Some Thoughts on Artists' Books in General and the Exhibition in Particular

The concept of the artist's book is a largely misunderstood one, even by those who claim to work within the field. Ranging from notions of a book about artists to sketchbooks of somewhat secondary importance, the artist's book is a sidelined and non-credited genre in the South African art world. Although the international world has recognised and embraced the genre arguably since Ed Ruscha's photo books directed attention towards the book as a carrier of a uniquely artistic statement, it has, rather noticeably, failed to come up with any meaningful definition of what these products represent or in fact are.

What little literature there is on the subject draws attention to the disparate and difficult nature of the genre as a homogeneous entity or enterprise and rather vaguely refers to the fact that if an artist says it is a book then an artist's book it must be. Riva Castleman confuses the issue even further by titling her 1994 swansong exhibition at M.O.M.A. A Century of Artists Books without making the distinction between: a livre d'artiste1; a fine press book2; a book object3; and an artist's book4.

In response, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books (1995) wisely places emphasis not on what might be defined as an artist's book, but on the varied approaches and zones within which book artists work, emphasising the "intersection of a number of different disciplines, fields and ideas- rather than the limits."5 She does, however, limit her field quite consciously and stringently to those items which are clearly meant to look like, be handled as and read like a book. Book objects and sculptural books have no place in her intersection.

It is hoped that this exhibition will function on many levels and introduce the public to a genre that has an almost thirty year history in South Africa but which is largely unknown for lack of information and exposure. The resulting misconceptions prescribe that a book is suitable only for reproductions and that originals are to be housed -loose leafed- in portfolios. The exhibition aims to demonstrate the wide range of objects that might be accepted as artists' books: and advance Johanna Drucker's notion that the book, as an independent artwork has come of age and matured into a genre of its own, "as a form to interrogate, not merely a vehicle for reproduction."6 Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this exhibition affords an opportunity to view a small part of South Africa's finest private artists' book collection.

Jack Ginsberg has gathered together his unique collection for over thirty years. Propelled by his love of literature, information, the pursuit of knowledge and his love for the visual arts, he was struck by the specific field of artist's books that bore little resemblance to the fine press books such as those published by the Limited Editions Club or the coffee-table Africana of many erudite collectors. Travelling to Europe, the United Kingdom and particularly to the USA, brought Jack into contact with more and more books made by artists who, while often demonstrating the qualities of private press and limited edition books, interrogated the form, structure and materiality of the book. Relationships between images and texts; game playing and witticism; manipulation of the reader by the book; engineered and pop-up books; conceptual and altered books became his collecting passion and which is exhibited in a small number here.

In researching artists' books in South Africa I am struck by the number of works produced in the last thirty years and the growing interest in the book as a form which artists and designers can exploit. In the early 1980s, and under the guidance of Philippa Hobbs, the Wits Technikon introduced a course in book-making and binding allied to printmaking and papermaking. Students soon became proficient in the craft of making books and the Fine Arts Department has been responsible for engendering the love for and knowledge of the craft of bookmaking in many students, a number of whom have continued to develop into proficient and prolific makers of artists' books. Some of the artists who have had contact with this department and who are included on the exhibition include Russell Scott, Sheila Flynn, Sonya Strafella, Flip Hatting, Liz Vels, Giulio Tambellini and, of course, Philippa Hobbs herself. In Cape Town, Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne have not only encouraged an involvement with the book as a Post-Graduate requirement in printmaking (see for example the books by Amanda Darling and Simon Ford), but as an educational resource (see Mordant Methods (1990), with Jo Ractliffe). Ractliffe, now as lecturer in printmaking at Wits University, has encouraged her students to investigate the book as an artistic vehicle and, under John Roome, students engage in the crafts of paper and bookmaking at Natal Technikon. It is clear that tertiary Fine Arts and Design students now have many opportunities to engage with the book as a format, genre and conceptual space.

As founders of the Axeage Private Press, Skotnes (Sound From the Thinking Strings (1991), Heaven's Things (1992)) and Payne (Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks (1993)), along with Mark Attwood's The Artist's Press, have been instrumental in producing artist's books by individuals and as collaborative efforts (see Patrick Cullinan and Judith Mason's Selected Poems 1961 – 1991 (1992), Gif 1 (1993) and Gif 2 (1994)).

By far the majority of South African examples come from individual artists working in small editions or unique pieces and the exhibition aims at placing them amongst the international examples where they sit comfortably within established forms or speak loudly by virtue of their independence and differences.

This exhibition traces the development of the genre from the livre d'artiste and fine press book, through the varying forms of the artist's book (which here includes the book-object) to its possibilities and boundaries. 7 It is hoped that through this exhibition, the genre will not only be recognised for the vibrant life that it possesses, but will encourage greater exploration of the book as a vehicle for further interrogation and exploration.

As the names of Buzz Spector, Keith Smith, Pamela Spitzmueller, Walter Hamaday, Heidi Kyle, Claire Van Vliet and Timothy Ely, to mention just a few book artists of international repute, are unknown to both the South African art and book fraternity, this exhibition aims to introduce them and their work to a wider audience and shed some light on just what an artist's book is not (if the defining of what an artist's book might be becomes too convoluted and uncertain).

By taking away the intimate and private relationship which a book shares with its reader and by removing the temporal aspect of that relationship - by placing the books under glass - Jack and I have attempted to problematise the issue of display and discourse. Being aware that this problem has been confronted by many curators of book exhibitions, we have attempted to incorporate the very nature of these difficulties into the curating of the display. Pages will, from day to day, be turned; photographs of alternative page views or bindings will accompany specific books. Where possible, multiple openings of a book and its binding will be displayed, while demonstrations by artists and curators will afford an opportunity to discuss and demonstrate a book in its entirety. By removing the viewer / reader from the intimacy of handling the books, we hope to encourage inquisitiveness and desire to learn more about the genre. A few artists' books will, however, be made especially for this exhibition with the express purpose of being handled by the public.

Finally then, this exhibition pays tribute to Jack Ginsberg, whose individuality, understanding of and passion for artists' books in all their possible permutations has, albeit for a short period here, been shared. Sincerest thanks go to Steven Sack, Teresa Wimberley, Hercules Human, Cheryl Cromie and Kathy Santiago of the Johannesburg Art Gallery without whose vision and tireless work, this exhibition would never have been realised. To the photographers at Beith and the advertising people at AMC, our thanks for generous donations of time, advertising space and photography. Finally, our thanks to the artists and collectors who graciously lent their works to complete the exhibition.


  1. A (classic) text illustrated by an artist such as Pierre Bonnard's illustrations for Paul Verlain's Parallèlement (1900) or Matisse's for Stephane Mallamé's Poésies (1932) or, controversially, for James Joyce's Ulysses (1935).
  2. A hand-set and highly crafted work such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris's The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Now Newly Imprinted (1896), often in limited edition.
  3. A three-dimensional and often sculptural form functioning in the manner of a book such as Robert Rauschenberg's Shades (1964), or an existing book altered in some way by the artist.
  4. Where book functioning, material, structure etc. has been interrogated and manipulated, such as Dieter Rot's Daily Mirror (1970).
  5. Drucker, J. The Century of Artists' Books, (1995), p1.
  6. Ibid, p9.
  7. Compare Carol Jane Barton's Tunnel Vision (1988), a tunnel-fold book, and Clark Coolidge's On The Slates (1991), by the Flockophobic Press - a pair of black shoes with printed bankroll - with David Stairs's unopenable spiral-bound book, Boundless (1983).