Try this little quiz. An artist’s book is:
a. a book about art or a particular artist's work (a monograph)
b. an altered book
c. a book that has been cut to form a sculpture
d. none of the above
e. all of the above
So what's the right answer?
There isn’t one. The best is d. But it could sometimes be e.
The problem with the art form of artists’ books is that there is no universally-agreed definition.
Since people generally look baffled when I say I’m working on a series of artist’s books, today I’m going do my utmost to define it for you. But beware! There are plenty of people who won’t agree with what I come up with.
That C Word by Terry Lee Czechowski, 1999 Paper: Coffee filters; Printing method: Gocco; Binding: Postbinding with polymer clay covers; Structure: Fan book
When is a book not a book?
What makes describing artists' books so hard is that it doesn’t have to be a book.
Yes, you heard me right. The genre of the artists’ book is so wonderfully varied and eclectic in its nature that it’s easily confused with other genres.
Creators of artists’ books often stretch the concept of a book pretty far. They may create something that is recognisably a book (sometimes known as book art or bookworks), or simply a book-like object.
Stardust by Louisa Boyd, 2013
How does an artist’s book compare to a regular book?
Ok. Let’s look at how an artist’s book compares to what we normally think of as a book.
A traditional book usually has three components:
An artist’s book on the other hand may have only one or two of these elements. It doesn’t necessarily even have to contain text.
It can be a one-off or one of many copies (known as multiples).
Artist book multiples are usually limited editions - often self-published, or produced by small presses, artists’ groups or collectives.
Textures & Patterns by Batool Showghi, 2010 16 x 15.5 cm, when opened 180 cm x 15.5 cm. Edition No. 2 of 2 Handmade book made of pictures of textile installation. Manipulated photographs and other imagery with stitching.
Playing with the parameters of the book format
A book artist takes the pre-existing conventions of book-making and works with, within, around or against them by:
using unconventional materials and/or printing techniques
disrupting the sequence and nature of the page
making or using existing structures not normally associated with the word 'book' such as a clamshell or a camera
including text that isn’t legible, doesn’t make sense, isn’t read sequentially or can be read in a variety of sequences
Whether artists uses the form conventionally, or tweak it one way or the other, intrepretation and inspiration comes from a deep connection to 'experience' with books. Artists add depth and breadth to the definition of the form.” Catherine Kanner
Message by Bob Guy 2006, portfolio size closed 17.5cm x 12.5cm; boxed portfolio of 11 wood engravings, image size approx. 8cm x 5cm, printed on 210gm B. F. K . Rives, hard covers to portfolio and slip case, these covered in 36gm Yumayami with letterpress and acrylic; signed limited edition of 15
The medium really is the message
What really makes an artist’s book different from any other sort of book is that the form of the book is as integral to its ideas or concepts as what it contains.
In other words, every aspect of the way the piece is constructed is part of its message or concept. This can include:
words and/or type
The book itself the thing ‘being communicated’ as opposed to the book being a support for conveying something else.
Ce’ by Irene Chan, 1998 20 x 33 x 3 cm; No. in edition: 70; Paging: 1 book object containing 19 p. pamphlet, 2 origami folds - 1 with folded strip of 5 leaves; Paper: Recycled plastic fibers, post-consumer waste, Lupa Herb handmade, moss and grass handmade, Japanese Mingei Glassine handmade; Printing method: Silkscreen; Binding: Handmade Chinese seedpod paper purse with drawstring closures; Structure: Fold book; book object
Why an artist’s book is like a chocolate Easter egg
Here’s a simple analogy. Think of a chocolate easter egg with a hollow centre containing M&M’s. The egg isn’t just a container for the M&M’s or you might as well buy a regular packet.
It’s integral to the concept that the container for the M&M’s comes in the form of an egg. And that the egg is also made of chocolate.
An artist’s book is the same. It’s shape and what it’s made of are crucial aspects of the artform. Just as important as what’s actually inside it.
The artist’s book is an artform
Near Eternity by Jennifer Vignone, 2005 Hanging book made from paper, linen, wood, leather, lithograph, PVA, ink
...what drew me to making books...was the magic of the book...the exploration of the structure, the surprise a book has to offer...Artist's books are little worlds - secrets almost - even when they are huge in structure - they are intimate and bold...” Jennifer Vignone
The other crucial aspect of an artist’s book is that it is made or conceived by an artist.
Some fine artists make books as an adjunct to their other work. For other artists this is their primary medium.
Then there are illustrators, typographers, writers, poets, book binders, printers and many others who may work collaboratively or alone to produce artists' books.
So, unlike other sorts of books, an artist’s book is in itself a work of art.
As with all artworks, it is the artist’s individual nature, skill and imagination, that ultimately determines its form.
So now that you know what an artist's book is, watch a video
about the first in my artist’s book series.