Artists' Books (part one)
In the first of a three-post series that considers the medium of artists' books, I look back to the late-1980s and early-90s – a period that saw the rapid proliferation of artists' book works as contemporary makers followed the example set by the pioneers of the mid-1970s. In parts two and three, I shall focus my attention on radical bookworks in the USA, and the recent development of artists' book works in Scotland and the far north.
REWRITING THE BOOK
Back in the early 1990s, there was a rapid growth of interest in artists’ books in Britain that took many by surprise. A flurry of activity in the early part of that decade, I recall, appeared largely to have been stimulated by a small but dedicated group of entrepreneurial gallery owners and book dealers who were responding to what seemed like a surge of productivity in this area by artists and makers from a broad base within the contemporary arts sector – in part a response to the output of well-known artists working with the book form such as Dieter Roth, Ed Ruscha, a broad grouping of artists associated with the Fluxus movement and, in Scotland, the printed works of Ian Hamilton Finlay.
The London gallerist Nigel Greenwood, who also staged an exhibition devoted to the books of Ruscha, was pivotal in the development of the ‘genre' too, and as Nicholas Serota was to write following the death of Greenwood in 2004, he:
…was committed to what he called "introducing" the work to an audience, and his idealism encouraged him to follow the example of Ed Ruscha in publishing artists' books in editions of 500 or 1000, rather than catalogues. He saw this as a way of placing an "original" in the hands of an audience that could not afford to purchase a unique work of art. The gallery mounted the seminal exhibition Book As Artwork in 1972 and several of his "exhibitions" were essentially the launch of an important publication, as with Gilbert & George's books Side By Side (1972), and Dark Shadow (1976) […] Set up in the back room, he would allow you to look first at the exhibition, then at the international collection of artists' books which lined the entrance hall before engaging you in conversation or enthusiastically asking an assistant to show you further material.
Though Greenwood was instrumental in promoting the medium of the artists’ book in London, there wasn’t anything particularly new about the medium from an international perspective – artists who had experimented with the bound or folded book format had been around for quite a while – but what was new was the popularisation of that medium and the manner in which it captured the attention of low-level art collectors who were being priced out by the contemporary art boom at that time.
If the visual arts had been a closed book as far as the general public was concerned, Artist‘s Books were meanwhile heralded as the democratising of the art object by some critics. In 1976, Richard Cork, then art critic for London's Evening Standard newspaper, had written an informative article that highlighted the medium and brought it to the fore in response to the survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA, London) titled Artists’ Books, booklets, pamphlets, catalogues, periodicals, anthologies and magazines published since 1970, in which were shown 609 works from the Arts Council's collection.
Previously, In 1962, the ICA had exhibited book works by the Austrian dadaist and editor of Der Dada, Raoul Hausmann but, for Cork, there was a problem that lay with showing such a vast collection of artists’ books. By the mid-1970s, a medium conceived to bring art directly from the studio or print shop and into the hands of the public was being récuperated by the wider gallery system of that time, and as he wrote in the Evening Standard, ‘Whatever artists choose to do can, it seems, become grist to the exhibition mill. Even when they develop a means of production specifically intended to bypass normal exhibition outlets the results end up, stripped of their renegade pretensions, safely nestling in a gallery’s womb – or should I say tomb?’
The tireless work of Greenwood aside, the problem was not so much rooted in the fact that artists were showing books in galleries, but more that galleries were somewhat befuddled in precisely how to display them at that time. After all, what we are considering here is a format that on the one hand falls into the limited edition ‘art multiples’ category, much like printmaking, and yet functions as an object for looking that requires being held in the hand. If the prospective buyer rocks up at a gallery dealing in prints, the etiquette is very much framed according to the ‘hands off’ rule when the drawers of a plan chest are opened, and invariably the print would be behind a frame before any prospective buyer would get within a hair’s breadth of it. If they did get to see the print in the flesh, so to speak, it would usually be under strict supervision and with white gloves on hand. But for many lower league artists of the period, this was not the scenario that they had in mind for their bound book endeavours. Quite the opposite, in fact. So what to do?
For the 1976 ICA exhibition, assembled in the form of an Arts Council exhibition that would tour, Cork observed that the ‘alternate art medium’ of the artists’ book was, at the ICA, removed of its context (as a book) before the public could even set eyes on it. Books displayed in cases, on shelves that prevented access in some way or other – or worse still, hung from the ceiling as objects beyond reach – meant that the reification of these ‘art objects’ was complete before the gallery doors even opened. Rather than be mounted, framed or sympathetically lit, the great asset of artists’ books, thought Cork, was that they offered (or should offer) simplicity of accessing in an un-precious way: ‘The very fact that they are displayed as exhibits in a gallery makes a nonsense of their true function,’ he wrote.
Throughout the 1980s the issue of how to display artists’ books was never really resolved by those who lacked the perspicacity and enthusiasm of Greenwood. By the 1990s, however, with the increase in demand, dealers and ‘artists’ book connoisseurs’ (yes, that was sometimes the descriptor that was used) were forced to think again about how to address the matter of display, and by the mid-nineties a small number of galleries and dealers were springing up with the sole intention of dealing in artists’ books alone. As one such dealer said to me in 1993, ‘interest in artists’ books has grown over the last decade or so as the book format is becoming more and more accepted as an art form in itself throughout the world.’ That dealer was Déirdre Kelly who with her sister Grainne had opened the Hardware Gallery in North London – a small space but perfectly suited to the display of relatively small objects such as the artists’ books.
As Kelly explained to me back then, the definition of what did and did not constitute an artists’ book was still up for debate, but as she saw it,
the livre d'artiste or artists’ book is a limited edition book with original artwork. The book thus becomes an entity in itself. As a genre, the livre d'artiste has attracted most of the greats of the 20th Century, including Picasso, Braque, Rodin and Léger. As an object the livre d'artiste is a machine for looking, each page turning to reveal a new experience. It is also an intimate experience, which presents the artist with a display medium other than that of a gallery. It is this intimacy and availability that has encouraged many artists to work in book form since the 1960s.
At that time, the Artist‘s Book was considered an object for which the artist not only provided the original artwork but often took the role of designer, printer and publisher. ‘We have had a continued interest in promoting and exhibiting these works’ said Kelly, claiming that (in 1993) that ‘we hold one of the largest collections of artist's books in the country, and since other artists’ books dealers have closed down or ceased dealing in them, we have a very large slice of the market.
Unlike many dealers of that period, the Hardware Gallery had an uncompromising policy towards their display. Most of their clients that called them, I was told, increasingly were asking first and foremost if they could touch them. ‘Our answer is always yes. If we show books, they are on open display. We find the whole business of viewing them under glass cases anathema to the spirit in which they were conceived.' Clearly, there had been some movement, then, concerning the issues raised by Cork.
Around the same period, in the October issue of Art Monthly of 1993, the artists’ book critic, Cathy Courtney, who had been writing a column on the medium of artists’ books for almost ten years in the pages of the London-based magazine, had sought to open up the debate further, highlighting the display policy of venues such as London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Some artists said Courtney, ‘would prefer not to see their work exhibited under the available conditions, while others feel their books can be adequately seen in cases, and a few are simply glad to be able to list the Victoria & Albert Museum in their CVs. Other debates of the period centred on more basic questions, however, such as ‘what is and what is not an artists’ book?’
Silvie Turner of Estamp Publications has in the past insisted that we understand the definition as borrowed from Marcel Duchamp – once claimed for the art object generally – It’s an artists’ book if an artist made it, or if the artist says it is, but for the most part such a search for definition seemed irrelevant and uninteresting, and many beyond artists’ book initiates seemed to display ambivalence in the main. Some critics with an interest in ‘art multiples’ continued to document the production of such books, but largely without any value judgements emerging from a critical perspective. When shown, good books were often displayed alongside the feeble, artists with something to say (whether visually, in their use of text, or in the interplay of both) shared space with those who appeared to have little to say at all, other than that they were now making artists’ books, too!
By 1995, artists’ book fairs had become a canny way of developing an interest in the format, largely resulting from the enthusiasm of private dealers who saw the art establishment (beyond private dealers such as Greenwood and a few others) as still wary of the format. Credit for this must ultimately go to book dealers such as Marcus Campbell, who organised the first Artists’ Book Fair in London from his shop, St James’ Art Books, from where he sold second-hand modern art books and monograph publications. Campbell who came up with the idea, mainly to take an uncertain market and develop it into something, more coherent and easier to navigate, had devised a shelving system in his bookshop which offered artists a rented shelf space from which they could display and sell their books, in a way that was both accessible and sympathetic.
Indeed, Campbell’s foresight in this regard can now be seen to have been the prototype for how many dealer’s display artists’ books still today, although, in the USA, where artists’ books had been accepted much earlier, such display issues were far less an issue. As Campbell states:
I opened my first shop in Maddox Street in 1991, specialising in rare books on modern art; followed by a five-year partnership at St. James’s Art Books, in London's Piccadilly Arcade. During that time I also organised the first London Artists’ Book Fair at the South Bank, which then moved to the Barbican Centre and the ICA over a period of 15 years. In 1998, in anticipation of Tate Modern’s launch in 2000, I opened my present premises at London's Bankside, adjacent to Tate Modern.
Though Campbell also found that there were, by the late-1990s, more artists’ book publishers than it was possible to document or catalogue, Silvie Turner was attempting to do just that for the publications that she was working, such as Facing the Page: British Artists’ Books. When I interviewed her at the time about where she was at with her book-length survey, she told me that she was finding that there was only space to look at the diverse range of British artists working in the genre over the previous decade. With her co-editor, the artist Ian Tyson, they were to document the books produced during the previous ten years, with an appendices highlighting research into British collections of artists’ books and the marketing and promotion of them, too. Tyson's reputation as an artist working with book art was eventually to result in his work being collected together in the form of the Ian Tyson Collection at the British Library – the most extensive public collection of Tyson-related books in Europe, including books produced by his Tetrad Press.
As we moved towards the end of the 1990s, and although there seemed to be more artists working with the book format than ever before, there was still no general consensus on how to position the artists’ books within the wider contemporary art context, however – at least from mainstream critics and art historians – in fact there was almost a cult-like status being attributed to the format, fostered by what might be described as network of artists' book aficionados. That said, and somewhat paradoxically, no longer were we discussing the experimentation with the format from the greats of high-modernism or those identified with a conceptual art elite, but a massive surge in production as emerging British artists continued to catch on to the format’s potential.
My own point of contact with the medium of artists’ books withered somewhat around this period, but perhaps that is a good thing. Dr. Stephen Bury (who when I was a young undergraduate at Chelsea School of Art was the school’s senior librarian) did some excellent work refining and cataloguing the output by contemporary artists, and defining the developing definition of what an artists’ book actually was: 'Artists' books are books or book-like objects over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself,’ he was to write.
With the benefit of hindsight, and the manner in which artists’ books from the period I’ve been referring to have become historicized, it is now possible to see certain artists as significant contributors to the format, while others, who seemed to receive a huge amount of commercial attention and press at the time, barely figure at all in the format’s development over recent decades. Twenty-five years after my first contact with Déidlre Kelly, she now tells me that recently she has been 'considering what might be the eventual destination for her artists’ books collection.
The collection comprises over 600 books, and a detailed list of the publications, which include works by Ron King, Circle Press, Ian Tyson, Bruce Mc Lean, Alan Davie to name just a few is available for online consultation on request. I am currently in discussion with a number of university libraries interested in acquiring such a didactic resource for their library as, above all, I would like it to be available to inspire other artists.
Looking back, it is important to recognise the pivotal role that the Hardware Gallery played in developing the medium during the time it was in business. Kelly now lives in Venice, where she is a permanent artist in residence and curator of the SG gallery at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Venezia. The Hardware opened in 1986 and continued until 2001, with Kelly at the helm as its director throughout.
Certainly, there is no longer such a laissez-faire attitude to what constitutes an ‘artists’ books’ and how they change hands as commodities. In short, whether one approves of the definitions or not, definitions have been set out as part of the historicizing process, and I think that this is important for the following reason: In the early 2000s it was not uncommon to read of all manner of ‘zines’ being marketed as artists’ books, but in truth they were often hastily thrown together products for a niche market that had little to do with the contemporary art context of artists' book – on the zine fringe, such publications were produced for recalcitrant minority audiences on the subcultural periphery, and this could be easily seen in context at Somerset House recently during the exhibition Print! Tearing It Up.
Although the exhibition was conceived as a means to highlight the history and diversity of journal and zone publishing and the impact of the British independent magazine scene today, the exhibition also included a two-day festival titled Process, celebrating independent media and making and organised by OOMK (one of my kind)an art publishing collective run by Sofia Niazi, Rose Nordin and Heiba Lamara.. Said the organisers of the exhibition:
Bringing together established and emerging designers, activists and publishers to explore, interrogate and share approaches to creative and collaborative process. In the context of high-speed media and access to infinite information, how do we create time, space and approaches that can enable us to process the social and political climate and create new media and outputs?
Welcome therefore are the clear definitions of where independent publishing and artists' book-making diverge in terms of output and concept. For example, the Good Press Gallery, based in Glasgow, has been described by the French Comic maker and collector Quentin Dufour as 'a great library of fanzines, artists' books, textual editions, artistic research, and editorial experimentation,' and so here we find the boundaries blurred somewhat. While for some that is fine, of course – there is a vibrant cross-disciplinary culture that Good Press Gallery contributes to – in terms of the artists' book as a medium that requires cataloguing and preserving, definitions are nonetheless required.
It may well be that the Good Press Gallery deals in artists' books, but it also deals in a lot more than that'd as they state on their website their website, they are 'a volunteer-run organisation with all proceeds staying within the space for its projects and development. We collaborate with artists, designers, teachers, students, organisations, and festivals.' Formed in October 2011, in order to provide a space to support the promotion, production and sale of independent publications, Good Press was previously based in the Glasgow cafe/bar venue Mono, which also hosts exhibitions, book readings, art performances and workshops.
While the development of a cross-disciplinary scene continues to develop, the definitions of what is and isn't an artists' book have meanwhile filtered through to national libraries, for which at one time the medium was a hugely problematic entity from a cataloguing perspective. The definitions that have now become widely accepted make it not just much easier to argue a case for the way artists’ books are assessed and evaluated, but also how they are protected and conserved in light of their contribution to the broader culture.
Of course, this may well seem to run contrary to the scenario argued by Richard Cork, whereby artists’ books emerged – in Britain particularly – as a means to bypass the constraints of the commercial gallery system, and democratise the art object by putting it directly in the hands of the public (something that galleries such as Good Press seek to rectify), but some form of preservation of the artists' book as a cultural artefact was, and remains, required; albeit with us being ever mindful that entire editions are not lost to museum archives and rarely-seen collections.
The National Library of Scotland is one institution among many that have it right, I think. The definitions in the Librart's literature on cataloguing its cultural artefacts are laid out very well. As the Library states, ‘at first glance, the definition of an artists’ book is quite clear: it is simply 'a book designed, produced, or illustrated by an artist' (Jane Greenfield, ABC of Bookbinding, 1998). But as with other kinds of art, artists’ books ultimately resist definition.’ Questioning whether an artists’ books is a unique item, or whether there be an edition of a number of copies, and additionally if the artist is required to produce the book single-handedly from concept through printing to binding, the Library states that generally there is a difference from the traditional livre d'artiste, where the emphasis is on an artist illustrating a conventional book: The artists’ books is an attempt to challenge the form of the book itself.’
The Art Libraries Society of the United Kingdom and Ireland has also produced a definition: An artists’ books is, 'a book or book-like object in which an artist has had a major input beyond illustration or authorship; where the final appearance of the book owes much to an author's interference/participation: where the book is a work of art in itself,' which is almost word for word the definition given by Stephen Bury. On this basis, ‘the artists’ book as a form' it is claimed by The National Library of Scotland, ‘began in the 20th century, developed further in its latter half, and still flourishes today.'
The benefit of the definitions are not purely historical nor academic, however; they function as a benchmark for what the National Library may bring together from the many ‘objects’ that were previously scattered among its wider collection of cultural artefacts too. The Library may also selectively acquire artists’ books according to the above definitions, in line with its remit as a conserver of Scottish artefacts (or those with a particular connection to Scotland). Among the Library's special collections, some artists’ books can be found under the shelfmark for Fine Books (FB) therefore, while they also hold the Ian Hamilton Finlay Collection, in which the Library's existing holdings of the printed works of the Scottish artist and poet have been brought together (shelfmarked IHF, which can be searched for here).
Meanwhile, academic libraries are recognising their responsibility as possible repositories for the study of artists' book, too. St. Andrew University Library in Fife, for example, has recently acquired a significant holding of work by the Fife-based artist Jean Johnstone, about whom I shall be writing in detail in my next post on artists' books. Johnstone, in collaboration with Scottish and international poets including John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, John Glenday, Michael Longley, Anna Crowe, Anna Aguilar-Amat and Christopher Whyte, uses etchings, pen and ink drawings, leaf and bark papers, beeswax, silk and linen, to create hand-made, hand-scripted artists' books and, according to the Saltire Society Scotland, her books are unique in their approach to the interpretation and manifestation of poetry, being exclusively created for acquisition by libraries in order to maximise public availability.
Beyond the National and University library collections in Scotland, there is also a vibrant interest in current makers of artists’ books here, thanks to initiatives such as the Artists’ Book Market, Edinburgh, the main event in Scotland for artists’ books, hosted by the Fruitmarket Gallery. There are also several makers who have built an international interest in Scottish artists' book-making, and among them are Weproductions, which artist Helen Douglas describes as a paradigm of a generation of artists’ books characterised by unlimited editions, paperback format and offset printing.
I'll be writing more about Weproductions over the coming weeks too, but, in brief, Weproductions is both Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes, and their publications demonstrate an exploration of the book form to structure visual narrative. The potted history that Weproductions offers for those unaware of their activities reads as follows:
Weproductions was established by Telfer Stokes in 1971 and joined by Helen Douglas in 1974. In 1976 it moved from London to Deuchar Mill, Scotland, where a printing press was set up in 1979. After two decades of in-house printing and working with small presses in the States, the late '90s and 2000s brought about new changes: returning to the use of commercial offset printers for larger multiple editions and the introduction of small hand-printed digital editions. Douglas continues to make and publish from Deuchar Mill: her e-scroll The Pond at Deuchar has recently been published by Tate.
When I contacted her concerning how WeProductions have built such strong ties with the USA, however, Douglas explained that 'during the 1970s when we began making and publishing artists’ books, the connection with the US was important, both as a place of inspiration and of shared ideas. We took each new book over to New York, placing them in bookshops and galleries.' By the 1980s they were also being published and working with presses in the States, also. In 1976, Weproductions had first made contact with Printed Matter Inc., and the relationship grew from there:
When the NY Artist Book Fair got going in the early 2000s, I was invited over by Printed Matter and took a stand there for a number of years, but when Printed Matter moved to its new premises on 11th Avenue, the director Max Schumann wrote to me inviting me to make a show of Weproductions and my more recent solo work.
As Schumann summarised to Douglas, 'Your presence and participation in Printed Matter over the span of our history is enduring, and your contribution to the field of artists books is so significant, we would love to provide an in-depth view of your practice, and introduce it to audiences both old and new.'
From such international hookups to the enduring artists’ book fairs in the UK, Edinburgh College of Art’s Bookmarks Artists’ Bookfair, is a little further down the food chain. It is encouraging that it exists, for sure, but trying to get any response from the organisers for their 2018 event this year proved a fruitless exercise. There are reasons for this, though.
The organisers (apparently drawn from the University’s teaching staff as far as I can ascertain), include Teaching Fellow in Illustration, Lucy Roscoe. When I contacted her in March of this year, she explained that staff had been 'snowed under with planning, and juggling a teaching load as well.’ What Roscoe perhaps inadvertently reveals is the amount of work involved in putting together such events, and expecting hard-pressed academics to do this while under very real pressure of time in other areas, is not necessarily conducive to the development of Bookmarks as a signature event for the College of Arts in the wider UK book fair calendar. As a faculty-run enterprise it is interesting, but can it grow beyond that?
The Bookmarks Book Fair does encourage and present some interesting work that is worthy of attention, however. Make no mistake about that. The College’s Art, Space and Nature MFA/MA programme (which offers a multidisciplinary framework to explore the complex intersections between creative practice, spatial theory and environmental issues) exhibited work at Bookmarks 2018 with artists’ books made as part a field trip to Forsinard in the far northern Highlands, where the Flow Country peatland restoration project in Caithness is ongoing.
The ASN postgraduate students' artists’ books presented at Bookmarks 2018 were described as an investigation of the interplay between artists’ book-making and a wider response to the environmental concerns of the northern landscape. Among those producing books connected to the Art, Space and Nature programme were Alex Hackett and Alix Villanueva who, together operate as Pearl Moss Press. While Hackett is based in the Outer Hebrides, Villanueva lives in Edinburgh.
Hackett and Villanueva's Pearl Moss website has a catalogue of all their publications to date – books that as Hackett states, 'explore entanglements between art and the natural world through poetic text, drawing, photography and tactile material.' At Pearl Moss Press, she says, 'we frequently use the artists' book as a tool to accompany elements of artistic practice, such as visual exhibitions, event-based work and public art commissions.' Relevant here are their publications Lichen Talk and An unconventional romance between a desert and a peat bog, which were both made in response to fieldwork at Forsinard. Lichen Talk by Villanueva is an intimate exploration and encounter with minute lichen in the vast landscape of the bog, opening up the ways in which we relate to the non-human, while An unconventional romance between a desert and a peatbog is a collection of poetry described as written between the blanket bog and the Sahel desert, with a handmade paper insert, peat-ash and crustaceans from the Isle of Lewis.
Another of their books of note is Tangle (above), which was a collaborative project by both Hackett and Villanueva, what Hackett describes as 'the mysterious, complex and historical relationship that humans have with seaweed,' something that is also explored in the Pearl Moss Press publication Carrageen Apparatus that accompanied an exhibition of the same name, imagining and re-inventing the harvesting equipment and culinary tools used to gather and prepare the seaweed Carrageen which is found and used widely in the Outer Hebrides.
In light of the above, what we can be sure of, is that across Scotland, the British Isles, and more broadly in the international scene, the creation of artists’ books doesn't seem to be receding in terms of activity or interest. As I write this, there is an exhibition in New York City of work by Weproductions (who are also based in Scotland) at Printed Matter. Meanwhile, artists such as Brian Wiggins in the USA have seen the potential of the artists’ book as a means to issue a quick-fire response to the politicisation of the exhibition space in the lead up to Donald Trump's tenure as President and the worrying increase in cases of exhibition space censorship – something that I will consider in my next post on the current standing of artists’ book, too, before moving on to consider in more detail the work of Weproductions, Pearl Moss Press, Jean Johnstone, and several others that I have mentioned only briefly above.