Artists’ Alphabets

Literacy begins with the alphabet. From the early twentieth century to today, modern artists have used the familiar ABC book, or abecedary, as a point of departure for diverse themes. In this exhibition, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a publication, revealing the abecedary as a learning device enjoyed well beyond childhood.

The exhibition is organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library.

John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35" (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view)

A Ron King. Alphabeta Concertina (London: Circle, 2007).
Using elegant paper-construction, King has rendered each letter in three dimensions, with the alphabet divided between front and back of the fan fold format.

B Merilyn Fairskye. Alphabets of Loss for the Late 20th Century: Alchemy– Zeitgeist (New York: Fairskye, 1992).
At first glance this book appears to be blank, but this alphabet would be clear to a Braille reader.

C Frédéric Bruly-Bouabré. Une Méthodologie de la nouvelle écriture africaine, “Bété;” L'Alphabet de l'ouest africain (A Methodology of the New African Writing, “ Bété,” Alphabet of West Africa) (Paris: One Star Press, 2003).
In 1956, Bruly-Bouabré created a writing system for the Bété people of the Ivory Coast. Here, symbols represent words and syllables beginning with B.

DRosaire Appel. Stolen Letters (New York: Rappel, 2008).
Critiquing restrictive intellectual property laws, each letter in this alphabet is appropriated from other books—along with the source letter's copyright statement.

EJames Wojcik. Play Wojcik in Miniature: The Complete Alphabet, All 52 (New York: Wojcik, 1991).
Each card in this miniature deck bears a photograph of a letter sculpted from playing cards. To play, the instructions say, “think of a word beginning with the letter you have chosen. Say your word out loud. . . . The person to your left continues by choosing the next card and doing the same thing. Your Psychic Collaborative Poem has begun.”

EJames Johnson. Index (Boulder: Discopie, 1992).

FMary Mills Lyall and Earl Hargvey Lyall. The Cubies' ABC (New York: Putnam, 1913. Reprint, 2010).
This child-sized book satirizes the 1913 Armory Show, a controversial exhibition in New York that introduced modern art, including Cubist painting, in the United States: “F's for the Future for which Cubies hanker . . . they give up the past without envy or rancor.”

GFrancois Robert and Rick Valicenti. Stop the Violence: Character Studies (Broadview: Illinois: Classic Color, n.d.).
The artists address pacifism with letters formed of bones, paired with excerpts from Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech.

HGertrude Stein and Giselle Potter. To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (New Haven: Yale, 2011).
Stein's prose alphabet was written in 1940. This illustrated edition adds an additional dimension to the text.

IRoger Anderson and Albert Mobilio. Letters from Mayhem (New York: Cabinet, 2004).
In delicate watercolor illustrations, each letter is surrounded by abject symbols such as discarded packaging and dissolute teenagers: “Like weeds, we crept out of rifts. Ornaments of decay. As ready for sun as for a blade.”

JZoe Keramea. Alphabet/ΑΛΦΑΒΗΤΟ (Athens: Zoe Keramea, 2001).
In this book, featuring Greek and Roman letters, “A square paper is folded once, twice, three times; then it is cut in a freehand improvisation on each of the twenty six letters of the alphabet. Opened, the cut letters mirror themselves into a circle.”

KMan Ray. Alphabet for Adults (Beverly Hills: Copley, 1948).
Man Ray's inked words and line drawings correspond only loosely to each letter, suggesting automatic drawing or another associative Surrealist game. In the introduction he writes, “To make a new alphabet of the discarded props of a conversation can lead only to fresh discoveries in language.”

LLaura Owens. Fruits and Nuts (Los Angeles: Ooga Booga, 2011).
In this beautifully produced board book, California newspaper pages are colorfully silkscreened with an exuberant alphabet of fruits and nuts.

MPeter Blake. Peter Blake's ABC (London: Tate, 2009).
A playful alphabet based on the Pop artist's collection of vintage toys.

NRubén del Rosario, Isabele Freire de Matos, and Antonio Martorell. ABC de Puerto Rico (Sharon, Connecticut: Troutman, 1968).
Colorful woodblock prints illustrate the artists' imagined Puerto Rico.

OChris Campe. Hamburg Alphabet (Hamburg: Junius, 2010).
This alphabet of photographic details is drawn from Hamburg street graphics.

PBertrand Russell and Franciszka Themerson. The Good Citizen's Alphabet (London: Gaberbocchus, 1953).
Russell's alphabet is for adults, satirizing social hypocrisy. The illustration for “pedant” is most likely a sketch of Russell.

QSteve Martin and Roz Chast. The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! (New York: Flying Dolphin, 2007).
Verse and illustrations are packed with examples of each letter, as in Q: “Quincy the kumquat queried the queen, cleverly, quietly, without being seen.”

RColleen Ellis. ABCing: Seeing the Alphabet Differently (New York: Batty, 2010).
This pedagogical alphabet illustrates design principles such as imagination, rhythm, and wit.

SCorita Kent. Damn Everything but the Circus (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970).
Kent's riotous alphabet mixes oversized wood type, saturated color, and pithy quotes.

TSiegfried Cremer. Das Alphabet (Stuttgart: Reflection, n.d.).
In this modestly printed book each letter is abstracted within a square composition.

UEsther Smith and Dikko Faust. PPP ABC XYZ (New York: Purgatory Pie, 1989).

VGerald Ferguson. Xerox copy of abcdefghijklmnopqursuvwxyz (Halifax: Gerald Ferguson, 1968).
This work employs the poetic gestures adopted by many Minimalist and Conceptual artists in the 1960s through typewriter type and photocopy production. Artists in that period were intrigued by the gridlike effects of monospace type, seen here, in which each letter and letterspace is exactly the same width.

WRichard Tuttle. Book (Lausanne: Bianchini, 1974).

XSally McKay. ABC (Sally McKay, 1993).
McKay illustrates each letter with a picture of a consumer product, using a simple layout and the typeface Helvetica to suggest a straightforward primer.

YFleabites. A Bestiary (New York: Fleabites, n.d.).
Numerous artists contributed to this alphabet of wildlife, which includes haiku devoted to Y for Yeast.

ZFurther Reading (New York: Bidoun, 2011).
Publications and projects by the group Bidoun critically explore world preconceptions regarding Middle Eastern culture. In this understated work, the alphabet is drawn from terms in a dated almanac about the region and illustrated with photos and quotes from other books about the Middle East.

&Robert Nideffer. ASCII Alphabet, 1996.
In a text that accompanies this work, the artist has written, “These pages speak . . . to enter into and exit out of language with them, you will be engaged at the level of pure symbolic form. 26 ASCII letters articulating and articulated by multiple voices . . . . The mouth functions as the gateway to the site/sight, marking both beginning and end, a virtual birth and death.”