Anna Bella Geiger, “Page from O Novo Atlas parte 1” (1977) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry © 2015 Anna Bella Geiger)

Anna Bella Geiger, “Page from O Novo Atlas parte 1” (1977) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Anna Bella Geiger)

Along with vinyl records and vintage synthesizers, typewriters have made a nostalgia-fueled resurgence in the digital age. Take the Hemingwrite, a modern “distraction-free writing tool” promising screen addicts freedom from the internet, or German politicians’ ploy to use “unhackable” typewriters for security purposes, or fiction writer Paul Auster’s ode to his 1962 Olympia. Artists, too, might think about rescuing the typewriter from obsolescence after seeing the strange and beautiful pictures compiled in The Art of Typewriting, out this month from Thames & Hudson.

jw curry, “MAB[2]” (ca. 1992) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 jw curry) (click to enlarge)

This exhaustive compendium compiles work from 200 artists who turned a common office machine into a tool for image-making, manually twisting and turning paper in the feed to strike characters in precisely chosen spots. It spans from the first known piece of typewriter art — an image of a butterfly composed of brackets, dashes, slashes, and an asterisk, made by Flora Stacey, a British secretary, in 1898 — to world maps, lifelike portraits, geometric abstractions, and visual poetry by the likes of Yoko Ono. It’s all culled from the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the world’s largest collection of its kind and one of Miami’s hidden art troves, founded by authors Marvin and Ruth Sackner.

Since we can now place type on pages and screens with no effort or mess, you might think you could easily reproduce the aesthetic of these manually-produced typewriter artworks in a program like Microsoft Word. It’s all just proto-ASCII art, right? But the appeal of these images often comes from their messy, analog nature.

“The images in this collection are clearly not made on a computer,” graphic designer John Maeda writes in the book’s preface. “What is it about them? It’s their imperfection; their mechanical imperfection, carefully mixed with human sensibilities and grit.”

Jake Berry, “22 & 10 & Is & Laugh” (1987) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Jake Berry)

Take, for example, the work of perhaps the best known and most intriguing typewriter artist, Paul Smith (1921–2007). His severe spastic cerebral palsy from birth prevented him from ever learning to reading or write, he required help with eating, dressing, and bathing, and had impaired speech. But at age 16, he discovered typing as a means of drawing. Though he couldn’t grasp a brush or pen, he could hit typewriter keys, holding his right hand down with his left so he could type with a single finger. With the shift key in lock, using a handful of symbols — @, #, $, %, ^, &, *, (, and ) — Smith went on to create nearly 400 typed artworks depicting animals, trains, still lifes, and war scenes, plus portraits of the Pope and Mother Teresa. Though he worked on a machine, his process was anything but mechanical. He came up with a shading technique, in which he’d press his thumb on the ribbon to apply ink to the drawings. He smeared ink with erasers and built up dark color blocks with repetitive keystrokes.

When typing in a digital word processor, an artist can’t, for instance, smear ink or reposition paper. The work in The Art of Typewriting is a testament to how technical constraints can force artists to be more resourceful about their creative processes. It would be tedious or perhaps even impossible to use a program like Photoshop or Word to reproduce some of the common techniques employed in artistic typewriting. Take the overstrike — while it’s a simple process on a typewriter, overstriking in Photoshop is cumbersome and requires adding new layers. So, in addition to being “unhackable” and internet-free, there are other advantages ye olde typewriter has over today’s sophisticated word processors and design programs. Luckily, eBay has plenty for sale.

Maurizio Nannucci, “Dattilograme Typwriter Poem” (1964) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Maurizio Nannucci)

Tom Phillips, “Pages of A Human Document” (1966–73) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Tom Phillips)

Tom Phillips, “Pages of A Human Document” (1966–73) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Tom Phillips)

Frank Singleton, “Abstract 3” (1986) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Frank Singleton)

Eduardo Kac, “Luz” (1981) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Eduardo Kac)

Jochen Gerz, “Porträt des Künstlers als junger Bourgeois” (1970) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Jochen Gerz) (click to enlarge)

Leandro Katz, “Word Column IV: Puno | Altamira” (ca. 1971) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Leandro Katz)

Leslie Nichols, “Siobahn (Grimke 1837)” (2011) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Leslie Nichols)

Vittore Baroni, “Memento Mori” (1988) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Vittore Baroni)

Ruth Wolf-Reinhardt, “Series Towers” (ca. 1980) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Ruth Wolf-Reinhardt)

Steve McCaffery, “Second Panel” (1970–75) (courtesy of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, © 2015 Steve McCaffery)

The Art of Typewriting is available for pre-order from Thames & Hudson and will be published on October 26.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

11 replies on “Looking Back on 100 Years of Typewriter Art”

  1. Nice work and such a range of emotion and nuance — Just proves the old axiom, “the artist makes the art.” Also, time and perspective certainly can give one pause when viewing our inventions, our machines. I recently heard a six-year old exclaim to his Mother upon seeing his first typewriter, “Look Mom! A keyboard without a monitor!”

    1. Another great example of this genre, and a powerful influence in American graphic art came from New York City. I was a senior in high school and had to have a portable Olivetti after seeing typed graphics from the Composing Room, 1960.

  2. What nostalgia — I still have an old/ancient typewriter with a huge carriage lying unused for a long time — part of memories !!!

  3. First example I saw growing up of concrete poetry was the Mouse’s Tale in Alice in Wonderland. I did a lot of ASCII art with overstrikes in the 80s, but mostly with printers, not typewriters. In the midst of that, I found a book that collected a lot of concrete poetry, but I’m not sure which box it’s packed away in now. Might have to fish that out!

  4. It’s really impressive that artists could turn a typing tool into an image making tool. These art works are really creative. In modern days, printer has takenover typewriter, but we can never forget typewriter in the history. It is really interesting that we could use something that don’t really exist anymore to reproduce a new type of art.
    Jialun Zhang

  5. This was a very interesting article to read. I had no idea that this style of art even existed! But I can see how this can be appealing on many different levels. Typewriters are definitely cherished items and to many, are a tangible link to the old ways of life. Typewriters, though harder to use than our laptops, were much more simple. In art, I think it’s great to explore different mediums and I love seeing another new way to make it.

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