“The Artist’s Book-As Idea and Form”

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Johanna Drucker

Chapter one of The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the artist's book has become a developed artform in the 20th century. In many ways it could be argued that the artist's book is the quintessential 20th century artform. Artists' books appear in every major movement in art and literature and have provided a unique means of realizing works within all of the many avant-garde, experimental, and independent groups whose contributions have defined the shape of 20th century artistic activity. At the same time, artists' books have developed as a separate field, with a history which is only partially related to that of mainstream art. This development is particularly marked after 1945, when the artist's book has its own practioners, theorists, critics, innovators and visionaries. Among the many individuals to be mentioned here there are literally dozens whose achievements belong almost entirely to the realm of artists' books and whose work could sustain the kind of in-depth discussion accorded major painters, composers, poets, or other artists who work in more familiar forms.

What is unique about artists' books, however, is that with very few exceptions they really did not exist in their current form before the 20th century. But it's difficult both to figure out precisely what constitutes that current form and also what the reasons are for its having become so widespread and developed in the last hundred years. A single definition of the the term "an artist's book" continues to be highly elusive in spite of its general currency and the proliferation of work which goes by this name. Its increased popularity can probably be attributed to the flexibility and variation of the book form, rather than to any single aesthetic or material factor. Rather than attempt a rigid or definitive characterization of artists' books, I'm going to sketch out a zone of activity which I think as "artists' books." It is a zone made at the space at the intersection of a number of different disciplines, fields, and ideas rather than at their limits. And rather than try to account causally for the development of the artist's book in the 20th century, I hope to make a case for the ways in which it is the 20th century art form par excellence.

It's easy enough to state that an artist's book is a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a pre-existing work. And also, that it is a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues. But this definition only raises more questions than it answers: What is an "original" work of art? Does it have to be a unique work? Can it be an edition? A multiple? Who is the maker? Is it the artist who has the idea? Or only if she or he does all of the work involved in production printing, painting, binding, photography, or whatever else is involved? Or do each of these practitioners have to be taken into account, especially when there are complicated transformations involved in going from drawings to print, or photographs to inked plates, or when the binding has a structural form to it which has been designed or codified by someone other than the artist? What kinds of production means can be included in this definition is a Gestetner print as valid as a means of producing art as a litho stone, a silver print, or a linoleum block? What about computer printers and xerox machines? Is a work which is made only of bound set-up sheets or other found paper a book production? Or one made of blank paper? Or appropriated images? On the other hand, most people would agree to a common sense definition of what is or is not a book. But in the work of artists this obvious definition soon loses its clarity. Is a book restricted to the codex form? Does it include scrolls? Tablets? Decks of cards? A block of wood with one end painted with a title, like a conventional spine? A walk-in space of oversized panels hinged together? A metaphysical concept, disembodied, but invoked in performance or ritual? In spite of the fact that these questions address only a few aspects of an artist's book's definition, they show the immediate difficulty of trying to make a single, simple statement about what constitutes an artist's book.

If all the various elements or activities which contribute to artists' books as a field are described what emerges is a space made by their intersection, one which is a zone of activity, rather than a category into which to place works by evaluating whether they meet or fail to meet certain rigid criteria. There are, in fact, many of these activities: fine printing, independent publishing, the craft tradition of book arts, conceptual art, painting and other traditional arts, politically motivated art activity and activist production, performance of both traditional and experimental varieties, concrete poetry, experimental music, computer and electronic arts, and last but not least, the tradition of the illustrated book the livre d'artiste. Since this last term causes the most confusion and difficulty it serves as a useful point of departure for beginning to sketch out this zone at the intersection of, but just beyond the limits of, any of these individual fields of activity.

The livre d'artiste came into being as a publishing enterprise initiated by such figures as Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard, whose first productions appeared in the mid-1890s, and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler who began publishing slightly more than a decade later. This trend caught on among other editors who saw the opportunity to market deluxe editions which bore the name of a rising or established star in the world of visual arts or poetry (Vollard was associated with Georges Rouault and Kahnweiler with Apollinaire, Picasso, and other Cubists). Deluxe editions predate the existence of the livre d'artiste, of course, and books with all of the elements of the genre large sized format, elaborate production values such as hand coloring, virtuoso printing, fine binding, use of rare materials, texts, or images which catered to a sophisticated or elite market had long been an established part of the publishing industry. The livre d'artiste took advantage of the expanded market for visual art which had grown in the 19th century, along with other luxury markets expanded by industrial growth, the accumulation of capital, and an educated upper middle class with an appetite for fine consumer goods. The market for these books was developed as an extension of the market for painting, drawing, and sculpture. Kahnweiler was fully aware that he was creating a sideline in books which could be sold on the strength of the popularity and fame of artists whose work he dealt.

But if for editors these books were attractive in part as a new commodity, for artists they often offered the possibility to produce work which they wouldn't or couldn't produce themselves. This might include working in a printmaking medium, for example, or pursing a theme which didn't find an easy place in their other work. The artists whose work was featured in early livres d'artistes are among the foremost in 20th century art, their names the roster known from survey lectures and blockbuster exhibitions: Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso. These books are, in most cases, finely made works, but they stop short of being artists' books. In fact, they stop just at the threshold, or even a bit before the threshold, of the conceptual space in which artists' books operate. First of all, it is 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. This is perhaps one of the most important distinguishing criteria of the two forms, since artist's books are almost always at least self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form.

Even when they are not entirely about that form or its conventions while the standard distinction between image and text, generally on facing pages, is maintained in most livres d'artistes. By contrast to the lively innovations which abound in artists' books, the work of even recent, late 20th century, livres d'artistes tend to feel embalmed in excessive production values, burdened by the weight of traditional format and materials. The paper wrappers of these books can barely contain their thick paper pages, and the large scale of the typefaces is surrounded by a veritable swath of blank margin, while the images and text often face each other like new acquaintances across the gutter, wondering, indeed, how they came to be bound together for all eternity in the hushed, mute, interior of the ponderous tome.

A second major point of distinction is that many, if not most, of the works produced by entrepreneurs such as Kahnweiler were produced as the vision of an editor. The artist and writer were often contracted independently (in many cases classic texts or authors were used as the basis of a new modern visual interpretation Ovid, Shakespeare, Dante and Aesop, to name a few were favorite staples of the livre d'artiste genre). Artist and writer often didn't meet, or met through the arranged connection of the project, as in some loveless mechanical nuptial of convenience. But these editorial habits vary considerably from individual to individual, often with positive results.

The contrast between the editorial vision of Collectif Génération and that of Andrew Hoyem at Arion Press two contemporary producers of livres d'artistes both successful on their own very different terms makes this point very dramatically. Gervais Jassaud, the editor of Colletif Génération, only produces works by living writers and artists. These are previously unpublished, often hand-done or hand-written editions for which Jassaud provides the framework (the shape, size, general format of the book). The degree of collaboration and interaction are left to the artists involved. In addition, Jassaud has worked to make his collaborations and his overall program an international one to an unprecedented degree not merely publishing artists from a wide range of locations, but facilitating an international process of exchange.

Hoyem, on the other hand, has used the texts of both living and classic writers, and his work in many ways is a clearer continuation of the livre d'artiste tradition. Though in general it is the artist's and writer's reputations which sell these books, a rare or unpublished literary text can also be a selling point.

Editors' visions tend to be market oriented it's a vision whose aesthetics are meant to guarantee the value of the product, not necessarily realize an original work. Thus the discrete nature of the elements: text, image, production (including all aspects of printing, binding, typesetting, design, and so forth, to varying degrees) are independent operations, guided by the editor, who engineers their compatibility with the necessary, consummate, taste. This third point is the telling one: the format of these works is perhaps their most characteristic feature, with a standard alternation of word and visual artwork, usually within a single spread or opening. This mechanical repetition of the conventional distinction between image and text is what ultimately returns these works to the category of illustrated books, rather than artist's books. This formula was hardly inevitable. It's interesting for instance to note that some of earliest examples of livres d'artistes were more adventurous in blurring the boundaries of image and text than the later ones, which seemed to fall into the most mundane version of this relationship. The Ambroise Vollard edition of Parallelement (1900) with images by Pierre Bonnard, shows Bonnard's lithographed images weaving into the printed text, uniting the visual and verbal elements on the page. This approach is a continuation of innnovations which actually began with Romantic printers and engravers almost a century earlier, most notably Thomas Bewick, who were intent on merging image and text in their works.

While many livres d'artistes are interesting on their own terms, they are productions rather than creations, products, rather than visions, examples of a form, not interrogations of its conceptual or formal or metaphysical potential.

Any attempt to describe a heterogenous field of activities through particular criteria breaks down in the face of specific books or artists and this is true with this distinction between artist's books and livres d'artistes. The work of Iliazd, a Russian avant-garde artist who became an editor of fine editions after 1945, is often closer to the conceptual form of an artist's book in its originality of vision and investigation of the book form than it is to the deluxe books it resembles through its materials and production means. Similarly, there are any number of inexpensive books whose format reproduces the juxtaposition of word and image as discrete elements in a pattern characteristic of the livre d'artiste. Similar problems occur with trying to define almost every other category of activity which touches on the zone of artists' books and there is often a considerable grey area at their intersection.

Fine printing, for instance, can't really be subsumed under the livre d'artiste nor can it be absorbed into the realm of artists' books though there are many finely printed volumes in both categories. The point is that the term fine printing generally associated with letterpress, handset type, and limited editions, but also be used to describe carefully produced work in any print medium describes production methods rather than indicating any specific genre of creative or editorial activity. There is a category of fine printing which invokes the production of limited edition works for bibliophiles concerned with well-made versions of classic texts printed on archival paper, durable leather bindings, and so forth these are books produced with careful attention to all aspects of printing art, but are not generally innovative in form or concerned with explorations of books as an artistic concept. Though artists' books tend to be associated with offset or electrostatic (commonly referred to by its trade name: xerox) processes, they have also been produced through the methods of letterpress, hand binding, and relief images (woodcut, linoleum, or engraving). Access to a wide variety of printing technologies has played a part in the proliferation of artists' books, especially in the first world, where the ready availability of production means increases in every decade.

But neither the methods nor the quality of production can be used in themselves as criteria for determining a book's identity as an artist's book. Artists use what they have access to and knowledge of. There have been some wonderfully imaginative uses of letterpress from that of the Russian Futurist Vassily Kamensky's Tango with Cows (Moscow, 1914), to pieces produced by an obscure pair of California letterpress printers active in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s: Holbrook Teter and Michael Meyers, whose independent productions had an unsurpassed creative vision, critical edge, and originality while participating in production conventions traditionally associated with fine printing. Letterpress, like offset printing or traditional darkroom techniques, requires a significant investment of time and energy and depends upon regular access in order to be acquired as a skill unlike xerox for instance but doesn't require huge amounts of capital to set up or acquire. Since many artists' books are often (though not always) produced on a shoestring budget by the artists themselves, however, letterpress is now prohibitively expensive in most situations (since it is labor intensive and thus costly when contracted out) unless one owns and operates the equipment. The tactile, dimensional physicality of letterpress tends to be associated with fine printing, and fine printing with a conservative tradition, but an artist's book can certainly be well printed without losing its identity, just as bad printing is often acceptable and successful in the context of artists' books.

In addition to its relation to the traditions of deluxe book publication, the field of artists' books has a relation to other forms of printing activity. One of these, more literary and political in its origins, is that of independent publishing. I define independent publishing as any publication effort which is mounted for the sake of bringing an edition into being which cannot find ready sponsorship in the established press or among commercial publishing houses. Largely associated with the literary realms and political activism, independent publishing allocates the power of production to anyone in possession of a press or the means to pay for printing. The term "independent" suggests an independence from commercial motives or constraints. In the 20th century much of the experimental literature which blossomed as part of modernism, the avant-garde, and other innovative aesthetic traditions, failed to find a receptive place in established publishing houses. Often authors hae early work published in these venues and then are picked up by larger houses. The efforts of the British writers, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, at the Hogarth Press (established in 1917), or of John Heartfield and his brother, Weiland Herzfelde in the establishment of the Malik Verlag (also 1917), or of Caresse and Harry Crosby's Black Sun Press (begun in Paris, 1925) are a handful of the many classic, historic examples of independent publishing. Because such enterprises are launched with the ideal of publishing innovative, creative, or experimental work rather than making money, and are generally staffed by the editor/publishers who often also print the work, these independent publishers serve to make work available to the public which might not appear if profit were the sole publishing motive. The vast majority of creative writing, poetry, and prose is published through independent means by the labors and efforts of editors who barely break even monetarily or who subsidize their publishing work through other sources of income. Funding from private or public organizations sometimes provides additional funding, but hardly enough to replace the initiative and determination which carry these projects through on a sustained basis. Artist's book publishing whether by artists or by the publishers dedicated to artists' books, of which there are a significant number is often in this financial category. This is not to suggest that artists never make money off their books, but simply to suggest that the same impetus which gives rise to independent publishing the desire to make a voice heard, or a vision available, is part of the impetus behind artist's books.

The idea of the independent publisher is closely linked to that of the activist artist. Activist artists often give little thought to financial return or careerist investment (though both publishers and artists often establish a name and a reputation which they can leverage to future successes as a result of these efforts). Much activist work is topical, politically or socially motivated in its thematics, and distributed through inexpensive editions as cheaply and widely as possible. Artists with a social or political motivation for their work have frequently turned to the inexpensive multiple as a means of gaining a wider audience for the work. Books, because they have the capacity to circulate freely, are independent of any specific institutional restraints (one finds them in friends' houses, motel rooms, railroad cars, school desks). They are low maintenance, relatively long-lived, free floating objects with the capacity to convey a great deal of information, and serve as a vehicle to communicate far beyond the limits of an individual life or contacts. The notion of the book as a means of available communication is part of what informs the myth of the book as democratic multiple, in spite of the many paradoxes of production involved in this idea. From the Russian Futurists to the Fluxus artists to the Press at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles, to the Lower East Side Print Shop in New York, the idea of making the book a tool of independent, activist thought has been one of the persistent elements of the mystique of the artist's book. That artists' books can facilitate a change of consciousness is clear, as with any other symbolic form be it poetry, visual arts, or music; whether such work can result in a change of political structure and policy opens the door to another set of debates about the role and function of art in the 20th century which cannot be adequately addressed here.

It would be hard to find an art movement in the 20th century which does not have some component of the artist's book attached to it, though in some cases this definition would have to be stretched to include journals, ephemera, or other independent publications. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Albert-Birot both produced books in the context of Cubist art while Russian and Italian Futurism had many practitioners committed to books as a major or significant part of their work from Velimir Khlebnikov and Natalia Goncharova to Franceso Depero and Filippo Marinetti. A path could (and will, in a later section) be traced which would include Expressionism, Surrealism in Western and Eastern Europe, Dada in Europe and the United States, as well as post-war movements such as Lettrism, Fluxus, Pop art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, the Women's Art Movement, and Postmodernism to the present mainstream artworld concern with multiculturalism and identity politics. It is clear that books played a part in other movements as well, including the activities of experimental musicians, such as John Cage and Henri Chopin to name only two outstanding luminaries in a vast field, performance artists such as Carolee Schneeman, Robert Morris, Vito Acconci, artists involved with systemic work, such as Mario Merz, Ed Ruscha, or Sol Lewitt and so on. This list would be exhaustingly long if it were complete and in spite of that fact, artists' books as a genre have not been surveyed, codified, or critically incorporated into the history of 20th century art. Many instances of these works will appear in these pages but they will be treated more as books and as examples of artistic involvement with the book as a form, than as attributes or sidelines of the movements with which the artists are associated. The sensibility of Sol Lewitt or Marcel Duchamp or Hanne Darboven is indissoluble from the aesthetic issues which form the mainstream context for their work, but their engagement with the book as a form has been more than incidental. Among mainstream artists, these are people who have looked at the book as a form to interrogate, not merely a vehicle for reproduction.

On the contrary it is the fact of this engagement as a major feature of art of the 20th century which argues for the identity of artists' books as a unique phenomenon of the era. To an unprecedented degree books have served to express aspects of mainstream art which were not able to find expression in the form of wall pieces, performances, or sculpture. Dick Higgins has even suggested that the book as a form of intermedia (to use his term), combines all of these modes of art in a characteristically new way. In some cases artists have made use of the documentary potential of the book form, while in others they have engaged with the more subtle and complicated fact of the book's capacity to be a highly malleable, versatile form of expression. Not every book made by an artist is an artist's book, in spite of the old Duchampian adage that art is what an artist says it is. It is also as true in the late part of 20th century as it was in the early decades that books are often produced on the strength of an artist's capacity to generate sales, and books are a cheap sideline for many galleries. A mere compendium of images, a portfolio of prints, an incidental collection of images original or appropriated, is not always an artist's book, though the terms on which the distinction may be sustained are often vague. The final criteria for definition resides in the informed viewer, who has to determine the extent to which a book work makes integral use of the specific features of this form. The desire to engage with the elusive character of what constitutes a book is part of the impetus for my current project: to seek critical terms on which to examine a book's book-ness, its identity as a set of aesthetic functions, cultural operations, formal conceptions, and metaphysical spaces.

Just as books have served to extend the possibilities of visual arts, performance, and music, they have also offered a unique conceptual possibility to the poet. Concrete poets have engaged with books as a conceptual space, one which by its form and finitude, its structural specificity and visual restraints, has offered a unique means of realizing particular works. While many concrete poets have worked with sculptural elements, sound, or at the level of the single, flat sheet or broadside, there are a substantial number who have used books as the form for their work. Again, not every concrete poet is a book artist, and not every concrete work is an artist's book, but there are works which demonstrate the ways in which concrete poets have been able to extend the parameters of what a book does as a verbal field in a manner which also extends the possibilities of the way an artist's book can function as a poetic text.

The crafts of book arts have also burgeoned in the latter part of the 20th century. Workshops and classes in binding, papermaking, book structures and so forth are a major staple of centers devoted to book arts. Though structure is an important component of a successful book the craft aspect of book production is not sufficient in itself to constitute the substance of an artist's book. Attention to materials, their interactions, and the content bound within the book are an integral feature of a book, but as with other aspects of production, artists' books tend to bend and stretch all the rules and conventions of craft decorum. One can trace the influence of individual practioners among certain communities of artists involved with books -- for instance, the popularization of certain structures included in Keith Smith's texts on book production. The contribution of Smith, and others who have taught extensively such as Hedi Kyle, or Walter Hamady, in their various past and present arenas of influence, is a visible feature of artists' books in their current incarnation. But there are also works produced from far outside this tradition which succeed without its influence, as there are many works produced as an expression of craft which fall short of being artists' books. An artist's book has to be more than a solid craft production or it falls back into the same category as the livre d'artiste or fine print work. An artist's book should not be formulaic it might be generic, of a familiar type or established category of artists' books and make its contribution without innovating formally, and it might be wildly innovative and sloppy and badly made and in many ways fall short of perfection or even good realization but ultimately an artist's book has to have some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book in order to succeed. It is particularly difficult, I think, to keep the craft tradition of book arts and the expressive tradition of the artist's book apart nor isthere any need to but they should not be confused with each other any more than any of the other above areas of activity should be taken as identical with artists' books.

Given the above discussion, it is not surprising that the history of the artist's book is mapped in a wide variety of ways by different scholars and critics. Even among those writers whose general sense of what constitutes an artist's book makes a clear distinction between this form and that of, say, the livre d'artiste, there is a tendency to make what seems like an arbitrary and too definitive point of origin. Most particularly the book Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, by Ed Ruscha has become a cliche in critical works trying to establish a history of artists' books.


Extract from original text: Johanna Drucker, “The Artist’s Book-As Idea and Form”

Chapter one of The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995


Spanish traslate by Jim Lorena www.librodeartista.com


Photo: Monica Goldstein artist book  http://www.goldsteinmonica.com.ar/


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