Artists’ books rank pretty high on the scale of the unknown to the general public, a niche category as far as obscure art forms go. They’re a bit of an enigma. What is an artist book? How is it different than a regular book? A comic book? A picture book? Is it just another crazy art world thing, that general audiences aren’t supposed to understand? Or are these works a way of reinterpreting a common, everyday object into a higher art form?
At the intersection of printmaking, photography, and graphic design (with or without text), the basic idea is that it is art taking the form of a book. To try and define them, you can read into clues — like how handmade or factory produced it is, as often art books are hand-created. Or you could see how limited edition it is, as again, these unique forms of art are frequently produced in small batches if not as one-of-a-kind products. But there are art books that defy all of these different definitions — so after all of that thought, we’re still where we started.
In the end, it comes down to artist’s intent. If the creator went into the project determining that this object was meant to be consumed as a work of art rather than a work of literature, it’s a pretty good sign that what you’re looking at is an art book.
But whatever the definition, artists’ books can be a bounty of inspiration to a graphic designer. They help expand the possibilities of what a book can be, and if you’re in the business creating book covers or layout design, they are a great way to find new ideas.
What are artists’ books?
For an art for that’s still so undefined. In fact, there’s a serious debate over the spelling of this art form—is it artist’s book, artists’ book or art book? There are a couple of defining figures credited with the creation of art books.
The first is Swiss artist Dieter Roth:
Roth started out in the 1950s and 60s by deconstructing existing books to delve into their form, reconstituting existing books into new forms of art. As he continued to experiment with the art form, he explored a wide range of found materials — in an extreme example squashing foodstuffs between the pages of books to create temporal art works that rotted.
Often considered the American equivalent of Roth when it comes to influence in inventing artists’ books is Edward Ruscha.
Twentysix Gasoline stations, published in 1963 by artist Ed Ruscha, is considered one of the first real artists’ books. The concept is simple: the book depicts black and white images of 26 gas stations between Ruscha’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles and that of his upbringing, Oklahoma City. Each is captioned with a location and brand.
At first glance there’s little to distinguish this from a photography book. What’s important is the meaning behind the effort, like the fact that the artist originally took 60 photographs and deliberately removed those he found to be too interesting. The idea was to create a collection of neutral facts.
Contemporary artists’ books
From the early 1970s through present-day, the artists’ book has grown into it’s own art form. There are dozens of organizations dedicated to supporting art books and the artists’ behind them, as well as universities teaching it as it’s own form.
Artists all over the world are taking this versatile art form as their own. Here are a couple that we find particularly intriguing:
Warja Lavater’s work, produced in 1984. Lavater, another Swiss artist, has become most famous for re-telling fairy tales via symbols rather than words, often in an accordion-folded artists’ book format.
Brian Dettmer is a contemporary artist whose work comes in carving up old and antiquated paper-based products to unveil something new. He doesn’t add to the books or cut and paste anything, just crops out selective pieces to reveal a new sort of magic that lies hidden below.
Noriko Ambe shares Dettmer’s passion for cut paper, her own works delving into a book with an exacto knife taking on a more contemporary feel. Her sculptural pieces use form and color to create almost topographic looking creations, so tactile that you just want to run your hands over the page.
Colette Fu creates these amazingly intricate one-of-a-kind pop-up books about how the self interacts with contemporary society. She’s currently focusing on the lives of Chinese minorities, with her books giving her the ability to explore and inform the larger world about these unknown populations.
San Francisco artist Alexis Arnold’s Crystallized book series uses borax crystals to preserve discarded books, as the artist strives to find ways to preserve these objects not necessarily in the form they were created in, but in a sculptural and newly valuable way.
Helen Douglas & Telfer Stokes explore a myriad of the materials and formats for art bookmaking, from commercial offset printing and hand-printed editions, to scrolls and accordion fold creations. Their company Weproductions has been going since the 1970s, exhibiting all over the world.
Inspired by the Ethiopian Coptic tradition, Daniel Essig produces his own books, hand-sewn from wood and collected materials. Sometimes they take the form of books, sometime of sculptures — but each directly references back to that time when books were hand-crafted and highly valued, before they were mass-produced for the public.
Jackie Batey focuses attention on societal and cultural issues through art books, examining the everyday in life, and the relationship between what is often overlooked and what is valued in society.