On collecting Artists' Books

What is the impulse which causes a book collector to move along a continuum from the love of literature to a book-sculpture or a book without content? Although there are obviously book collectors collecting in many fields in South Africa, the majority of collectors probably collect either Africana or "Modern Firsts", the former suggests an interest in fact and the latter in fiction (or literature). Artists' Books are a move away from both fact and fiction to form itself where the physical object and its attributes become paramount. I am afraid that the obsessional nature of the book collector in all fields is in no way diminished in the collecting of Artists' Books. The opportunity in many cases to get to know the artist, to interact and perhaps influence with commissions is, however, greatly increased.

What attracted me to artists' books, in the 1960s, just as they started to become a category differentiated from fine press books, was the alliance they seemed to represent between the fine arts and literature. Artists and sculptors began working through the book arts to express aspects of their art which could not be represented in the usual vein. Many of these artists were drawn to the sequential nature of the book as it offered a medium for showing a group or sequence of images in a particular order. Furthermore, as the book represents a three-dimensional object contrasted with the two-dimensional nature of a print or painting, sculptors began to see the potential of the book-object 1. This development was partly as a consequence of the conceptual art movement where text acquired a significant meaning, but it also appealed to artists working in the graphic arts (in which group I include letterpress printing) where the medium of the book allowed for a full display of their talents. David Blamey refers to "artists who have embraced the book format as a vehicle for artistic ideas" 2. Whereas artists had often illustrated books with the publisher acting as an intermediary, the book arts allowed them hands-on production and full control without the necessity of any middleman. While many artists' books are still collaborative efforts, some artists are responsible for the whole product: writing the text, setting the type, creating the illustrations and even making the paper and printing and binding their own books. In some aspects, the book arts exemplify a return to the very origins of bookmaking where illuminated manuscripts typify the ideal of individual expertise; in others the book arts are at the cutting edge of technological innovation. One cannot assume that the definition of a book, let alone an Artist's Book, is understood by all, but indubitably the book arts have infinitely expanded that definition. The definition of a book (like the Duchampian definition of art itself) can now mean any object which a book artist defines as an artist's book! All the usual criteria have been breached, infringed and transgressed. The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.)3 entry for book is surprisingly wide and not just, say, "a repository of information, usually printed on paper and bound for ease of use and portability". Part of the long O.E.D. entry (running to over seven pages) reads:

3. gen. A written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole.

In this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book comprehends a treatise written on any material (skin, parchment, papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.), put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched, or pasted together.

a. spec. (In reference to modern things.) Such a treatise occupying numerous sheets or leaves fastened together at one edge called the back, so as to be opened at any particular place, the whole being protected by binding or covers of some kind.

b. The material article so made up, without regard to the nature of its contents, even though its pages are occupied otherwise than with writing or printing, or are entirely blank: e.g. 'a handsome book', i.e. a trophy of the binder's art, 'a tiny book,' one that may be put in the waistcoat pocket.

c. A literary composition such as would occupy one or more volumes, without regard to the material form or forms in which it actually exists; 'an intellectual composition, in prose or verse, at least of sufficient extent to make one volume' (Littré s.v. livre). In this sense Carlyle described himself as 'a writer of books'.

It is not now usual to call a (modern) literary composition in manuscript a 'book', unless we think of its printing as a thing to follow in due course. In sense b every volume is a 'book'; whilst in sense c one 'book' may occupy several volumes; and on the other hand one large volume may contain several 'books,' i.e. literary works originally published as distinct books. No absolute definition of a 'book' in this sense can be given: in general, a short literary composition (especially if ephemeral in character, and therefore also in form) receives some other name, as tract, pamphlet, sketch, essay, etc.

From the above it is apparent that many of the controversies exercising the minds of book artists today were considered, although from a different aspect, by James Murray in the last century when he wrote the entry for book.4 Two interesting historical quotes, at about the time when the entry for book was being written, are:

1884 J. A. H. Murray in 13th Addr. Philol. Soc. 22. I do not know what a book is. Was Shakespeare the author of one book or of forty-four books?

1886 Boston Literary World 1 May 150/1. The first matter was to settle the seemingly easy but really difficult question, What is a book? This they solved by defining it as 'a literary work substantial in amount and homogeneous in character'.

Consideration is given to the material from which a book is made "written on any material (skin, parchment, papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.)" where he includes some not included on this exhibition. Interestingly (in view of Willem Boshoff's 370 Day Project), his list includes tablets of wood while excluding many other possibilities. The key point, however, is made with the inclusion of the phrases "paper or other substance" and "any material". The question of content is addressed: "A written or printed treatise," (fact!) "A literary composition" (fiction!), and even a lack of content, "or are entirely blank". Even shape has been considered as a defining characteristic, "But, since either the form of the book or its subject may be mainly or exclusively the object of attention", so I suppose Murray would not have objected to round, triangular, or irregularly shaped books. Artists' books, as with modern children's books in particular, often assume a myriad of shapes (houses, cats, fire-engines, triangles etc). The book-object or sculpture was not expressly considered by Murray as this is a more modern development and is still the area of most contention in book art studies.

The most interesting aspect of the O.E.D. definition is the fact that the concept of a book has always been ambiguous, with such comments as "without regard to the material form or forms in which it actually exists" (perhaps a reference to shape or sculpture!) and "No absolute definition of a 'book' in this sense can be given, even though its pages are occupied otherwise than with writing or printing, or are entirely blank". While the definition of artists' books is still one of some controversy, when the movement developed in the 1960's and 1970's, an Artist's Book was then thought of as a unique object made by an artist in the book format. This definition has been extended to include editioned books (i.e. not unique and usually using a graphic process for duplication) with the principle criteria being the artist's input and individuality. David Blamey states: "Sometimes found in bookstores and sometimes found in art galleries, the bookwork does not rest easily in either camp but is nonetheless now widely recognised as an important and valid form of creative expression. The dichotomy is further fuelled by book artists themselves, who subvert the conventions of both worlds by packaging highly personal or complicated ideas in the form of a popular commodity".5

I use the term artist's book in its broadest, most comprehensive sense to include:

  • Finely printed letterpress books in the Private Press tradition
  • Books with original graphics in the mediums of: lithography, etching in all its forms, monoprints, collagraphs, woodcuts, linocuts, silk-screen, photography and even photo-offset printing and Xerox (the last two usually being regarded as a move away from fine printing but being important in Drucker's definition of the "democratic multiple")6
  • Unique and editioned illustrated books using: water-colour, pulp-painting, pochoir, pastels, drawing (graphite, ink, crayon, ballpoint, Tippex!), collage, calligraphy and oils.
  • Books using such media as: paper (including many hand-made and Japanese papers), wood, glass, clay, Mylar, plastic, copper, aluminium, silver, zinc, lead, fabric, leather, bamboo, resin, stone, cork, tinfoil, computers etc.
  • Books of many shapes, including: rectangular, square, round, triangular, wedge-shaped, house-shaped, hexagonal, parallelogram-shaped, etc. There are also some books and book sculptures of irregular shape.

Included are miniature books and very large books; scrolls "form...that of a long roll" and codices "form...of separate leaves"; accordion-folded and tunnel-shaped books; pop-ups and "pop-downs". You will find books incorporating some surprising materials such as dishcloths, cleaning abrasives, insect-boxes, buttons, patchwork, tape measures, wire puppets, candles, condoms, oysters, incense, matches, stamps, stickers, sequins, teeth, beads, feathers, coins, string, ribbons, safety-pins, a miniature US flag, needles and pins, and many others.

It has given me great pleasure over the years to show artists' books to art students and interested friends; to share my bibliomania! More than one viewer has likened the surprise on showing or opening a book to conjuring and, although we lose some of that magic by having to show books in display case on exhibitions.7 More and more artists in South Africa are working in the book arts and would welcome commissions and support for their editioned books.

In recent years the book arts have made great headway particularly in Europe and America with islands of activity in Australia, South Korea and Canada in particular. It is now time South Africa joined the world in this respect as in so many others. Many libraries now include artists' books with their fine print and rare book collections and, in some academic institutions, there has been some contention as to whether the library or the gallery should have custody of artists' books and book-objects! While the Death of the Novel, and more recently the death (or the transformation into electronic form) of the book itself, have been long predicted, the book arts are in their infancy and will be with us for a long time to come. While everything can now be digitised, for all the reasons enumerated here, the physicality - and thus tactility - of artists' books ensure their survival.


  1. "The generic book confronts us with its amalgamation of picture plane and sculptural volume." See: Spector, B. 1995. (Ref. ID: 0130).
  2. See: Blamey, D. 1992. (Ref. ID: 0154).
  3. The Oxford English Dictionary. (Second edition.) On Compact Disc. Edited by Murray, J. A. H., Bradley, H., Craigie, W. A. and Onions, C. T. Oxford University Press. All quotes following in the smaller font are from the O.E.D.
  4. ibid.
  5. See: Blamey, D. 1992. (Ref, ID: 0154).
  6. "The vision becomes a book which is able to pass into the world with the fewest obstacles between conception and production, production and distribution. That is the nature of the democratic multiple, the ready availability of an independent artist's vision in book form." See: Drucker, J. 1995. (Ref. ID: 0089).
  7. "The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. Any book that, by virtue of its uniqueness or fragility of materials, would be damaged by handling must be protected, even at the cost of intelligibility." See: Spector, B. 1995. (Ref. ID: 0130).

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