THE CUTTING EDGE OF READING: ARTISTS'BOOKS
by Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert
by a bewildering array of factors--shape, size, purpose, function, and price--artists' books produce unexpectedly unwieldy and complicated variations on the idea of the book. Moreover, book artists often take into account the historical development of book production and even reinstitute procedures abandoned centuries ago. For this reason, the artist book discourages even the most painstaking attempts at precise definition. To refer to it minimally as a book created by an artist fails to provide indications concerning its nature, appearance, or purpose--even though this definition clearly designates it as an artifact rather than a vehicle for documentation or fiction. Thankfully, Ulises Carrión has provided a more useful definition of artists' books: "Bookworks are books that are conceived as an expressive unity, that is to say, where the message is the sum of all materials and formal elements."(1)
Partly because they defy easy classification, bookworks feel quite at home among postmodern art works. Like other postmodern genres, such as installations, artists' books allow, and even require, versatility in the use of materials; and, by virtue of their built-in complexity, encourage intertextuality as well as multimedia experimentation. In fact, Dominique Moldehn in Buchwerke: Künstlerbücher und Buchobjekte(2) insists on the "Anpassungsfähigkeit" [adaptability] of even the most unorthodox of artists' books. Ever malleable, they adapt themselves to written as well as visual forms, including concrete poetry, pop-art, conceptual art, photography, painting, architecture, and the more artisanal pursuits such as binding, papermaking, and experimental typography.(3)
The protean nature of artists' books explains why any attempt to classify or establish rules about them has to take into account their multifarious origins and purposes. Quite a number of them, insofar as they try to propagate a thesis as expeditiously and economically as possible, owe allegiance to the pamphlet. Produced on paper that Félix Labisse sardonically labels "papier naturel sans histoire" [ordinary paper without a pedigree](4) and featuring black and white snapshots of filling stations, Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), inaugurates the unlimited "multiple," a genre seemingly devoid of literary or graphic pretensions.(5) Ruscha's choice of the number twenty-six, suggested perhaps by the alphabet, implies that what the book actually represents may matter less than what it dismisses: established art, literature, and typography. As such, it can function as an iconoclastic pamphlet directed, at least in part, against consumerism. In this respect, Twentysix Gasoline Stations may owe allegiance to Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades," so scandalously substituting for "original art." The viewer of a book by a well-known artist such as Ruscha might expect striking reproductions of landscapes rather than a sequence of ordinary, though precisely documented, Arizona filling stations, a situation Ruscha "remedied," however, in 1970 with a set of six signed limited edition lithographs showing Twentysix Gasoline Stations(6) and five similar productions.
At the other end of the spectrum, a different kind of artist book harks back to the traditional 'livre de peintre,' a luxury item featuring original graphics given over by a painter or sculptor to an elegantly typographed text.(7) Nor does it always matter whether the artist has actually read what he purportedly illustrates. For the Limited Editions Club's edition of Joyce's Ulysses, Matisse "illustrated" the Odyssey instead of life in modern Dublin. What more could a publisher ask for than to connect the lithographs and signature of a major artist with a fine letterpress production? But book artists work very differently, for instead of treating books as containers for independent contributions--textual, graphic, and typographic--they take full responsibility for the entire undertaking. The artist book, whether an offset multiple, a signed limited edition or one-of-a-kind volume, becomes the thing itself. Indeed, the object produced no longer functions as the conveyor of a privileged text, but as the only artifact worthy of consideration and, as such, the sole focus of attention and the treasure itself. Shirley Sharoff in La Grande muraille has provided a striking example of this sort of work. Of course, some livres de peintres and private press books of various periods, including most of those created by Iliazd in Russia and in France, readily qualify as artists' books because of highly innovative experimentation. Thus, we refrain from making a sharp distinction between these separate, but nonetheless related bibliophilic enterprises.
Noted for their ingenious paper mechanics, designers of children's books have exerted an influence on the structuring of artists' books, many of which make considerable use of pop-ups, cutouts, and accordion folds. While such procedures serve a practical purpose in attracting the attention of children by reminding them of toys and games, they fulfill an esthetically expressive purpose in the artist book and, in addition, force adults to question their own approach to reading. Instead of conforming to traditional formats, artists' books tend more often than not to impose their own special rules. For this reason, we consider them more challenging and disquieting than viewer-friendly. Accordion folds and, to a lesser extent, pop-ups appear in a great number of artists' books. Shirley Sharoff's La Grande muraille belongs to this group as well as Julie Chen's Octopus, both of which exhibit a felicitous marriage between typography and page construction. Sebastian Matta, a prominent practitioner of 'livres de peintres,' has incorporated pop-ups in Gargantatua (1981) and Jarry's Ubu Roi (1982) and, in collaboration with Pierre Alechinsky, in Joyce Mansour's Le Grand jamais (1982). As early as 1913 Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars had produced the most celebrated of all unfolding books: La Prose du transsibérien, whose projected 300 copies, if joined together, would have reached the precise height of the Eiffel Tower, featured both in the text and the graphics.
The deliberately childlike marks the writing in a number of artists' books--whether or not they utilize pop-ups or similar devices. Erica Van Horn's Scraps of an Aborted Collaboration creates the illusion that a child has produced it. Virginia Barrett, a San Francisco-based artist who publishes her own limited editions, recounts seemingly personal experiences in the simplified style and tone of children's stories. Generally, the sophisticated techniques borrowed from children's books contrast with the textual intent. Witness Ronald King's Bluebeard's Castle, based on Bartok's opera, and his Anansi Company with its origin in folklore. Technical inventiveness, whatever its purpose, often results in the subordination of discourse. And many works discussed in the following chapters, for instance books by Scott McCarney, Terry Braunstein, and Janet Zweig, stress the visual aspect at the expense of the textual.
Some book artists--primarily European--have found models in traditional Japanese practices. Indeed, folded pages show an obvious connection with accordion folds. Disbound and unfolded, a Japanese book stretches out into a lengthy accordion, but with only one side of each page displaying text or graphics. Elegant and easily manipulated, folded pages lend themselves to the expertise of book artists by allowing them to make full use of margins, and enabling the overlap and continuity of text and image. Didier Mathieu, the founder and director of Editions Sixtus, exclusively devoted to artists' books, has made innovative use of folded pages in En N'Ombres. In several of its books, the Franco-German team of Despalles and Strugalla, has taken advantage of folding to enhance incredible typographical games. Despalles and Strugalla have remained faithful to the venerable European practice of Vollard, Kahnweiler, Hugues, Tériade, and that innovative genius, Iliazd, of orchestrating their livres de peintres without interfering as writers or graphic artists. We therefore regard such publications as essentially the work of a single artist, even though different hands have played an important part in their production.
used for exercise books and business manuals, the spiral binding has
attracted a number of artists. This economical but effective technique--less
than $3 per copy!--offers many advantages. For instance, it allows pages
to remain perfectly flat. More importantly, it enables the artist to
give an added dimension to the volume. Bertrand Dorny has made exemplary
use of the spiral to produce pyramid books that can also lie perfectly
flat. By turns we can view these books as two-dimensional or three-dimensional.
And many book artists have returned to the ancient art of Coptic binding,
availing themselves of the flexibility of the adhesiveless binding.
Finally, many artists, notably Helmut Löhr and Philip Zimmermann,
have conveyed their ideas through shaped volumes. We might even consider
Löhr's Visual Poetry--a folded rather than a spiral book--and
Zimmermann's High Tension as deriving from shaped canvases. The
shaping of books may, however, have preceded the shaping of canvases,
as evidenced by The Hammer Museum's exhibit Picturing Childhood,
which featured Peter Newell's ingenious Slant Book, published
by Harper Bros. in 1910. This unusual book, shaped so that verses and
illustrations face one another on opposite pages, allows the book to
render dynamically an out-of-control stroller
We have become aware, since Johann Huizinga, that games have played a preponderant part in the development of art.(8) Perhaps more obviously than other artists, makers of books resort to serious play. Dorny, a versatile painter who collaborates with major writers, cuts, pastes, collages, folds, and colors papers, cardboards, and foils in producing stunning limited edition books with rubber stamped lettering accompanying highly sophisticated texts handwritten by Michel Butor, Michel Deguy, Bernard NoŽl, Ron Padgett, William Jay Smith, and other poets. Likewise, Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas carefully juxtapose different kinds of paper. By this intentional playfulness--hardly reducible to mere cleverness--these and other book artists distinguish as completely as possible their productions from those of commercial publishers.
And modified flip-books--volumes bound in such a way that they refuse to stay open and, thus, provide the generic opposite of spiral books--can serve a similar purpose by creating a kinetic difference between bookwork and ordinary book production. Kevin Osborn has contrived the most complex example of this kind of work, Tropos, a deliberately misshapen work, bound in wood and plastic, and revealing through die-cut holes in the Japanese folds riotous colors and a deranged typography. This almost illegible masterpiece of book art seriously questions long ingrained reading habits. Not only does Tropos find its rightful place among postmodern artifacts, but within poststructural theory as well. For it attains by technique, and not at all by discourse, undecidability.
A quite different kind of postmodern artifact, and sometimes far less legible than Osborn's, seems to derive from imitating palimpsests. The concept consists in taking an existing book and treating it in such a way that it becomes something quite different and fulfills a function having very little in common with the original. After erasing parts of an existing text, illustrated or not, the artist substitutes new words and images. Tom Phillips continues to perform this altering operation on a late Victorian novel. Thankfully, publishers here and in England have provided affordable reproductions of his amazing transformations. Most other alterers have limited themselves to single copies, notably John Eric Broaddus, whose transformations of ordinary books into multifaceted paintings still retain some vestige of the original.
Although one might attribute such operations to artistic self-afřrmation, they nonetheless have numerous cultural and even philosophical implications. In some cases, though perhaps not that of Broaddus, they reveal the derivative nature of art and literature insofar as the modified book, by relying on a specific origin, denies originality, thus reducing all art and literature to reframing and rewriting.
Finally, erasure and erosion, indispensable in such transformations as Elisabeth Broel's Aus dem Liederbuch des Mirza Schaffy, express a loss or denial of memory, similar in some respects to a Tàpies painting. In a sense, Broel has contrived an "in memoriam" for a once popular 19th century poet, Friedrich Bodenstedt, who hid his Teutonic identity under an exotic pseudonym. Other postmodern trends surface in many artists' books. While erasure asserts, by dint of denial, intertextuality, many artists' books make a more positive use of this venerable device--that of borrowing--a technique on which postmodern artists so frequently rely. In MIM, Stokes and Douglas, by intertextual means, equate the making of a book with fashion displays, while Susan King in her pop-up accordion book, Women and Cars, brings together assorted quotations, clichés, and nostalgic anecdotes graphically associated with an old car. Even the jokes about women drivers belong, like the rest of the writing and the images, to a remote past. Finally, Johanna Drucker induces the artist's book to produce a narrative involving a simultaneous plurality of voices. Indeed, she has entitled one of the her books Narratology, thus self-referencing a practice characteristic of many of her works.
The imprecise definition of artists' books as "books created by artists" requires, at the very least, further elaboration concerning possible meanings and functions. We can by no means reduce even the most elaborate among them to standard illustrated or typographical books or livres de peintres though they often incorporate some of the latter's most visible characteristics. The livre de peintre gains its prestige, and sometimes beauty, by juxtaposing original graphics and fine letterpress printing of a special text. The artist book, however disruptive of tradition, strives for cohesion among its constituent parts by giving equal status to images, typography, binding, page-setting, folds, collages, and text. The reader must search, if not necessarily for perfect coherence, at least for a unifying purpose, within and outside the text. Actually, a few avant-garde livres de peintres, notably Illiazd's "Degré 41" volumes and works by the little known Ania Staritsky, attain this seldom achieved coherence. Rather than looking for the projected cohesion of a tightly knit poem, we had best settle for the looser kind of relatedness found in assemblage and, more often, in installation art. Not surprisingly, a well-known book artist, Buzz Spector, has installed massive book displays and has also discovered a novel way of featuring famous texts, notably Kafka's, by proportionately tearing down their pages. We might find it rewarding to "read' an artist book in the same manner as we might interpret a performance where act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose, insofar as we can define them, substitute for and reflect one another.(9)
As a result, the reader may find it difřcult, perhaps useless even, to assert text, image, or any other feature as primary. This paradoxical situation whereby the audience must focus on the book as a whole rather than dwell on any of its parts, may account for the usual brevity and occasional illegibility of texts deliberately upstaged if not obscured by the structural and pictorial aspects of the work. We have used the term performance advisedly because of the theatricality of many of these works, which systematically overdetermine mise en scène and staging. A few of them, notably those produced by Julie Chen at the Flying Fish Press, make use of a clam shell box, not so much as an attractive protection for their contents in the manner of the livre de peintre, but to provide a stage where the various elements of the book can interact. Alisa Golden in They Ran Out succeeds in transforming the everyday experience of running out of supplies into a complex stage performance, where graphic displays of running relays the "running text" and where a large cavity, resulting from pop-up folds, intimates that the book itself may run out of subject matter, graphics, letterpress, paper, and everything befitting a book--excepting the copyright symbol preventing reproduction of her work. In many of these endeavors, the book insists on having the last word, supplying the final image, and imposing the definitive structure. Indeed, the artist book, from a "poietic"(10) standpoint, subordinates all the parts that go into its making, and, from a theatrical point of view, upstages at every turn of the page its supernumeraries: texts, graphics, binding. For the book to achieve dominance, the artist quite frequently diminishes the signifying powers of text or image. In En N'Ombres, for instance, the diminutive colored self-portraits invariably fail to convey recognizable portrayals. Moreover, the exotic or scenic backgrounds promised in the captions lose much of their force by their close resemblance to one another. Consisting of announcements and advertisements of fictitious products or events, most of the remaining graphics suffer, because of their subordinate function, from a lack of importance. Books featuring a minimum of matter, graphic as well as textual, pose a rather special problem. Although concepts play an essential part in many of them, we can hardly define them as conceptual. Quoting Sol LeWitt, Anne M¶glin-Delcroix insists that "The idea is never transmitted without its perceptible achievement."(11) In other words, the materiality of the book will always edge out even the purest and leanest of concepts.
By stressing the act of reading and hence of interpretation, we have squarely placed the burden on the shoulders of the participant, invited to see through and thereby thoroughly enjoy the innocent ruses of book artists who frequently tend to emulate the intricacies of hermetic poets. Robert Filliou, a pioneering book artist, has insisted on the essential role and responsibility of readers in his Teaching and Learning as Performance Arts. According to M¶glin-Delcroix, this book "must induce not only a creative attitude on the part of the reader, but creativity in and of itself. Not only must it form a liberated reader facing the book, but a free person facing the world."(12) In respect to placing the burden on the reader, everything starts with Mallarmé, considered by both Drucker and Riva Castleman the great pioneer of artists' books. Paradoxically, Mallarmé also originated the livre de peintre in L'Après-midi d'un faune (1876), a limited first edition delicately illustrated by Edouard Manet. In his Un Coup de dés, typography becomes as compelling as the words themselves. Indeed, this hermetic text would lose much of its impact if printed in the usual manner.
A great admirer of Un Coup de dés, André Masson, daringly calligraphed and illustrated Mallarmé's typographical masterpiece, thereby transforming the initial artist book into a livre de peintre and functioning as a reader compelled to express his reaction in graphic terms. In any case, book artists, notably Marcel Broodthaers, have followed in Mallarmé's intricate footsteps by modifying the reader's task, particularly when they refrain from supplying a verbal text. Broodthaers in his spatial reading of Un Coup de dés has drastically reduced the task for his own readers. Mallarmé's hermeticism and the burden it places on the reader (who in order to decipher the text, might have to spend as much time as the poet in composing it) bring up an issue discussed at length by M¶glin-Delcroix in the chapter entitled "Séries et récits": the temporality of the artist book. We must take into account the fundamental difference "separating time as displayed once and for all in the book and the time it takes to read it--the actual time of the book."(13) By introducing all sorts of sequential manipulations--textual, pictorial and architectural--book artists further complicate whatever temporal relationships may usually prevail between reader and artist. As one might expect, artists' books undermine even more clearly than other postmodern narratives faith in a natural order and reliable representation.(14) This built-in unreliability may even encourage their telling stories by way of narrative techniques already discarded by sophisticated writers.(15) Although it tends to reduce textuality, the artist book, an avant-garde production, "favors the reintroduction or preservation of various traditional functions of art, such as telling tales and the autobiographical, hardly in keeping with avant-garde attitudes."(16)
In recent years, scholars have shown an increasing interest in the artist book. Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books provides not only a reliable survey, but illuminating commentaries ranging from one-of-a-kind volumes to offset publications. Her pioneering achievement has opened up the field and facilitated further studies, including our own. Dealing mainly with mass-produced and conceptual books, many of them American, Anne M¶glin-Delcroix in Esthétique du livre d'artiste (1960-1980), a 'doctorat d'état' dissertation, emphasizes philosophical and theoretical aspects in her searching commentaries. Dominique Moldehn, who in her Buchwerke favors contributions by German artists, extends a mainly theoretical investigation into the 90s. In Artists' Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-95, Stephen Bury has skillfully combined aspects of the historical survey with a theoretical introduction and cataloguing in chronological order of important artists' books. In his succinct but highly informative commentaries he primarily discusses conceptual books and British artists, notably Ian Hamilton Finlay. And in Structure of the Visual Book, Keith Smith, a major artist in the field, has provided an informative study, highly useful to future book artists and readers. Stefan Klima's useful Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature appeared after we sent our manuscript to the publisher. Although these major contributions have proved helpful in many ways, our book serves a quite different purpose. Far from taking into account the entire field, we have limited ourselves to some forty books and instead of stressing theory, we have put the burden of proof on reading, starting of course with our own. Moreover, we have favored, apart from a few exceptions, fairly recent books as opposed to the works of pioneering artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Kostelanetz, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, and Richard Tuttle, many of them cogently discussed in other studies. In selecting these few volumes among the thousands of artists' books produced, we realize we have left out a considerable number, including not a few masterpieces. Our perhaps arbitrary choice of works depended to a certain extent on availability, but even more on the question of readability (or unreadability) because of our role as critics rather than historians, theoreticians, printers or publishers. But even Drucker, who accounted for more than 200 books, apologized for the narrow range of her selection! In any case, we have chosen a small number of books for close analysis, not simply because they appealed to us, but because they provided eloquent examples of various approaches to book artistry.
5. For an assessment of this important book and an account of Ruscha's esthetic preoccupations, see Anne M¶glin-Delcroix. Esthétique du livre d'artiste (1960-80). Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Jean-Michel Place, 1997: 24-28.
7. We can roughly define the 'livre de peintre' or 'livre d'artiste' as a limited edition book featuring original graphics and placing the artist at least on the same level as the writer. Inaugurated by Edouard Manet and Stéphane Mallarmé in 1876, this essentially Parisian art form now shares the limelight with artists' books. For information on the 'livre de peintre' see François Chapon. Le Peintre et le livre: l'âge d'or du livre illustré en France 1870-1970. Paris: Flammarion, 1987.
8. Johann Huizinga's Homo Ludens first appeared in Paris in 1938. For the importance of play in modern poetry, particularly in Max Jacob, see Sydney Lévy, The Play of the Text. Many bookworks--and not only children's books--owe a great deal to playfulness in one way or another.
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