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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.

  • 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, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2020/04/22/in-an-ever-mediated-world-artists-books-offer-an-intimate-encounter.

    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, https://www.biartmuseum.org/exhibitions/troubling-artists-books-that-enlighten-and-disrupt-old-ways-of-being-and-seeing/.

    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.

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

    I am grateful for the collaborative work of Tate Shaw and his decision to publish Cancer & Love as a VSW Press book. As I mentioned in Part I, the book began during the start of the COVID pandemic, necessitating a long-distance collaboration. During the lockdown, I experienced expanses of productive time, married with long gestational periods. Tate’s description of his work as that of ‘midwifery’—helping the artist to birth their vision—is aptly true for Cancer & Love.

     

    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-fold Mohawk Superfine, 7x7.75, with 5x7 booklet. 

    Below Tate describes his work as editor­: “As the current editor of VSW Press, I consider myself less an editor and more a facilitator of artists’ visions for a publication made with available means. When I’m selecting or inviting an artist to publish a book with VSW, I’m conscious of how the work is in dialogue with—or making completely new additions to—the themes and perspectives found in the roughly six hundred titles published by the Press, founded by Joan Lyons in 1971. About 85% of the Press’ catalog was published by Joan. Women telling their own stories through images and texts (including diaries) to make books about being women, lovers, bodies, having health events and encounters with the healthcare industry, all are present in that history. Connected to Cancer & Love, specific past titles from VSW Press that come to mind are Joan’s own book The Gynecologist and Susan E. King’s Treading the Maze


    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-fold Mohawk Superfine, 7x7.75, with 5x7 booklet. 

    “I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on Joan’s work as a publisher and my own work with artists in part because I was recently asked to interview Joan for a kind of retrospective of her work at a prominent gallery in the region. In addition, as part of a 50th anniversary issue of Afterimage: the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, I was interviewed in connection to an earlier interview I did of Joan that Afterimage published in 2004, when I was her student. Here is what I said in that piece: 

    “‘Despite being more comfortable and friendly with Joan after two decades, I was more intimidated to interview her the second time, earlier this year. As a student, I believed I knew more than I did about her practice and publishing approach. She is often described as a feminist artist—and she is—but I had a narrow, masculinist view of what that meant. I’ve been party to Joan’s commitment and fierceness firsthand and have always heard stories about her willingness to wade into conflicts. I think I anticipated she would be assertive and authoritative about her role as an editor and publisher. Back then I wanted her to tell me the secret to selecting and shaping books to be published because that’s exactly what I wanted to do and I wanted to be seen as such an authority in the field. But she basically said that she worked in service to artists’ visions and midwifed productions into being. And after learning to do just that for years with VSW Press, I understood Joan’s approach more from lived experience, which is humbling and edifying. I see more of the pluralism in Joan’s feminism now and attempted in our most recent interview to reframe that same question for her to discuss how she helped ground and support a plurality of voices through her work as an artist, printer, and publisher.’”

    “So all that to say, when I’m working with artists I try to model Joan’s approach of midwifery (if I can claim the metaphor). Where I’m most directive is being open to and suggesting that artists draw from their interests in other modes and media like literature, film, sound, etc. or to affirm and be supportive of ideas that may seem crazy to them or ones they haven’t seen before. This leads to more intersectional and experimental publications and more creative challenges. Unfortunately, I’m always mindful as well to try and keep editions at a relatively inexpensive retail point of less than $75, if possible. Because I’d like people to read the books we make and not just have them be collected or boxed up somewhere (or remain in the Press storeroom, for that matter). My experience working with artists on books is they will have ideas and approaches to their material that would never occur to me to personally try and accomplish, which was very much the case with Cancer & Love. It’s been a creative puzzle we’ve been handing back and forth for years to try and resolve for ourselves and for the reader.”


    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga. Early clothbound dummy on left, final wrap-around post structure on right, with 6 booklets in French fold envelopes.  

    Given the grace of time and Tate’s ongoing support of the vision, it became apparent that the book needed to incorporate more text from my chemo journals. The reader may read as much (or as little) as desired. The growing text necessitated numerous structural dummies, that in the final puzzle became saddle-stitched booklets, fitted into envelopes formed by French folds. These in turn created the need for spine-padding, which in turn necessitated the cover design to morph from a clothbound codex to a wrap-around one. Tate shared that opening the wrap-around cover and laying the booklets out, created the necessary material/immaterial space to read Cancer & Love. Solving the ‘creative puzzle’ with Tate was a deep and engaging privilege!

     

    Kathy T. Hettinga is a book artist, designer, photographer and hospice chaplain. Awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, her books are in collections from Harvard’s Fogg Museum to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.

    Tate Shaw is an artist, writer, publisher, and curator. At VSW Tate is the Editor of Visual Studies Workshop Press where he works with artists and the community to conceive,  produce and distribute books. He is also the Director of Tower Fine Arts Gallery and Associate Professor at SUNY Brockport.


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

    Cancer & Love began as part of Visual Studies Workshop’s Project Space artist residency just as the COVID pandemic closed all non-essential organizations. Tate Shaw, Editor of VSW Press, offered to work with me long distance via email, phone, file uploads, and mailed dummies to publish my artist’s book as a VSW Press book. This began a creative collaboration that has resulted in a fitting and complex structure that appropriately contains the story of my cancer journey and the love story with my oncologist—both filled with terror and awe. 


    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-folded Mohawk Superfine, 7 x 7.75 in.

    The twenty-year narrative is shaped with selected text from seven journals, many photographs and digital microscope images from my pathology slides. The text grew, and the solution was to make six saddle-stitched booklets that fit within created envelopes. I am grateful that Tate recommended Jerremy Lorch, an editor sensitive to the needs of book artists. What follows is Jerremy’s reflection on his collaboration with me on the text of Cancer & Love.  

    “Artist books are singular and not served by a run-of-the-mill editing process, which threatens to strip away their nuanced interplay between image, text, and texture, between visual and verbal style, or between layers or choices of meaning. You can’t just bump them up against the Chicago Manual of Style and walk away with a “clean” text without potentially damaging them. The goal is still to help the author effectively convey ideas, but “effectively” here can be subjective. Clarity isn’t always the gold standard; it’s often as much about conveying feeling as it is about conveying meaning. You still need to consistently apply rules, but you are freer to establish a unique set of them for the book.

    “Cancer & Love arrived in my inbox as a collection of files. Word documents containing various pieces of text and PDFs that included pictures and showing the layout. Just as I would casually flip through a physical copy of an artist book to understand it as a book object before settling in to read/immerse myself in it, I began by scrolling through the main PDF file. Once I had an idea of the ways in which form, image, and text would come together to create this object and convey Kathy’s story, I started my work with the text, beginning a skeletal assembly of the ruleset. After my initial review, Kathy and I had several conversations to flesh out that ruleset. Our conversations centered around the desired transmission and reception of the work and then moved to the creation and adaptation of stylistic, grammatical, syntactical, and formal conventions and their effect on the tone of the book.


    Cancer & Love, Booklet 1, Kathy T. Hettinga, saddle-stitched, 5 x 7 in.

    “This work is a bit like creating the laws of physics for a new world—you get to decide together how things operate within the space and you can be flexible and liberal in your choices, opting for non-standard stylistic and formatting elements and conventions that can contribute to the tone, visual appearance, reception, and conveyed meaning of the book. 

    “One goal of the editing process is to eliminate unintentional distractions, like simple mistakes or inconsistencies. The main goal, however, is to help the author to connect to the reader and better transmit his or her desired meaning and feeling. When I returned the files to Kathy, they had the typical markups of simple corrections and straightforward changes, but the real value that I was able to contribute to the project was in the marginal notes. It was here that I described my reception of the piece as a reader and offered suggestions—to be acted upon or not—along with the reasoning behind them. Because this type of editing is more collaborative and less rigid than others, those suggestions often took the form of a description of a potential pitfall, followed by multiple options for its resolution, along with comments on how each option could affect the reader’s reception.

    “More than a year has passed since I returned those files to Kathy. It is a space of time for which I am grateful. It will allow me the distance to return to Cancer & Love in its finished form as something of a fresher recipient of Kathy’s story.”


    Kathy T. Hettinga is a book artist, designer, photographer and hospice chaplain. Awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, her books are in collections from the Fogg Museum to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.

    Jerremy Lorch is an independent editor based in Rochester, New York. He has previously been a writing instructor at the University at Buffalo. He holds master’s degrees in English Literature from SUNY Brockport and the University at Buffalo. For more information please visit his Linkedin page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerremylorch/.

  • 01 Nov 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The typical codex allows the reader a single, fixed point of view, while the accordion offers the reader, both literally and metaphorically, a panorama of viewpoints. I want to explore some other avenues through which to approach the accordion, namely the domestic sphere and the body. 

     

    An accordion is a length of paper with alternating equidistant folds that create parallel uniform-sized sections or pages, often with front and back covers or a protective sheath.

    Anne Boyer, in a review of the artist Hannah Wilke’s recent retrospective [1], addresses the centrality to her practice of what Wilke called her “one-fold gestural sculptures”[2], which were small vulva-like folded works that were made from a variety of materials. Boyer, in a particularly lucid response to Wilke’s folded works, inquires into the nature and definition of the ‘fold’ itself: 

    “Folding is the gestural equivalent of paradox, in that it takes what had neither inside nor out and, without transforming its substance, gives it both. Before a flat plane is folded, we know it as surface — superficial, exposed. Once a flat plane has become a fold, the same material becomes an intriguing half-secret — the fold alerts us to the once clandestine affordance of surface." [3]

    Boyer continues, examining the broader landscape in which Wilke’s folded works are located, and notes the following:

    “Important too to Wilke’s work is that the fold is a gesture linked to feminized labor, what was once understood as ‘women’s work’: doing laundry, diapering, preparing dough. The efficiency of the fold, done over and over, mimics the ongoingness of folding as care work, while it simultaneously creates mystery out of shallowness, dimensional form out of apparent flatness.” [4]

    In opening up the activity of folding through the concept of ‘feminized labor’ Boyer also broadens the larger terrain within which folding is located. It becomes clear that folding, as in folding newspapers, letters, dish cloths, napkins, clothes, and all the other myriad things we fold, is an activity deeply embedded, but largely unnoticed, within our everyday lives. 


    Brendan MurphyFolding Linens, oil on wood panel, 2019.

    Locating the domestic sphere as an active site of folding links it to another term for the accordion. Leporello is named after the character in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), in which Don Giovanni's numerous seductions are exposed by his manservant Leporello, who produces an accordion style list that unfolds to reveal 2,064 names. Leporello’s choice of the accordion format was wise, as the accordion is eminently suitable for economically organizing large or small amounts of information for storage and retrieval. No doubt we have all made shopping lists and folded them to make them more manageable. 

    The term leporello, with its German and Italian origins, has more currency in Europe. In the United States, the preferred term remains accordion, with its own musical connection. The accordion’s innate ability to expand and contract, to fold and unfold, is derived from the opening and closing of the pleats of the bellows of an accordion, which can be likened to that of breathing for a singer.

    The accordion’s often unwieldy length presents the reader with both a physical and intellectual challenge. To hold, and then open, an accordion is to enter into a unique visual and literary relationship with a sculptural object. Closed, an accordion functions as a discrete book-like object and can be read page by page, like a codex. But once opened, it requires spreading one’s arms in a kind of open embrace to take in the measure of the body of the accordion. Add the breath-like expansion and contraction of its folds, and an encounter with an accordion is shaped by a unique physical intimacy. 

    In these intimate interactions, we must fold the accordion into our body to ensure its safety. And, like Hannah Wilke's folded vulvic works, our encounters with accordions make us aware of how our own bodies, with their sheath of endless folds, protect and nourish us. 

    1] Anne Boyer, “Living as Art,” Art in America, September/October, 2021, pp. 38–47. The exhibition was: “Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake,” Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Saint Louis, 2020–2021.

    2] Nina Renata Aron, “Hannah Wilke’s ‘labial’ artwork challenged both the patriarchy and feminists,” https://timeline.com/hannah-wilke-labial-art-97c5bc488a67, accessed March 21, 2022. 

    3] Boyer, p. 40.

    4] Ibid, pp. 40–41.

     

    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator, and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery Subspace.

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

    "It is my purpose to show that many of these famous lines, some written centuries ago, can today be given a new and original interpretation through the dramatic medium of modern photography. In other words, I am attempting to "re-sight" poetry through the lens.”[1]

    "I am sure there cannot be too close a relationship between the photographs and text, for it would be impossible to in any real sense illustrate the text. The question is, how loose can it be?”[2]

    “Photopoetry is more interesting and engaging when the photograph is not a literal illustration of the poem; likewise, if the poem is not a literal description of the photograph. Both poem and photograph should be able to stand alone in their own right.”[3]

    In the conversation here with Levi Sherman in Aug-Sep 2023 on book review platforms and criticism (themselves collaborative endeavors), I mentioned my interest in image/text and in particular combinations (often collaborations) of poetry and photography in book form. With the current display on view at the NGA Library in Washington DC on Poetry and the Book Arts [4] I thought I’d expand a bit more on looking at photopoetry books.

    This is part of an ongoing project to explore the global history of photopoetry publications beginning with the earliest example (as far as I know in 1850) and continuing to the present.  While not a widely recognized category and difficult to search for in library or bookseller catalogs, there is a rich history of making such books and there are currently about 1000 volumes in my collection. These range from unique or deluxe editions to trade publications and zine and chapbook projects. My goals are to collect a wide range of such material, think about how to categorize and assess such work, and hopefully to broaden awareness and interest in the genre.  

    The quotes presented at the top of this post are representative of how I approach looking at photopoetic work - asking not only are the individual works (poems and photographs) interesting in themselves but whether they elicit, encourage, and especially reward revisiting and reinterpreting each other and avoid simple captioning or illustration. This goes along with looking at how the collaboration/combination comes about (e.g., an active partnership, an editor making pairings, one artist doing both) and the arrangement of image and text (e.g. facing pages, different sections). In some cases, the physical book design also plays a key role.[5] These types of questions have also arisen in conversations with the artists and publishers involved with the making of photopoetry books and with other readers and audiences similarly thinking about what makes such books successful, which helps to refine my own understanding of the medium. My intent is to continue to understand how these collaborations work rather than to try to propose a canon.

    For me, these two examples show all of these dimensions including physical designs working together successfully. Both rely on multi-directional unfolding which allow and encourage both multiple entry points and multiple paths through the work and which take advantage of the form of the book to influence the reader’s experience.


    Cover of Flemming Arnholm & Klaus Rifbjerg (untitled - Fotografier og digte fra New York)

     

    Cover of Iollann O Murchu (One Story Leads to Another)

    The first is an untitled Danish book, published by Forlaget Rhodos in 1969, with photographs by Flemming Arnholm made during work in NY along with poems by Klaus Rifbjerg and design by Michael Malling. The images are street photographs made in NYC in 1968 capturing different aspects and reflecting the pace of city life in the late 1960s while the poems, mostly written years earlier, convey a similar sense of energy while describing various elements of American culture and place unrelated to the images. While it is possible to completely unfold the work (as shown in the illustration), a gradual unfolding and folding of the pages and rotating of the book is more likely. The latter is further encouraged by the different orientations of the images and text and perhaps mimics trying to process all the stimuli experienced routinely while walking through New York.

     


    Details of the Arnholm/Rifbjerg book

    The second book is One Story Leads to Another (Tarraingíonn Scéal Scéal Eile) self-published in 2022 by Iollann O Murchu with images, text, and design (along with Graham Dow), all hand produced by the artist. The work brings together Irish landscape, mythology, and folklore and if the NY book is working to unsettle the reader this book is much quieter.  As with the NY book, there is no single path through the book but rather collections of images and text that the reader can meander through. Once unfolded, there are 3 separate sections the reader can choose to engage with to experience the atmosphere created by the photographs and text. These elements produce a cumulative effect rather than any narrative or linear one, an effect which might be lost in a conventionally bound book.

     

    Details of the O Murchu book

     In addition to following up on last month’s conversation, I hope I’ve prompted you to notice and to think more about projects combining poetry and photography and how such books do or don’t work. I’d welcome more discussion and thoughts about this topic - as well as more suggested examples. I’ve also started to investigate critical models for visual poetry - but that is both more elusive and a topic for another post.

    [1] Constance Phillips, Photopoems (Covici Friede, 1936)  This book by Phillips also is the first use of the term photopoem.

    [2] Paul Strand, Time in New England (Oxford University Press, 1950).

    [3] Norman McBeath, Robert Crawford, “Photopoetry: A Manifesto” in Chinese Makars (Easel Press, 2016).

    [4] “In the Library: Poetry and the Book Arts”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2023/library-poetry-book-arts.html

    [5] David Solo, “Photopoetry and the Artists’ Book” in Artist’s Book Yearbook 2022/23 (University of the West of England, 2022), 106-113.

     

    David Solo is a co-founder and co-editor of Book Art Review (BAR), a criticism initiative founded at Center for Book Arts in 2020 and serves on the boards of the Grolier Club, 10x10 Photobooks and the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation.  He is a collector and researcher based in Brooklyn focused on artists’ books and photobooks.

  • 01 Oct 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Here’s a note from my planner: Three two-sided press sheets (each three-color) equals 18 print runs over six days. With an April 8th print deadline, plates should be made by March 15th, films must be printed by March 10th, and files completed by March 5th. Final deadline for imagery: February 28th.

    Spontaneity is not a hallmark of book arts. Although I’ve never met a book artist who likes rulers, it’s imperative to calculate borders, plan impositions, and set timelines. There is a range, of course—as a UArts student working with visiting artist Sarah Matthews and master printer Amanda D’Amico in the Borowsky Center, my cohort was able to complete an entire book in one day, a strong contrast to the often months or years-long process of development. But even Sarah Matthews’s quick collaborative book required a set of decisions about edition size and layout and preparations like pre-carved stamps to set the stage.

    Even so, the necessity of structure does not make book arts rigid. For book arts, planning and improvisation are dance partners. I see three significant opportunities for creativity and playfulness in the book arts process: learning, iteration, and moments of action.

    Book arts is a field of continuous education as a result of its breadth of mediums. As an acolyte of books, you never finish studying niche or historical structures, trying unusual print methods, or testing new paper fibers. I’ve observed that the practice of collecting techniques is a great source of inspiration and challenge: “What narrative suits this structure? What happens if I fold this way?” I believe this is why the book arts field has such a robust workshop circuit: learning is the flashpoint that sets long-term structured projects in motion. For me, trying a simple pants fold led to a book formed entirely from one shaped sheet of handmade paper. 


    Bryn Ziegler, Return, Recall, 2022, handmade paper, 6 in x 6 in x .5 in,, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    For my colleague, Grace Johnson, mastering the drum leaf inspired a laminated board book that exploits the binding’s ability to open entirely flat. 


    Grace Johnson, Constructure, 2022, offset lithography, 4.5 in x 9.25 in x 0.5 in, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    Mock-ups, the practice of testing book format through one-off iterations, are a natural continuation of learning exploration. Mock-ups are an opportunity to work directly without consequences. They’re also where book artists first make their ideas physical, exercise unconventional thought, and frequently innovate on the book format. Mock-ups are the strongest illustration of direct play in bookmaking and a significant point of intersection between creativity and planning. Erica Honson’s book If Shoeprints In Concrete are Urban Fossils is an excellent example—you can see their creative process in the shift from the first model, a fantastical amalgam of folding structures and fluctuating page sizes, to the second, a more measured object acting as a tool to work out the concrete (pardon the pun) aspects of the book. The finished piece, made from shaped sheets of handmade paper and letterpress printed, required enormous forethought and precision. But, like many artist books, it started with iterative, freeform exploration. 




    Erica Honson, If Shoeprints in Concrete are Urban Fossils, 2021, handmade paper and letterpress techniques, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    Finally, we have moments of action. After extensive preparation, it’s time to print and bind. And therefore time to trust yourself to make the right moment-by-moment creative decisions for your project. No matter how calibrated the plan, there is always an unpredictable element: the artist…and sometimes studio humidity, press temperament, or any number of factors. Whether by re-mixing an ink, shifting an image two picas, or ordering a custom stamp to disguise a missing page number (not that I’m speaking from experience), the lengthy planning process culminates in an exhilarating spate of creative problem-solving.

    I often speculate about what unites us as printers and bookbinders. To print, you must cultivate the ability to think in reverse, not only by reversing your imagery but also by starting from the intangible end result and working backwards. Who does that appeal to? My theory is that the greatest creativity is inspired by imposing structure. Limitations encourage inventive solutions, prompting artists to push the boundaries of their ingenuity. It’s hard to think outside the box without knowing where the borders are. As book artists, it’s essential to consider how the inherent structure of book arts is a draw for the field. It isn’t a foil to the playful aspects of the process; it’s a prompt for them.


    Bryn Ziegler is a Philadelphia-based artist and educator specializing in intricate narrative books. She holds an MFA in Book Arts and Printmaking from University of the Arts. Bryn’s artistic practice embraces both contemporary digital techniques and profoundly traditional craft, giving her a dynamic perspective on the development of books today.


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

    In 2021 I authored Photobooks &: a critical companion to the contemporary medium (Onomatopee). It is a publication that set out to connect the newly consecrated photobook to contemporary cultural situations, historical photographic relationships with the page, and the logistics of making public. Ultimately the book asked whether celebration of the photobook and its production were solidifying its status as an art object or creating an insular environment of little relevance for audiences to which both the book and photography have much to contribute.

    This tension is likely familiar for readers of the Book Art Theory Blog. The photobook has gone through a similar turn of legitimisation as the artist book, now recognised by individuals and institutions as a medium of considerable import rather than an adjunct or curiosity. Such acceptance brings notable benefits in the form of institutional support, scholarly activity, and market prices but with it the possibility for a clouding of specific publishing purposes. In excitement over the rich variety of publications emerging today and the communities that bring them to life, we should be mindful that photobooks are not only representations of the medium but are texts in the world. The vitality of the photobook should not be confused with, or transferred to, the vitality of an individual work. 

       What does this *book seek to do in the world?

       Who would enjoy seeing this *book?

       Who needs to see this *book? 

       (excerpts from A series of prompts)

    If we wish to position the medium as one that can ‘catalyse real change’ [1] and make our world ‘visible, understandable and alterable’ [2], a focus must now be brought to the making public of publishing. This most essential component of book-based practices is frequently overlooked in favour of the apparently more exciting creative aspects of concept, design, and production. It is an occurrence exacerbated when we see that contemporary photobook makers primarily produce works for other photographers and book makers. As photographer Laia Abril concisely puts it: 'the public is us' [3]. In this environment, collective values in production and shared reference points as well as common spaces of photographic encounter construct a safe harbour. 

       How does the *book fit into a larger plan of publishing?

       Does the *book act as a beginning, way-marker or end-point?

       What knowledge does the *book rely on?

       (excerpts from A series of prompts)

    Engaging with readers beyond an established and expectant audience for whom the book is a reference point – rather than an object of challenge or change – is not easy. It involves a rethinking not only of production choices but also the language we use in books, their price, distribution requirements, non-purchase accessibility, and republishing possibilities. To complicate matters, strategies must be custom-fit in recognition that just as each book 'has a specific flavour', so too that flavour should be 'accompanied by different ways of helping it to be out in the world' [4]. It is work not yet rewarded by peers or institutional accolades, but it is work I have sought to encourage in a series of questions to makers, readers, and all those involved in the ecology of the photobook that I posed in Photobooks &

    In an effort to nudge discourse towards situations of reading over production I used these questions at a number of workshops and lectures in the UK, but still their reach was limited. And so, A series of prompts is an attempt to amplify and activate anew. Its form is easy to distribute by pixels or post and its simplicity more inviting than the weight and formality of Photobooks & to many. Returning to an idea not fully realised has also provided an opportunity to energise content with other audiences in mind than those I considered two years prior. I have adopted ‘*book’ in place of ‘photobook’ in response to conversations with readers and the progress of my thinking that has led me to consider the need for more reader- and audience-centred approaches in fields other than the photobook alone. For while there are more examples of works and discussions that overtly include the reader under the broader terms of poetry, art publishing, and the artist book, tensions between the author(s) vision and audience are constant and universal.

    A series of prompts is available in its second riso print run for free by contacting the author and is also able to be downloaded as a DIY layered pdf for riso printing via the link here


    The front and back of A series of prompts.

    [1] Cataldo, Antonio. ‘Foreword’. In Photography Bound: Reimagining Photobooks and Self-Publishing, ed. Antonio Cataldo and Adrià Julià, 6–12. (Milan: Silvana editoriale, 2023), 10.  

    [2] Gilberger, Ruth. ‘Together We Are More’. In The Photobook in Art and Society: Participative Potentials of a Medium, 27–30. (Berlin: Jovis and The PhotoBook Museum, 2020), 32.

    [3] Abril, L., Ramon Pez, and G Golpe. ‘Let’s Kill the Ego’. In The Book: On Endless Possibilities: Independent Publishing Fair, Barcelona 2015, ed. Natasha Christia, 24–31. (Barcelona: The Folio Club, 2015), 28.

    [4] Reader, Manuel. ‘On Distribution’. In Books Is Books: A Statement of Intent from Minimum Efficiency Press, ed. Andrew John Beltran and Margherita Huntley. Minimum Efficiency Press, 2023.


    Matt Johnston is a visual practitioner, educator and researcher at Coventry University, where he is Assistant Professor in photography. For the last decade, his research and visual practice have been concerned with the post-millennium situation of the contemporary photobook and how it may become better equipped to engage new readerships.


  • 01 Sep 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In July of 2023, Levi Sherman and David Solo sat down over Zoom to talk about some of their goals and issues they’ve encountered in running platforms for artist book criticism and reviews. This is Part 2 of that conversation. Read Part 1 here.



    Book Art Review online contents for issues 1 and 2.

    What observations about the nature of artist books arise from running these platforms? 

    LS: In the 1960s and ‘70s, people like Dick Higgins and Ulises Carrión saw artist books as a vehicle for revitalizing literature (and art). Now the field has matured to the point that an artist can set out to make an artist book, to contribute to this tradition without challenging or galvanizing literature or art more broadly. Good or bad, this seems like a fundamental difference. It brings us back to the issue of artist intent. 

    With the maturity of the field, two conflicting tenets have emerged. On one hand, “production, not reproduction” means the critic should consider every aspect of how a book was made. Artists often facilitate this with extensive paratext. On the other hand, there is a belief that the artist book itself should tell the reader how it should be read. If the work succeeds, readers will handle an unfamiliar structure or read through challenging content. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive, and critics can evaluate how artists navigate the tension. For example, if a book is destined for an institutional collection, the artist can rely on more paratext than an activist anonymously distributing pamphlets.


    BAR Issue 2 article on Something Else Press.

    DS: Another facet of books going into institutional (or private) collections is the potential for those books to disappear and complicate the desire to view and study them. A related challenge working with institutions involves balancing their mission to preserve/conserve books and the desire for visitors to experience the book as it was intended and handle it. While setting up reading rooms or events for live engagement with books can be great for expanding visibility, many organizations are reluctant or not able to do so unless they have “disposable” duplicate copies. 

    LS: Many libraries do a great job selecting and showing books, but how much time is spent really reading? Imagine taking a film class where you only watched the trailers, or fast-forwarded every film? That seems analogous to a lot of institutional artist book encounters. I’d like to see more artist books on coffee tables and nightstands, and for artists to consider how the reading environment informs pace and duration.

    DS: Digitization (including page-turning videos/applications) can provide some help (within the restrictions of copyright and subject to makers’ preferences). A lot of work has been done to make both contemporary and historic photobooks viewable online which seems to affect the way they’re written about. Critics, publishers and artists have all contributed to this which perhaps also reflects the photobook as a major means of getting the photographer’s work seen.  The large number of prizes and the huge number of annual “top 10” lists for photobooks also contribute to the greater visibility of such works.  It’s also interesting to think about how that might translate to the wider artists’ book world. 

    LS: For artist books, digitization is stymied by two factors. First, book artists are more invested in materiality and hapticality than many photographers, so digital surrogates don’t seem adequate (although I personally think the benefits outweigh the shortcomings). Second, collection managers are very wary of copyright. So much of the art librarianship literature about artist books is about copyright, but I rarely hear book artists worry about a collection photographing their work. Digital access seems especially important since the artist book field doesn’t have many awards and prizes or other platforms. More prizes and events might be good, but a silver lining is that the pace of criticism can be slower and less oriented toward marketing.


    One side of the printable mini-zine version of a review from Artists’ Book Reviews (ABR). Each review is limited to five photographs to respect copyright and fit various formats, from full-length print and online reviews to abbreviated Instagram versions.

    How does criticism relate to the idea of a canon?

    DS: I’m less interested in revisiting the canon or creating multiple canons than in expanding the discussion of books that are interesting (in a variety of ways and to different audiences). It’s OK if these are mostly individual opinions (as are prizes). We want to recognize that and promote more discussion of what someone thinks is a great book and why — especially for overlooked or underrepresented areas. Shining a light on overlooked histories of the artist book (or photobook) is rewarding as we’ve also been working to do with 10×10 photobooks. It’s more about exposing those works rather than trying to then interpolate them into a new “top 100”. More useful is “Here’s a lot of great books that most of you have never seen.” Anointing a list as “the right answer” feels dangerous for any list.

    LS: I don’t think criticism should try to build or revise a canon, but if we ignore whatever artist book canon already exists, we may use it unwittingly as a benchmark. We should examine how our values reflect works that have been institutionalized and consider what those values exclude. 

    As an art historian, I am interested in (re)inserting artist books into mainstream art history. That doesn’t mean adding books to the art historical canon, though — in fact, artist books might be a good vehicle for deconstructing the boundaries between center and periphery. Through my own research into artist book historiography, I’ve learned how contingent the canon is (except, of course, the influences of structural racism, and sexism, etc., which are sadly predictable). Other research, including Megan N. Liberty’s institutional history reveals how the field has formed. I’m not sure whether criticism can contribute to this, but knowing the history will help critics avoid pitfalls.

    Levi is the founder and editor of Artists’ Book Reviews (https://artistsbookreviews.com/), a website for reviews and interviews. David is a co-founder and co-editor of Book Art Review (BAR), a criticism initiative founded at Center for Book Arts in 2020 by Megan N. Liberty, Corina Reynolds, and David Solo. BAR is both a print and online (at https://centerforbookarts.org/bar ) publication.


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

    In July of 2023, Levi Sherman and David Solo sat down over Zoom to talk about some of their goals and issues they’ve encountered in running platforms for artist book criticism and reviews.

    Levi is the founder and editor of Artists’ Book Reviews  (ABR) (https://artistsbookreviews.com/), a website for reviews and interviews. David is a co-founder and co-editor of Book Art Review (BAR), a criticism initiative founded at Center for Book Arts in 2020 by Megan N. Liberty, Corina Reynolds, and David Solo. BAR is both a print and online (at https://centerforbookarts.org/bar ) publication.


    The first 2 issues of BAR were published in Spring 2022 and Spring 2023.

    What are ABR and BAR trying to achieve and for whom?

    DS: For BAR, the main goal has been to provide a platform for criticism and discourse about the artist book and that engages with the book as an object. Why and how does it work as a book as distinct from an exhibition on the wall or as a catalog of works? We don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach but rather that there are and should be a wide range of perspectives and the writing should express clear opinions supported by specific points. 

    LS: I try to write about things in a way that contributes to artist book discourse. Often the book does most of that work for me, but I might stretch more to write about a zine or pamphlet in a productive way for an artist book audience.

    DS: We’re looking to reach both the existing artist book audience and also to expand it.  One approach has been to look at how we can draw from the criticism of other artforms. Regardless of their background, people seem very comfortable criticizing a movie and the different components (script, casting, sound, etc.) that go into making a film. There can also be analogies with music criticism and the way an album is put together — looking at both sequencing and individual songs. It would be great to bring that same dynamic to artist books. It can be fun; it doesn’t always have to be serious. 

    LS: Film, music, and literature can all assume mass audiences. With a few exceptions, we can’t assume that another interested person has read a particular artist book or even has access to it. Exhibition reviews are a common solution for art writing in general, but exhibitions don’t offer a representative sample of the artist book field. I have noticed more platforms publishing artist profiles, interviews and collection spotlights, but these are not geared toward interpreting or evaluating art works. 

    DS: Regarding mass audiences, if you can’t assume that your reader will be able to access the book, how does it shape a review? For writers, editors, and people running platforms, what does it take to make a review meaningful in those circumstances? The selection of images to include (or links) becomes especially important in these cases and can influence what gets reviewed.

    LS: I review what I receive, so there is a feedback loop between my readers and the books I review. Interesting micro-trends emerge: a review of a Portuguese book elicits more submissions from Portugal, or a review of asemic poetry taps into that world. Now that ABR has a few other reviewers, they can pursue their areas of interest and expertise. As editor, I help them connect with the broader book art audience. 

    As the pandemic recedes, I have also been asking how criticism can build community. I recently used the ABRcollection for a few lectures and events, and it felt great to put people in direct contact with the books.


    Levi Sherman setting out books from the ABR collection for a show and tell event at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, WI. Levi appeared with Kayla Bauer and Stephen Perkins to discuss collecting and curating in conjunction with Stephen’s exhibition, Stephen Perkins: Mining the Archive. 

    DS: BAR is also experimenting with various components and collaboration — through conferences, workshops, visits and working with organizations. That includes the collaborative production of Issue 2 with Appalachian State, launch parties, happy hours/salons, etc. We also hope such events will help attract writers as well as readers and those who want to participate in the conversation and build the community.

    We have found that finding and attracting writers interested in long form critical writing is a major challenge (not only for artist books, it seems) and so are working on partnerships, resources and other activities to help support aspiring writers from a range of backgrounds. 

    How does book art criticism intersect with book art theory? What questions should it ask and answer? What factors should it consider?

    DS: The “type” of artist book — and its context — can play a role in the way it’s reviewed. I might assess, and write about, a piece with a small budget intended as an experiment or immediate response to a current event differently from the way I would approach a deluxe livre d’artiste or book developed over many years. I’m not sure that counts as theory, but we wrestle with the question of how much we talk about context. Many artist books and zines are created to address social and political issues, whether rapidly or over a long period of time, so to what extent should the criticism consider the intent? Context feels even more important for historical works although the reviewer might have to speculate more about the context of a work produced 50 years ago. 

    LS: It makes sense to consider artists’ intent and their position within the overlapping practices that constitute the book art field. I take reception theory seriously (as do good artist books that leave room for interpretation), but artists today are highly professionalized and often explicitly articulate their goals. We can reject an artist’s claims, but they still offer useful context. 

    DS: A lot of the work I’m personally interested in is collaborative, especially between image-makers and writers, and I do find it interesting and helpful to understand how the collaboration worked, which might not be readily apparent. Drawing on paratextual material, which may be more process than intent, can also be useful. A review that draws on background information is fine, and so is one that says, “I picked up this book and here is my response.” A good editor should help the reviewer decide about including such information and what they can expect their audience to know and in ensuring the sources of such information are acknowledged. 

    LS: I want reviewers to consider what their readers might think, but I also want them to share how they personally responded to a work. I find myself deleting a lot of passive language, even from good writers. I started out trying to be comprehensive and objective, both of which are boring and impossible. 

    In some ways, ABRmight be art appreciation rather than criticism. That doesn’t mean I won’t mention an aspect of a book that falls short, but in general my goal is to help people understand and appreciate artist books. I find people rarely need help finding flaws or disliking things. 

    Mediocre books often fail in the same ways, so another format might be better than piling onto a single work in a review. 

    DS: One approach would be more of an essay looking at individual trends and evaluating and describing when it works and when it doesn’t with specific examples.

    LS: Perhaps a book that was bad in a unique or novel way could make for an interesting review. 


    BAR Issue 2 article on “The Economics of Publishing.”

    DS: Part of our larger objective is to foster wider accessibility for artist books and make the elements that go into a book more visible. That might involve discussing individual decisions — “did it need that insert?” or “perhaps it could have used one more edit” — in an otherwise positive review. Not that the decision is right or wrong, but making clear the reviewer’s reaction to the book and why. Sometimes these decisions are consequences of the tradeoffs that take place during the process of designing and publishing a book and in the most recent issue of BAR, we’ve also tried to shine more of a light on that, looking at the economic and other constraints associated with producing and distributing a book. This approach relates as well to our multiple audiences — both pointing readers to books that are interesting but also providing feedback to artists and publishers.

     


  • 01 Aug 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 2022 we edited and published an anthology of conceptual artist books titled A Physical Book Which Compiles Conceptual Books by Various Artists. The books in the collection exist only as verbal descriptions, statements, or provocations. However, we found the Conceptual label too narrow for many of the books. Through the project, we learned the many ways and reasons that an artist book might go unrealized. The purpose of this blog post is to share some of those ways and reasons, and to consider what they tell us about the field of artist books.

    Faced with the challenge of categorizing the wildly diverse artist books we received, we organized our anthology according to Francis Bacon’s lofty system of human knowledge: Memory, Reason, Imagination. Recognizing such a system’s limitations, we added a fourth category: Touch. Any number of other organizational systems would have been possible (and many of the works fit just as un/comfortably into more than one category). Accordingly, this post will categorize books in yet another way, one that accounts for immaterialities beyond Conceptual art: conceptual, unrealized, implausible, impossible, and ekphrastic. From these, we can begin to learn what books can and can’t do, why books seem suited to certain topics, and what artists need for a sustainable practice.

    Conceptual

    When Levi first envisioned the anthology, he pictured conceptual books in the vein of 1960s and ‘70s Conceptual art, and we did receive such books. Like many Fluxus publications, these conceptual books build a frame through which to view everyday experiences in a new light. An Index of Beginnings and Endings by Ellen Bruex makes this explicit: “Instructions: Move through your days with awareness of new beginnings and final endings.” Some instruction pieces lend themselves to execution, relying on chance to produce novel outcomes. Random Color Generated Instant Book by Esther K Smith & Susan Happersett exemplifies this approach with detailed, plainspoken instructions and everyday materials. Other instructions are more poignant as mental exercises. In this category, we would place Who Has Seen the Wind by Cathryn Miller of Byopia Press. One could feasibly print her ninety-nine sonograms of the wind, but it is Miller’s Duchampian declaration that these imagined prints are art, specifically asemic poems, that is so striking. Despite their variety, these works all share Conceptual art’s emphasis on the viewer/reader rather than the artist. They remind us that reading is a creative, constitutive act. 


    Ellen Bruex, “An Index of Beginnings and Endings,” page 1 of 2, in A Physical Book Which Compiles Conceptual Books by Various Artists, eds. Carley Gomez and Levi Sherman, 2022.

    Unrealized

    Whereas Smith and Happersett’s conceptual book can be realized repeatedly according to chance operations, other books describe a more determined form. Perhaps the clearest example is Bruno Neiva’s Open your book!, which is bound on both sides and meant to be torn apart to relieve stress. A physical version of Open your book! was published by Team Trident Press a month after our anthology. 

    Other books say more by remaining unrealized. In Coma (deep sleep), Amandine Nabarra grapples with the difficulty of grieving her stepmother without saying goodbye due to COVID-19. Her frank description of guilt and pain alongside that of an unfinished collage is surely as poignant as the finished piece would have been. Linda Parr’s Circumnavigation outlines a book-in-progress meant for an exhibition celebrating Magellan’s quincentennial in 2020. The pressure to make art during an unprecedented pandemic seems perfectly captured by Parr’s reflections on Magellan, whose 1520 departure is celebrated but not his 1521 death or the 1522 return of his expedition under Juan Sebastián Elcano. Other unrealized books require elaborate installations or resources beyond most book artists, and still others — like Kristen Lyle’s Just a Phase — describe perfectly feasible projects where life has simply gotten in the way. 


    Amandine Nabarra, “Coma (deep sleep)” in A Physical Book.

    Implausible 

    Without negating the real circumstances that result in unrealized books, whether structural or personal, we consider implausible books a separate category. These books are technically possible, but they place significance on mental processes — the reader’s imagination and the artist’s hypothetical thinking and mental problem solving. Nervous System by Andrew David King entails: a hidden bunker, a burlap sack of dirt, a single chair, a redacted facsimile of Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz’s Dachau diaries, a cassette tape and player, and an iron supplement in a paper envelope. King’s piece is far more affecting than it seems from the description above, and perhaps the physical installation would be even more moving, but Nervous System seems written in lieu of that version, not as a practical plan. Not only is Nervous System more accessible in its verbal form, King has pruned and polished the writing as carefully as any poem. Contributions by James Spyker range in plausibility, from Clean After Reading, in which printed glycerin sheets are pressed into soap bars and then read as they are used, to Read it or else, which envisions a book as “voluntary ransomware” that must be painstakingly read to relinquish the reader’s computer. Implausible books make use of the book as a physical, time-based medium as well as its symbolic value.

     

    James Spyker, “Clean After Reading” in A Physical Book

    Impossible

    Impossible books also engage the book as a medium, but do so by pointing to its material and temporal limits. Nathanael Kooperkamp desires a sort of time travel in Future Memory Photo Album. Kyla Anne Spencer’s An accordion book (never ending) explicitly invokes infinity as does, effectively, VON WEIT HER(GEHOLT)’s imagined bestiary Life, Life-Size: Complete Collection. Numerous books connect the duration of books and lives. In Everything I never told you, Abigail Guidry imagines adding a signature to a codex on every birthday. Annelyse Gelman’s Tamagotchi-like PET requires care to remain readable. Even as such thought experiments challenge the limits of books, they also metaphorize the ways ordinary books and reading already transcend these limits. Narges Porandekhial’s Nothing and Everything and Nanette Wylde’s soul haiku both explore notion that no reader can encounter the same book twice.


    Nanette Wylde, “soul haiku” in A Physical Book. 

    Other impossible books are plausible books in impossible worlds. Genocide Incorporated by E.L. Gamble and The Book of Davron by ossa are both set in dystopian, sci-fi futures. Another form of speculation accounts for other impossible books, books which cannot even be described. Constanze Kreiser’s A Book on Jellyfish asks how a book might adequately capture the animal’s essence — not unlike Sydney Anne Smith’s make a book like a dog

    Ekphrastic

    Ekphrastic books are a literary device to explore other subjects. Almost pataphorical, these books are fleshed just enough for the writer to move beyond them. In Ben the Hoose, Bea Drysdale makes a pamphlet while staying at her parents’ house, plumbing her grief and fear while her ailing father is quarantined in the hospital. In Maureen Alsop’s haunting prose poem Tally Ho Écriture Féminine Mechanique, the book is “the ash and the remaining cigar boxes,” “an interrupted line of thought.” Merridawn Duckler also explores relationships in Big Book of Nothing, which begins like a Conceptual instruction book, but in a long litany asks the reader to consider “someone you love who is indifferent, someone who loves you but is uneasy, someone with whom your love is reciprocal…” and so on. At first, the book seems absent altogether in Lily Oliver’s Appendage, though a footnote mentions reading. Conspicuously absent, the book has a way of claiming other objects, spaces, and stories — perhaps the crawl space is a book, and the camera with a single photo is almost certainly a book.


    Merridawn Duckler, “Big Book of Nothing,” page 1 of 2, in A Physical Book. 

    Thinking Books

    In 2015 Levi contributed a post to this blog titled “Book Thinking,” arguing that artist books offer critical and analytical tools for other disciplines. The artists above illustrate the potential of book thinking by thinking books. If book thinking is critical or analytical, thinking books is its creative counterpart. Just as these artists think books into existence, the reader can think them into new categories and make new discoveries about artist books as a medium and as a discipline. 

    Carley Gomez is an artist and writer in Madison, Wisconsin. Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews. Together they run Partial Press, publisher of A Physical Book Which Compiles Conceptual Books by Various Artists.


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