Entering the book

With many “objects” floating around carrying the tag “artist’s book”, I decided to tease out the particular characteristics of a book, looking for those characteristics that separate it from other genres. Because the book is a very accommodating space for every kind of text, a very functional space formed for our human proportions, and (usually) a very portable space, our modern day familiarity with books makes us blasé.

But stop, it’s not that simple—it can also be a complex space. It is this complexity that makes the book an intriguing space. The complexity begins with the possible meshing together of four fields of artistic practice:
1. literature— text; proses, poetry and non-fiction
2. 2D visual arts— painting, drawing and print
3. 3D visual arts— sculpture, (it’s a 3D object)
4. narrative— performance
This fourth field is a distinguishing field, perhaps, the distinguishing field.

The Form
The traditional form of the book has been standardised over time. In Europe the codex became the main binding structure and book form. The invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century resulted in the page layout being locked down. Although the early printed books tried to replicate contemporary manuscripts, specifically the bible, the actual physical locking up of the type into a rectangular chase meant the fluidity of the text on the page and the fluidity that could exist between image and text was gone.

In ‘From Writing to Printing’, the first section of his essay Crossovers: the trade book as a work of art (A Personal Hunch)’, Alan Loney points out, “Not bound by the mechanical letterpress rectangle, the early herbals could have text and/or image on any part of the page, with great freedom of intertwining interaction between the drawings and the text.”1

The Voynich manuscript

Relief prints, woodcuts, line blocks could be printed within the letterpress process but were also regimented by the letterpress rectangle. Other means of producing images; engravings, etchings, lithographs, required completely different printing processes and the images first came together with the text in the binding process, either as printed sheets bound in directly or tipped in on pages left blank to take them.

Aesops Fables, 1715 (in three languages). The images were printed separately to the text and added in the binding process thus the blank following page.

The meshing of different printing processes was expensive and rarely done. This led Parallèlement by Pierre Bonnard & Paul Verlaine, published by Vollard, 1900, which overlapped lithography and letterpress, to become one of the most famous early twentieth century French illustrated books.2 So for all its portability and functionality the book can be a restrictive space. Given the restriction (and cost of letterpress) it is not surprising that artists have rebelled and often, not surprisingly, reverted to pre-Gutenberg production methods.

Forest Song, Art Hazelwood, 1995

The Function
The book’s primary function is to carry extended text. Book forms, not just the codex, function to allow this. This obligation to narrative is what sets the book apart from the other 2D and 3D visual arts and automatically brings in performance because reading must happen over time. Whether the artist is dealing with text or images or both the obligation to narrative remains. This means the artist must deal with two extra aspects particular to the book:
1. Incomplete reveal, you can never see to whole work in a single view, and
2. Intimacy of contact, a closed space that is opened and closed again — the book has to be interacted with in order to be viewed, read, experienced.

It is these three aspects, obligation to narrative, incomplete reveal and intimacy of contact that make a bookwork intriguing. The power of a work comes from the artist’s ability to manipulate and consciously use the intersection of these aspects either using, or breaking away, from the traditional form.

A binding locks together a series of pages into a non-negotiable state of being. It makes a collection of single objects, sheets of paper, into a single new unit, a book. It is literally transformative. The pages fall into relationship with each other not just as openings, pages facing each other, but also as a series of openings following each other. However, just as a random selection of words don’t make a sentence, nor do a random sequence of sentences make a story, the binding in itself does not create the narrative. The narrative must already exist within the concept and content. The work (in the artist’s mind) must require, or more strongly, demand the form of the book to be fully realised, to become a great work.

The Articulate Body, Nicci Haynes, 2013

The End
As a collector it is the experience of the narrative that I am looking for in a bookwork by an artist. The content is all-important. A book succeeds or fails on the ability of the artist to fully realise the intrinsic narrative aspects prescribed by the book form. It is harder than it looks. As a reader the familiarity you have with the book, with its traditional form and layout, allows you to approach the object with confidence, but beware! the artist may seduce you or trip you up or even toss you out.

  1. p. 50 The Codex Papers Vol. 1, 2018.
  2. To view a copy go to: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/337130