30 Sep 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

Much of the critical literature on artists’ books focuses on the materiality of the text and frequently, at least by implication, on there being little necessity to absorb the text fully. In discussing Johanna Drucker’s From A to Z in “Embodying Bookness: Reading as a Material Act,” Manuel Portela asserts that “the reader” never “entirely leave[s] the surface of the page.” This is an important potential of artists’ books and characterizes many of the most prominent in the past few decades. Over and over again, I have heard it said about various artists’ books, sometimes by the artist him or herself, that one doesn’t need to read all the text—which leads to my query: is there a problematic relation of text “packaged for its semantic content” (to use a phrase from Thomas Vogler’s “When a Book is Not a Book”) and the book as art?

William Blake, the patron saint of the artist’s book—master of poetry, artmaking, design, and printing—offers a complex example of the possible problem of text in an artist’s book. I first encountered Blake’s poetry many years ago as text printed readably in the old kind of book, as container. In No Longer Innocent, Betty Bright speaks of “the wall of words that don’t invite reading” as characterizing at least some of his works. Have or do people ever access his poetry in his artist’s books? At present his books are readily available in facsimile form. Blake was not generally appreciated as a poet for at least several decades after his death and until after the 1862 publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, in which many of his poems were typeset. Was his reputation as a poet dependent on taking his poetry out of his books? For me the role of the text in his books is visual only and as such evokes a context for the book’s images and design. It is to be looked at rather than looked through.

There are, of course, artists’ books that meld image and text in ways that keep text as semantic experience in the forefront and many remarkable fine press books in which the text as semantic meaning and visual form coexist in a way that intrinsically informs the other. But at least for those books for which tactility and handcraft are important for content (and hence are expensive), the audience is miniscule in number. And books with considerable text to be read are generally even less accessible  — harder to display — in a gallery than the primarily visual artist’s book. That may or may not have anything to do with the frequent reluctance on the part of viewers to actually read an artist’s book, indeed the disbelief that one needs to, and the frequent overlooking, even acceptance of, the weak writing in many artists’ books. “I generally don’t like artists’ books,” an unusual visitor at a book fair said to me recently, “because I don’t like the writing.”


  • 01 Oct 2015 8:32 PM | Richard Minsky
    Many artists' books demonstrate a lack of craft in writing and storytelling, and apparently were not reviewed by an editor before self-publication. This is true of works with and without words, and words used visually or semantically.
    Link  •  Reply
    • 02 Oct 2015 9:52 AM | Ruth Rogers
      I heartily concur with Richard here. This is why the importance of rigorous curatorial standards when building collections cannot be overstated.
      Link  •  Reply
      • 04 Oct 2015 11:06 AM | Susan Viguers
        Of course I agree with both Richard Minsky and Ruth Rogers! One problem with my Oct. 1st post is that it’s a conflation of a number of issues. Ending it in the way I did overemphasized just one. To pose another question: even if a verbal text is exquisitely written, how often is it read? Does it need to be? Richard, how may people actually read “The Philosophy of Umbrellas” in your “book” by that name? Does it matter?
        Link  •  Reply
        • 06 Oct 2015 4:43 AM | Anonymous
          Yes, it matters! It reads easily, Susan, particularly when on exhibit and displayed in a standard flag holder. It's fun to read as a haptic and visual process, and an entertaining essay as a literary and metaphoric experience. But it doesn't "need" to be. You'll miss out on a significant aspect of it, but that's only part of what the work is about and what it DOES. A video demonstrating its function as a happiness machine is at , where I also present its function as a tribute to Judith Hoffberg.

          It also functions as an icon for a text that is available elsewhere. Many of my works serve to call attention to a text that is available in other formats. Sometimes a reader cannot read the text in a book in a vitrine, and a work made to function in an exhibition may serve the text that way.

          An example of one that cannot be read is Reliquary for the Ashes of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

          A book may be intentionally difficult or even dangerous to read, as in The Crisis of Democracy:

          Ruth's comment gets to the heart of the matter and raises the question: What is a rigorous curatorial standard? When teaching Experimental Book VDE 4600 at SUNY Purchase I had the class curate their own exhibition as a final project. To do this they studied three curatorial methodologies and applied them to each work produced during the semester.

          One method was based on their reading Johanna Drucker, “Critical Issues / Exemplary Works,” The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist, vol. 1, no. 2 (Spring 2005).

          The second method was from Gary Frost, “Reading by Hand: the haptic evaluation of artists’ books.” The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist, Vol. 2, no. 1 (Fall 2005).

          The third method was my own system of examining the relationship between material, image and metaphor.

          Curatorial criteria included: Choice and use of font, Relationship of images to each other and to the type, Structure of the book and its relevance to the content, Choice of materials, Use of color, Effectiveness of communication, Interpretation of the theme, Haptic qualities, and Craftsmanship.

          Of course, there are so many different forms of book that not every criterion applies to each, and some require other methodologies. I repeatedly used the word "function" above because books are active objects that DO things, and not always what you expect. A significant aspect of critical evaluation is determining what the artist intended the book to do, and whether it succeeds, or fails successfully.

          What does that mean? Sometimes a book that fails in some critical aspects succeeds only in communicating the artist's intent, and if that in itself is interesting it may inspire another attempt by the same artist or by someone else, or remain an interesting unexecutable concept. In that case it succeeds in doing something.
          Link  •  Reply
          • 07 Oct 2015 10:26 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)
            Thanks, Richard, for your provocative AND comprehensive response.

            But what about books which function as literature as well as art (as well as having content in dialog with physical form) — books in which one NEEDS to read all of the text in order to get to the heart of the experience, in order to experience what the book “does,” just as one wouldn’t skip a stanza in a poem or a chapter in a novel? There are certainly books out there that fit that description, but I suggest their audience is small and that the possibility for display hugely limited. And over and over again, I watch people pick up an artist’s book and simply skip the text or read just a few words. Looking at something is so much more immediately exciting than looking through something, i.e., text which you have to absorb. (Zines, on the other hand, are usually read as well as looked at.)

            I indeed appreciate your umbrella book in its complex nature — metaphoric, implied performance, even without the video — and it’s essential that one reads/knows the title and that this is an essay by Stevenson, but, really, how many people have actually read the essay as it is appears on the umbrella? (I got though only part of it.) Your remark about text sometimes being an icon for what appears elsewhere is an excellent, and convincing, point, but it doesn’t speak to my thoughts in the paragraph above.

            In my post and my comments, I’m acting as a devil’s advocate. In my teaching I’ve had my students read both texts to which you refer and consider the issue of “material, image, and metaphor,” your books being prime examples.
            Link  •  Reply
            • 07 Oct 2015 5:02 PM | Anonymous
              Good points, Susan. It's not just book art that has a small text-skipping audience. To quote e. e. cummings:

              "The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople.

              -it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. "

              We can go to the Rare Book Room and play with the Real Thing, or can read the text online. The notion of Democratic Multiples died in 1993 with the rise of the WWW. You don't have to go to the V&A or visit the Sackners (wonderful as that is) to read every page of Minsky in Bed.
              Link  •  Reply
      • 17 Nov 2015 3:45 AM | Anonymous
        I thought about your comment this morning when catching up with OnCurating. Perhaps some of the CBAA members have not been to

        There are many issues that relate directly to artists' books, and some of the issues are, or include them. Issue 9, for example, "Ready to Print," has downloadable books, including an interactive one with instructions to hang the pages in a specific array, photograph your installation, and send the photo back to become part of another work. The text of the Issue discusses these works in the context of artists' books from the "democratic multiples" period, and the "dematerialization of the art object" period that Lucy Lippard highlighted, etc.

        Other issues (there are 26 so far) address curatorial theory, specific paradigms like curating political and socially motivated art, "Artistic and Curatorial Authorship," and curating in specific fields like architecture, design, film . . .
        Link  •  Reply
        • 17 Nov 2015 3:49 AM | Anonymous
          [This is in response to Ruth's comment of 2 October, which may not be clear from the placement it has on this page]
          Link  •  Reply
          • 11 Jul 2019 11:29 PM | Brock Buring
            Text is going to read some of the belongings that was wrote by the famous artist they also share it on their book. If you need to have some of the alter you can visit this was one of the base part that have some worth among the international community or work on these projects since long.
            Link  •  Reply
  • 10 Jul 2020 12:57 AM | Anonymous Green Bay Packers Football New England Patriots Game Today Los Angeles Rams Game Indianapolis Colts Game Denver Broncos Game
    Link  •  Reply
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software