Looking back at the history of writings about artists books is an opportunity to review the literature and the issues that have defined the genre. From my perch as an art librarian and now as an independent researcher, I have watched the evolution of the field from the early 1970s to today. The writings surveyed here run the gamut from books, exhibition catalogues, and journals, to blogs and other online contributions. Woven throughout are debates related to definitions and terminology, the role of the artists book in the art world, as well as discussion over access, audience, and distribution. Time and space limit this quick glance to key activities from the 1960s to the present day in North America, although discussions continue elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia.
Definitions and Terminology
Definitions and terminology have been debated since Artists Books appeared as the title for a 1973 survey exhibition of artists books published from 1960 to 1973, organized by the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. The term “artists books” had previously been used as a synonym for “livre d’artistes”—referring to limited edition and typically expensive books. But in the case of Moore College’s exhibition, the title also included unlimited or open editions, some inexpensive at that time, in addition to unique and limited editions. Most studies of artists books mark this exhibition as the historical starting point of the genre in North America.
This prescient exhibition displayed the work of 144 artists represented by 235 books, many of which are well known today. There were fourteen books by Ed Ruscha, including the now famous Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1969); Richard Hamilton’s Polaroid Portraits (1972); Dick Higgins’s Foew&ombwhnw (1969); Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake (1964); Alison Knowles’s The Four Suits (1965); Joseph Kosuth’s Function, Funzione, Funcion, Fonction, Funktion (1970); Sol LeWitt’s Arcs, Circles & Grids (1972); Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1967); Tom Phillips’s A Humument (1970); Diter Rot’s 246 Little Clouds (1968); and Lawrence Weiner’s Green as Well as Blue as Well as Red (1972).
The exhibition set off vigorous discussions about what constitutes an artists book and its associated terminology (artists’ book, artist’s book, etc.). In his catalogue essay, “Some Thoughts on Books as Art,” John Perreault wrote: “The kinds of books artists are now making are books as art. Books as art are not books about art.” He made the connection to conceptual art: “Conceptual Art has successfully re-emphasized art as idea over art as form or image or expression and provided a great deal of the inspiration for books as art since language and books are a better medium for idea art than gallery walls.” Art historian Nancy Tousley also picked up on the connection with conceptual art in her review of this exhibition: “Artists’ books emphasize ideas, not objects. . . . The function of the book as well as the concept of what a book can be has been enlarged for a wider range of expression and flexibility.” Associating artists books with conceptual art was a major step toward acceptance into the art world and entry into museum collections and exhibitions.
Since Moore College’s 1973 show, exhibitions of artists books continued to provide a platform for discussions about their role in the art world and their link to conceptual art, along with defining and expanding their characterization. In describing Bookworks, the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition devoted to artists books in 1977, curator Barbara London provided another definition in a one-page essay: “Bookworks is a current term that refers to mass-produced, inexpensive books, conceived and designed entirely by artists, and printed in a range of media. . . . Their pages may consist of abstract or photographic images, symbols, statements, verbally directed visual ideas, or narrative or mythological tales.” Later in the essay, London used the phrase “artists’ bookworks” when describing the 189 works on view by 147 artists. Between the 1973 Artists Books exhibition and this 1977 MoMA Bookworks exhibition, offering a total of 424 works, thirty-eight books overlapped in both. These exhibits led the way to others, like the traveling Artwords and Bookworks: An International Exhibition of Recent Artists’ Books and Ephemera, which was organized by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1978. Featuring 1,500 works by 600 artists, and including artists books, periodicals, and mail art, the Artwords and Bookworks exhibit showcased Fluxus, shining a light on the role of artists books in the conceptual art world.
By 1982, terms and parameters for artists books moved beyond catalogues and exhibitions, and were discussed in mainstream art publications such as Artforum, Art in America, and the New Yorker. For example, Clive Phillpot, then head librarian at MoMA, penned “Books, Bookworks, Book Objects, Artists’ Books” for Artforum, where he argued that the definition of artists’ books should expand its scope “so that artists’ books are defined as those books made or conceived by artists.” He went on: “We can at least make a distinction between artists’ books and artists’ bookworks.” Phillpot also cited Ulises Carrión’s definition of bookwork, that is, “books in which the book form, a coherent sequence of pages, determines conditions of reading that are intrinsic to the work.” With regards to Artists’ Books: From the Traditional to the Avant-Garde, an exhibition and symposium held at Rutgers University, Phillpot noted the tension over terminology: “The term ‘book art’ bridges a conspicuous divide. On the one hand . . . there are books designed as unique objects in the painting and sculpture tradition, on the other there are books conceived for multiplication, and closer to the printmaking and photographic traditions.” Indeed, this conspicuous divide is obvious in museum collections, which usually place unique and high-end book art into print collections, while relegating open editions to library collections. The system in place reflects a rigid curatorial categorization that impedes access, systematic cataloging, and exhibition organization. Aside from occasional exhibitions and displays, lack of visibility within the museum and gallery environment has had a negative impact on the role of artists books in the art world. If museums and galleries would make a commitment to physically display artists books in devoted spaces within their gallery walls, it would be a step toward inclusion. Such an effort would serve to inform the public and staff of their presence as part of the collection. It would therefore make artists books readily available for public review and discussion as part of the art world, increasing opportunities for criticism.
But this tension is, in fact, an essential part of the artists book, one that its makers exploit. In a special 1982 issue of Art Documentation devoted to the Rutgers exhibition, whose cover featured a breakdown of related terminology—book, art book, artist’s book, book art, bookwork, and book object—Anne Edgar argued: “If artists’ books discourage facile categorization, so too do the artists who make them. This pluralism and diversity are the very heart of artists’ bookmaking. Whether artists make books to entertain, to puzzle, or to convince . . . the central aspect of this work is an assertion of the power of an individual’s voice.” In 1984, looking back at the early publications of Ed Ruscha and his colleagues, Nancy Princenthal wrote in Print Collector’s Newsletter: “More than 20 years into its current run, the ‘artist’s book’ still defies definition.” The soul of the artists book—democratic multiple versus finely crafted books—remained a major discussion point, especially given that the limited edition and pricier books continued to be referred to as artists books by their makers.
First published in 1985 and reprinted in 1993, Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook by Joan Lyons brought together ten insightful essays by prominent international writers along with a detailed bibliography. The illustrated text covered the full range of artists book production from multiples, to limited editions, to one-of-a-kind works. Essays included a variety of topics and range of writers: “The New Art of Making Books” by Ulises Carrión; “The Artist’s Book Goes Public” and “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books” by Lucy R. Lippard; “The Page as Alternative Space: 1950 to 1969” by Barbara Moore and Jon Hendricks; “Independent Publishing in Mexico” by Felipe Ehrenberg, Magali Lara, and Javier Cadena; and “Photobookworks: The Critical Realist Tradition” by Alex Sweetman. In the book’s preface, Dick Higgins summed up the artists book well: “It is a genre, open to many kinds of artists with many different styles and purposes.”
At a Printed Matter symposium held in 1989, Phillpot expressed concern over a trend he perceived toward luxurious, hence more expensive, publications. The symposium covered what could be considered an artists book and made comparisons between the traditional livre d’artiste and the more open editions of multiples. After the symposium, Phillpot further clarified his definition of artists books and offered commentary that may have signaled that the debate over definition was closing: “They’re conceived as multiples, they’re inexpensive . . . and there’s an aesthetic that’s tied in with large numbers, low prices, and accessibility.” He concluded with this statement: “I was disappointed there wasn’t more debate. . . . So I think what happened was a whole lot of hares ran out of the cornfield, and later on they’ll be caught and analyzed. They’re still out there, running around.”
More than two decades after the Moore College show, MoMA presented A Century of Artists Books in 1994, organized by print curator Riva Castleman. The Century of Artists’ Books by book artist and professor Johanna Drucker was published the following year, providing historical continuity for the genre. Despite its title indicating inclusivity, the MoMA exhibition focused mostly on livres d’artiste, or limited-edition books, and their precedents. In contrast, the Drucker book examined the development of artists books and included multiples, limited-edition and unique works, and their ideas and forms. In a 1997 review “Castleman and Drucker: Re-Viewing the Artists’ Book,” Eric Haskell noted that Castleman’s survey was “from a curatorial point of view . . . solidly grounded in the tradition of the late-nineteenth century illustrated book” while “Drucker’s approach is systematic, analytical and often philosophical. She conceives of neatly constructed categories into which she deftly arranges the relatively recent, yet massive production of artists’ books.” The MoMA exhibition, the Drucker book, and the Haskell review all signified a shift in the perception of artists books in the art world and the beginning of expanded scholarly criticism of the genre.
In 1998, Phillpot elaborated once again on his definition of artists books, taking on a more expansive view with the exhibition Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books. In his essay for the catalogue, “Books by Artists and Books as art,” he explains: “Artists’ books are distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the field is its mongrel nature.” This collaborative exhibition, curated by Phillpot and Cornelia Lauf, broadened the scope of artists books by including more formats, such as magazines, anthologies, manifestos, poetry, musical scores, sketchbooks, comic books, page art, and mail art. Also published in 1998, Stefan Klima’s Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature is a study of the development of the field incorporating writings, exhibitions, and reviews.
The definition discussion went on to reach types of publications such as photobooks and zines that could be considered part of the genre. Zines, intended as low-budget items that deliver urgent messages for the masses, connect to the historical roots of artists books.
Published in 2005, No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America:1960–1980 by Betty Bright traced the emergence of the artists book in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The text provides an inclusive view of book art ranging from fine press to multiples with historical references to European influences. Bright also covers the sporadic acknowledgment from the art world that has resulted in the marginalization of artists books. This book, in addition to several other texts by Stephen Bury, Johanna Drucker, and Clive Phillpot—which are included in the bibliography in this article—are essential to understanding the roots of the genre of artists books. Thomas Hvid Kromann summed up the state of literature about artists books in his 2014 essay “Booktrekking through the Golden Age of Artists’ Books—and Beyond.” He referred to the institutionalization process as the “artist’s book now has a history, canonical works, canonised artists, collections, fairs, experts, various subsidies, research programmes and so on.” This history now provides a platform for further research and criticism of artists books moving forward.
Artists Books in Conceptual Art
Landmark exhibitions organized by Seth Siegelaub in the 1960s sparked discussions about the role of the artists book in conceptual art and the relationship between art and printed matter. Siegelaub organized group shows that took the form of published catalogues. He began a series of publications as exhibition projects, starting with Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner (also known as the Xerox Book) in 1968, followed by January 5-31, 1969, March 1969 (also known as “One Month”), and July, August, September 1969. Derived from photocopies made by the artists listed in each catalogue, these publications were conceived as book exhibitions in themselves. The printed pages were not conventional art reproductions—they were the art works. With their portability, catalogue exhibitions are recognized for their revolutionary way of presenting an exhibition, as well as the innovative use of the photocopier to create text and images. These printed presentations challenged the notion of exhibition organization and management, opening the door for artists books to be considered part of the conceptual art movement with an expanding audience. An essay by Lucy Lippard suitably characterized the position of the artists book back in 1977: “Usually inexpensive in price, modest in format, and ambitious in scope, the artist’s book is also a fragile vehicle for a weighty load of hopes and ideals: it is considered by many the easiest way out of the art world and into the heart of a broader audience.” Her words indicate the evolving position that artists books have held in the art world and beyond.
In 1981, the exhibition Books by Artists and its catalogue, with an essay by Germano Celant, was one of the earliest in-depth examinations of the artists book and its role within conceptual art. The New Yorker added to the conversation about the role of artists books in the art world with an article by Calvin Tomkins called “Artists’ Books, Art Books, and Books on Art,” which argued: “The closest thing to an avant-garde activity in the visual arts these days is book-making.” Tomkins summarized the status of the field: “The current artist’s book movement can be seen as an early aspect of the ‘alternative space’ trend—a means of showing work outside of the gallery nexus.” Since the late 1980s, artists books have been slowly integrated into displays, become the subject of focused exhibitions in museums and galleries, and been accepted as part of the contemporary art world. The inclusion of artists books in museum exhibitions was a way to challenge assumptions about the role played by books in the art world. It also was a way to acknowledge the original intent of artists who created books to circumvent the traditional publishing industry and the gallery scene, which both dictate the selection of artists to present to the public.
Public displays of books made by artists—either accessible on tables and/or locked in vitrines or in digital form—have caught the attention of a wider audience, especially people who were unaware of their existence. From my position at the Brooklyn Museum, I had witnessed a growing interest in artists books as we placed them on view in the galleries and included them in public program discussions. In 2000, I curated an exhibition entitled Working in Brooklyn: Artists Books that included multiples and limited-edition works along with talks and other public programs focused on the works on view. To quote Lois Martin from a JAB essay: “Extremely popular with the general public, and well-received in the press, ‘Artists’ Books’ has introduced the form to a whole new range of fans.” Subsequent exhibitions and displays at the Brooklyn Museum have brought more attention to the artist book collection, its role within the museum’s overall collections, and the message each book presents to its readers. One recent example was the inclusion of Transforming Hate by Clarissa Sligh in The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America held at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017.
Artists Book Criticism
In addition to essays in exhibition catalogues and books, extensive writings can be found in journals and periodicals available in print, online, or both. One example was the art journal Umbrella (1978–2008) that offered news and reviews of artists books, mail art, photography, and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. Another key resource was the Journal of Artists’ Books (1994–2020). As stated by founder Brad Freeman, JAB was established to engage the field of artists books with critical discourse and exploration of the intersections of book arts and other book-related creative endeavors. The publication, which very often included actual artists books, remains an essential reference for writings about artists books and their makers.
Overseas counterparts offering partial or full coverage of the field include Art Monthly (begun in 1976), the Artist’s Book Yearbook (begun in 2003), and the Blue Notebook: Journal of Artists’ Books (begun in 2006). They are part of a continuum of writings that have provided space for reflection on specific artists books and exhibitions. But, as Johanna Drucker wrote in JAB in 1995: “One might usefully read back through the essays . . . in Joan Lyons’ anthology, and some of Nancy Princenthal and Clive Phillpot’s writings as well for insights into the ways the “bookness” of the book have been engaged with by artists and examined by critics. But the development of serious critical and historical discussion in this field has a long, long way to go.” Newer publications such as the Brooklyn Rail (begun in 2000) and Hyperallergic (begun in 2009) have also provided articles and book reviews on artists books. Reviews in these journals and elsewhere have focused on new and older artists books, providing more information about the books and the artistic practice of the maker. Central Booking magazine, issued by the eponymous gallery, ran from 2010 to 2015, and offered articles and news highlighting the breadth of book art. Books on Books, curated by Robert Bolick (begun in 2012), presents insightful discussions about new and old artists books and exhibitions. Other online resources such as the Book Art Theory (begun in 2015) hosted by the College Book Art Association, and the Artists’ Book Reviews (begun in 2019) run by Levi Sherman, also provide reviews, interviews, and listings with a specific focus on artists books.
Having only covered the “tip of the iceberg,” I apologize to all those who were not mentioned. This is an overview to allow readers to step back and examine the role of artists books in the art world today and their power to focus on social issues such as activism and racism. Other topics that could stand more examination: a look at the traditional publishers of artists books and the artists and topics they’ve focused on; the divergence between fine press and inexpensive multiples and their audience; republishing of obscure documents in artists books and the ethical and copyright implications; broadening intellectual access to artists books to encourage a broader and more diverse community; ways to foster readership and focus on overlooked peoples and their stories. There has been a renaissance in the field of book arts in recent years and an excitement about the intersection of the visual arts and writing, especially in the realm of poetry. There is a lot to talk about and I look forward to the conversations.
- Bright, Betty. No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America, 1960-1980. New York: Granary Books, 2005.
- Bury, Stephen. Artists’ Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-2000. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2015.
- Castleman, Riva. A Century of Artists Books. Museum of Modern Art, 1994.
- Cloud, Gerald W. and Peter Rutledge Koch, eds. The Codex Papers: The Book as a Work of Art: An International Review. Berkeley, CA: Codex Foundation, 2018.
- Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists Books. 2nd ed. New York: Granary Books, 2004.
- Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary Books, 1998.
- Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998.
- Lauf, Cornelia and Clive Phillpot. Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books. American Federation of Arts and Distributed Art Publishers, 1998.
- Lyons, Joan, ed. Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985.
- Phillpot, Clive. Booktrek: Selected Essays on Artists’ Books (1972-2010). Zurich: JRP/Ringier, and Dijon: Les Presses du Reel, 2013.
- Artists Book Reviews; artistsbookreviews.com
- Books on Books; books-on-books.com
- Brooklyn Rail; brooklynrail.org
- Hyperallergic; hyperallergic.com
Please note that I prefer to use the term “artists books” without the apostrophe following the format of the title of a landmark exhibition held in 1973.
Dianne Perry Vanderlip, Artists Books, Moore College of Art, March 23-April 20, 1973 (Philadelphia: Falcon Press, 1973).
John Perreault, “Some Thoughts on Books As Art,” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, March 23-April 20, 1973 (Philadelphia: Falcon Press, 1973), p. 15, 20.
Nancy Tousley, “Artists’ Books,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 4, no. 6 (January–February 1974), pp. 131–134.
Barbara London, Bookworks (New York: MoMA, 1977), p. 1.
More on this exhibition can be found in the University of Iowa archives: Guide to the Artwords and Bookworks Papers, http://collguides.lib.uiowa.edu/?MSC0517
Clive Phillpot, “Books, Bookworks, Book Objects, Artists’ Books,” Artforum 20, no. 9 (May 1982), pp. 77-79.
Ulises Carrión, “Bookworks Revisited,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 11, no. 1 (March-April 1980), p. 8.
Clive Phillpot, “Recent Art and the Book Form,” in Artists’ Books from the Traditional to the Avant-Garde (Rutgers University, 1982).
Anne Edgar, “Franklin Furnace,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 1, no. 6 (December 1982), p. 176.
Nancy Princenthal, “Recent Artists’ Books, or How to Invest $100 in Artists’ Books published since 1980,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 15, no. 2 (May–June 1984), p. 52.
Joan Lyons, ed., Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (Rochester NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985).
Livre d’artiste is defined by Oxford Reference as “a type of luxury illustrated book.” https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100110515
Clive Phillpot interviewed in Nancy Princenthal, “Artist’s Book Beat,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 20, no. 6 (January–February 1990), p. 225, 227.
A Century of Artists Books. New York: MoMA, October 23, 1994–Jan 24, 1995.
Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995).
Eric T. Haskell, “Castleman and Drucker: Re-Viewing the Artists’ Book,” Substance 26, no. 1, issue 82 (1997), Special Issue: Metamorphoses of the Book, pp. 160–162.
Clive Phillpot, “Books by Artists and Books as art,” in Artist/Author Contemporary Artists’ Books, eds. Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot (New York: Distributed Art Publishers and American Federation of Arts, 1998), p. 33.
Stefan Klima, Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature (New York: Granary Books, 1998).
For more on this topic, see: “The King of Zines: AA Bronson’s Reflections on Artists’ Books and the Shifting Nature of Self-Publishing Culture,” OnCurating.org, no. 27 (December 2015), https://www.on-curating.org/issue-27-reader/the-king-of-zines-aa-bronsons-reflections-on-artists-books-and-the-shifting-nature-of-self-publishing- culture.html
Betty Bright, No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America: 1960-1980 (New York: Granary Books, 2005).
Thomas Hvid Kromann, “Booktrekking through the Golden Age of Artists’ Books—and Beyond,” JAB 35 (Spring 2014), pp. 15–18.
Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner (New York: Siegelaub/Wendler, 1968), January 5-31, 1969 (New York: Seth Siegelaub, 1969), March 1969 (New York: Seth Siegelaub, 1969), and July, August, September 1969 (New York: Seth Siegelaub, 1969).
Lucy R. Lippard, “The Artist’s Book Goes Public,” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985), p. 45.
Germano Celant, “Book as Artwork,” in Books by Artists (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1981), pp. 85-104.
Calvin Tomkins, “Artists’ Books, Art Books, and Books on Art,” New Yorker, January 25, 1982, p.74.
Working in Brooklyn: Artists Books. New York: Brooklyn Museum, February 3–May 7, 2000.
Lois Martin, “Artists’ Books at the Brooklyn Museum of Art,” JAB 14 (Fall 2000), p. 24.
Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America. New York: Brooklyn Museum, July 26–October. 8, 2017.
Johanna Drucker, “Critical Necessities,” JAB 4 (Fall 1995), p. 4.