for students to know how things are made. They get something out of it that is immediate and gratifying.

“It gives them a really different understanding of historical artifacts. Up until the 1880s, every single book that was printed, was printed with handset type – every encyclopedia, every dictionary, every travel sequence, every novel… everything. And that blows their mind.”