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 to others.
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 category?
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 books.
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 below.
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.
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 and procedures..
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 historical methods
for books bound and tooled in leather.)