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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 01 Nov 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I had a dream I was fishing for words. Feet in the water, I stood on the shore, cast a line, and pulled up words from the incoming waves. The words took the form of long, unbroken recitations sounded out into the wind. If I kept speaking, the word flow continued. If I stopped, the line went slack. This idea of words in, or as, water lingered with me, as a metaphor for the obscurity of language’s sources. 

    Artists’ books upend our expectations of narrative and structure. In my opinion, the most interesting artists’ books subvert their own traditions as well. Word Rain by Madeline Gins is one such work; a treatise on the germination and perception of text in the guise of contemporary fiction. Reading Word Rain is like reading a book that has become sentient and is looking at itself. With mathematical grace, Gins blurs the boundary between writer, reader, written, and read. Rain, vapors, and mists are referenced throughout the text to emphasize the fluidity of the book’s modalities and our relationship to its changing states.

    The book ends with two sentences, declaring these two concepts to be one and the same. 

    The body is composed of 98% water.

    This page contains every word in the book. 

    1. “It’s raining in the ocean.”

    Reading is a loss of borders, a loss of self. When the reader is reading, they are gazing into a mirroring pond, encircled by an enveloping mist. Two eyes move across the pond’s face, or words on a page, and gather the reflected light. The reader shifts their gaze, right to left, left to right, across the fluctuating words. Thoughts bubble to the surface as they do. The reader is captivated and continues to stare, unaware a soft rain has begun to fall, the mist is strengthening, and the reader’s body has become diffuse. The reader becomes a mirror in an empty room.

    This summer I read The Sea Around Us, a book published in 1951 in which Rachel Carson described a then new technology called sonar. Sonar works by emitting sound waves that reflect back when an object is encountered. In its early days, scientists were confounded by readings that seemed to indicate the presence of a “phantom bottom” that rose and fell. The false ocean bottom was in fact millions of swimming fish as yet undiscovered to the human eye. This “living cloud” had created the illusion of solidity where echoing the sonars call (Carson, 40-41). I picture the phantom fish as words yet to be formed, their scales glittering beneath the still reflecting pond.

    2.During the cleaving something becomes apparent and something remains blank.”

    As I write, I am reading. I stare into a computer screen; a reflective glass masking fathomless information below. Occasionally, I catch my reflection in its mutable skin but am otherwise detached and removed. I lose track of where I am and how the words got there, yet experience a heightened alertness as I reach for the next word and the next thought. It’s a paradoxical sensation of depth and reflection, tactility and disintegration. Gins employed the verb to cleave to describe the simultaneous feeling of joining and separating, referring to as it the “‘material’ of thought itself” (Helen Keller, 285).

    Setting type, I am particularly aware that letters begin and end as slivers of metal held in the hand. That they are gathered from their cases and strewn back in, again and again. It’s in the unseen moment of contact between ink, metal, and paper that these ligatures and lines transcend their physicality to become the vapor of thought. When I write, I use the same letters as you - ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ - yet our work is different, due to the moment of cleaving that binds letters into word bodies and releases them as incorporeal thoughts. I think of the cloud drawing moisture from the ocean, growing heavy, and falling as rain. I think of the rain becoming the ocean, becoming moisture and the cloud that draws it up again. I think of my body, made of 98% water, standing in the water and of our words and their cycles and their endless returns. 

    3: An Equation for Madeline Gins

    (artist’s book) -? = book

    book - words = blank book 

    (blank book) - (thread, glue, fabric, leather) = paper

    paper - water = cellulose

    cellulose - carbon = H₂0



    The sound of an exhale on a cold day. 


    in the steam

    of breath 

    on glass

    marks = letters = words = thoughts

    thoughts = words = letters = marks


    The title of this essay is quoted from Yoko Ono’s poem “Water Talk,” written in 1967 and the song “We’re All Water” by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, 1972.

    The cloud and “Dry Tongue” images are scanned and altered from Sverre Petterson, Introduction to Meteorology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1941).

    “It’s raining in the ocean” is quoted from the first page of Word Rain.

    “During the cleaving....” is quoted from page 13 of Helen Keller or Arakawa.

    Carson, Rachel L. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
    Gins, Madeline. Helen Keller or Arakawa. New York: Burning Books, 1994.

    ____________ Word Rain. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969.

    Marianne Dages is an artist who writes and publishes books under the name Huldra Press. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA and has been thinking a lot about water. 

  • 15 Oct 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books is one of the best surveys we have of the history of our field. Can a history of artists’ books be considered a rough history of book art? As a form, artists’ books seem to be what unites this ‘book art’ association—when I see an exhibition at a CBAA conference, I mostly expect to encounter artists’ books.

    But as Drucker writes in Century, a history of artists’ books is not to be confused with a history of the book. While “outstanding examples of book production” (21)  populate preceding centuries, artist bookwork is born in the twentieth. Before that, she does locate a few “genuine precedents for the conceptual practice of artists’ books” (21), including William Blake and William Morris.

    Both men are logical ancestors for today’s book art. But in the longer arc of art history, the legacies of these two 19th-century artists diverge. Blake is a seminal figure in the Romantic movement. Romantic ideas about avant-gardism and personal creative genius set a precedent for the emergence of modern art in the 1850s and ’60s. Morris, an avowed anti-modernist, set a century and a half of reactionary craft aesthetics in motion. In the twentieth century, craft and modern art would come to define themselves against each other  (Adamson, Thinking, 2)—art as being ‘more than’ just craft, and craft as being ‘more skilled’ than art. This aided craft in nurturing its critiques of modern culture, and art in maintaining an avant-garde edge.

    To analyze the artists’ books that come from that 20th-century vanguard, we have plenty of theory. A legacy like Morris’s is more problematic for contemporary book art—but it is not going away. Consider that this organization congregates not just around artists’ books, but around specific craft processes—hand printing, bookbinding and papermaking.

    In such trades, Morris did not invent skilled workmanship. But by tying it to ideas of heritage, authenticity, and memory—and situating it in opposition to industrial production—thinkers like Morris and John Ruskin invented craft. Glenn Adamson points out that “before the industrial revolution, and outside its sphere of influence, it was not possible to speak of craft as a separate field of endeavor” (Adamson, Invention, xiii).

    In his writing on the arts and crafts movement, Adamson does not discuss Morris’s press. This is probably because, as Drucker reminds us, “books were the least and latest aspect of Morris’s production” (27). Though he designed books only during the last six years of his life, Morris almost single-handedly invented fine press. Compared to the influence of Morris’s work on design history as a whole, the Kelmscott Press approach to book design, and production, exerted an outsized impact on hand bookmaking.

    Morris and Ruskin championed craft production as meaningful and autonomous labor because they adhered to the thought of Karl Marx. His thought is also alive and well in Drucker’s definition of artists’ book as those which “integrate the formal means of realization and production with thematic or aesthetic issues” (2). Drucker notes that one might criticize Morris’s romanticization of medieval labor—he writes as though the industrial revolution invented exploitative labor—“but that hardly seems useful” (27).

    Adamson, however, finds it to be quite illuminating. It is essential to remember that Ruskin and Morris did not really “revive” skilled manual production, which was alive and well in the industry of their time, as it is today (Invention, 212). They also ignored the fact that no amount of enjoyable, autonomous labor completely severs the craftsperson from larger economic systems—as any book artist who has ever needed healthcare or bought an industrially-made material for a project can confirm. (Has anyone used any book board lately?) What Ruskin and Morris did was to write a new script for craft, attaching anti-capitalist virtues to it, as well as a narrative of loss and revival.

    Curiously, we continue to tell this story of loss more than a century later. Although some crafts, such as hand printing and binding, have even gained a foothold in higher education, we still talk of “preserving” them. Adamson marvels, “It is truly amazing that every generation can tell itself ... that it is witnessing the disappearance of craft forever, and therefore has a unique responsibility to save it” (Invention, 183).

    But there are good reasons this story has had such enduring appeal for the last century and a half. It serves an important cultural purpose—that of processing the trauma of the industrial revolution, and the trauma of modernity itself. Adamson quotes historian Elizabeth Wilson’s remark that, “while an economic analysis may ultimately explain our society more objectively than any other, the use of the term ‘modernity’ makes possible the exploration of our subjective experience of it” (Invention, xxii). He also reminds us that “trauma” does not refer an initial wound, but the effect it causes as it ruptures through the body (Invention, 185). That rupture continues today as digitization fundamentally alters culture. Marx’s phrase, “all that is solid melts into air” (Invention, xxii), feels as apt in the face of the information revolution as it did during the industrial one. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing a revival of crafts in popular culture, such as the DIY movement and Etsy, in this digital dawn. We are trying to cope.

    As we enter a digital age, deep engagement with a craft will not provide one with an accurate picture of labor in the 21st century. As it blinded Morris to the profusion of skilled labor that surrounded him, propelling innovation and production in his time, it may blind us. But intensive craft training can provide us with the ability to articulate the workings of embodied cognition. It allows us to assert, from the authority of our own experiences, that how things are made matters—that meaning does not exist separately from the means of production. This is especially relevant for book artists with a foot in contemporary art world, who may need to contextualize their craft practice for an audience in that sphere. Today, fine artists have license to fabricate little of their own work, and even obscure the true means of its production.

    When it comes to book art theory, production is not my sole preoccupation. I come to artists’ books with concerns about the relationship of text and image. I come to them with concerns about multiples, sequencing, and social practice. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m drawn to CBAA because its membership rallies around artists’ books as a form. But CBAA is not only a ‘book art’ association—it is concerned with the production of artists’ books in colleges. In practice, this often takes the form of course offerings in crafts like printing, binding, and papermaking. We should own the fact that college book art education is craft-based. When we teach not only thinking through making, but critical thinking about making, we embody that term—in its best sense.

    Works Cited

    Adamson, Glenn and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

    Adamson, Glenn. The Invention of Craft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    ______________. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

    Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.

    India Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

  • 01 Oct 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Artists Who Make Books, edited by Andrew Roth, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, is a landmark survey of artists’ books by non-book artists. It takes only sixteen pages to run headlong into the problem that such artists may not actually know how to make books.

    In the book’s first interview, Tauba Auerbach is asked if she uses fabricators to make her books. She defends herself: “at certain stages, yes, but I tried to do everything I could in my studio (16).” Auerbach elaborates that although her studio manager “and all-around amazing assistant” (16) did a lot of the work in-house, eventually a fabricator had to be hired: “I had a very specific way I wanted the book to be bound . . . and I didn’t have the skills or equipment to do that” (16).

    So Auerbach hired Daniel Kelm as a fabricator. She describes him as “this extremely talented master bookbinder” (16). Though Auerbach refers to working with Kelm as “a great collaboration” (16), she doesn’t characterize the books made in her studio as a collaboration with her studio assistants. Auerbach is more transparent about hiring fabricators than some artists, but describing your assistant as “amazing” (16) is different than sharing authorship with her. The Auerbach interview concludes by characterizing bookmaking as a discipline that “exists beyond commercial activity . . . it really has to be a labor of love” (26).

    Perhaps because I began making books in an industrial bindery at age sixteen, I know that before making books is a labor of love, it is a labor. Auerbach’s comments foreground bookmaking as an artistic pursuit, and mute it as skilled labor. Yet the latter enables the former. No amount of “extensive conversations about paper grain, adhesives, and so forth” (16) with a master bookbinder actually replaces his tacit knowledge. An artist who outsources the fabrication of her bookwork—even with transparency and curiosity—assumes a clear division between thinking and making, concept and form. But as Michael Robbins writes, “the relationship of form and content is more like that of space and time than that of vessel and water” (4-5).

    I am not suggesting that employing fabricators denigrates the authenticity or validity of a bookwork off-the-bat. Rather, I argue that it factors into the work’s meaning. “One can outsource with greater or less intelligence,” as Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson point out in Art in the Making (21).

    Just as an artist like Auerbach knows the limits of her skills and equipment, many book artists do as well. A printer might employ a master binder like Kelm to bind her artist’s books. So what’s the difference between the books Kelm binds for a postdisciplinary artist, and those he binds for our imaginary printer? The printer has the chance to credit Kelm in her colophon.

    It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.

    The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. There is substantial difference between art-directing a bookwork, and actually making it. Not only is this because “making is a form of thinking,” inextricably linking “the specificities of creation and the conceptual premise” (Adamson and Bryan-Wilson, 19). It is also because “whenever artists depend on the hands of others to make their work, those hands become part of the meaning of the work, like it or not, as surely as the specific resistances of wood or stone or clay limit the possibility of the carving” (Adamson, 43). Several conventions in the field of book art—extensive instruction in technical bookmaking processes, the ubiquity of handwork, the colophon—suggest that these claims by craft theorist Glenn Adamson are broadly sanctioned by book artists.

    In essence, the difference between book artists and artists who make books is craft.

    A loaded term, to be sure. Conversations about craft all too easily devolve into stale arguments of definition—where do we draw a line between what is art and what is craft? But given a flowering of recently published craft theory, we have better tools than we’ve ever had to apply “critical theory when it comes to questions of manual skill” (Adamson, xviii). A basic familiarity with current scholarship in this area is essential for a community of 21st century makers tied to methods of skilled hand production—not artists who make books, but book artists.

    Works Cited

    Adamson, Glenn. The Invention of Craft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    Adamson, Glenn and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

    Robbins, Michael. Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

    Roth, Andrew, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, eds. Artists Who Make Books.London: Phaidon, 2017.

    India Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

  • 15 Sep 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I first encountered Phil Zimmerman’s maxim, “Production NOT Reproduction” in the article “I [heart] DIY CMYK (an homage),” by Pattie Belle Hastings in JAB #25, the offset printing issue, published in the spring of 2009. (Note: I [heart] that whole issue.) Those words made perfect sense to me as an artist working in print media, and they remain a guiding principle—but these days I am wondering if I’ve interpreted the production/reproduction dichotomy too narrowly. Once again, the field of comics can be a useful guide.

    In some sense the comics world has already adopted artists’ books. The 2017 edition of the anthology Best American Comics, edited by Ben Katchor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), includes a piece called Willem de Kooning: Geniuses are nothing if not complicated in their methods, by Deb Sokolow. The book is “a work of fiction about artist Willem de Kooning, inspired by various anecdotes relayed in the 2004 biography de Kooning: An American Master” and is “self-published” in a “unique edition of three, one artist’s proof.” The images are tongue-in-cheek diagrams to help elucidate certain parts of the text. There are no panels. The drawings and text are done with a variety of drawing materials (graphite, paint, collage, etc.) Looking at Sokolow’s website, her work in books seems to be a fundamental part of her larger drawing-based practice. 

    Looking at contemporary comics—with their high-quality images, paper, and bindings, with their reasonable prices, with their publishers and distribution networks—maybe the longed-for, dreamt of, lamented, and mourned infrastructure for the “democratic multiple” already exists? Maybe we don’t need to convince the museums and gallery world that artists’ books are valid—maybe we need to convince the literary/comic/publishing world that they are.

    But let’s face it—we definitely should not, and aren’t going to, wait around for mainstream publishers. There are some other strategies that book artists can deploy, borrowed from those working in comics and other DIY fields.

    The serial form, which is traditional for comics, offers really intriguing possibilities for artists’ books. It’s perfectly logical to think of a single book as a complete, unified whole, and that is how most artists’ books are constructed. But what if that need for completion or unity is removed, and the work is allowed to expand, simultaneous with the time of its production, with no pre-determined end? As book artists we are familiar with the concept of construction through sequence: letters to words to sentences to text to pages to book. What if we don’t stop at book? [Note: I had to stop myself from writing a whole post-within-a-post on the serial form—it opens up so many possibilities.]

    Seriality leads to other strategies—one of those being subscriptions, which is a tried and true economic model for artist/publishers. Of course now subscriptions are more easily managed through web platforms like Patreon or Drip, or even by creating a monthly automatic payment button with Paypal.

    Many comic artists fund publications of their work through crowdsourcing (Indiegogo, Kickstarter). Some book artists have as well, as well as some book arts people making traditional art books, like the Letterform Archive’s W.A. Dwiggins and Jennifer Morla books, or the Bruce Licher book by P22/Richard Kegler. Many of these crowdsourcing campaigns are actually just pre-sales through an accessible and established platform, so all of that publicity work translates directly into readers.

    Publication through small presses or literary journals is an option as well. I recently bought the 2018 “Spring Collection” from the small press 2d Cloud, and got four books and four zines/chapbooks for $65. One of the books, Nocturne, by Tara Booth, is a hardcover, full-color reproduction of a book made from hand-painted pages. It is 64 pages, 5.8” x 8”, with a cover price of $14.95. Some of the books published by 2d Cloud would fit right in among a selection of artists’ books. Also:  Best American Comics has an open submission policy.

    Production or reproduction? Original or facsimile? Institutions or readers? Why this “or?” What about a studio practice that embraces an “and?” As in: limited edition, handmade books and facsimiles of those books funded through Kickstarter and drawings and a robust writing practice that moves between the graphic and traditional text—or some other possible combination. I don’t want to suggest that building a studio practice and making a living is as easy as signing up for Patreon. Growing an audience of readers is a long, incremental process. There are ways to make the work that we want to make, and to get that work into people’s homes and hands.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 01 Sep 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    These posts are an imaginative exercise, coming out of things I’m thinking about in my own work, and in conversations with other artists. (In particular with Bill Hanscom—I owe him a “thank you” for one of the prompts to write these posts.) I want to envision a studio practice, for a book artist, where aesthetic concerns, specific interests in content and concept, ethical/political concerns, and economic concerns can find perhaps not a perfect balance, but at least a stable ground for continued negotiation.

    In 2005, while I was in graduate school, I made a 180 page image/text altered book called Art Into Life. It was very much in the spirit of the ur altered book, A Humumenteach page hand drawn/painted/collaged, plus some digital printing done with a desktop laser printer. As I reflect on the books that I’ve made, there are two that feel like the most significant: that altered book and the ongoing, iterative The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press. One of those exists as editions of 250 over three iterations, and one of those exists as a single copy that has probably been read through by 35 people. Both books exist perpetually as digital facsimiles, and are theoretically available to be read at any time. Digital facsimiles seem like a good compromise between the logistics of keeping a book in (letterpress) print and/or the problems of attempting a straight facsimile of a unique book, but the “out of sight” availability of the digitally archived object remains very different from the availability of having the book in the home. The process of making that altered book, of composing page-by-page (like writing a book?) was extremely satisfying and the results felt quite different from the usual tightly planned and executed book productions that I’ve otherwise done. How can an artist get to that open-ended process without being stuck having to sell unique books to single collectors or institutions, also usually for less money than a single, large painting? Is a digital facsimile, 3-5 readers, and a day job enough?

    It could be useful to think about the relationship(s) between comics and artists’ books. They are essentially the same material: text and image, in relation, in sequence. Yet they seem to exist in (mostly) separate worlds. I think that book artists can learn a great deal from comics—formal/structural things like how to deal with story and structure, timing, rhythm, etc., and also nuts and bolts things like how the work gets made, and how it makes its way out into the world.

    The recent graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris, is an incredible read, and I highly recommend it. It is also an interesting book to consider in terms of the relationship between artists’ books and comics. One of the conceits of the narrative is that the book itself is the journal/sketchbook of the main character, and as such it reproduces the look of a notebook. There are blue ruled lines on the pages, and the images and text are composed freely—there is little literal use of the panels that usually undergird the language of comics, though the idea of the panel is still very much embedded in the story-telling. It’s an intensely beautiful book—the reader can spend a great deal of time just looking and looking at the incredible drawings. The quality of the reproduction of those drawings is top-notch. It’s a long, dense book too, 386 pages. And it only costs $40.

    Is a $40 copy of My Favorite Thing is Monsters a facsimile of an artist’s book? Or an original artist’s book? Or just a book? Where is the production and where is the reproduction? Does it even matter?

    I am an artist that makes books by hand, I’ve been doing it for 18 years, and yet I’ve read a lot more comics than I have artists’ books. That could just be my reading habits, but it also probably has to do with the availability of comics. They are out there, published on the web, able to be ordered from the web, on the shelves of libraries, and often even in bookstores. (To be clear I’m not talking about standard “superhero comics” from the big publishers of such things. I’m talking about the weird, experimental, personal, literary, poetic, and/or journalistic comics of which there are many incredible examples.) Comics are labor-intensive to produce, and money-and-labor-intensive to reproduce and distribute—yet they are available, and they do make it into people’s homes, and they are read.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 15 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    If we accept the idea that artists’ books are most available to be read when they are in someone’s home, several questions come up immediately: whose home? How did the books get there? And once the books are there, are the people that live in that home comfortable storing, reading, and handling them? These are questions of economics and distribution, of privilege and class, of power, of culture and discursive structures.

    Some of this line of reasoning sounds familiar: are we talking about the artist’s book as “democratic multiple?” Yes, but also no—our inherited idea of the “democratic multiple” might be limiting our possibilities.

    The historical idea of the “democratic multiple” is an artist’s book/publication that is made in a large or unlimited edition, usually with commercial processes and materials and sold at a reasonable price. This approach is often associated with the 1960s and 70s, with the “dematerialized” art practices of Conceptual Art, politically engaged art practices, and/or the desire by artists to circumvent the gallery system and get their work directly to the audience. The democratic multiple is often considered a myth or failure. There are many artists that never got that memo and continue to produce these objects—they might be called zines, comics, poetry, visual books, photo-books, etc. Failures of the historical democratic multiple are usually discussed in terms of three facets: affordability, availability, and accessibility.

    Affordability seems straightforward—if you want a large audience to be able to purchase and read the books at home, then they have to be priced in a way so that individuals can buy them (which also often implies fairly large editions). Affordability goes two ways—as Johanna Drucker points out in The Century of Artists’ Books—the books need to be affordable for the buyer and the artist. Affordability for the artist includes materials, of course, but also time and physical demands. For artists that are committed to making books by hand (such as myself) affordability is a thorny problem.

    The term availability comes from the poet/printer/publisher Simon Cutts: “The act of publishing is one of making available […].” Availability is the ease (or difficulty) of finding and buying the book, of shipping and moving, and then of storage and reading. Availability is different from accessibility (defined below) in that is has to do with the physical life and presence of the object.

    In terms of distribution, the Internet is a huge asset that was not available to the producers of artists’ books in the 1960s and 70s. For an individual artist distribution is so much easier now, at least up to a point. Getting the word out and conducting transactions is easier, but packing and shipping orders is still a considerable amount of labor and expense.

    Accessibility is different from availability in that it relates to content. Of our three terms it has the least to do with the physical object—it is more a quality of the artistic or readerly object. Accessibility is cited as one of the major failures of the historical democratic multiple. In her essay “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” the critic Lucy Lippard reflects on that failure: “[…] despite sincere avowals of populist intent, there was little understanding of the fact that the accessibility of the cheap, portable form did not carry over to that of the contents—a basic problem in all of the avant-garde’s tentative moves towards democratization in the sixties and early seventies. The New York art world was so locked into formal concerns (even those of us who spent a lot of time resisting them) that we failed to realize that, however neat the package, when the book was opened by a potential buyer from the ‘broader audience’ and she or he was baffled, it went back on the rack.”

    It’s a cliché that the “broader audience” is not interested in art that differs from the received expectations of a form, that deals directly with important social/political issues, and/or has an emotional/aesthetic/spiritual depth. It’s important to note that in the quote above Lippard places the fault with the “art world,” which tended at that time to eschew any emotional content. Are things opening up, both for the “art world” and for the culture at large? I’m thinking here of the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel, of the music of Kendrick Lamar, of Sonic Youth, of Twin Peaks (old and new), of the recent film Sorry to Bother You—this list could go on and on. The “broader audience” is fully capable of grasping complicated formal structures and/or nuanced aesthetic experiences. The reader needs—deserves—some sort of relatable entry point, if they are to dwell in/dwell with the work.

    Works Cited

    Simon Cutts, Some Forms of Availability (New York and Derbyshire: Granary Books and Research Group for Artists Publications, 2007), 65.

    Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1994), 72.

    Lucy Lippard, “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 50.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 01 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When I was in graduate school, one of my colleagues, the artist and designer Melissa McGurgan, had a brilliant idea to teach critical analysis skills to her students: they would each take a piece by one of their classmates home, hang it up, and live with it for a week or two, writing and reflecting on the experience of viewing a piece through time, in their homes. How does an artwork change if you see it everyday, at multiple times? If you look at it every morning while you eat your cereal, or in the periphery as you do the dishes or glimpse it as you rush out the door to meet a friend?

    “Living with” an art object spreads the experience of a static thing over a discontinuous time, it weaves the object through the life of an individual. The idea of the artwork in the home and life of a person feels very important, and so I want to write a series of posts thinking through various aspects of and questions about this idea of artwork, specifically what we might call readerly artwork, in the home.

    Books and prints are really good at living with people—they are small, light, and can often be very affordable. Living with a book is a bit different than living with a 2D piece that hangs on the wall—viewing tends to be a little less rushed, a little less accidental. The person has to open the book at least. But I know from my experience of reading graphic novels and art books (here I mean books about an artist’s work) that a kind of quick, partially distracted, random reading of books can and does take place. A partially distracted reading is probably easier to fall into with books that rely heavily on visual content, but it can certainly happen with text-based books as well.

    In the famous and still relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes about the “ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” This is toward the end of the essay, section XV, where he is talking about film as an art made for/as “mechanical reproduction”—so in this case something very similar to books or prints. Benjamin writes: “Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. […] In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

    Working from Benjamin’s idea that “distraction and concentration form polar opposites” and from his concept of absorption—perhaps attention is not so much an either/or state (as in you are paying attention or you are not) but a continuum of absorption. At times the reader is absorbed by the art object, at other times they absorb it, and that relationship is changing at different rates throughout the experience. That absorption does not necessarily depend on the reader being in front of the object, actively reading, to take place. The reading (which is also attention) is discontinuous: it starts, stops, picks up again, repeats, skips, is processed from memory, etc., and all along the amount or type or quality of the absorption changes in relation to the reading conditions, to the necessities of the reader and their world. The amount of discontinuity in the reading is also related to the length of the object itself, and/or the reading conditions. Even a short artist’s book that can be read in one sitting (hopefully) continues to be read after the book is put down.

    If reading is always discontinuous (and perhaps benefits from discontinuity?) then having the artwork in the home becomes ideal. Reading in galleries/museums is generally not great—too many other pieces to see, too many people, not enough time, etc. Reading in libraries is much better, but a long-term, discontinuous reading doesn’t really happen unless a reader happens to have convenient and consistent access to a library collection. The artwork is at its most available state when it is in the home, meaning that it is much more likely to be read in/as/through multiple states of attention, to be woven in/as/through the rhythms of a life.

    Work Cited:

    Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 239.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 15 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I’ve been thinking about reading through a seasonal lens, and how its meaning, significance, and potential seem to shift — at least for me, as an academic and lifelong resident of the northeast US.

    Fall Reading is studious, serious, or how-to, synonymous with back-to-school. Winter Reading is cozy and provisioned, a warm indoor retreat from the cold. The phrase “Spring Reading” conjures nothing. “Summer Reading” unleashes a torrent of longing for light-filled hours containing nothing but the time and space to read. I think of novels. Loads of them.

    Ah, the “Summer Reading List,” distributed toward the end of the school year by optimistic academic institutions at every grade level. How many of us draft lists of our own, at the beginning of each summer, as we imagine (rightly or not) that we’ll have more time to read? In the summer I like to bond with a single author: last year was Doris Lessing (favorites are The Golden Notebook, the gothic horror The Fifth Child, the timely The Good Terrorist). Currently my summer author is Iris Murdoch (so far my favorites are The Nice and the Good and Under the Net).

    Then the media outlets descend with their own dubious Summer Reading Lists. The NY Times Book Review 2018 Summer Guide suggests titles in the following categories only: Thrillers, Cooking, True Crime, Movies & TV, Romance, Travel, Music, the Great Outdoors, and Sports. Really? No regular fictional novels?

    Is “beach reading” escapist reading, reading that transports? If you are looking for such a book, I recommend Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which time travels you to a terrifyingly not-too-distant future dystopian America, so maybe not so transportive after all. Or is “beach reading” reading for entertainment, lighter fare? Perhaps reading for entertainment is reading texts that don’t make us think. But perhaps that should be worded as texts that don’t insist we think. If we’re not thinking about what we’re reading, that’s on us, isn’t it, not the author or the text? I learned from The Guardian just now that the term “Beach Read” was coined by the publishing industry as recently as 1990, although the casting of novel reading as “sinful” dates back to the mid-19th century (Emma Bovary, anyone?).

    Sinful, sinful reading. Reading all day, outside: in a park, in the garden, at the beach, in the yard, under a tree or an umbrella; reading on a blanket on the ground or on a canvas folding chair or on a chaise or in a field; reading on the slow-to-darken porch after dinner, late into the night. In the summer I give myself permission to read indulgently in ways I don’t (or can’t) the rest of the year. While the occupational and familial demands of the fall, winter, and spring are real, the emotional negotiation with the Yankee Puritan within may be eased over the summer months because summer reading can be folded into another activity: being outside. Reading outside is active recreation because now you are outdoors enjoying the fleeting season. It is practically a sport.

    Endurance reading: book artist Barbara Tetenbaum’s current public art project The Slow Read invites readers to a summer-long reading of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. The project is accessed online at the rate of six pages a day, offering “a piece of culture in the form of a daily ritual, to be experienced slowly over time.” The Slow Read perversely replicates the dominant practice of reading in short spurts on a screen. At the same time, the fact that the narrative is suspended day after day after day expands the novel into something that engulfs your entire summer. There are nuances to the specificity of this reading experience, as after the installment’s sixth page you are brought back to the first page of that day’s selection. Of this uncanniness, artist and reader Linda Hutchins writes: “The feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever gotten from reading before, and even after I repeated the scenario multiple times today, it still catches my breath. It’s almost a feeling of light-headedness” (The Slow Read News).

    Perhaps it is this opportunity for light-headedness, for catching one’s breath, is what summer reading is about.

    Emily Larned won the “Book Worm” trophy from her childhood swim team (her mom made her join). She has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. Since then her work has been exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions. She is co-founder of ILSSA and Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.

  • 01 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    How would you describe a book without using words?

    In what ways is the meaning and significance of an individual book affected by its provenance?

    What do you learn about someone by looking at their extensive library (besides nearly everything)—and how many of these gleanings are your own false conclusions, connections, assumptions, which say more about you than about anyone else? If a personal library is a portrait of its owner, is the reading of that library a self-portrait of the reader?

    These are some of the questions that come when perusing the evocative work of artist Abra Ancliffe, creator of the Personal Libraries Library (PLL) in Portland, OR. A collection of collections, or a “librarywork,” the Personal Libraries Library (est. 2009) reassembles the libraries of select public figures and circulates these books among the PLL members. The project began with the recreation of the personal library of the nineteenth century astronomer, librarian, educator, suffragist Maria Mitchell; followed by that of the artist, writer, thinker Robert Smithson; and then the libraries of Italian writer Italo Calvino, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and African-American poet, activist, and gardener Anne Spencer. Currently, the PLL “is in the process of collecting the personal libraries of Lucy Lippard, Georges Perec, Buckminster Fuller, Hannah Arendt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Yoko Ono” (in that order). And so the Personal Libraries Library reveals not only the predilections of those individuals included, but when considered together suggests the interests and concerns of its founding librarian. It is temptingly easy to speculate about Ancliffe: a bibliophilic artist with naturalist tendencies, certainly. Definitely a feminist; interested in social justice history; intrigued by new forms, and genre experimentation. But which public figures does she consider, and then exclude? Which collections does she prioritize, and why? (While you will not find the answers to these particular questions, to learn more about PLL’s origin and Ancliffe’s method of collecting, check out (haha, library pun) Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly’s article on Art Practical).

    In addition to circulating the books of the PLL among its members, Ancliffe activates the collection by publishing via the Personal Libraries Library Press. She describes these publications as “printed matter” that “offers differing investigations of the Collection as well as questions the role of books, libraries, and archives in the production of meaning & understanding.” These equivocal printworks serve as elusive introductions to books; to me, they are enticing invitations to locate and experience the book or collection itself. They offer a portal into how Ancliffe relates to the collection. And as you puzzle over them, you realize they are mirrors that reflect how your own interests intersect with Ancliffe’s, and with those of the books’ famous owners.

    The printed matter varies from letterpress printed single panel cards tucked into folded digital printed folios, to digitally printed color posters that reproduce a single image or an entire spread of a book; or on occasion, several books or images at once. Sometimes the source book or collection is identified; other times, it is not. Examining the ephemera in consultation with Ancliffe’s website is a sort of sleuthing, with aha! moments of discovery as the origin of an individual piece is revealed. This experience, of reconstructing how the book may (or may not!) have been significant to its famous owner, reproduces the process of research: the formulation of questions, the peering for clues, the hypothesis and the corroboration. Of course, as with any interpretation, how much of this activity is in one’s own head? The PLL is far from a didactic collection. It is open, exploratory, its meaning unfixed. In a recent conversation, Ancliffe described many of her formal decisions as “gestural work”;  she says she is interested in “cultivating the page like a garden.”

    And so like a memorial garden it grows. The Personal Libraries Library is both tribute and tool for contemplation. By activating often-forgotten books that are significant in relationship to one another and to our cultural record, the PLL encourages inquiry, discovery, and wonder: an exploratory wandering through the stacks.


    Citations quoted from and

    Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA). Her work is exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions, and has been awarded honors by the Type Directors Club (TDC) and the AIGA. She is Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.

  • 15 Jun 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Here’s the story of how I, a stationer, grew up thinking like a book artist.

    To begin, “stationer” is a trade guild in England dating back to the 1500’s. The stationery trade is at the heart of the history of publishing in general. At its beginning it was akin to fine press printing and to book arts. I make my living as a modern, Americanized version of this.

    This may seem an interesting choice for one who, growing up, was uncomfortable reading. Perhaps this was due to an undiagnosed learning disability. Even still, to this day, I love looking at pictures along with feeling printed materials such as ink, paper, various modes of printing, and the mechanics of bound volumes. For me, reading and writing are disciplines quite apart from how I relate to books.

    Allow me to explain this seemingly contradictory notion.

    My parents’ house had big book shelves in the living room. They were not full but contained several books significant to my book arts development: Imprints from The Heritage Press. These were mass produced, affordable reprints of Limited Editions Club fine illustrated books by the George Macy Companies founded in 1929. They are artfully designed and carefully produced. The typography is classical yet interesting and wonderfully legible. Each is designed in a unique fashion communicating the story the book contains. Many Heritage Press books are illustrated; all are hard cover, most if not all are slip cased. The binding for each is unique as well, and many have faux-tooling and gilding. It was a marvelous experience choosing a Heritage Press book from the shelf, purely by its cover, followed by lifting it off the shelf, sitting (probably on the floor), letting the book out of its decorative sleeve, then flipping through the pages. I learned the names and general stories of many literary classics such as The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyan, Far from the Madding, and The Grapes of Wrath by identifying handsome spines and enjoying looking at well executed pictures.

    It is my guess that experiencing The Heritage Press books—without needing to read them—led me to a curiosity about wanting to make them. Throughout grade school, I was fond of crafting bound-volumes commensurate with my understanding of how books function. Luckily, I have many of them still, and they all seem to follow a similar, yet incomplete, pattern:

    ● A front cover.

    ● Title page.

    Beginning of a narrative, handwritten.

    ● Several blank pages completing a signature.

    ● Back cover.

    ● Some form of binding holding it all together. Often this was staples and scotch tape.

    It appears that making a book was more interesting than caring if it communicated anything or told a story.

    Perhaps a love for understanding book structure is the compelling reason we choose to make books. The experience of grabbing, holding, turning pages, interacting with bookish materials (ink, paper, binding) is what brings book artists back, time and again, to create new ones. So maybe an early inability to read allowed me to develop an understanding and appreciation for the book arts, and The Heritage Press books were serendipitous inspirations for this appreciation.

    Collins is the country’s leading engraved stationery expert working in her eponymous company, Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer LLC. She authored The Complete Engraver, has written for PRINT and HOW magazines about design and commercial printing and has appeared in popular Town & Country, VOGUE, Veranda, and The New York Times.

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