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Spector, Buzz. "Artists' Book Books." Art Journal 56.3 (1997): 95.
The 1985 publication of Joan Lyons's Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook was the first in-depth compilation of critical writings on the modern emergence of the book as work of art. That same year Anne Moeglin-Delcroix organized Livres d'artistes at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, an equally comprehensive exhibition and catalogue of the form. It seemed then, to artists working with the book as subject and object, that the genre had emerged as a legitimate field for serious critical and historical assessment. The first large book and exhibition would surely be followed— and quickly— by others, marking the movement of the field from the margins of the art world toward its center. Indeed, in his preface to the Lyons anthology, Dick Higgins claims that artists' books are "a form which is not, per se, new, but whose "time has come.'' The quotation marks in this appraisal are subtle evidence of a doubt Higgins had about his pronouncement but couldn't discuss in such hortatory circumstances.
That cautionary skepticism appears to have been well-placed, if the subsequent bibliography of the history and criticism of artists' books is a criterion. Ten years would pass before the publication of another substantial volume on the subject, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books, in 1995. A second book, Stephen Bury's Artists' Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-1995, appeared a year later. These two new studies offer histories of the genre and make critical distinctions between artists' books and such related objects as livres d'artistes, volumes of concrete poetry, and artistically embellished found books.
In his preface, Bury wastes no time revealing the predilections he brings to artists' books: "I will simply admit my bias: that my approach is an unhappy mixture of formalism (Shlovsky's as much as Greenberg's) and functionalism; I have a liking for minimalism and conceptual art; I dislike artist's books that owe more to a cottage industry tradition than to a need for an artist to explore the book form" (xv).
A librarian at Chelsea College of Art and Design, where he also teaches modern art history and theory, Bury reveals his experience in collection cataloguing in his succinct introductory definition of artists' books: "Artists' books are books or book-like objects, over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself. They are not books of reproductions of an artist's work, about an artist, or with just a text or illustrations by an artist" (1). While acknowledging the practical breakdown of his definition in the face of challenges by individual artists, these prefatory affinities guide his choice of significant artists' books for the chronology that occupies the greater part of this volume.
Following seven brief chapters elucidating an historical and critical compass for his selection, Bury offers some useful suggestions about how to develop and manage a collection of artists' books. Here his librarianship comes forth, as in his discussion of cataloguing as a means of identifying the work and its variations: "This can be schematized as a three-level hierarchy: at the top is the 'work,' in the middle the edition, and at the bottom, the individual copy, although with some books all three stages are collapsed into one or the middle or last stage might be missing" (26).
Bury makes no claims that his list, of around six hundred titles, is comprehensive. Even so, there are some surprising omissions here, notably among French artists making books. One finds no mention of Martine Abalea, Sophie Calle, Claude Closky, Paul-Armand Gette, Pascal Kem, or Francois Morellet (Moeglin-Delcroix's catalogue is also missing from the general bibliography). Despite Bury's taste for the book as concept, the California branch of Conceptualism and Neo-Conceptualism has been trimmed, too. John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler are present, as expected, but missing are Meg Cranston, John Knight, Stephen Prina, and Christopher Williams; in addition, only a single work by Michael Asher, mentor to all four, is included. Keith Smith and Philip Zimmerman, two of the most inventive makers of book structures, are absent as well, although Smith's several reference books are included in the bibliography. The photographs of individual page-spreads or book covers don't add much information, either, though they are at least printed in larger size than the usual thumbnails in other references.
In The Century of Artists' Books, Johanna Drucker hesitates to fix the status of her subject, offering this introductory demurral: "It's easy enough to state that an artists' book is a book created as an original work of art rather than a reproduction of an existing work. And also, that it is a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues. However, this definition raises more questions than it answers" (2). Drucker proposes instead "a zone of activity," within which a broad range of creative work related to the book's forms, uses, and meanings can be understood by the term "artists' books." She differentiates these activities from the tradition of the livre d'artiste, whose technical virtuosity and material opulence are armatures within which the artist's work is isolated for specific delectation by the book's readers. Drucker is more accepting of the relationship between concrete poetry and artists' books, noting that the ways in which concrete poets have been able to extend "the parameters of what a book does as a verbal field... also extends the [ways] an artists' book can function as a poetic text" (10). She also distinguishes between artists' books and book objects— a distinction to which this reviewer paid special attention since a work of his is assessed as an example of the latter— calling attention to how the character of a specific book's identity is understood separately from the symbolically charged use of the book form. She places the "book-like object" within "the realm of sculpture, where [it] loses its functional identity as a book and becomes a formal and metaphoric icon" (362).
If Drucker's taxonomy is less than rigorous, her history of the form is very thorough. She locates the artists' book, in all of its multitudinous aspects, within every significant modern movement and draws on an extensive bibliography of scholarly references to reveal the philosophical and artistic connections among the several emerging avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. As both an art historian and a book artist, Drucker brings a unique combination of historical knowledge and practical experience to her writing. While her scholarship is certainly competent, her technical expertise serves her better in identifying the relationships between various vanguardist ideologies and the physical characteristics of the books they produced. She is a true enthusiast when she discloses this understanding in analyzing a particular work's historical significance, as in her discussion of Gelett Burgess's 1896 Le petit journal des refusees:
A small format work, about nine inches on its longest side, Le Petit Journal... was printed on outmoded wallpaper, in a trapezoidal format, with all the images and text produced through woodcuts. The cover of this journal displays the characteristic style of the work (an inelegant imitation of Aubrey Beardsley) put at the service of broad satire... The originality of the piece, a sixteen-page delirium, filled with patterns of Burgess's "goops" as well as such inventions as plaid hippopotamuses and cubical suns, was evidence of its rapid execution— done in a month of rapid work, in a single burst of energy... Even at the distance of a full century, the work is visually staking (the sinewy lines of its imitation Beardsley drawings combining with innovative patterns— though the thrust of its literary jabs may be blunted by time, their specific targets obscured, the volume functions as a thing unto itself, replete and redolent with spirit, energy, and ideas. (32).
The first four chapters of The Century of Artists' Books are primarily concerned with charting a history of the form, as well as identifying the social and philosophical issues with which it has been engaged. The remaining ten chapters map Drucker's cosmos of the contemporary artists' book. Her "dual-citizenship" as historian and practitioner emphatically enriches the analysis of the works in these chapters, which deal with the book as both a physical structure and a mode of communication.
Drucker's criticism of a number of artists better known for work in other media, such as Marcel Broodthaers or Sol LeWitt, emphasizes the importance of the book within their larger artistic interests. Her analyses of Broodthaers's Un coup de des (1969), or LeWitt's Autobiography (1980), offer unexpected insight into the importance of narrative and sequence to these seminal Conceptualists. Drucker can also bring a wry and erotic wit to her discussion. Read her view of Ida Applebroog's But I Wasn't There, an offset book of drawings from 1979:
[T]he image is of a woman sitting in her bed. Applebroog's graphic style is somewhere between a cartoon and a caricature, a biting drawing and a bland one. The figure in the bed just sits. The single image does not change, but is repeated through one turn after another. Then there is a blank spread and the comment, "But I wasn't there." This is followed by several more turns showing the image, another blank spread, and a final restatement of "But I wasn't there."... The repetition in this work makes the sequence a rapid one— the pages can be fumed quickly, in search of a resolution. But the resolution does not come, it is, in fad, embedded in the very repetition which seems to move so rapidly towards an end (260-61).
Describing, discussing, and analyzing almost three hundred contemporary artists' books, Drucker reveals the wealth of affective characteristics within the field. Even so, some of the same omissions that Bury makes occur here. Again, many recent French and Italian book artists are missing (although she does mention Paul-Armand Gette's work), as are the California Conceptualists besides Baldessari and Huebler. Gerhard Richter is also absent, even though his 128 Details from a Picture (1980) is as meaningful a critique of the limitations of photographic documentation, and of the exhibition catalogue, as any bookwork ever published. Although the many reproductions in Drucker's book are quite small, her inclusion of multiple page-spreads from many works allows at least a glimpse at how sequence functions in the books she discusses.
Drucker's work transcends its minor problems, though, through the expansiveness of its references and its deeply felt engagement with its subject. The book vastly expands our understanding of the interdependence of structure and meaning in artists' books, and establishes a more rigorous standard of criticism and analysis for the genre. For all her enthusiasm for books, Drucker's willingness to assert the successes and failures within the form's various parameters may instigate a further flowering of the criticism so long awaited by artists of the book.
Buzz Spector is an artist who works with the book as subject and object. He is the author of The Bookmaker's Desire, published by Umbrella Editions in 1995, and a professor in the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
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