15 Dec 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I frequently see the word “intimacy” associated with artist books. But what exactly does it mean? What we lack in a shared understanding, we make up for with diverse definitions that offer myriad ways to experience and interpret artist books. Yet, lurking beneath these definitions is a shared sense of euphemism, one that limits what intimacy can be. First, I will catalogue several existing uses of the concept in our field. Then, I will offer a more expansive vision of intimacy.

Intimacy as exchange

Having an “intimate” experience with a book is conceived as an imaginary meeting-of-minds with the book’s creator. In an article for The Art Newspaper, tellingly titled “In an ever-mediated world, artists’ books offer an intimate encounter,” Jacky Klein discusses the increasing popularity of artist books: “The growth of the sector also attests to the continuing lure of the book as a space for an intimate, unmediated encounter with its maker.” [1] 

Tia Blassingame and Ellen Sheffield describe artist books similarly in a Bainbridge Island Museum of Art exhibition, “Troubling: Artists’ Books that enlighten and disrupt old ways of being and seeing.” They write, “Artists’ books have an uncanny ability to take even the most challenging, complex, polarizing content and mix it with techniques from papermaking to paper engineering and printmaking with almost any other elements…in order to have a conversation with the reader/viewer. These conversations may be intimate, emotional, educational, thought-provoking, opinion-altering, and world view expanding.” [2] However, this form of conversation is often one-sided and reduces the potential for other types of intimacy. 

Intimacy as disclosure

In The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker uses Duane Michael’s Take One and See Mr. Fujiyama to discuss a category she calls photo-narratives with text. She writes: “The captions are handwritten under the images and have all the characteristic immediacy and intimacy of personal jottings.” [3] The implication is that unedited, or at least, unpolished statements create “intimacy,” that the direct trace of the artist’s hand reveals a certain rawness. The viewer performs the role of voyeur, witnessing something private, illicit, but placed in plain sight by the artist’s own hand.

Intimacy as physical closeness

In gallery didactics and artist statements, I often read “intimate” as a euphemism for “small” — the smaller the book, the closer one must be to properly experience it. Such closeness may, but does not necessarily, entail the disclosure of personal jottings or shared thoughts and feelings of the definitions above. 

This physical closeness is not just a feature of the book and its reader but also of elements within the book. We see this in Clive Phillpot’s essay “Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books.” He writes, “The fact that certain bookworks combine words and pictures intimately, in a non-illustrative manner, complicates [analogies to film and poetry] and makes for further richness.” [4] As a formal feature of the composition, physical proximity is meant to inform the viewer’s interpretation, but this is a unidirectional form of meaning-making. It also isn’t clear how intimacy here differs from mere closeness, or whether all comingling of text and image is intimate. 

Toward a new intimacy

Despite the variety of uses above, the euphemistic connotations of “intimacy” saddle the word with conservative baggage. Quality and value are absent from phrases like “being intimate,” and its default use assumes an interaction between two people. It is no surprise that the “intimacy” of the artist book often mirrors the heteronormative encounter — artist and reader, giver and receiver. 

However, Johanna Drucker pushes beyond this conservative paradigm, writing “No single encounter with a successful book closes off its polyvalent possibilities.” [5] On the following page, Drucker uses “intimate” as physical closeness, but she also gestures toward an expanded definition: “Enclosure and intimacy are two familiar features of this spatial embrace, and as a personal experience offering itself anew to each viewer, the book is unparalleled for its richness of detail, variety, and repleteness.” [6] 

That experience is not rich in spite of the book’s embrace but because of it. The agency of the book mediates the exchange between artist and viewer. By recognizing the third party in this relationship, we can trouble the heteronormative paradigm of intimacy. This further expands the multiplicity of experiences and meanings already implied in Drucker’s claim that each reader sees the book anew.

Previous forms of “intimacy” conceive of two people as close together, physically and/or metaphorically, as possible. In the context of artist books, such an intimacy erases the object it is supposed to theorize. Instead, we must recognize another, queer, polyvalent intimacy. In this expansive and inclusive intimacy, the book is not an inert layer of mediation between two people, it is an agential object that amplifies their experience.

1. Jacky Klein, “In an ever-mediated world, artists’ books offer an intimate encounter,” The Art Newspaper, April 22, 2020,

2. Tia Blassingame and Ellen Sheffield, “Troubling: Artists’ Books that enlighten and disrupt old ways of being and seeing,” Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, accessed December 3, 2023,

3. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York City: Granary Books, 1995), 264–265.

4. Clive Phillpot, “Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books” in Joan Lyons, ed., Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (Rochester, N.Y.: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985), 129.

5. Drucker, 359.

6. Drucker, 360.


Carley Gomez is an artist and writer in Madison, Wisconsin. She is co-founder of Partial Press.

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