What Are Artists’ Books?

Artists’ books are most often defined as ‘books produced by an artist through reprographic means for mass distribution’. They are books that are conceived and designed by artists, rather than books written on or about artists. Hence, they exist as art in their own right, rather than documenting pre-existing art. Although designed for mass distribution, most artists’ books will have small print runs.

Artists’ books can be distinguished from illustrated books, where an artist has simply provided illustrations to accompany another’s text. For artists, the medium of the book allows them to explore concepts such as seriality, sequence, narrative, and the text/image relationship.

For some theorists and commentators, something can be defined as an artist’s book regardless of its form, as long as it explores or evokes in some way the experiential qualities of the book. Hence, some artists’ books will deliberately evoke our cultural assumptions about the book form whilst concurrently refuting and problematising them. Some artists and commentators will subscribe to a Duchampian reading, where any object can be an artist’s book if the artist defines it so. Bookworks are a type of artist’s book that play with, and often subvert, the book’s form and structure in order to stretch our definition of what constitutes a book. Often these works can appear almost sculptural in form, and some blur the boundary between books and 3 artists’ multiples.

Many commentators have located the birth of the artist’s book with Ed Ruscha in 1962 following publication of his seminal photobook Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations. This is an avowedly modernist reading of the birth of the genre. Other theorists disagree, and see the artist’s book as the modern manifestation of a much longer continuum that reaches back to Dada, the Surrealists, and even William Blake. The term ‘artist’s book’ was first coined for a 1973 exhibition held at Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, and was quickly adopted.

Historical drivers for the artist’s book include:

  • Site-specificity: the page is viewed as a site in which art can occur, rather than a container for information
  • Radical pamphleteering: spreading radical social, political and economic ideas through cheaply-produced leaflets and pamphlets
  • Gallery without walls: circumventing the usual avenues of art production, exhibition and reception in order to democratise art and make it available to people outside of galleries

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