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Visual arts

What is an artist book (Heather Matthew, 2011)

What is an artist book?
Heather Matthew, 2011.

“Artists' books are not books about art or artists. They are artworks in themselves using the form or concept of the book”.[1]

What then constitutes a ‘book’? A book has been defined as; “ a sequence of spaces”, [2] ‘a space-time sequence’[3] or an object containing ‘bookish’ elements such as “containment, sequence, repetition, moveable parts, and printed text and images”,[4] or a sequence of pages within a container.[5] Another definition is “the packaging of multiple planes held together in fixed or variable sequence by some kind of hinging mechanism, support, or container, associated with a visual/verbal content called a text”.[6]

Artists books have some or all of these elements as well as incorporating a large variety of formats, materials and structures which can open, fold-out, look through, flip through, scroll through, pull apart, walk around. They can be conceptual, political, technically astounding or very simple. They are most often self published, unique objects or limited edition works of art.

History of artist books

The first artist to make what are termed artists books was British artist/poet /visionary, William Blake (1757 -1827) who wanted to express his ideas in a traditional book format, combining his own text and images. He devised what he termed ‘illuminated’ printing which allowed him to unify his poetry and painting and become his own publisher independent of the traditional letterpress printers of the time. He was trained as an engraver/ printmaker, and his solution was to create copperplate etchings which included both text and images that he could edition in his own studio.[7]  

It was this independence from traditional publishing methods and originality of thinking which was the forerunner of contemporary artists books. The term ‘livre d'artist’ or artist book was first used by a Paris art dealer in the 1890s to describe a book containing prints by an artist.[8] The term was later loosely applied to books containing text and images by an artist which were usually self published and expressed avant garde attitudes to art and the establishment.[9] In the twentieth century art movements such as the Futurists and Dadaists made use of self published books to express radical ideas about art, merging text and image to create impact.

The artists book as a contemporary art form however, was really born in the ferment of the 1960s conceptual art movement in America where artists experimented with typography, new duplicating processes such as the Xerox photocopier machine and explored the materiality of the book as an object. In the 1970s books became liberated from paper, and incorporated materials such as wood, glass, fabric and unusual animal hides.[10]

In the 1980s artist books started to really take off as a separate and distinct art form. This coincided with the rise of the craft and self sufficiency movement which saw a resurgence of interest in craft based skills like hand bookbinding, papermaking, leatherworking  and woodworking.

Although bookbinding had been primarily associated with the printing trade, associations such as the Guild of Bookworkers which was formed in 1906 included people all of the book trades, including illuminating, printing and binding, and well as calligraphers, papermakers, and designers of type, finishing tools, book covers and bookplates. [11]

With interest in books as an art form; technical skills such as those used within the trade and in the guilds were highly sought after and many groups and institutions sprang up in response to furthering and teaching skills in the book arts and printmaking. One of the first of these was the Book Arts Guild formed in Seattle in 1979 by a small group of book binders, papermakers and printers.[12]  Other institutions included the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, established 1983; l'Association des relieurs du Québec (the Association of Quebec Book Binders ) also established in 1983; and the Nebraska Book Arts Center, founded in 1989.  

Since the 1990s book arts has become an established arm of major university arts departments in America and internationally. Artists books are exhibited, collected and encouraged to push the boundaries of what constitutes a ‘book’. Technical virtuosity, sculptural elements, complex structures, new interpretations of artists books and materiality have combined with creating books about political and social issues, especially in the 21st century.

Contemporary book artists

With the rise of the internet, book artists can connect across the world and numerous exhibitions have resulted from collaborations between book artists. In Australia, one of the biggest exhibitions of national and international book artists Freestyle Books was held in 2008 by the State Library of Queensland which featured 60 artists' books from the library’s collection. It has the largest public collection of artists' books in Australia with over 1000 works featuring both Australian and international artists. [13]

Several artist book awards, exhibitions and forums  have gained prominence in Australia including the biennial Artspace Mackay Focus on Books symposium and Libris Awards; the Southern Cross University Acquisitive Artists’ Book Award and the East Gippsland Art Gallery’s Books…beyond words

Artists books in Australia are still a relatively new art form and the teaching of bookmaking skills is usually linked in with university and TAFE college printmaking departments. However, increasing use of the internet  has meant Australian book artists have greater exposure to international art and exhibitions and are taking artists books out of the realm of printmaking and into new sculptural fields.

Creating artists books is a field wide open to personal artistic interpretation which will undoubtedly flourish as it responds and reacts to the increase in electronic  e-books and tablet readers. Books are definitely  not dead, they are being recreated, reinterpreted and revitalised in the new format of artists' books.

[1] Helen Cole ‘, ‘My State is an Artists Books State’, ARLIS/ANZ Conference 2008: MySpace is an ArtSpace - 40k - 21 May 2009, p.1.

[2] Ulises Carrion ‘The new art of making books’ The art of the book Center for Book Arts, 1975,p.1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hedi Kyle Juror (ex. speech) 2010 Inventive structures: Books Beyond the Codex

[5] Sarah Bodman & Tom Snowden A Manifesto for the book Bristol: Impact Press, 2001, p.5.

[6] Philip Smith The Whatness of Bookness 1996

[7] Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, vol. 4 (London: Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 1996), p.117.

[8] A brief history of Artists Books Yale University Library

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michael Joseph Material translations: artists books from 1970 to now. (ex. speech) Arts Council of Princeton

[11] Guild of Bookworkers

[12] Book Arts Guild

[13] State Library of Queensland.

SCU Artists' Books Collection

Open the catalogue in a new window, or use the search box below.
Type artists books into the box. Actual artists' books will have [artists' books] in square brackets after the title. Books about artists books will also appear.

For books about artists' books, the call number is 702.81. Some of these books are in the open collection.

Artists' books themselves are in the Manning Clark Room. The artists' books must be handled with care and cannot be borrowed. Gloves for handling the books are available in the room, and pencils provided for taking notes. Pens must not be used near the works. To access the artists' books you need to either be accompanied by your lecturer as a class or have signed permission from your lecturer. You will then need to contact the Lismore campus Library to arrange a viewing time.

Further Artists' Books resources