Artist's Books - For
Lack of a Better Name
WARNING: Artist's books should come with a warning label. Once you know
what they are, be warned, you have the burden of trying to explain them
Who am I to try to define artist's books? Just one person in a long
succession. Perhaps I am not as qualified as the rest, being a creator
of them instead of a librarian, curator, teacher or critic, but defining
them seems to be a never ending task and somebody's got to do it. The
only problem is, if you don't know what one is, and you keep on reading,
chances are you will have to explain them to others.
As in anything, there are always exceptions to the rule. With artist's
books, I would hesitate to establish rules, only tendencies. Essentially,
artist's books are contemporary art. If they are art, then they must
be made by artists. If they resemble books at times, then they might
be defined as books, or publications, made by artists. But what if they
are made by philosophers or writers? Like Laurence Sterne in Tristram
Shandy (1760) or Jacques Derrida in Glas (1974) ? Stephen Bury, author
of Artists' Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-1995 argues that
no matter how inspirational these works are, they cannot be artist's
books because they were not made by artists. I assure you, the essays
in his book are much better than mine. But since you've stumbled on
to this essay, I'll continue. I may be a bit egalitarian or relativistic
for some, but I would say that artist's books, indeed, may be made by
anyone that is willing to try. That is one reason why "artist's
books" is not necessarily the most apt terminology for the genre.
There are raging battles about this terminology, and many variants of
the term itself. The silliest, but most prevalent disagreement, has
to do with commas, or rather, possessive apostrophes, the ones up in
the air. Many people would say it is Artist's Book in the singular and
Artists' Books in the plural. But as I take an interest in this, and
make a sort of mental tally, I have noticed "artist book",
"artist books" and "artists books" often used. With
the spoken word, the discrepancies disappear. Each version sounds the
same out loud, and punctuation is not an issue. Punctuation is becoming
even less of an issue regarding the written word due to electronic communication.
Some people avoid the controversy altogether and call the art in question
"book art" or "bookworks". That eliminates both
the artist connection and the possessive argument. But it doesn't end
here. There are all sorts of terms, for example "livre d'artiste"
or "livre de peintre". They are used in english to define
very special, often luxurious books with poems or literary works accompanied
by original illustrations commissioned of artists by fine press publishers,
often in limited editions. With artist's books, however, it is generally
one individual making all the choices, without the involvement of an
editor or publisher. In this sense, they may be likened to independent
films. The final product reflects the artistic vision of one person,
without imposed constraints connected to marketing or even censorship.
To explain the categories, subsets and tendencies
of artist's books, a diagram may be helpful:
These two axis allow for many possibilities. For example, it would seem
certain that a totally handmade book would also be a unique edition,
or one of a kind. However, as crazy as it might be, some people choose
to produce artist's books which entail all sorts of processes by hand
in open-ended, or potentially infinite editions. And while it might
be logical to presume that a mechanical or electronic artist's book
would be produced in a very large edition, it too may be created as
a unique book in an edition of one. Why would someone go to all the
trouble of handsetting and proofing a letterpress text, using this mechanical
process invented specifically created to print large editions of books
instead of handwritten ones, for the sake of making a single copy? In
order to communicate an idea. Because an artist's book is a tool used
to explore and communicate ideas in a very individual way, and there
are endless means to these ends, often eccentric or controversial ones.
Another way to explain artist's books is by elimination,
that is, by stating what they are not:
They are not children's books
They are not sketch books.
They are not diaries.
They are not blank books.
They are not exhibition catalogs.
They are not reproductions of a body of an artist's work.
They are not art books(a common misnomer).
However, they may parody or play with any of the above, as well as all
other standard categories such as novels, self-help books, non-fiction,
cookbooks, operating manuals, manifestos, travel guides, essays, etc.
Artist's books function in the same way as contemporary art: as an expression
of someone's creativity, often with social commentary, but sometimes
in a purely abstract way, in absence of words or recognizable imagery.
Then should artist's books be considered a separate
In the sense that they may adopt any and all forms of contemporary art,
such as painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, installation
and performance art(necessarily including film and video) plus all forms
of "craft" which have crept into contemporary art on their
own, such as textiles or fiber art, bookbinding, typography, calligraphy,
papermaking, etc, maybe they shouldn't be a separate category. But the
category exists. At one time, in early nineteenth century America, the
profession of sculptor did not exist in the fine arts. Photography and
printmaking fought long and hard as well to be considered valid art
forms, not just mechanical means of reproduction. The category of artist's
books still confronts issues which no longer concern more established
forms of art. They remain obscure as well: there are many artists and
art collectors who have never heard of them.
What distinguishes artist's books from other art forms?
They are usually intended to be portable. They often come with specially
created cases or containers to help in the storage, protection and transportation
of the work. The cases are generally an integral part of the work itself,
the first step in the viewing process.
They are mixed-media. They combine many processes. So that once the
suite of photographs or prints or pulp paintings or weavings has been
completed, the work does not end there, as it might for a photographer
or printmaker or fiber artist. For someone making an artist's book,
it is just one step of the way. Printing the text, die-cutting, creating
a binding and a case, or preparing an installation, will often follow.
Ironically, the final confection, which may include a portfolio of prints,
paintings or photographs, might sell for less than a single, unbound
image of artwork.
They are usually supposed to be touched and interacted with, often with
a specific predetermined sequence. All of their physical attributes
are not visible at once. And in the process of manipulating them, their
multi-layered approaches attempt to manipulate you, just as the sequence
of a film or even an obstacle course.
A single work may have a number of different display possibilities.
Artist's books often have elements that may be arranged according to
the viewer's preference, hanging or flat. Or the work may be designed
to transform into a sculpture. An artist might interact with the book
during a performance, or the book may transform itself, perhaps through
melting, and be dubbed a "performance book".
They are generally not intended to decorate the collector's home. That
reduces the field of private collectors dramatically, including corporate
collections. It takes an unusual collector to buy art which, in being
meant to be touched, requires special care, and it takes an even rarer
breed to buy art that can't double as decoration, constantly on display
for all to see.
So who is most likely to buy artist's books?
Public collections: libraries, museums and university special collections,
which seek meaningful art regardless of its ability to adorn their walls.
However, preconceptions and polemics abound within public collecting.
There are debates within institutions about whether artist's books should
be collected or not. Curators of museums in the U.S. and abroad have
become upset that art librarians are spending money on artist's books,
instead of solely on research books. Some are incensed that librarians
function as curators; some resent that their own departments have no
budget to collect art, so why should the library be able to? These complaints
result at times in a mandate prohibiting the further purchase of artist's
Some institutions are permitted to purchase artist's books, but only
collect books made by artists already represented in their collections
of painting, sculpture or contemporary art. This reflects an often-stated
bias that only artist's books made by artists established in other disciplines
are worthy of attention. Perhaps this indicates that those of us who
focus on artist's books should shun the title "book artist",
and call ourselves photographers or painters. Few artists, or people,
would choose to be pigeon-holed as to a style or category. Regardless,
we are what we're labeled in the media or in history. While wonderful
artists have certainly created some phenomenal artist's books, it is
equally true that people dabbling occasionally in the genre sometimes
fail to create effective works, because of problems with structure or
concept due to unfamiliarity with the medium. And while it may be true
at times that artist's books are purchased because they were created
by a certain well-known artist, it is often the case instead that a
work is purchased purely on the strength of its content, structure or
message, regardless of who made it. This makes the field of artist's
books a friendlier and more open subset of the contemporary art world.
However, every new curator or librarian brings specialties, strengths
and preferences to their job, and the quantity or variety of artist's
books being collected during each tenure will vary. As collections may
be broad, with many different kinds of holdings, each curator or librarian
will build on their institution's collections as they see fit. Sometimes,
the power of an individual to collect is transferred instead to a collections
committee within the institutions. This can work against artist's books,
as they often benefit from a personal demonstration by artist or dealer,
because of their multi-layered, sometimes subtle, approach. A prospectus
describing the work, perhaps in combination with a colophon within the
book, is often used to explain the work in absence of its creator.
The various issues raised above, while attempting to illuminate the
genre, also demonstrate why you may have never heard of artist's books.
The awareness of artist's books is surely increasing, judging from the
astounding number of courses, even university degrees, offered in the
book arts around the world, and due to the great number of exhibitions
in libraries and museums. Not to mention the numerous book arts organizations
and resources on the internet. But the road is slow, and many an enthusiastic
gallerist, dealer or venue dedicated to artist's books over the last
25 years closed its doors due to the difficulties of selling artist's
books while maintaining overhead costs. To be fair, this is true of
contemporary art venues in general and independent bookstores as well.
Even the most famous artist's book venue in the world, Printed Matter
in New York City, has struggled with chronic debt, unable at times to
pay artists for works sold. One of Printed Matter's founding board members,
the art critic Lucy Lippard, once confided in me that when they opened,
they thought artist's books would soon be found in every corner drugstore.
"Boy, were we wrong," she added. Susan Herter of Herter Studios,
during her tenure as editor at Chonicle Books in San Francisco, tried
very hard to promote trade editions, or mass-produced approximations,
of artist's books. Apart from the Griffin and Sabine series, which in
fact did a lot to expand the general public's perception of the possibilities
of book formats, Herter told me her efforts were unsuccessful.
But artist's books and the unusual experiences they offer are as alive
as ever, despite the difficulties of making them, selling them or physically
handling and displaying them. Why? Because people can't help creating
them and enjoying them. And if you still don't know what one is, the
easiest thing to do is to see some examples, so find one near you. Details
PLACES TO LOOK -
Large public libraries; university special collections or art libraries;
specialized dealers and bookstores; prints, photographs and drawings
collections of museums, or museum libraries, or both.
RESOURCES ON THE WEB -
- "The Book Arts Web", maintained and supported by Stanford
philobiblon.com includes book arts discussion group:
a sort of (un)confidential chat for participants in the field includes
Book Arts Links with comprehensive lists of organizations, materials,
artists and dealers
http://www.bookarts.com - run
by Page Two, Inc. in Washington, D.C.
www.bookarts.com features Book Arts Directory with organizations, schools
publications to subscribe to, equipment and supplies, dealers, libraries
includes Book Arts Classified which may only be visited after paying
http://www.colophon.com - "Colophon
www.colophon.com hosts a discussion Forum for anyone who wants to field
inquiries about the book arts via e-mail, or address the community,
with no need to subscribe. Offers Umbrella Magazine online, a
tenacious publication dedicated to book arts includes a calendar, gallery
and marketplace with listings of vendors
- An especially active book arts organization with monthly speakers
and a very informative website.
FREE RESOURCE MATERIALS-
For people who teach courses or lecture on artist's books, I offer some
free samples of my own artist's books and process pieces as supplies last.
Please contact me for details.
SUGGESTED READING -
I have listed three very different choices below, but an exhaustive
selection of books about books, including making books, may be perused
over the web at Oak Knoll Books. http://www.oakknoll.com
I have also written other essays in conjunction with exhibitions. You
will find them in the "writings" section of this website.
Making Books by Hand - A Step by Step Guide
by book artist Mary McCarthy and Phillip Manna
Rockport Publishers, Gloucester, MA
(This is a very detailed, simple manual geared to high-school students
or beginners looking for
applicable projects. Ample listings of resources, suppliers and suggested
reading as well.)
Books, Boxes and Portfolios
by Franz Zeier
Design Press, New York
( This user-friendly manual guides readers through many useful formats
Bibliography and suppliers listed in the back.)
The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding
by Arthur W. Johnson
Thames and Hudson, Ltd, London
(A traditional bookbinding manual for fine binding procedures, with
for books bound and tooled in leather.)
© 2002 Angela Lorenz
THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN IN THE BEGINNING,
OR SAFE BETS FROM A BOOKMAKER -
a little section with maxims and miscellany regarding editioned artist's