Written by Peter D. Verheyen
for FIA 610, Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University April, 1998
What is a book? An artist's book? A livre d'artiste?
What is a book? Traditionally the book form has been associated with the codex, a textblock of folded signatures, sewn to some kind of support with a cover. Although this structure (with some variations) has existed for over a thousand years other forms have come to be called books as well, including clay tablets, scrolls, petrogylphs and, now, some argue computer files as well. Illustrations have been a part of "books" almost from the beginning being used to illustrate the text and depict events or places or people... within, the Nuremberg Chronicle being an early example of this. The illustrations were not, however, meant to be seen as art. William Blake (1757 -1827) changed that with his artists' books, among them The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence. In these, Blake wrote the text, made the etchings of the text and illustrations, printed, and then hand-colored the pages. The only thing Blake did not do it seems was bind them. Blake was far ahead of his time. The artist's book did not reappeared until this century and was adopted as a format by the Futurists, DADA, and the Constructivists among others. The livre d'artiste which co-existed with the artist's book, was similar yet also very different.
Livre d'artiste vs. artist's book:
What is the difference between an artist's book and a livre d'artiste. Johanna Drucker in her work The Century of Artists' Books draws a very clear distinction. According to her, the livre d'artiste came into being as a publishing enterprise initiated by such figures as the Parisian art dealers Vollard and Kahnweiler who saw a business opportunity in marketing deluxe editions illustrated by recognized or upcoming stars in the fields of visual arts or poetry, among them Chagall, Picasso, Apollonaire, Matisse, Miro, Ernst. This was a distinctly French undertaking with no real parallels in the United Kingdon or Germany.
While deluxe editions were not unusual at the time, the idea of merging them with the fine arts was. These editions were generally released unbound, essentially as a suite of prints or at best very simply bound. The buyer would then take them to their favorite binder designer such as Bonet, Creuzevault, or Legrain. These "collaborations" were nothing short of breathtaking.
To Drucker the livre d'artiste stopped just short of being artist's books by "stopping just at the threshold of conceptual space in which artist's books operate." This is because it is very rare to find a livre d'artiste which "interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities." To Drucker, these livres d'artistes seem to be "embalmed" in excessive production values, with a very stiff relationship between the text and images which seemed forced into an outdated structure or format.
The main distinction between the livres d'artistes and the artist's book is that the former were almost always initiated by the publisher with often little or no relationship between the artist and writer. The binder was only an afterthought, though a significant one as it now turns out. By contrast, the artist's book is understood to be the work of one individual or a collaborative effort. In either case, it is conceived from start to finish as an integrated unit. The motive is also quite different. While the livre d'artiste was created as a financial venture, the artists' motives are more likely to be to make themselves heard or to share a vision. Making money is nice, but not the reason for creating the work. The artist's book is by nature, and for the reasons just mentioned more likely to be non-traditional in format and structure. In fact, it is almost expected that artists deviate as far as they dare from the traditional form entering into the realm of sculpture. Indeed, most of the creators of artist's books are not tied to anyone discipline in particular. Some are primarily printmakers but most are not and bring a very broad background to their "books" (I use that term loosely). As opposed to the livres d'artistes these are more than likely to be unique objects and as such are more closely allied with painting and sculpture. Technically, they are created using a variety of techniques, employing fine printing as easily as xerography.
Another category which falls somewhat between the two is the fine press artist's book. This category is generally more closely allied with the livre d'artiste in that it is an editioned work. While some fine press artist's books are the work of an individual, more often than not working in close collaboration, an author, artist, printer, binder. On a more commercial level the 1920's - '40's saw a number of artist's books released by major publishers. Featured are the work of Lynd Ward who published several novels in woodcuts, John Vassos who took to offset, Rockwell Kent and others. Zines, issued by micro-presses in small or large editions, regularly, or just once, fit in this category, with the difference that the production is often less elaborate and refined, but also more experimental in content and concept. They are a way for the artist to reach a wide audience without great expense, similar in many ways to the Dada publications.
Importance of structure to the artist's book:
In contrast to the livre d'artiste, the artist's book is likely to make the structure of the book an integrated part of its overall design and concept. How the "book" or object is assembled is as important as the contents of the book, if any. It is quite common for "book artists" to create "books" which are no more than finely engineered works of paper, often highly complex, which contain no text and only the faintest hint of "bookness" (a term coined by Philip Smith a British fine binder who came to binding by way of painting). The structure determines how the "book" is read, and influences how the "reader" interacts with it. Pages can open up from both sides and panels can be hinged along different sides making the viewer unfold the structure as they "read" it. Pop-ups can reveal hidden aspects. By slightly changing a series of illustrations animation can be created as the "reader" flips through the pages quickly. Through the use of transparency, an image can evolve and de-evolve as the "pages" are turned. The possibilities are almost endless, and one innovation leads to another. In the process the "reader" becomes increasingly drawn into the object as they interact with it. This idea of the importance of structure is explored in detail in Keith Smith's book Structure of the Visual Book..
Significance of the illustrator to the book:
In the text to the MOMA exhibition catalog A Century of Artists Books, Riva Castleman breaks down the relationships of the parties as: artists with authors; artists as authors; artists for authors; and artists without authors.
Artists with authors represents the livres d'artiste where the artist and author are brought together, the artist's role being to embellish the words of the author, just as it the typesetter and designer's role.
Artists as authors refers to artists who decided that they wanted to express themselves in words as well as images. With Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Malevich, El Lissitzky, and Duchamp this was very successful and their works helped define their movements (Bauhaus, Constructivism, Dada). Others such as Miro, Leger, and Matisse were more than capable of putting into words the expressiveness of their painting.
Artists for Authors is much like the first category except that the pairing of the two is often more remote. While, as with the first category, the two parties may know each other and exchange ideas, here more often than not the artist was commissioned, or chose to illustrate an earlier text. Artists, however, could also take existing texts and use those as the basis for new works. An example is Tom Philips' treatment of two works. The first, entitled A Humament, was derived from a text (The Human Document) which Philips bought at a flea market for 2 shillings. Through overpainting and other alterations of the text he created a new one. Philips also treated Dante's Inferno as well as translating it.
The final category, artists without authors, this is where, according to Castleman, the origins of the modern artist's book can be found. Grosz's Ecce Homo and El Lissitzky's About Two Squares are examples of this as is Frans Masereel La Ville and some of Lynd Ward's work such as Gods's Man. Edward Ruscha is credited with setting the pattern for the modern artist's book with his 1963 work Twentysix Gas Stations, a work in which he juxtaposed the images of gas stations, chosen for their similarity of appearance and function with a blank facing page.
The Fluxus movement, founded at the same time, was a collaborative international movement which created a large body of work in the form of printed cards, broadsides, booklets, often boxed together in a "neo-Dada" manner. This movement led to the explosive growth of the artist's book movement in the 1970's and '80's which was inclusive rather than exclusive, with easy to acquire works of art.
Future of the artist's book and trends:
What is the future of the artist's book? The past twenty-five years, especially the past fifteen have seen an explosive growth in the number of artists creating "books" and the acceptance of the format along with other more "mainstream" forms of art. Exhibitions are becoming increasingly widespread and "the book" as concept is being taught in a number of art programs. Printmakers are still making prints and many of these will still end up in "book" form. What is being lost is the art of the craft of fine bookbinding. Those who are teaching in the programs do not have the skills to pass on the finer points of binding, and those in private practice can't afford to take on apprentices for the most part. Perhaps the end of this century will see the end of the finely bound book. When one looks at what artists consider "books," it becomes clear that the term is being used to describe sculptures and wall hangings. These may be derived conceptually from "the book," but that does not make them a book, nor does it make them any less a work of art. Likewise a piece of granite, carved and polished to look like a thick sewn signature is not a book. It depicts one, but that does not make it one. Duchamp may have said that "it is art because I say it is," and in his case it may well have been, but it is all to easy to extend to "it is a book because I say it is." While other forms may transmit information, like clay tablets, scrolls, or graffiti on a wall, that does not make them books.
As technology has advanced, bringing with it new means of producing and creating texts, and illustrating the "book," the very concept of the "physical book" is changing. With the advent of the Web and it's ability to hyperlink to other parts of a document or another document altogether, the book need no longer exist as a physical artifact. Janet Maher, a professor of art at Loyola College, created a work entitled ALPHABET which exists only electronically and is composed of a series of animated images which flash a text, depicting the alphabet across the viewer's screen. Is it a book? I'm not so sure, but it is art. As programs grow in versatility and ease of use, we can expect increasing artists to chose this as their medium.
I'd like to close with Philip Smith's statement on "bookness" which sums up, in my mind, the book form. While the boundaries of a form must be explored, a commonly agreed upon vocabulary is important for an understanding of that form as well as any discussion of it.
"Bookness: The qualities which have to do with a book. In its simplest meaning the term covers the packaging of multiple planes held together in fixed or variable sequence by some kind of hinging mechanism, support, or container, associated with a visual/verbal content called a text. The term should not strictly speaking include pre-codex carriers of text such as the scroll or the clay tablet, in fact nothing on a single leaf or planar surface such as a TV screen, poster or hand-bill.
"Bookness" is however being stretched to include forms which carry a digitalized or electronic text such as a CD, a hard disk or a microchip, or miscellaneous forms such as spirals of paper with continuous text, or pyramids, dodecahedrons and other geometric multiplanar forms (which could also have text inscribed on them). I would not describe all these things as having the quality of bookness or being strictly covered by the definition. A blank book is still a book, but a blank do decahedron or unmarked spiral of paper is not a book, it is a dodecahedron etc. A text is a text and not a book, but any other object one likes to imagine may perhaps be its conveyance. A text can be inscribed on anything but this does not make it a book, or have the quality of bookness, even as a scroll retains its scrollness without any text on it. A teddy bear with text on it is not a book! The book is not the text, although it is traditionally associated with it, and these two elements appear often to be mistaken for the same thing. The book is the hinged multiplanar vehicle or substrate on which texts, verbal, or tactile (the latter would include braille and other relief or embossed effects, found objects, pop-ups) maybe written, drawn, reproduced, printed or assembled.
The large imposed sheets on which texts are printed before folding into quires or signatures are not yet in book form (the qualities of bookness have not yet been imparted to them); nor to microfilm or microfiches by which book texts may be scanned be described as having bookness. They would be considered in the single planar form as on a video monitor (or a painting for example), but when the same text is arranged into book form it then taken on the qualities of bookness. It is questionable whether something becomes a book by being called such. The notion that an artist may call anything he likes a "work of art" or a "book", because he says so, is the extreme of sloppy thinking and contravenes everything we regard as leading to truth, notwithstanding Marcell Duchamp!
In a story by Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451, there is a group of people who, in order to save them, memorise books, and are called "walking books"! Other similarly claimed substitutes abound in so-called book-artists' jargon, but the memories of books are not yet in book form, and so cannot be called books or have bookness. One could say however that a pack of Tarot cards does have bookness. It functions as a working group of loose-leaf planar surfaces with related images conveying textual matter in pictorial form. Traditional knowledge has it that the Tarot is in fact a philosophical treatise. The planes of a book have a necessary relationship or they simply become a collection of arbitrary planes for which a book format is not essential for the conveyed meaning. Many arbitrarily devised objects such as chewed or dissolved texts in bottles, etc., may or may not be art objects, but they are not objects with bookness. The book-maker's art should be distinguished from the art-maker's book. The book is generally thought of as a compact, conveniently portable mobile object (although there can be giant books, made of any material). The book, as book, has multiple planes because all the text or material it contains would be too unwieldy in a single planar form. There are book-like objects or appearances and object-like books, but that is a different story."
* The Ardent Image: Book illustration for adults in America, 1920 - 1942. Toledo, OH: Ward M. Canada Center, The University of Toledo, 1995.
* The Art of the Book and the Book Arts Press. Upper Arlington, OH: Logan Elm Press & Papermill, 1994.
* The Book as Art: Modern illustrated books and fine bindings, part 1. New York: Sotheby's 1995.
* The Book Stripped Bare: A survey of books by 20th century artists and writers. Hempstead, NY: The Emily Lowe Gallery and Hofstra University Library, 1973.
* Castleman, Riva. A Century of Artists Books. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994.
* Polnische Buchkunst der Gegenwart. Warsaw: Verband der Polnischen Bildenen Künstler, Bezirk Warschau, 1996.
* Dressing the Text: The fine press artists' book. Santa Cruz, CA: The Printers' Chappel of Santa Cruz, 1995.
* Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.
* The New Bookbinder. London: Journal of Designer Bookbinders. Various issues.
* Ray, Kevin. Una Selva Oscura: Tom Philips's Inferno. St. Louis, MO: Special Collections, Washingotn University Libraries, 1997.
* Smith, Keith. Structure of the Visual Book, 3rd ed. Rochester, NY: Keith Smith Books, 1994.
* Smith, Keith. Text in the Book Format. Fairport, NY: The Sigma Foundation, 1989.
* Smith, Philip. Designer Bookbinders Newsletter. London: Summer 1996. Letter to the editor.
* Trusky, Tom. Some Zines 2: Alternative & Underground Artists & Eccentric Magazines & Micropresses. Boise, ID: Cold-drill books, Department of English, Boise State University, 1996.
* There are also an increasing number of resources relating to this subject on the Web. Links to most of these can be found at
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