These essays are concerned with one conjectural part of the phenomenon of artists books: the body of literature representing a public debate which has endured for almost a quarter of a century.
Three issues dominated the debate: definition; the book considered an object and its challenge to a new kind of reading--the debate's implicit political act; and, the desire to challenge an art establishment--the debate's explicit political act. Of the three, the work to establish an acceptable definition consumed the greatest effort. If it is deemed necessary, it has yet to be established.
All cultural phenomena suffer from their frenzy of scrutiny; and least useful is the necessity of establishing genesis. I begin in 1973, simply because it was in that year the term artists books first appeared, as the title of an exhibition of books. I examine where and how the debate began, how the principle issues were discussed, and what were failures and successes. Concentration is on writings published in Western Europe and the United States.
The Artists Booksexhibition, and two accompanying reviews, mark a beginning. It is for this reason I adopt the spelling artists books,without the apostrophe, unless quoting other sources.
A two-year hiatus followed the exhibition Artists Books,after which the debate re-emerged, on the pages of exhibition catalogues, reviews of exhibitions, books and conferences, interviews, and critical essays. Over 300 exhibitions and 700 published works are recorded.(2) There were three peak periods: for exhibitions, 1980-1981, 1987-88, and 1991-1993; for articles and essays, 1977-1978, 1980-1981, and 1991-1993.
The quantitative picture, however, clouds the qualitative perspective. For example, the international art exhibition, Documenta 6,(3) where books were displayed for the first time in the history of Documenta,spawned eighteen reviews in 1977 and six the following year. One-third of all the published works are, indeed, reviews of exhibitions or books. By the 1990s a number of journals devoted entire issues to the subject.(4)
One of the most striking aspects of the debate is the appearance of only one monograph on the subject, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books,published in 1995.(5) An anthology of essays, edited by Joan Lyons, mixing previously published articles with new writings, was published in 1985.(6)
A publication with almost the same title as Drucker's monograph, was published to accompany an exhibition;(7) however, both exhibition and catalogue were really concerned with the livre d'artiste. The essays here will leave aside books which fall under the genus of livre d'artiste.
The greatest obstacle facing the debate was stated by one of its most ardent participants, Dick Higgins, more than a decade after it began. In 1985, he reminded participants of that major obstacle: "the right language .. Most of our criticism in art . is not geared towards . artists books . that is why there is so little good criticism of the genre."(8)
The debate failed at times to notice what was truly occurring in the workshops, refusing to alter its course. Instead, it reiterated old words and espoused its inchoate rhetoric. Often, those who produced the books themselves were less interested in a debate which sought to defend a position which rarely existedÑin many cases believing the words to have little relevance to their activities.
The one corner which had little trouble with artists books was the art library. As early as 1980, the Library of Congress accepted the term in its list of established subjects.(9) To date, there are no other related terms.
The principal players in the debate represented all areas of the art and book world: critic, librarian, bookmaker, historian, and artist. The debate began with all the hope, optimism, sanguinity, and fervor of the newly-born. Yet, for the most part, it has been fraught with insecurity and pessimism, lacking direction. Only by the mid-1990s does it seem to have revived, and possibly found a focus. The writings of Johanna Drucker, as well as her critics, give a renewed impetus to the debate; in some ways she has elevated the debate by laying the groundwork for a theoretical and critical foundation. However, Drucker has a mission: to establish artists books as the "quintessential twentieth-century artform."(10)
A most confusing aspect of the debate is the spelling of the term artists books. Its first appearance, in 1973, omitted the apostrophe. Thereafter, it appeared with the apostrophe, and sometimes, without. Typographical error may explain certain cases; but there are unexplained mysteries. For example, Art Monthlybegan publishing a regular column in June 1985, using the apostrophe, i.e., artists' books. In January 1986, without explanation, the column title omitted the apostrophe, until its February/March issue. Then the apostrophe reappears; the text always used the apostrophe. The journal Umbrella, likewise, began publishing with the apostrophe, then, in June 1994, without comment, it ceased using the apostrophe.
Carelessly, the 1985 anthology used the apostrophe in
its bibliography for the important exhibition at the Moore College in Philadelphia,
1. Charles Alexander, "Centering the
Art (Arts?) of the Book." M/E/A/N/I/N/G 17 (May 1995): 21.
2. The chief source for exhibition listings is Umbrella,which is international in scope. Others are listed, or announced, in Print Collector's Newsletter, Art Monthly and the Annual Bibliography of Modern Art, which lists the collections of the library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The three indexing tools for the fine arts are: Art Index, Art Bibliographies Modern, and Répertoire international de la littérature de l'art. (see bibliographic note)
3. Documenta 6, exhibition (24 June-2 October 1977). Kassel, Germany. One of the main exhibition areas was devoted to artists books, particularly of the 1970s; emphasis was on European works.
4. In 1991, Artweekpublished three articles by Judith Hoffberg, and Visible Languagepublished a double issue of collected essays. In 1993, Cimaisepublished three related articles. In 1995, Artweekpublished an entire issue on artists books. In their May-June 1995 issue, New Observationsand Art etAmétiers du livrepublished a collection of essays. And in 1996, AbraCadaBrapublished an entire issue on artists books.
5. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995. A book by Stephen Bury, Artists' Books, was also published in 1995; however, its brief essays only serve as an introduction to the many illustrations of books.
6. Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook,edited by Joan Lyons. Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985.
7. Riva Castleman, A Century of Artists Books. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1995.
8. Dick Higgins, "A Preface." In Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook,edited by Joan Lyons. Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985: 12.
9. Library of Congress Subject Headingsvolume 1. Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1980: 146.
10. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995: 1.
11. Artists' Books: Critical Anthology and Sourcebook,edited by Joan Lyons. Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985: 254.
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