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What an Artist’s Book Is
Lynda Bunting
 

What a Book Is
A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment—a book is also a sequence of moments.
A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.
—Ulises Carrión1

Simply put, an artist’s book is a book made by an artist. While this sounds rather obvious, scholars have been grappling with describing the genre since the 1960s. Often deviating from conventional publications, artists’ books have complicated storytelling in myriad ways. Johanna Drucker has pointed out the importance of sequencing with respect to artists’ books.2 A particular arrangement of information can allow for “dense and complex production of meaning,”3 perhaps more so than a regular work of fiction. The carefully selected sequences of information they present empower the reader to interact with them liberally and at their own discretion. Open to interpretation, these works allow the reader to project thoughts beyond the cover and binding of the objects. Texts and/or images may or may not have a logical progression. Sometimes content appears randomized from page to page, but is arranged based on a broader scheme. Other times, the artist’s primary concern is design and how a reader might approach the physical object itself. And, of course, there are those artists who try to meld content and design into a seamless whole. The beauty of artists’ books is that they have the potential to manifest themselves however the artist sees fit, bound only by the limits of production.

The Rise of Artists’ Books
The traditional book form comprises text that follows a linear progression, sometimes punctuated with illustrative matter. Since Johannes Gutenberg’s time, visual artists have been employed to render images that compliment the printed word. At the turn of the twentieth century, authors and poets were in regular contact with artists who began loosening themselves from academic canons and constraints. They sometimes collaborated to produce what has become known as the livre d’artiste. For these books, the artist freely interpreted the author’s prose and created new work especially for the project. The illustrations and text were finely printed and beautifully bound, such as in Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos (Les Crétois), published in 1944, a retelling of the classical story by Henri de Montherlant with illustrations by Henri Matisse.4 Artists also began writing manifestos and treatises, often experimenting with typography and combining their own texts with illustrations, as in Die Kunstismen by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, published in 1925.

Dick Higgins, in his preface to Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, succinctly summarized the origins of artists’ books prior to William Blake and insightfully noted that, during the 1960s, their “time ha[d] come.”5 Many of the books that artists started to produce on their own coincided with the rise of Conceptual, Pop, and Fluxus art.6 They often executed all aspects of these books, from concept to distribution, including text, illustrations, design, printing, and binding.