Sarah Mottalini asks us: ‘What is an artists’ book?’


Artists’ books are not books full of art, but books that are, in and of themselves, works of art. According to curator Sarah Mottalini, this distinguishment took a lot of getting used to. “Just because it has art in it, or it’s handmade, doesn’t make it an artists’ book,” Mottalini clarified last Thursday at Schaffer Library.

So, what does? It started with a series of photographs self-published by Ed Ruscha at the height of the Conceptualist movement in 1963, called “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.”

It is exactly what it sounds like. Taken along Route 66, between Ruscha’s home in Los Angeles and his parents’ home in Oklahoma City, the project required months of planning and expenditure to generate a reaction of, as Ruscha puts it in an early interview, “kind of a: ‘Huh?’”

He succeeded. In its initial run of 400 copies, Twentysix was heavily criticised and, to no surprise, rejected by the Library of Congress.

But nonetheless, the book found a hungry cult following and inspired countless imitations and homages. Ruscha would follow up with Every Building on the Sunset Strip in 1966 and Every Parking Lot in Los Angeles in 1967. In a later interview, Ruscha elaborates, “Although I was painting pictures at that time, I felt that the books were more advanced as a concept than the individual paintings I had been doing.”

What Ruscha accomplished was a near-perfect encapsulation of the Conceptualist movement: to make the discussion around the artwork part of the artwork itself. The ‘artist book’ was recognized as an official medium in the 1970s, and would encompass an extremely broad spectrum of approaches: pop-up books, scrolls and accordions would appear among the more outlandish interpretations of the form.

What followed was an amorphous, decades-spanning Conceptualist debate over how one could reasonably define what is and isn’t an artist book.

Mottalini insists that Lucy Lippard, a prominent feminist writer and curator, put it best: “Neither an art book nor a book on art, the artists’ book is a work of art on its own.”

By the 1990s, the form had exploded. What attracted so many to the form? Mottalini writes: “with the artists’ books (the artists) could circumvent the galleries, which had at first rejected them, while creating more egalitarian avenues for art to reach the masses.”

By providing its own, artist-controlled method of exchange, the artist book would become a symbolic critique to a system that “eschews its accessibility to the upper class.”

Christopher Kardambikis, co-founder of the two artist book publications Encyclopedia Destructica and Gravity and Trajectory, says when asked how the medium encourages community, replies: “The printing of books and the press was developed to quickly make multiples and share information – distribution and discussion and reaction. It’s all part of the DNA of books.”

The first example of what many consider to fall under the modern definition of an artist book was written in the medieval era of Europe by William Blake, a pre-Romanticist poet, printmaker and philosopher, along with his wife, Catherine.

The two combined handwritten poetry and elaborate illustrations that they would self-publish, their first being Songs of Innocence and Experience, which was later expanded upon and republished under the long-winded title, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. With the illustrations filling space leftover from the transcription of the poem, the finished product would often resemble something like a carefully handpainted picture book.

For a long time, Blake’s artwork remained impossible to classify. It didn’t help that Blake was considered mad by his peers, in particular for his opinions on free love and sexuality, criticism of organized religion, and flip-flopping political ideologies. These ideas sprung up in one of his best-known, later works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which depicted Blake’s own descent into Hell. Eventually, 19th century critics recognized Blake as an uncommonly expressive and decidedly revolutionary mind, some of his ideas popping up again in early feminist movements.

Likewise, his art received belated praise and scrutiny, and deservedly so. Open up to any page of Songs and you’ll find as much nuance as you would any Renaissance painting.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when Twentysix Gasoline Stations was recognized as the first modern artists’ book.

Whether Ruscha’s work or Songs qualifies as an artist book, both were wildly idiosyncratic and provocative criticisms of their own institutions. You can find Twentysix Gasolines, among other artist books, in the Schaffer Library Reading Room.


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