01 Aug 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In critical writing about book art, sculptural books tend to surface in introductions and footnotes. For example, in the introduction to The Century of Artists’ Books, Drucker argues that the book as sculpture or installation is “just beyond the zone of artists’ books. I am concentrating here on understanding what a book is when it functions as a book, when it provides a reading or viewing experience sequenced into finite space of text or images.” [1] In a footnote to Bookworks Revisited, Ulises Carrión emphasizes that “I do want to underline the idea of “series of pages” in order to exclude so-called “object books.” These works express a sculptural approach and should be treated as such.” [2] In his analysis of the bookwork Space + Time, Tate Shaw argues that while “each physical opening of such a book is perhaps equal in space . . . books are a time-based art form.” [3] 

None of the authors above would claim that space is unimportant to bookworks. However, their critical writing about artist bookwork rests on the assumption that time is perhaps more key – in particular, the linear sense of time that sequencing creates. This isn’t surprising – in fact, it aligns with what the geographer Edward Soja identified as “a persistent epistemological bias” across disciplines, “favoring time over space.” [4] Why does this bias often go unexamined in our best critical writing about artist bookwork? Of all fields, book art should be the first to insist that space is as essential to reading as linear time. 

Unfortunately, developing a more robust critical framework for writing about sculptural books is a larger project than one blog post. In the meantime, this post proposes we borrow critical writing about concrete poetry to frame discourse about sculptural books. Exemplifying a critical approach that avoids what Soja calls an ‘anti-spatial bias,’ at least two such manifestos – Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry and Dom Sylvester’s Houédard Concrete Poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay – articulate space as the text’s “structural agent,” rather than linear time. [5] Although ‘space’ in concrete poetry manifestos often refers to the two-dimensional space of the page, to instead work toward a theory of ‘concrete books,’ we might investigate how three-dimensional volumetric space can structure a book-object as a whole.

The first work I’ll analyze using concrete poetry manifestos is Buzz Spector’s piece Unpacking My Library. The piece is an “installation where he [Spector] lines up his library around the perimeter of a space with the spines organized tallest to shortest.” [6] If a concrete poem is “not a poem about something or other” [7] but rather an object in itself, [8] Unpacking My Library is not an essay of the same title about unpacking one’s library – it is simply the unpacked library itself. Foregrounding books as concrete volumes, rather than representing them with text, is most of what turns Spector’s piece into a clever comment on that essay. Thus, in Unpacking My Library, volume structures what is communicated–much the same way the space of the page structures what is communicated in a concrete poem. Additionally, Unpacking My Library offers a reading experience of curated, found text fragments in the language visible on book spines. In organizing its text fragments by volume alone, Unpacking My Library, like a concrete poem, issues “no orders to reader who has to provide his own mind-gum syntax. Readers not bossed.” [9] 

An example of an editioned ‘concrete book’ might be the board book ABSENCE by the architect Jeannie Yoon. Like a concrete poem, the book creates a precise problem [10] (how to make “a portable personal memorial?”) [11], but instead of solving the problem “in terms of sensible language,”  it solves the problem in terms of sensible volume: the number of pages in ABSENCE was determined by the number of floors in the world trade center. A scale model of grief, ABSENCE is about as expressive as a blank book can be. Lacking any language besides its title, the book takes “total responsibility before language” [12] to an extreme, creating a site where “poet & reader meet in maximum communication with minimum words.” [13]

One of the benefits of framing the sculptural book as a ‘concrete’ mode is an understanding of volume’s potential for adding meaning to any publishing project. For example, volume can be a literary reference: consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (“I ended up making it the exact same size and bulk of the paperbound Harvard edition of The Arcades Project”) [14] or THE SADDEST THING IS THAT I HAVE HAD TO USE WORDS: A Madeline Gins Reader, which mimics the dimensions of Gins’ artist book, WORD RAIN.  

Furthermore, an ordinary experience of books is often a concrete one: look no further than the post office or the library. The USPS Domestic Mail Manual defines ‘book’ almost exclusively in terms of weight and volume. Likewise, library stacks are an experience of books as mass, volume, and specific location. Perhaps sculptural books harbor a unique potential to make “a critical comment, implicit or explicit, on books in general”– what Ulises Carrión claimed that “every real, good artist’s book” must do. [15] 


Working definition: a ‘concrete book’ is a book, bookwork, book-object, or sculptural book that uses location, weight, or volume structurally. 


[1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary, 2004), 14.

[2] Ulises Carrión, “Bookworks Revisited,” in Quant aux livres: On Books, ed. Juan J. Agius (Geneva: Éditions Héros-Limite, 1997), 156.

[3] Tate Shaw, Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books (Victoria, TX: Cuneiform Press, 2016), 19.

[4] Edward Soja, “Author’s Response: Writing Geography Differently,” Progress in Human Geography 30, no. 6 (2006), 818. 

[5] Both manifestos use the exact same phrasing. 

[6] Shaw, Blurred Library, 64. 

[7] Eugen Gomringer, “From Line to Constellation,” trans. Mike Weaver, in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 67.

[8] Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos, “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry,” trans. the authors, in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 72. 

[9] Dom Sylvester Houédard, “Concrete poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay” in Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, ed. Nicola Simpson ([England]: Occasional Papers, 2012), 159. 

[10] de Campos, Pignatari, and de Campos, “Pilot Plan,” 72. 

[11] “Jeannie Meejin Yoon: Absence” Printed Matter Catalog, Printed Matter, Inc., accessed July 30, 2020, 

[12] de Campos, Pignatari, and de Campos, “Pilot Plan,” 72. 

[13] Houédard, “Concrete poetry,” 159. 

[14] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 119.

[15] Ulises Carrión, “On Criticism,” in Quant aux livres: On Books, ed. Juan J. Agius (Geneva: Éditions Héros-Limite, 1997), 178. 

India Johnson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. 

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