What is it that I collect? What are these books?

Of course artists have been involved with books since the beginnings of books. Where do these books by artists fit in?

In 1973 in the USA, Dianne Perry Vanderlip, a librarian at the Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, PA, organised an exhibition of books and titled the exhibition “Artists Books”. This is the first time the term “artists books” was used in print in the English speaking art world. This exhibition was the first time this kind of artistic production was named and grouped in this way, and we have a record of it. I had read about this exhibition and was very keen to get a catalogue. I wanted to know what books had been included. I found a copy for sale online a couple of years ago and, turning a blind eye to the cost, bought it.

The exhibition consisted of 250 books and was an attempt “to survey the many different types of books made by artists from 1960 to the present.” (1973). The works of 144 artists were included and the range of work was as diverse as what can be seen in an exhibition today.

The publication in 1994 of A Century of Artists Books by Johanna Drucker marks another step towards the creation of a genre. Also in this year the first issue of JAB Journal of Artist’s Books was published. The intention of both these publications was to generate discussion about these books. The artists book was now being written about and analysed, and the difficult and endless debate about definitions arose. 

In an essay I read recently, the writer, in a sweeping gesture of inclusion, counted all books with illustrations, with artistic content in the field of artist book. The boundaries and definitions are drawn differently by different commentators. I don’t take such a broad view. I don’t think it is useful. I include books over which the artist or artists in collaboration have had control of the content, design, production and binding of the work. This doesn’t mean that the artists have had to do all the tasks themselves. This doesn’t mean that the books have to be handmade.

This can be said in a different way. That the artists choose to express themselves not through a painting, a sculpture or a print but through a book. The book has very particular qualities and a dynamic which is absent from other forms of artistic practice, which makes it suitable for some types of work.

Moving away for the term ‘artists’ book’.

Now, having spent the post so far, discussing about artists’ books, I want to distance myself from the term. I use it as seldom as possible. It has become overused and abused. Artists have wrangled all sorts of objects into artists’ books exhibitions justifying it as a book because there is text used or because it is made of paper or perhaps, there is a narrative. I have nothing against these sculptures or films or whatever, I even like them as artworks, I just don’t see the need to call them books.