14 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

Ulises Carrión wrote, “Among languages, literary language . . . is not the best fitted to the nature of books,” in the late 70s. He was manifesting about ‘old books’ (books that didn’t consider their own materiality) and ‘new books’ (an early iteration of what Jerome McGann among others would call the page as a spatial field). Around the same time, the critic Lucy Lippard wrote that one of her favorite aspects of artists’ books was that she could skim them; she didn’t differentiate between various iterations of artists’ books such as photobooks and the self-inflicted wounds of one-off journals. All of them, evidently, could be treated as flip books.

Lippard’s quantitative methodology seems to have struck a chord with curators of book art exhibitions; since the 1980s many curators have tended to stuff their exhibitions with examples, as if to convince viewers that we should love artists’ books simply because there are so darn many of them. Given that, for many of us, our first encounter with artists’ books and book art is in these exhibitions, the packed cases, often filled with one-of-each book structures which of course defy reading in that setting, leave an implicit suggestion that the textual content of these books is not the point. That in turn seems to promote a form of bookmaking that treats text as afterthought, or something to pour into a structure.

Why, then, given the challenges, bother to read—really read—artists’ books at all? We read because, when text is woven into the conceptual fabric of the book, the whole can become far greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t that the idea of artists’ books? Books that understand their own operation, their iconicity, their materials and their content as an interwoven whole will bring on an experience for the reader that quick perusal and even appreciation of an interesting structure will not do. But we need to practice what Betsy Davids calls adventurous reading; I often borrow the analogy of close reading from literary studies to suggest an approach to artists’ books that will yield their complexity with time, study and curiosity.

Can this all go wrong? Of course. Take the recent phenomenon, Jonathan Safron Foer’s, Tree of Codes, an adaptation of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. Foer excised major amounts of text from a translation of Schulz’s work; laser cutter technology allowed New Directions to publish the results in a relatively inexpensive trade edition. While the resultant text that Foer created considers Schulz’s words in a sympathetic way, the book can’t really be read without a paper intervention underneath each page, which defeats the original intention of the book. I’m guessing that Foer never actually tried making this book; he marked off the text he wanted to save and sent it off to be dealt with by the publisher. Artists engaged with the materiality of their books would not have made this mistake.

T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, that most traditional of makers, demanded no less of his books than we should demand of artists’ books, and lamented what happened when his Books Beautiful did not stand up to scrutiny: “. . .each contributory craft may usurp the functions of the rest and of the whole and growing beautiful beyond all bounds ruin for its own the common cause.” The best artists’ books reveal their contents in the whole. It is our job to take the time to see what they are offering.


  • 14 Oct 2015 11:42 PM | Deleted user
    Thank you Bridget, I've woken up here in the UK to this thoughtful piece which I shall read closely. But just to quickly reflect how the post-constructivist paradigm supports your points in that visual signs can be 'read' as carefully and closely as linguistic signs. WJT Mitchell of course has written considerably about this along with Stuart Hall, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Irit Rogoff and Barthes' "Image, Music, Text" as well as others. I'm finding this issue of great relevance to me right now which is why I am grateful for your post as I'm in the final year of my practice-based PhD with the working title "The Artist Book: Making as embodied knowledge of practice and the self" where half of my thesis is my collection of artist books. How can these books, these artefacts, these talismans, represent high-level academic knowledge? A challenge that always awaits the artist/maker as PhD student. Many thanks for the inspiration and knowledge. -- Elizabeth
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    • 15 Oct 2015 8:28 AM | Susan Viguers
      Just a note. The post "How About Some Adventurous Reading?" is by Kathy Walkup.
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      • 16 Oct 2015 8:50 AM | Susan Viguers
        I can’t imagine disagreeing with the argument that “visual signs can be ‘read’ as carefully and closely as linguistic signs.” (That, of course, contributes to the difficulty of exhibiting artists’ books that consist primarily of visual signs, as well as books that involve text to be absorbed as “literature.”) My question is whether there is a difference between reading visual signs and linguistic signs and, if so, how that affects the experience of a book. I am not suggesting that the visual form of linguistic signs doesn’t contribute to meaning.
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