Artists book · Book

Artist’s Books: History and Context

The Artist Book format has evolved from many forms of historical and traditional bookmaking. The book as an art form can be traced back to the illuminated manuscripts, early Islamic books, Japanese and Chinese scroll books and hieroglyphics on papyrus papers. Each of these used a decorative element of either text or image to put emphasis on the message of the book.
The contemporary artist’s book format has developed from a combination of the European fine press tradition and the impact of 1960s/70s book arts publishing in USA. These lavish and elegant creations were produced in limited editions, usually for a high price and are sold in niche markets or book shops. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that for the first time in this publishing tradition that the work of the artist was considered as important as the work of the writer.

Book Presses examples:

  1. The Kelmscott Press was established in 1891 by William Morris in the UK. His aim was to demonstrate the beauty of books, which he did through attention to detail in each book produced.
  2. The Folio Society was established in 1947 in the UK and is still running today.
  3. Oak Knoll Press has been estalished since 1976 in the USA, publishing editions on the history of the book arts.
  4. Enitharmon Press
  5. Gwasg Gregynog
  6. Incline Press
  7. The Old Stile Press
  8. Alembic Press
  9. The Old School Press, UK
  10. Kat Ran Press
  11. Dieu Donne, New York
  12. The Perishable Press, Wisconsin, USA
  13. Circle Press
  14. (There are several more around the globe)

The successful growth of fine press commissions inspired artists to publish their own works and gain control of the production of them, keeping any profits to themselves. The 1960s/70s saw a huge serge of artists self-publishing their ideas and images as a step away from the high prices of galleries and dealers, particularly in the USA. Artists who produced these books included Andy Warhol, Edward Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Sol Lewitt, Tom Phillips, Ronald King and Ken Campbell. At the peak of these worldwide activities in the 60/70s, a group of artists were responsible for experimental art happenings, events, performances and artist-run galleries and publishing which set the foundations for current artist’s book production. This busy period is what influenced the growth of the artist’s book onto its contemporary format.

Recent technology developments and creative production developments (cheaper printing, photocopying and screen printing methods, for example) have made it easier than ever for artists to produce and sell their own works and artist’s books. Programs such as InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator have also contributed to this ease of production.

The artist’s book is an evolutionary artistic format; it will continue to become more diverse with the constant development in publishing technology, image capture/creation and digital outputs. The scope that Artist’s Books cover is continually growing and has very little limits, but WHAT is an artist’s book exactly?

What is a book? The dictionary defines book as “a printed work on sheets of paper bound together, usually between two protective covers”. Bookbinding is defined as “the art, trade or business of binding books”. An artist’s book may not necessarily fall into these descriptions but they contain text in one way or another and are bound in various ways.
My definition of an artist’s book is something that contains text to be read in a certain order, which conveys information over time. It is usually bound or contained.

HEAD – Top of the book
TAIL – Bottom of the book
SPINE – Edge where the signatures are sewn or pages are bound
FORE EDGE – Where pages open
HINGE – Material that connects parts of the cover so the book can open
TEXT BLOCK – Inside pages of the book
FOLIO – Single piece of folded paper
SIGNATURE – Several folios nested together
FORE-EDGE CREEP – Where the edge has been pushed out due to nesting several signatures together. The heavier the paper, the bigger the creep.
Sources used in this blog post:
-Bodman, S. (2005) Creating artists’ books (printmaking handbooks). London: A & C Black Publishers
-Jacobs, M. (2006) Books unbound: 20 innovative Bookmaking projects. Cincinnati, OH: North Light Books
-Stein, J. (2009) Re-bound. Beverly, MA: Quarry Books.


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