The “book: a stack of paper sheets printed on both sides, bound on one end, and encased between covers.”  – Amaranth Borsuk

A handful of years ago, my former critical writing professor advised his class, saturated with visual arts students, to start collecting contemporary art books. His case and point argued that there is more value in collecting books than there is collecting artworks. Seems like a strange proposition as many purchasable contemporary artworks (paintings, sculptures, photographs, and so on) are monetarily beneficial––objects that at once are ornamented, meaningful, and worth their weight in gold. He explained his suggestion further in saying that it is important for young creatives to expose themselves to the work of their peers, mentors, and artistic idols; they should gather knowledge, information, and materials from other artists to build a personal archive of inspiration. The challenge, however, is the possibilities that allow emerging creators to collect large archives of artworks are slim.

There are many practical challenges that come with amassing physical art collections: one needs time, money, and space. In contrast, collecting books about art, be it exhibition catalogues, quarterly magazines, artist’s zines, historical anthologies, limited-edition publications, or hand-made hardcovers, is a far lesser feat. One still needs time, money, and space to build a library of contemporary art books; however, they need considerably less of it. With this and by virtue of the book medium, contemporary-art-related books are exceptionally worthwhile. A single book can hold multiple reproductions of artworks within it, a mass of knowledge, comparison, and analysis, as well as hundreds of pages of beauty, information, and meaning. The seminal organization Printed Matter, INC in New York city articulates that the arts related book comes in various forms. A catalog or monograph tends, “ to showcase artworks created in another medium,” while artists’ books are “publications that have been conceived as artworks in their own right.” For me, this professor’s ideas solidified the notion that contemporary art related books, whether created by artists, curator, editors, or publishers, are valuable creative media.

Among Roberta Smith’s picks are, from left: “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet to Matisse to Today”; “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor”; and “Hairy Who? 1966-1969,” open to three works by Karl Wirsum.Credit...Eric Helgas for The New York

The Book as a Medium

The book, as a form of media, is relational. Often physically and theoretically archival, books categorize both visual and written information. As poet Barry Schwabsky proclaims, “ a book can be both read and appreciated as object: It can be touched, held, looked at, even fetishized.” It’s medium, at once, has a long ontological history and has conversely been used as a means to document ontological histories. A book requires a methodical process to construct as much as it requires a methodical process to read. It is a form of media that simultaneously connects the material world with the perceptual world by nature of being physically tactile while mentally activating. Printed matter is replete with visual (pictorial), written (textual), and sensory (haptic) language. “Whether the contents,” of printed matter, “are visually or linguistically based (often a mix of both), physically moving through an artwork implicates notions of sequence, repetition, juxtaposition, and duration.” It is because of these characteristics that the book is a fruitful medium for artists and their historian and curatorial colleagues, to explore, produce, as well as circulate. The medium is used by contemporary creatives in versatile manners. For instance, curators use the book as a means to manifest connections between art and text as well as to provide artworks and exhibitions context, and photographers use publications as a means to produce and exhibit photographic essay explorations. When developed professionally, a book’s material archival durability is an essential requirement for publishers to uphold. According to the editorial guide Chicago Manual of Style, “Durability standards for paper have been established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)…”, and under these conditions books must use, “coated and uncoated papers that meet the standards for alkalinity, folding and tearing, and paper stock are authorized to carry the following notice…” These standards ensure that a book’s life is long and sustained.  These ideas acknowledge that, “books have become one of the typical forms in which contemporary artists express their thought.”

This is an Art Book Issue One Cover, Ellen Morrison

Several industry standard methods for book binding exist, from perfect, case, saddle stitch, to coptic binding. These methods of binding are utilized for countless genres of books be it fiction, non-fiction, historical, theoretical, and so on. In addition to these commonplace methods, creatives harbour various other craft techniques for book-making such as methodically folding paper, hand-printing text, and physically stitching paper leaves. From experience, I know that each elemental method of book-making (and publishing) is laborious and tedious, especially when completed by hand.

For some visual art students, especially those who are enrolled in photography or print-making courses, creating a book is a rite of passage, as the assignment of making a book is an exceptional practice for fostering creativity. Creating a book activates an understanding of the artistic process for a book’s creator; an artist tests their ability to be precise with their material decisions, to build a comprehensive artwork, and to build an experience for a viewer that guides a reader through the artist’s conceptual intentions. As indicated by Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, “A successful artist’s book is not only an object with a series of bells and whistles––like pop-ups, folds, and handmade paper––rather, it is a marriage of an interesting and well-thought-out concept presented in a format appropriate to the concept.”

Contemporary Artists’ Books in Action

While the objective to make books may not be at the height of every contemporary artists’ practice, many renowned artists have oeuvres that are concerned with or supported by books. Most conceptual artists with seminal works have publications that either reference or comprehensively summarize their practices. Throughout the canon of conceptual art; however, diverse artists have been known to investigate the book-as-material by categorizing one of a kind (or reproducible) books as sculptures (Zoe Leonard), archival systems (Gerard Richter, On Kawara), and photographic documents (Christopher Williams). In the 2002 work, The Holy Bible: The Old Testament by American artist David Hammons, Hammons “brings his unique insight and wit to bear on what may be the most widely read text in the world.” According to e-flux Journal, this first published bookwork by Hammons took seven years to create. The work “is an appropriation of Arturo Schwarz’s The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (softback edition), and has been rebound to resemble a bible – the details of which are as follows: 1002pp, 225 colour plates, soft cover, leather-bound, gilt edged, gold tooling, plus slipcase.” In manipulating the Bible, Hammons recontextualizes its divine contents and position as a holy object. Combining the objecthood of the bible to the figurative representation of Duchamp’s work, he “equates the impact of the Bible on world history, to that of Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre” on the canon of art. As a limited-edition work, only 165 separate copies of Hammons The Holy Bible: The Old Testament exist. Today, copies of this work range in price from $7,000 to over $14,000 to purchase. Various artists’ books are idolized as inimitable artworks––objects with great worth as collectible items.

David Hammons The Holy Bible: Old Testament, 2002

Finding Artist Books

The pursuit of personally acquiring singular, limited edition, or seminal artist books is as taxing as collecting traditional art objects. For Emily Carr University of Art and Design students, an acclaimed school of art located in Vancouver, Canada, access to acclaimed artists’ books is celebrated. For decades the institution has been dedicated to amassing a collection of unique artist publications. The ECU library articulates that The Artists’ Books collection “brings together a diversity of approaches in production ranging from self-published artists’ books, hand-printed limited editions to more formal, hardcover publications. While current collection development has focused on contemporary, limited edition print publications that exemplify the burgeoning collaboration occurring between designers, typographers, visual artists, poets, writers, curators and publishers, the collection maintains an emphasis on conceptual artists’ books from the 1960s to present.” In addition, the collection highlights “both local and national artists’ publishing practices including artists’ books created in conjunction with exhibitions at artist-run centres and art galleries.” ECU’s artist book archive is an exceptional means of reference and research tool for visual art students. Offering various ways to interact with the collection, ECU library encourages students to engage with the collection to use it to develop their creative practices and research methods,organize a series of Artists’ Books Readings,” or to “curate a show for our Library Window Gallery.”

Strong communities of art publishers gather each year to attend art book fairs, which take place in various urban art centers across the globe. Balasz Takac articulates, “art book fairs are annual manifestations which feature mainly art-related publications. Like biennials or other art exhibition formats, they attract artists, art book creators, illustrators, writers, specialty printers, independent publishers and their audiences.”

The Vancouver Art Book Fair is a non-profit organization that holds a public fair every October in the city’s centre. Attracting creative professionals from all realms, and from all over the world, the fair offers individuals the chance to access, purchase, and exhibit self-published, museum produced, or small press book projects.

These popular fairs bring together diverse individuals, and provide “the opportunity for the artist community to learn what is current, and what the future holds for the exciting art form.” In illustrating the allure of the book form, these events also represent the importance of arts-related publications and their power to influence, communicate, and advance artistic practice. For artists, designers, and art professionals alike, the book is an intrinsic structure, frame, and catalyst for connectivity and contemplation.  

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