Johanna Drucker's Artist Books
An online repository of facsimiles, metadata, and commentary

Prove before Laying: Figuring the Word


Project Statement

Prove Before Laying is in some ways a continuation of earlier projects in which the constraints of letterpress were used generatively (The Word Made Flesh, Through Light and the Alphabet, and even From A to Z or the typesetting choices that structure Against Fiction). The idea of taking utterly new fonts of type, upper and lower case, in all their pristine newness and perfection, as a ground from which language would arise, was seductive. The type was very beautiful, shiny and new, unworn and unblemished -- the very image of potentiality. So the core of this book, the central text block, was generated by making the continual rearrangement, resetting, of the new fonts. The rule was that each successive page had to incorporate the previous page's language and preserve it in some recognizable way while moving ahead with a coherent statement. As the book goes along, the full set of typographic elements is pressed into service, "figuring" the language against the "jealous ground" of the unset type. The red letters, top and bottom, were a statement about language, material, mind, and emergence. These were set in an Emigre font in Quark, output as film, made into polymer, as a way of playing with the full cycle of type to digital to relief printing. But also, this method allowed the type to rise slowly in size, rather than leaping from one letterpress standard (6, 8. 10. 12, 14, 18, 24, 36) to another. The final page was printed by pie-ing the type and printing it, a form that was then used to overprint the paper for the covers of the case-bound portion of the edition.

Production Narrative

The metal font was proofed, and then the proofs were cut up and used to make words in an elaborate scrabble game that began by spelling out "figure" and "ground" and building from these kernels into phrases and statements. Once the text was worked out, then executing it in the letterpress font was a matter of printing and rearranging successive stages of the same form. Though this required a bit of justification adjustment, it wasn't difficult or challenging the way the original textual composition was.Printing the red text from polymer was easy, and probably the most difficult part of the actual production was printing the pied form since there was no way to really lock up the letters. They were just held in enough tension to print decently.

Critical Analysis

Design Features

typographic: The typographic manipulation is central to this work, since the very text evolves from the type's rearrangement.

graphical: The layout of the pages allows for the increasing point size of the red, Triplex, to register as a striking effect of increased scale.

development: The increasing size of the red, polymer Triplex type creates a dynamic effect as the interior text block becomes more and more dense with meaning.



Johanna Drucker

type: initiating


Publication Information

publisher: Druckwerk

production: 1997-00-00
publication: 1997-00-00

publication history: Only one edition was produced, this one, but it had both hard cover, case bound portion of the edition and a spiral bound, cardboard cover portion.

Aesthetic Profile

artists' books (LCSH)

themes: The constraints of language as a system, limits of typeface, the technology of writing. [A. Schutte]

themes: The idea of 'figure' as a projection of ground, and of meaning as a temporary configuration within the field of potential constituted by language, in this case, the literal, material language of a typographic font.

content form:
experimental text (local)

publication tradition:
artists' book (local)

inspiration: The inspiration for this project was from the label on the new font, and also, from a long- standing interest in trying to create work under certain kinds of constraint, particularly the constraints offered by letterpress technology.

related works: Through Light and the Alphabet, The Word Made Flesh, aspects of Against Fiction, and From A to Z, are all works made using the constraints of letterpress in a generative way. The first two are also works that address visual materiality and language.

community: other No community immediately present, but the extended network of poets and critics.

Related Documents

manuscript type: mockups

location: artist's archive

note: The box of letters and their rearrangements is in my archive, and production notes and pieces.

General Comments

title note: The first part of the title is taken from the label placed on newly cast type fonts as they come from the foundry and is a suggestion to "proof" the type before setting it -- to be sure there are no broken letters, bad casting, etc. The subtitle suggests the act of bringing a word into figurative form, through use of a face, but also, as a configured set of letters from the field of alphabetic notation.


Publication Information

edition type: editioned

publisher: Druckwerk

place: Yale Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut

production: 1997-00-00
publication: 1997-00-00

edition size: 90 copies: 40 copies on Rives handbound by the author, 50 copies on Mohawk Superfine spiral bound.


horizontal: 9.5 inches closed

vertical: 9.8 inches closed

depth: .4 inches closed

Production Information

production means:
letterpress (local)

binding: hand sewn (local) Hand bound for 40 copies.

binding: spiral (AAT) Spiral bound for 50 copies.

bookBlock: paper Rives for 40 copies, Mohawk Superfine for 50 copies.
endsheets: paper Rives for 40 copies, Mohawk Superfine for 50 copies.

ink (local)


format: codex (AAT)

cover: The cover of each of the two types of copies is different. The Rives handbound copies have a hard cover, with a wide piece of black fabric over the binding. The front and back covers depict a spattering of the foundry font swirling around in black, with a few of the red letters from the work's second line of text mixed in. The spiral bound Mohawk Superine copies have a plain board front and back cover. The front cover has a piece of Mohawk Superfine pasted on with the title printed on it.

color: yes


pagination: unpaginated 60 pages

numbered?: numbered

signed?: signed


Printed from a previously unproven foundry font and polymer plates (set in Triplex); 40 copies on Rives handbound by the author; 50 copies for friends of the author on Mohawk Superfine, spiral bound, and hors commerce; on the Vandercook at Yale Avenue, New Haven, in the summer of 1997. All signed by the author/printer.