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15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM • Susan Viguers

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 Aug 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The tension between size and scale has energized debates in the field of sculpture, but artists’ books have not benefited from a similar examination. Worse, artists’ books have inherited a tangled mess of definitions and conventions from both art and books. In fact, I would argue that artists’ books are so laden with references that size is never just size; it is always scale. The unique ways that size and scale operate in artists’ books has yet to be fully formulated, and this absence limits scholarship and criticism in the field. I cannot provide that new formula here, but I do hope to identify some considerations for artists’ books and demonstrate the limitations of approaches borrowed from other categories of art and books.

    While scale is fluid and subjective, size is a literal, measurable attribute. Yet artists’ books complicate even size. For example, unlike most art, a book’s dimensions are variable. A codex doubles in width when opened, and other structures undergo even more dramatic transformations as they are read. Additionally, books are three-dimensional but also time-based. A long book might be a small one, and vice versa. Some terms borrowed from bibliography – like folio, quarto, octavo – are too loose for contemporary books since they are a matter of format, not size. Other terms are too rigid. For example, distinctions based purely on dimensions, such as the Miniature Book Society’s, ignore the fact that not everything small is a miniature and not all miniatures are small. In other words, miniature is a matter of scale, not size.

    So, if the book world cannot offer what we need, what about the art world? The sculptor Robert Morris said, “the awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s own body size, and the object. Space between the subject and object is implied in such a comparison.” [1] This relational understanding is key for artists’ books since the embodied connection between the subject and object is even stronger in reading than viewing. Morris was reacting against a Modernist conception of sculpture as autonomous, of scaleless objects that existed in relation to themselves rather than their context. Yet even compared to site-specific sculpture, artists’ books are far more determined by their context since they exist in relation to a relatively narrow historical tradition. The difference in size (and scale) between the world’s smallest and largest books pales in comparison to the oeuvre of many sculptors.

    Of course, a difference in scale need not entail a difference in size. Consider two 2 × 3-inch books, one set in 12-point type, the other in 4-point type. Though either would qualify for the Miniature Book Society, I would argue that the book with 12-point type is not necessarily a miniature. Type size is an interesting case since it relates to the subject (the reader) in terms of legibility and to other objects (typographic conventions), but scale often relates to specific objects rather than generalized conventions. For example, Richard Long’s A Walk Past Standing Stones playfully miniaturizes stone stelae in a structure that lets them stand upright like their full-size counterparts. The book is small, but its conventional typography makes it clear that while the stelae are miniature, the book isn’t.

    Whether subject or object, the relationships above are all external – the book and something outside the book. What makes books so complex, however, is that they also enact relationships within themselves, including relations of scale. Artists are drawn to the book form for its ability to juxtapose elements and create tension between a part and the whole it belongs to. This relationality further places books in the realm of scale rather than size, amplified against the backdrop of external references, whether they are inherent like human hands, a matter of convention like trade paperbacks, or particular like the standing stones of Penwith Peninsula. 

    Scale may seem too simple to warrant theoretical or critical attention, but it is especially important in a medium where size is so predetermined. A critic who calls a book intimate just because it is small is not unlike a realtor who calls a studio apartment “cozy.” To move beyond euphemisms and fully understand the intersubjective relationship between a book and its reader, we must attend the inter-objective relationships within and beyond the book.

    [1] Robert Morris, “Objecthood and Reductivism,” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art In Theory: 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford 1992, p. 831.

    Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.

  • 30 Jul 2021 12:43 PM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    There are considerable problems with the very notion of book arts' theory. The interstices of literary analysis, art historical analysis, and textual scholarship have required and continue to require the production of instructive texts for the abecedarian to the fundamentals of the field.  Unfortunately, therein lies yet another question regarding a hierarchy of definitions.

    Though the need for a multidisciplinary approach is recognized, the multiple imbricated locations of contention are underestimated.  Theorists of book art and artist books encounter conflicts between disciplines, raising multiple questions that confront assumptions and problematize ontologies throughout the field, including: art history, literary, book arts praxis, concerns regarding definitions, questions of cultural and racial hegemony, as well as the ever present conflict between artists’ theories and art historians’ interpretations. Each of these also complicates the application of theoretical lenses such as new criticism and phenomenology.

    One crucial issue involves two essential elements in book production: literature/letters and the visual image.  Art history, from which the dominant definition of the artist book is derived, privileges the development of visual art as a conceptually communicative element, relegating the textual focus to a secondary position, a position favored by many. This conceptual understanding of the artist book ties praxis into a particular convention focused upon the concept of the work as linchpin to differentiate artist books from other types of books. Alternatively, literary textual analysis examines the use of letters as communicative elements within literature, ignoring the visual to a large degree.  Each approach marginalizes the other due to the artificial confines of each disciplinary focus and their refusal to mix genres. [1] 

    This ongoing encounter causes book artists to associate their art with one discipline (visual) or the other (letters) for various reasons and maintains a false dichotomy that image and text, both functioning as visual signifiers, exist separately from each other due to disciplinary boundaries.  Book artists and theorists should discard this duality and recall that book art is a shifting territory that constantly produces liminal and hybrid artworks that question boundaries.

    Book arts iconoclastic nature and multidisciplinary character is stymied when strict boundaries and definitions are applied. Book art theory, in the same way that book art exists in myriad forms, should not be locked into a specific conceptual artistic model and definition or it too will atrophy. Instead, there should be an examination of what has been used to separate conceptualist book work, as defined by the dominant Drucker-esque paradigm, that separates artist books from all other forms of book art, as well as their historical and cultural contexts.

    Pablo Neruda y Col. José Venturelli,  Alturas de Macchu Picchu (Santiago de Chile: Librería Neira, 1948),  Cover.

    A brief example from Latin America will help illustrate this question. In 1948 Pablo Neruda collaborated with artist José Venturelli to publish Alturas de Macchu Picchu. [The Heights of Macchu Picchu]. [2] This work at first blush is not an artist book but instead, by Drucker standards, a work that illustrates text, because it does not investigate the book form in any conceptual way. Nevertheless, this work presents several opportunities for critical analysis once this restrictive criterion is discarded. The division between letters and art is an important one because this work inherently asks two questions: what was the author’s literary intention when working with a visual artist to create a book and what was the visual artist’s intention when engaging with literature and the book format? Wrangling with these two questions activates a more nuanced examination that constitutes an interpretive conceptual engagement with the work and its fabrication. In this case, it can be easily seen how this line of inquiry, as well as investigation of questions of culture and context demonstrate how this work pushed each artist beyond their scope of expertise into a new oeuvre to create a new material and conceptual constellation, intertwining arts with letters through the material form of the book. This example represents one of the many interdisciplinary encounters that fall outside of the canonized conceptual standard that currently divides the book arts.

    Neruda y Venturelli, 24-25.

    Book works interweave interdisciplinary theoretical and material considerations, constituting a field rich in untapped potential. Questions need to be posed, and there should be a specific location where critical voices are allowed to question the validity of prevailing positions and dominant definitions. There needs to be a place for the critical voice in this interstitial sphere of constellations and relationships. CBAA’s Theory Blog and Openings journal are already home to critical theory and will continue to open new doors for scholars and artists to interact and challenge each other regarding the incredibly flexible and polemic nature of the book arts.

    [1] Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre. Trans. by Avital Ronell.” Critical Inquiry, 1980, p. 55.

    [2] Hellion, Martha. “Artists' Books from Latin America - A Table by Martha Hellion.” Printed Matter, 25 Jan. 2018,

    Peter J. Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art.  He has a Ph.D. in Spanish literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking.  His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

  • 15 Jul 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The experience of wonder, as discussed in my first post, is not only evoked by works of beauty. Wonder also accompanies surprise, from the “unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment also includes books that invite wonder through imagery of fantastical worlds, which, when reframed through an environmental lens, emerge as harbingers of loss. 

    Before the reframing, however, there is the invitation: book artists must first initiate and hold a reader’s focus. Paging activates that dynamic. Eyes directed toward the page, book in hand or opened on a surface, the rhythmic movement of paging prompts a reader’s autonomic nervous system to down-shift, as the heart rate lowers, breath elongates, and attention deepens. In this quietude, the artist’s negotiation between structure, content, and a reader can take full effect, with wonder a kind of aphrodisiac, prompting a reader’s pursuit of the unfolding story. Two books from Reclamation immerse a reader in the wonder of an unreal world, to then refocus on an underlying foreboding that constitutes the work’s true voice.

    A reader’s initial impression of Lucy Helton’s Transmission (above),for example, is foregrounded in the book’s superannuated technology of thermal printing, associated with the fax machines prevalent in the late twentieth century. Along with technology, access plays a critical role, as a reader must first free the book from the cardboard tube that holds it. Once released, the rolled thermal prints require a reader’s constant manipulation while paging or the sheets will curl back up. At the same time, handling the book is inexplicably sensual, as the flimsy thermal prints, secured at one end with metal clips, are barely restrained beneath a luscious synthetic paper wrap. The resulting reading experience requires a level of concentration distinct from the tranquil perusal of Lizzie Brewer’s scroll, Ten Meters of Mycelium, discussed in my previous post. Transmission is resistant; its message will only slowly accrue. 

    Transmission’s wonder arises from its mix of nostalgia with the mystery prompted by the book’s title: what message is being conveyed? The thermal prints display grayscale panoramas in images of distant mountains rising out of scrub, and moonscapes reminiscent of long-ago glacial incursions. Only at the end does the colophon relate the backstory, that the artist’s father, an environmentalist, authored a science fiction novel in which nearly all humans lived on other planets so that Earth could survive as a wildlife reserve. The reader holds Helton’s response, not a utopia, but a dystopian warning of an earth devoid of life, the warning reverberating in the mind like a bell tolling unnervingly close, marking the world’s rush toward a future’s worst outcome. 

    A second book, Solastalgia (above), by Sarah Nicholls, also shifts a reader between worlds. The term, solastalgia, refers to the experience of the simultaneous emotions of nostalgia and a sense of loss, common in the world today. Unlike Transmission, Solastalgia revels in color, printed through risograph and letterpress, with pressure prints, woodcut, linocut, and polymer plates on a variety of papers and glassine. Solastalgia begins by enveloping the reader in visions of the lost civilization of Atlantis, its imagery conveying a utopian retreat, in fantastical scenes and fragments of historic maps, vibrant in a tropical palette. Other imagery suggests a shift, in topographic contour patterns that overlay a rippling water motif—land and water converging. Nicholls’s text reflects on the role islands play in the collective imagination, as sites of projected desire and retreats from reality; for example, “We can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists / nothing ever truly disappears”. 

    The story shifts, the idyll dissolves, and readers leave paradise to confront the environmental realities facing the South Pacific. Solastalgia tells of Nauru, a tiny island in Micronesia, whose interior is decimated due to strip-mining for phosphate, a natural fertilizer. Readers also learn of the Marshall Islands, which endured atomic bomb tests in the twentieth century, and now faces rising sea levels, forcing its residents to permanently relocate to the U.S. as climate refugees. 

    Two books, two distinct voices, Transmission and Solastalgia each conjure a spell by instigating an experience of wonder, and, once held in thrall, open a reader to warning or revelation. Voice upon voice, the works in Reclamation ask each of us to find our own voice in this global community of stewardship.

    Betty Bright is an independent writer, curator and historian who helped to start Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). In 2005 she published No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, and continues to write and curate, including contributing to the forthcoming Materialia Lumina (Stanford University and The CODEX Foundation, 2021).

  • 01 Jul 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Wonder is underrated today, even dismissed, relegated to sensational headlines in glossy magazines or social media drama—in other words, treated as irrelevant or hyperbole. But wonder, defined as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable,” can be a powerful strategy for an artist, and particularly for an artist wishing to entice and involve a viewer.

    In their 2001 book Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park trace the shifting status of the state of wonder through history. In the preface, the authors stake out their different perceptions of wonder: “One of us believes that wonders appeal because they contradict and destabilize; the other, because they round out the order of the world.”[1] It is in the meeting of those two responses—to disrupt and then reclaim—that wonder exerts its power, which can be especially useful to artists who make work about difficult truths.

    Wonder is on show in the exhibition Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment, which arose in response to a global call to action. Peter Koch and others called for artists to “raise a ruckus” in 2021, to educate and demand change around environmental threat and loss. Jeff Thomas, Executive Director of San Francisco Center for the Book, agreed to host the show and publish an illustrated catalogue with essays. Thanks to another prompt from Koch, San Francisco Public Library signed on as a second showing site. [2] I was invited to write two blog posts, as co-curator of Reclamation with Jeff Thomas, and as one of the show’s three jurors and catalog essayists (joined by Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress, and Ruth Rogers of Wellesley College). As jurors, in addition to prioritizing works of excellence and compelling content, we sought works that would reach across the chasm of anxiety and disbelief that many subconsciously employ to distance themselves from unsettling and threatening content.


    Wonder bridges that gap. For example, Judith Tentor’s accordion book, A Photograph of Feather Boa Kelp (above), draws attention from its deep blue cyanotype contact print. A cyanotype is activated when an object is laid atop photosensitive paper, allowing the action of light to create a negative silhouette when the object is removed. Feather Boa Kelp’s initial impact is in its scale of nearly fifteen feet, an accomplishment in the cyanotype medium. Equally striking is the work’s lacy patterning that ripples along the folded sheet as if the kelp (a subgroup of seaweed) is still afloat. Once a viewer advances into reading proximity, the text reveals that its openwork pattern is evidence of the feeding of a seaweed limpet, which has followed the kelp in its expanding range due to the warming ocean. Tentor’s specimen was found in the waters off San Diego, and the kelp’s range now reaches from Alaska to Mexico. As an artist’s book, Feather Boa Kelp carries evidence of climate change directly into a reader’s hands.


    A second work, Ten Meters of Mycelium by Lizzie Brewer (above), also draws a viewer’s gaze through the beauty of its ink and graphite drawings of mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus, depicted here in fine white filaments that gather and release across the sheet. The title also notes the scroll’s extraordinary length of ten meters (thirty-three feet), the majority of which remains hidden, furled within the scroll structure, viewable only in increments. Wondrous indeed, a viewer can imagine slowly exploring the sheer breadth of it, as the exquisite renderings come into view only to be tucked away again as the scroll is forwarded. Like a microscopic sample brought into focus, Brewer’s drawings of magnified mycelia represent billions of fungi, mycelia, and roots. This life-giving network produces and nurtures the soil’s biosphere across the earth’s surface—literally sustaining the ground under our feet.

    Through wonder, A Photograph of Feather Boa Kelp and Ten Meters of Mycelium transform our familiar but unnoticed forays into a heightened mindfulness of the urgency of climate change, while exploring a shoreline or simply walking on terra firma.

    [1] Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998) 11.

    [2] Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment is on show at San Francisco Center for the Book from June 9 – September 26, and at San Francisco Public Library from June 19 – September 5. I also wish to thank Jennie Hinchcliff of San Francisco Center for the Book, and Joan Jasper of San Francisco Public Library, for their dedication throughout this project.


    Betty Bright is an independent writer, curator and historian who helped to start Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). In 2005 she published No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, and continues to write and curate, including contributing to the forthcoming Materialia Lumina (Stanford University and The CODEX Foundation, 2021).

  • 15 Jun 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Ancient examples of accordion-folded books have been found in many parts of Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, and Burma. In China the accordion (musical instrument) is called a shou feng qin, which literally means “hand-wind-instrument.” The name for the book structure is jingzhe zhuang: jingzhe means “neat-folded paper” and zhuang means “binding.” The earliest examples of jingzhe zhuang bindings are from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). There were two earlier systems in China for “binding” texts. Some texts were written on silk cloth, usually rolled up as scrolls. The Chinese word for this structure is shoujuan, which literally means “hand roll-up.” Texts were also written on wood, usually bamboo cut into thin vertical strips, laced or knotted together horizontally with cord, then either rolled like a scroll or folded back and forth in a stack. The folded variation of this binding style is known as jian du, and examples date back to the fifth century BCE. It was not until after the invention of paper, in the second century CE, that Chinese bookmakers adapted the jian du structure to make jingzhezhuang bindings. A miniature jingzhe zhuang (10 x 14 cm) was found at the Dunhuang archaeological site in Western China, and thus, made before 900 CE, it is the oldest-known miniature accordion book.

    In Japan, the accordion-folded book structure is called an orihon. The word combines the root words ori (fold) and hon(book). According to legend, it was during the Heian period (794–1185 CE) that a Buddhist monk squashed his sutra scroll and then folded it up, thus inventing the orihon binding. Japanese orihon books were made using paper: either a single long strip folded back and forth, or several smaller strips connected together before folding. Another variation of the orihon binding was called a sempuyo. In this binding, individual folded sheets are arranged with the folds all facing the same direction, and then each fore edge is adhered to the adjacent fore edge. The cover is adhered to the first and last pages of the text block, but it is not attached to the spine. Because of this, the sempuyo is often called a flutter book: if it is dropped or blown by the wind, the pages will flutter but remain attached to the covers. It is said that monks used such books medicinally, believing that the breeze created by moving the pages of the holy sutras could heal an injury.

    In pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America, the Aztec and Maya made books with folded structures. These books are commonly called códices. Mayan códices were written in hieroglyphic characters, called glyphs, on amate, a paper-like material made from the bark of a certain type of fig tree. There was a Mayan glyph for the word códicejuun, but it looks more like a hamburger than a book. Written pages were pasted together and then folded back and forth to create an accordion-folded book. The Spanish invaders destroyed most of the original códices, and though some original text blocks survived, there are no original bindings. Some scholars believe the text block was glued to wooden covers, others that the text block and covers were wrapped together with leather cords. 

    It is unknown when the first accordion book was made in Western Europe. The oldest extant example I could find was handwritten, in Cyrillic script, in 1330. This manuscript, known as Canones et carmina sacra quae…, is now in the Netherlands’ Leiden University Library. 

    While there were other examples of accordion-folded manuscripts, the binding structure was not used in the early printed books. Although there were over 30,000 distinct editions printed during the incunabula period (1450–1500 CE), no known incunabulum has an accordion structure.

    Other than the Canones et carmina, the earliest accordion books made in Western Europe that I have discovered were miniature books printed and bound to be sold as souvenirs. As far as I know, none of those books include a printed date of publication, but some have the publisher’s name (for example, the Recollections of . . . series printed in London by J. Newman & Co.) and others have a traceable provenance, so we know they were made in the early to mid-1800s.

    We may never know who made the first accordion book, or when it was made, but at least we do know when and who made the first real accordion book.  Accordioning to respected book arts historians:  in 2002 Peter and Donna Thomas cut the bellows of an accordion, allowing them fold back and forth, inserted paper panels printed with text and image into the folds, and made their first Real Accordion Book out of Peter’s old 12 bass piano accordion. That first real accordion book was followed by a series of others.

    Peter and Donna Thomas. A New History of the Accordion Book. 2016.

    The works are tied together by structure, text, and image. A collection of photographs rotates through the series – old favorites reappearing, new images being presented for the first time. The texts have, for the most part, been explorations into the history of the accordion and of the accordion book. We have tried to add new information to each subsequent book, and since a history of the accordion book has not been previously published, finding information has been hard. We hope that by sharing what we have learned in these blog posts, others will come forward with what they have discovered, and together, as a community, we can write a more complete history of the accordion book. 

    Peter and Donna Thomas are book artists who make editioned and one-of-a-kind books. They make the paper, print, illustrate, and bind their books, combining the precision of the fine press aesthetic with the creativity found in contemporary artists' books. Between 2009-2019 they traveled the USA as the Wandering Book Artists.

  • 01 Jun 2021 12:30 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 2000 I had the idea to make an accordion book. Not your regular accordion book, this one would be made from a real accordion, with the keyboards as covers, and the bellows would be cut along the vertical ends, so that when it was pulled open it would look like a real accordion book! I play the accordion and couldn’t pass up the opportunity presented by the visual pun, but the real purpose for making the book was to address a point of confusion among book artists: whether a folded paper book should be called an accordion book or a concertina book. From playing both musical instruments, I knew that an accordion is rectangular, and a concertina is hexagonal. I made my first real accordion book in tandem with a book made out of a concertina to physically explain why, unless a book is hexagonal in shape, the correct term is accordion book.

                                  Peter and Donna Thomas, The Real Accordion Book, 2001

                                 Peter and Donna Thomas, The Real Concertina Book, 2001                                                                                  

    Following is my short history of the accordion book, explaining how format came to be generally know called an accordion book.

    The word accordion was first used early in the nineteenth century to describe a small, portable, box-shaped musical instrument. It had a button keyboard on the right-hand side for playing melody notes, another button keyboard on the left-hand side for playing bass and chordal accompaniment, and folded paper bellows connecting the two keyboards together. Metal reeds, attached to the keyboards, were mounted inside the bellows. When buttons were pushed while the bellows were being expanded and contracted, air was forced past the metal reeds, causing them to vibrate and produce sound. The term accordion book borrows from the musical instrument. It describes any book having a folded, rather than sewn, text block, where the pages are pleated – folded back and forth in a manner similar to the bellows of an accordion, rather than being folded as a map – and are viewed by expanding the book like an accordion.

    The invention of the accordion was inspired by an ancient Chinese, mouth-blown musical instrument called the sheng. The sheng was first displayed in Western Europe in the late seventeenth century. It used free reeds in resonator pipes to create musical sounds, and this concept led to the invention of several different harmonica-like instruments. The success of those inventions encouraged organ-makers to try a new direction in their efforts to create low-cost pump organs for small-town churches; this, in turn, led to the creation of the accordion. Most historians credit Cyrill Demian, of Vienna, as the inventor of the first accordion. In 1829, he patented an instrument where the left hand operated a button keyboard and the right hand moved the bellows. He called his invention an Akkordion. The word is based on akkord, in this case referring to musical harmony, with the suffix –ion, being thought to derive from the word clarion, a sort of medieval trumpet.

    In some countries the accordion’s name is a variation on the word harmonica (for example, harmonika in Bosnia and harmonikka in Finland). In Italy it is called a fisarmonica, said to be derived from physharmonica, the name given by Anton Haeckl to his 1818 invention that combined harmonica and bellows to make an instrument resembling the modern hand-held harmonium. Other countries have unique names; for example, in Sweden it is called a dragspel, where drag means pull and spel means play. The accordion also has nicknames: in English it is sometimes called a squeezebox, and in Germany it is sometimes called a schifferklavier (sailor's piano). Sometimes the accordion is mistakenly called a concertina, or vice versa, but the words are not interchangeable. Though the concertina is also in the aerophone family, it is typically smaller, shaped as a hexagon rather than as a square or a rectangle, and its buttons are organized differently.

    Accordion books, like musical accordions, can also have different names. For example, German binders call accordion books Leporellos. In German dictionaries, Leporello is defined as “a fan of folded paper.” In the 1787 opera Don Giovanni, with music by Wolfgang Mozart and an Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Don Giovanni’s servant is named Leporello. In Act 1, Scene 2, Leporello sings what is now commonly known as the “catalogue aria.” In this scene, Leporello takes a book from his bag and pulls out a long folding strip of paper that lists all of Don Giovanni’s romantic conquests. (I find it interesting to speculate which came first; was the servant named after the book structure or vice versa?) The term concertina book, for me a misnomer, is used by some English speakers to describe an accordion book. Perhaps this originated in England, where the concertina was more popular than the accordion.

    While the history of the accordion began in the seventeenth century, the history of the accordion book is actually much older, and that will be the subject of the next post.

    Peter and Donna Thomas are book artists who make editioned and one-of-a-kind books. They make the paper, print, illustrate, and bind their books, combining the precision of the fine press aesthetic with the creativity found in contemporary artists' books. In 2021 The Legacy Press published Peter and Donna Thomas: Bibliography, 1974–2020.



  • 15 May 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Most of our collective lives for the past year and a half have been filtered through pixels, but even before the major cultural pivot toward digital spaces that was made necessary by the pandemic, the digital age has been in full swing for a while now and artists have been finding it more important to consider the ways our tactile, dimensional, and time-based artist books are experienced virtually.

    Artist books often require the maker to plan the entire project before even purchasing materials to begin making. If I haven’t decided on the binding or printing processes, I won’t know how much paper I need, what size sheets to purchase, etc. So, in that initial planning stage, is it also necessary to take into consideration the way the book will be virtually experienced and allow those considerations to change our projects?

    It’s easy to see how websites and a social media presence are beneficial for artists, but an inevitable product is how the digital space can affect the art that is created. If algorithms boost bold, edgy, graphic images and your subtle, gentle, hard-to-photograph artist book doesn’t get high engagement, it may feel like a less successful project. Consciously or unconsciously, the artistic trends of today are coded by social media. Making an effort to embrace or ignore that influence is worth thinking about.

    Image courtesy of Beth Sheehan and Small Editions

    I believe that the idea or concept behind the artist book should dictate the materials, processes, and viewer’s experience of the book and in the same way, I think the intended experience should dictate the digital translation the project receives. If every artist book is documented as if it were a codex, the viewer is robbed and if every artist book is made so that it is easy to document, the viewer is robbed. Finding a balance that works for your art practice is important.

    Even if you have not considered the way your artist book will be experienced virtually at the start of your project, documenting the finished book to accurately reflect the work is incredibly important given how much of the global audience will not see the work in person. Artist books are usually 3-dimensional, intimate, and time-based but standard photographing can flatten the work. Along with the usual considerations such as proper lighting, a quality background, image size and quality, color correction, and documenting multiple angles, you may also want to consider the following. Taking photographs of the book being handled gives the viewer an idea of scale as well as demonstrating the way the viewer should interact with the book. Photographing each page from the same angle to create a gif or slideshow can be helpful for instances where videos are not possible. You may also want to consider creating multiple short video clips that serve various purposes such as an instructional video about displaying the book, a “product” video that showcases the features, a behind-the-scenes process video, and an experience video that acts as the viewer handling the book themselves.

    Image courtesy of the Quarantine Public Library

    Additionally, there is a lot to be said for creating artist books that will live exclusively in a digital space and quite a lot of artists are producing projects that fully consider their virtual existence. Not only does a digital experience of an artist book make it more accessible but considering the benefits of digital media can push the world of artist books so much further. The Quarantine Public Library has made it a priority to provide access to artist books, as well as providing an avenue to begin or build your art collection. They are a virtual library containing one-page artist books for patrons to print, fold, and read at home for free. Bringing artist books to those that may not get the chance to see them otherwise spreads creativity and boosts the book arts community.

    Image courtesy of the New Jersey Book Arts Symposium

    The digital era has changed book arts in more direct ways as well. Book artists have been integrating digital elements into physical artworks, creating virtual exhibitions such as the exhibition titled Tumultuous Absence (pictured above) during the NJ Book Arts Symposium and pushing the definition of “artist books” through digital technologies. The worlds of virtual reality and augmented reality are spreading through the art world as well. One of the most exciting examples is an app called Tropi created by the non-profit Interactive Initiative. The app uses augmented reality to bring South Florida artists’ works to life, allowing viewers to physically walk up to and around the artworks that they are seeing through their phone. Imagine walking through one of your artist books!

    Image courtesy of Interactive Initiative

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.  

  • 27 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


          Intentionally bad typography: this meme has been circulating for at least six years.

    "Authenticity" is one of the topics in my Critique Workshop. We see many works of book art that are made by people with a lack of training or experience, but with a lot to say. As educators we see lots of that. Some of the most powerful work I've seen was made by inner city teens in a series of Center for Book Arts (CBA) summer workshops titled Cultural Autobiography, conducted by Cheryl Shackleton Hawkins 1993-2000. 

    Work by Antonia Pocock for the exhibition Student Work and Cultural AutobiographyCenter for Book Arts, Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, 2000.

    Sometimes we see works that are done by highly skilled practitioners in a style that appears to be untrained. Is it simply fake outsider art, or does the intent of the creator play an important role in critical evaluation? Is it important that the viewer knows what the creator was trying to achieve? Does the medium in which it appears make a difference? Does it matter if the target audience is Artworld insiders or the general public? 

    This issue arose close to home last September, when CBA published "A New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism" as a full page ad in The Brooklyn Rail, as a web page, and as a PDF

    When I first saw it I sent an email to CBA asking if was done by a volunteer or a student, noting the inconsistent line spacing, justification, and other typographic issues. A reply came quickly: 

                "This design was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field. And from a contemporary design perspective it is right on point. The word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism."

    I was confused and mystified. What is the conceptual relationship of ugly typography that is hard to read to a manifesto advocating criticism of typography and design?  Was that the point? Was this meant to be criticized? Or to be seen by a specific audience? Was it a joke? I've read some artist book criticism, and written some, as well as conducting Critique Workshops for four decades. I needed to ask for advice from those who know more about typography, so I wrote to a few typographers, including the designers of the manifesto. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, was the first to respond:

                "Professionalism has its pitfalls as well as its benefits. You of all people will recall the distinguished economist Arthur Okun’s observation that 'anyone except an economist knows without asking why money shouldn’t buy some things.' I fear it’s also true, in the present climate, that anyone except a 'cutting-edge typographer' knows lazy and incompetent typography when they see it.

                "I was delighted to read that the CBA plans a new periodical, the Book Art Review. But its 'New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism' delivers a self-contradictory message because it’s incompetently composed.

                "Four of the fifteen paragraphs in the manifesto are set with the 'block justification' switch turned on. This forces the last line of a paragraph to fill out to full measure, at the cost of outlandish word spacing in all lines from first to last. This is what you see in the bottom paragraph of the first and second column, the top paragraph of the third column, and the final bulleted paragraph, farther along in the third column. First-week design students often make mistakes like this. Anyone who charges money for doing typography, or who undertakes to teach the craft, ought to laugh at such errors, or scowl, as their temperament permits. But to defend such an error is blatant self-incrimination.

               "The justification and word-spacing in the other eleven paragraphs of the manifesto is also pretty lousy, and this is because the typesetter failed to set the justification parameters to reasonable values. Tuning a justification engine is slightly more complicated than just turning a switch on or off, so I don’t expect typography students to learn it until the second week of instruction. If they don’t have it down by the third week, I will start dropping hints that they should consider a different profession.

               "Those are the two most obvious problems with the design and execution of the manifesto. It would also help if the authors could spell the name of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé – the only authority they quote. And it would help if the text were set using text figures (old-style figures) rather than lining figures. Lining figures belong in classified ads. They do not belong in books nor in any discussion of book arts, nor in a proposal for a book arts periodical.

              "Incompetence per se is not hard to repair, and institutions like the Center for Book Arts were created for just that purpose: to teach those who are willing to learn. Proud and defiant incompetence is something else again. Those who broadcast their ignorance and insist they have nothing to learn (like a certain American president I can think of) are a menace to their fellow citizens.

               "The claim that the design of this manifesto 'was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field' and that 'the word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism' is just pretentious nonsense. The setting is incompetent, and anyone whose eyes are not stitched shut can see that this is so."

    Next I heard from Ellen Lupton, Design Chair at MICA and Senior Curator, Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

                "Whether the effect successfully communicates its own confidence is a matter of opinion. This design is an example of what is sometimes called 'default modernism.' Just because the designers know what they are doing doesn't mean that readers necessarily get the joke."

    Wael Morcos, Partner at Morcos Key, wrote:

                "It’s part of a design movement self-dubbed “critical graphic design” using graphic design as methodology for research into other disciplines like politics, sociology, sustainability… Sometimes the formal interpretation is surprising and detached from the needs of a corporate client. Sometimes it’s just another affectation, an attitude, a trend. I personally don’t buy the argument that if it’s rigorous thought, it has to be unpleasant to look at or deliberately confusing."

    The final word came from the manifesto's designers, Jas Stefanski and Lauren Thorson of Studio—Set, who also designed the new CBA Website and this spiffy animated Instagram post for the Center's annual benefit, which takes place May 11. They clarified the objective:

                "In regards to your question, it was not intended to be a joke nor look like outsider typography. The typography emphasizes the immediacy inherent to newspapers, mass produced/circulated printed formats, etc."  

    After reading the replies to my query I had a better understanding of why I was confused, and an appreciation of how difficult it can be to communicate an idea typographically when readers come to the page with many different perspectives.

    Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.

  • 15 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    What would you write in a love letter to book art?

    As graduate students from the Mills College Book Art program, our curiosity led us to ask this final question to people within the book art ecosystem. Emails went to poets, book artists, letterpress printers, book designers, professors, collectors, theorists, gallerists, and librarians.

    “Dear Book Art,

    Thank you. I'm so happy to have found in you the language my body already knew how to speak. xo e.” e bond

    “You begin with surface. The cover is a place of curiosity. Whose handwriting is this? What is the logic of visual presentation as it relates to the words within. May we never lose our connections.” —Truong Tran

    “My artist’s book titled A Love Story (2018) is my love letter to the Book Arts field and creative process…. Related to making artist’s books with a social justice focus, A Love Story presents my process from conceiving an idea through completion and presenting. Between criss-crossing the country, I used the collage-making process to de-stress while maintaining focus on simultaneous book projects on various issues of race and racism. —Tia Blassingame

    “My love affair with the codex began well before I knew the word. Despite the codex being a millennium old, its possibilities are still not fully exploited.” —Kathy Walkup

    "You let me touch what I fail to see, and see ideas my brain cannot comprehend" Brooke Hardy

    “You've broken my heart so many times before but I keep coming back to you for reasons that were beyond me, until this very moment….Your conceptual beauty is far greater than mere aesthetics, but for some reason, you rely on these while you're in other people's hands too often. But you and I know these are only tricks…. I've seen you change lives while people leaf through your pages. Book arts, perhaps I'm jealous.... You are endless. I could research you to my dying days and still know only a thimble full of all you can contain. This is why I love you. No one can own you. You are wild, even when sitting on a shelf. You change from person to person, but maintain a form that I feel deeply at home with. Book Arts, I am only a printer, but I see what you truly are. You are humanity's answer to love. A record of our collective minds, bound for us all. Adaptable, selfless, and sometimes expensive.” —James Tucker

    “I could see myself writing a love letter to book art as a form as a lover loving the body of book. Each book is so different just like a body. I would appreciate the curves, textures, flaws, ink and format of book art. ” —Amber McCrary

    “I’m not going to comment on a love letter to Book Art. That feels too personal.” —Joel Benson

    “un libro es como un abrazo

    o una danza

    tomo una mano del libro

    y luego la otra

    y juntxs

    vamos” —Claudia Nuñez de Ibieta

    Yours truly,

    From the masked creatures who roam the halls of the Mills College Book Art buildings, presses, and rooms. Making pulp into paper, printing on the fibers, and binding into books.


    Juan Pablo Ayala, Mills Book Art ‘21. Joel Benson, Dependable Letterpress. Tia Blassingame, Scripps College Press and Primrose Press. e bond, Artist/Book Binder. Brooke Hardy, Book Artist. Amber McCrary, Abalone Mountain Press. Claudia Nuñez de Ibieta, translator, PHX Cartonera Collective member, F*%K IF I KNOW//BOOKS co-conspirator. Truong Tran, Poet and Artist. James Tucker, Aesthetic Union. Kathy Walkup, Director, Mills Book Art Program.

  • 01 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Do you think an artist’s book can exist solely in a digital space, or does it need a haptic component in order to be an artist’s book? What are the essential haptic qualities of a book you can’t live without?

    As graduate students from the Mills College Book Art program, our curiosity led us to ask these questions to people within the book art ecosystem. Emails went to poets, book artists, letterpress printers, book designers, professors, collectors, theorists, gallerists, and librarians.


    "My gut says no because I love the touch and feel of a book that has the evidence of the human hands in the making, in the turning of the page, all the things that make a book, that make us unique as human beings.” —Truong Tran

    “I think an artist's book can be created in a digital medium instead of a [three dimensional] one, so then to read that book is to engage with it in a digital realm. And a digital artist book can do things a physical codex cannot, they operate under different rules and limitations.… [But] taking away the haptic component of art... cuts one's physical experience of the book off at the knees and some meaning is lost in the digital translation.” —Brooke Hardy

    “I do believe an artist's book can inhabit only a digital realm. It all depends on the outcome the artist wants the user to have and if it's the most effective method to do so.“ —James Tucker

    “Haptic qualities I can't live without is flipping the pages of a good book and looking for all the highlights and reading them.… I think some books can solely exist in digital space like books that have limited texture or are simply print and paper. But books that have special formats like pop ups, wonderful texture or special binding, I think those would be hard to appreciate in a digital form.” —Amber McCrary

    “While I think it is possible for artist booklike forms to exist in a digital space, I do believe that with the loss of the full haptic experience, the tradeoff is a certain loss of attention. This is a difficulty not only in times of quarantine, but in in-person exhibitions where artist books are frequently shown in vitrines or cases.... The haptic experience of the book is the romance, to touch, to hold.... I believe the connection the viewer experiences with this vulnerability ... is part of what instills the sense of wonder in the viewer. Does work that necessitates a haptic experience still matter today? Hell yes. Is it difficult to exhibit? Also yes.” —Michelle Wilson

    “Touch, textural contrasts & the ability to play with scale are big qualities I would miss, but I feel like it would present a fun challenge to try to explore those things in a digital space.” —e bond

    “...[R]ules are made to be broken, so if I say no, then someone very smart will do something in the digital realm that would prove me wrong.… I am interested in hand skills and the way we interact with and manipulate materials that we learn to know intimately through practice and experience. The object then embodies that human experience.… For me, the most essential haptic quality of a book is the feel of the paper as you turn the page. The type of paper, the binding, whether the paper is folded or loose, the grain, what the printing and the ink has done to that paper, all affect the experience of turning the page.” —Joel Benson

    “I typically suggest that students view [book] documentation, particularly the videos, as alternative artist’s books or a different iteration of their book. To experiment ... can free the artist and give them a different understanding of [their] relationship to their work....

    "While I love the tactility and deep connection made possible with an artist’s book, books are more than that. Just as my experience of a book can be enriched and may be even enlivened by experiencing the audiobook version, I expect an artist’s book in the digital space could excite my sense.” —Tia Blassingame

    “...[Y]es, I believe an artist's book can exist solely in a digital space. Would I like it? That's another question.… I think more than haptic, an essential quality of an artist's book is the ability to unveil a unique, layered, and oftentimes embodied reading experience.” —Inge Bruggman

    “Let’s start with the proposition that not everything has to be a book.... You are free to call anything by any word or sound—language is not a fixed condition, but a continually evolving process of creating meaning using context to orient communication.... Haptics are often cited as a missing element in digital work, but I argue that since we experience all digital media through some kind of physical device, there are always haptics included in the experience of a digital work.... Screen life [...] is an impoverished sensorium, limited to just sound and low-ish rez [...] color space. Real life is so much richer.” —Clif Meador

    “Heft turns out to be central, along with page manipulation and the ability to scribble marginalia.… While I am not willing to say that a digital native artist’s book isn’t possible, I have yet to see any example that is at all persuasive.” —Kathy Walkup

    “a book is a book is a book is a book.” —Yo Cuomo


    Joel Benson, Dependable Letterpress. Tia Blassingame, Scripps College Press and Primrose Press. e bond, Artist/Book Binder. Inge Bruggeman, University of Nevada, Reno and INK-A! Press. Yo Cuomo, Book Designer. Brooke Hardy, Book Artist. Amber McCrary, Abalone Mountain Press. Clif Meador, Appalachian State University and Book Artist. Truong Tran, Poet and Artist. James Tucker, Aesthetic Union. Kathy Walkup, Director, Mills Book Art Program. Michelle Wilson, Rocinante Press.

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