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Book Art Theory

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

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

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

    “The most conceptual works are always caught up in the most material specifics.” [1] Craig Dworkin’s statement describes in a nutshell the dilemma of teaching book art over Zoom during the pandemic. I miss the informal encounters in the studios over whatever challenge the Vandercook is tossing at someone on any particular day. Demonstrating Dworkin’s haecceity of paper under a document camera is no substitute for the “material specifics” and haptic experience of actual book handling. 

    In my graduate seminar at Mills College, I set proof-of-concept projects for the students based on a variety of readings, including “The Logic of Substrate.” These small projects are meant to be drafts, quick studies pointing toward an idea. The students’ No Medium projects often result in their most provocative solutions, ones that can be refined and developed into full-fledged artworks. Turns out working conceptually in the realm of Duchamp’s inframince can be highly motivating.

    Nudisme: Still with Jean Marais from Jean Cocteau, Orphée, 1950.

    In our MFA in Book Art program, the graduate seminars act as the through line during the two years of student residency. Students take the core seminar, The Material Book, during their first semester, then follow that with three more seminars. During that first semester we meet in the Heller Room, the room in the library that houses Mills’ Special Collections. In that space there were only two books that students were not allowed to handle, the Mozart manuscript and the First Folio. Ironically, once both of those were removed from the collection, the pandemic set in and now, rather than have the entire collection accessible, students have not been able to handle anything at all. This has had a crushing impact on our focus on material studies. To help make up for this, I have been lending books from my own library for grad student study, as has my colleague Julie Chen. And through a generous donation, the students also received two books made by the artist Clarissa Sligh which they were able to thoroughly study and then include in their own libraries. 

    Matching students and books turns out to be a challenging experiment. What do you choose when you are grouping five books and handing them to one student, who will in turn be creating a proof-of-concept project based on their perceived linkages among the books? In my teaching I prefer to have the students find their own meaning in the books they are reading and studying. My role, as I see it, is to lay the groundwork for that exploration by deconstructing basic book operation, by asking questions and providing prompts, by guiding them to other works that share similar conceptual scaffolding and yes, by sometimes modelling interpretation. This is close reading, but with artists’ books rather than literature. To that end, I do intervene when I think that the student hasn’t pushed hard enough, and I also try to provide a strong foundation through some grounding in theoretical and historical underpinnings. This work is best done in person and with the luxury of being able to grab an example from the Heller Room shelves that helps to magnify whatever discussion has developed during the session. When, in my undergraduate class on Freedom of the Presses: Resistance and Rebellion in Print, we were suddenly locked out of the studios and library last March, I switched to having the students read and examine the digital surrogates for real artists’ books on the highly accessible Women’s Studio Workshop website. Using these surrogates, we added a discussion about what students were missing when they couldn’t handle the actual books.

    Of course it’s not only faculty who are struggling. Students, even when they continue to have studio access, as our graduate students have had, contend with critiques in which slides and videos have to substitute for handling of the work. The lack of informal studio encounters means that troubleshooting and questions become formalized, and oftentimes are simply absent. Over the next three blog posts, graduate students in the Mills College MFA in Book Art will explore the acts of navigation they and other artists have had to design and sometimes struggle with over the past year. I look forward to reading what they have to say.

    [1] Craig Dworkin. "The Logic of Substrate.” No Medium: MIT Press, 2013, p. 25.

    Kathleen Walkup holds the Lovelace Family Endowed Chair at Mills College, where she directs the Book Art Program and teaches typography and letterpress printing, artists’ bookmaking and a graduate seminar on the material book. Her research interests include the history of women in printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. 

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

    Within literature, the challenge to linearity has fallen in and out of favor, though it generally manifests through either writing strategies, such as shuffling narrative pieces out of straightforward time, or through formal strategies that challenge the physical constraints of the traditional codex. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is an example of the latter, in which the book cover is in fact a clamshell box that opens to reveal roughly 28 loose signatures that can be read in any order, with the exception of FIRST and LAST.  

    Linearity might suggest that truth can be revealed through a singular path. The hyperlink as defined by Ted Nelson [1], however, eschews linearity and in so doing posits that truth is instead positional. In his 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Nelson observed that, “the structures of ideas are non sequential” and offered the hyperlink as a means by which a user can be presented with alternatives to conventional hierarchies.   

    Within 25 years of Tim Berners-Lee’s contribution of the world wide web in 1989, two in five adults on the planet have been initiated in Nelson’s hyperlinking. Much has been written about how the internet has changed everything from the way our brains function to the way we socialize to how we understand “Truth.” In thinking about artist books in this light, I would like to look in particular at how the photobook as a genre of artist book reveals its influence by the non-linear hyperlink. 

    Whereas photo books since the nineteen-twenties have largely been single monographs, over the last decade, there has been an increase in photobooks which present a number of volumes in different formats in a container of some kind – a clam shell, a cardboard box, a slip cover, etc. The material consideration of the book formats in these photoboxes places them within the larger artist book tradition. More importantly, these book formats also reflect the influence of our experience of the world through the lateral movement of the hyperlink as opposed to the linear movement of the traditional single codex. 

    A fine example of an artist photobox is Kazamu Obara’s Exposure (2016).  Exposure has as its focus Chernobyl and the box contains three formats – a soft cover, vertically formatted codex with text & images; a newsprint facsimile; and a horizontally oriented, hardcover photobook. Together, these formats provide three distinct perspectives: black & white found negatives with a reflective text; a historical reference; and a color view from inside a train and looking out as it transports workers to and fro from either side of Chernobyl. These 3 formats provide distinct perspectives that allow us to triangulate on the experience of this place: personal, historical, and documentary.

    An additional layer of photographic content is the inclusion of film negatives set between a number of pages and facsimile 4x6 color photos tucked into others. These elements push the material attention further into the artist book realm. A finishing touch unifying the work includes a couple medium format film labels. They not only create the cover imagery for both the outside box and the b&w paperback book inside, but also they actually wrap around the box and the book inside, creating a seal (like the film wrap) that must be broken to open. This breaking of the seal can be interpreted in myriad ways.

    Another notable photoboox is End. by Eamonn Doyle, Niaill Sweeney and David Donohoe. This 13x8in hard slip-cover, wrapped in translucent, neon yellow glycine contains a handful of variously formatted booklets with different thicknesses of paper, printing styles, number of pages, and fold-outs. The cumulative effect of End. is more associative and is distinct from Exposure in that it is heavily design oriented. There is a strong abstract sensibility throughout, with exceptional bursts of clearly composed, though somewhat surrealist, color photos from Dublin. While not as precise or poignant in its details, End. nevertheless uses the multiplicity of formats to interrupt a particular viewpoint, thereby challenging, poking fun with, and disorienting our vantage point as readers.

    To conclude, these photoboxes prove radical in terms of being broadly influenced by the hyperlink – represented by a diversity of perspectives that create a break from the modernist, single perspective, authoritative viewpoint. I leave as an open question whether this shift also reflects a change in the photographic community’s conception of “Truth” as it relates to the photographic medium.

    [1] Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, p. xxviii, ed. Ken Jordan, 2002, USA 

    Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.

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

    There is an artist book tradition based on the alliance of literature and visual art, from William Blake to Cendrars and Delauney's 1913, La Prose du Transsiberian et de la Petite Jehanne de France. In both cases, the distinction "artist book" stems from the interdependence of the written and the visual, in book form (as opposed to a text with supporting illustrations or vice versa). 

    When considering a definition of "literature,” Jonathan Culler writes, "We can think of literary works as language with particular properties or features, and we can think of literature as the product of conventions and a certain kind of attention." [1] So, literature (and I would suggest the artist book as well) is at once, defined by properties exhibited in the form as well as the attention authors or readers/critics give the form as "literature" or as an "artist book.” 

    I would like to examine how the artist book might work to extend what we understand as literature. For example, Christian Patterson's Bottom of the Lake is a facsimile of an altered phone book and yellow pages. This most functional, utilitarian form in Patterson's hands becomes a humorous, semi-narrative, pathos filled, portrait (of a town in Wisconsin) and self-portrait of the artist. 

    Relating to the idea that literature can be defined by the attention that is given to it, on page 2 in the upper-left corner, is the letter range ALB-ART.  However, the letters ART are circled by hand, thereby transforming the starting letters of a phonebook name to the word "art.” A declaration from the voice of the author.  

    Another notable alteration early on in Bottom of the Lake includes blue words spread top-to-bottom: “WHAT LIES AHEAD?” This establishes a narrative/visual arc that over the course of the book reveals itself. A last example includes an excerpt from a tourism pamphlet, "The purpose of this booklet is to present an honest and clear picture of Fond du Lac and the delightfully prosperous section of Wisconsin in which it is located. It cannot contain all of the information everyone desires. Citizens, boys and girls, read it seriously.” Patterson's inclusion has layers of meaning: The idea that the book will introduce a portrait of Font du Lac, the fact that it is a subjective view, and the tongue-in-cheek manner which suggests Patterson's will be a critical reading.

    Throughout the rest of the book there are verbal puns, autobiographic additions, meta deconstructions, black and white photos, among numerous other literary devices. Together they can be interpreted and re-interpreted in a free-flowing manner over numerous, highly literary readings. 

    Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's Holy Bible transforms scripture into literature through a similar mode of altering the original text with images and the underlining of particular words. However, where Patterson applies humor, Holy Bible is dark and penetrating. There are 512 images of an incredibly diverse range from the Archive of Modern Conflict, London, together with Adi Ophir's concluding text Divine Violence

    Textual alterations in Holy Bible are represented in a spread from Leviticus, where only the words "clean", "unclean", and "cleansing" are underlined in red, a total of 54 times, thereby pointing to the obsession with cleanliness and the dualism of the clean and the unclean. Pictorial alterations with text include a spread, where on the left side the red underlined text reads: "His own hands shall bring the offerings" and the overlaid image depicts two hands holding a spoon with a lighter underneath. 

    On the right-hand page, "blood" is underlined nine times, including the longer line "dipped his finger in the blood," which sits below an image of a figure shooting up intravenously. Together, these alterations meditate on the biblical notion of sacrifice, offerings, and the street experience thereof. Additional interpretations stem from the juxtaposition of the biblical with the real and reference to religion as the opiate of the masses. 

    Holy Bible unflinchingly questions our understanding of humanity's relation to violence as well as the relation the scriptural Bible has with violence. This work is very complex and my analysis does not pretend to be more than a look at the strategy these authors have taken to transform a scriptural text into literature through their artist book interventions.

    In synthesis, these artist book makers have taken traditionally non-literary works, including the phone book and the Bible, and re-imagined them through the form of the artist book. In so doing, these artist books have effectively expanded literature to include non-literary forms.

    [1] Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 28.  

    Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.

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

    Tina Darragh's 1981 chapbook On the Corner to Off the Corner contains prose poems largely derived from the language of the dictionary. Moreover, Darragh often takes advantage of the patterns suggested by the mise-en-page of a single page or opening (a spread signaled by the titles of the poems, which are taken from dictionary headers) [1]. Darragh is frequently drawn to the geometric figures that illustrate mathematical terms, and further she figures the page as a geometric space in and of itself. 

    For instance, the poem "'-lent' to 'leptorrhine' for 'X'"opens, gnomically, with paraphrases of the definitions of gnomon: "removing a parallelogram from a similar parallelogram (by taking one of the corners) results in a shadow seen as a cylinder by squinting." The word denotes both the stylus of a sundial, as well as "the remainder of a parallelogram after the removal of a similar parallelogram containing one of its corners," a figure illustrated with a lettered line-drawing on page 970 of Webster's New Third International from which Darragh quotes. But her collage of dictionary entries goes on to suggest that the page itself might be curled into a cylinder; the poem continues: "cylinders are also obtained by twisting grain on a tree." The language comes from the definitions of gnarl ("to twist or contort"; "a hard protuberance with twisted grain on a tree"), which like many of Darragh's appropriations appear at the very lower left corner of the dictionary page, but that page itself is made of ligneous pulp that allows it to be flexibly turned. 

    With the description of "taking one of the corners" to create the kind of depth that can cast a shadow, and the shifts in visual perception underscored by "squinting," we can begin to see the alignment of the book's titular corners with the corners of the codex [from the Latin for "tree trunk"] and those words — including the header ranges taken as the titles for the poems in On the Corner to Off the Corner — that the reference-book browser not only reads but handles with the haptic recognition of the page as a material object in three dimensional space. 

    This sense of the page as a plane that both contains printed illustrations of geometric forms and also constitutes a geometric form itself comes to be fully realized in the poem "'mobilizer' to 'modern language' for 'U'". 

    Beginning on the top left corner of page 920 of the 1967 edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, with Möbius strip, the first entry on the first column, the poem ends on the previous dictionary page, at the top right corner, where the first entry on the top of the last column finds -mo, the suffix used in bookbinding, abstracted from duodecimo, to indicate trim sizes. By making the two entries contiguous, rather than separated recto and verso, the poem performs a möbius operation with the fore-edge strip, the trimmed page-edge talking about page trim, as if the outermost edge of the page were in fact twisted and collated to join itself into "a continuous one-sided surface." 

    The poem, in short, both talks about folding a sheet of paper in a book and imaginatively enacts the folding of the sheet of paper that contains the description. As another poem in the volume remarks: "The definition is surrounded by trees." The vaguely surreal statement is in fact quite literal, pointing to the conifer-pulp paper on which the dictionary — and Darragh's own displacement of its language — is printed. We may often imagine the defining materiality of artists’ books as an element of the artwork distinct from, or even in contrast to, the referential semantics of its text; in Darragh's case, in contrast, we can see a material imagination of the book emerge from the mere conjunction of the most literal, non-literary dictionary definitions and the most unremarkable trade-paper stock. 

    [1] Tina Darragh: On the Corner to Off the Corner (College Park: Sun & Moon Press, 1981). A digital facsimile is available at

    Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography [Fordham, 2020], from which the present post has been adapted, and Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality [Chicago, 2020]. He teaches literary history at the University of Utah.

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

    I am accustomed to thinking about design in terms of impact, where the goal is to produce in an audience an immediate response of belief or understanding. How do we come to believe or understand, especially ideas that are not new? Some of the things we want to communicate—or rather that I want to communicate, with you—like “love one another,” say, or “don’t be afraid,” toward which artists have been groping for millennia, aren’t easy to absorb immediately. They aren’t marketable: that is, the principles of effective messaging are not governing factors in the same way they would be if I were to convince you to pay for something.

    The idea of one piece of art being more “impactful” than another implies competition, as though I must create the biggest collision at the highest speed. And I am all funned out with trying to provoke the biggest reaction, because the things I want to say to you—we’re strangers, after all—come not from me but through me. When I get those things confused, then what you hear is me—me, with my privileges and prejudices—instead of what I’d like to create for you, which, at its best, transcends those limitations. What would it look like, then, if I were to create a book that listened, instead of spoke? Because I have a feeling that being listened to and not spoken to is how we come to understand. 

    Within early illuminated manuscripts I chanced on books that listen—that rest and say little, so we can listen to ourselves. These books, when created—like the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells—neither conveyed new information nor educated, because everyone who could read them already knew what they said. Unlike churches, which could not be moved if threatened, manuscripts could be hidden, opening their visual space to viewers wherever they were. I have heard that books from as far afield as North Africa, Europe, and the Near East made their way to Ireland in the hands of refugees from political and religious wars, seeking a place to rest—at least for a time—in safety.

    The sanctity of illuminated manuscripts has to do, I think, with space—the interior space they contain for rest and reflection. Their page layouts create an ordered and highly patterned visual space, which is itself filled with ordered and patterned text and imagery, in ever-increasing complexity. These manifold textures share characteristics with mandalas and Islamic calligraphy; they create a sense of being drawn in deeper, in order to see. 

    The examples I’m using come from a religious context, where there is definitely a message behind the silence, but I think that message—whatever it is, doctrinally—comes second to image. The visual space engenders silence, and though someone might want to use the silence to proselytize, the silence came first and can stand on its own: as in, for example, cave paintings or ancient textiles, where the original message, whatever it was, has been lost to us, though the visual space remains powerful.

    I have imitated these early page layouts using Robert Stevick’s The Earliest Irish & English Bookarts, a straight edge, and a compass. Attached are instructions for the layout of the Soiscél Molaise cover, so you too can, if you like, draw a design with just a compass and straight edge. And pencil, I guess, and eraser, probably. The process can be maddening. Still, the quiet of the work can be passed on from its original laborers to us, and when things are quiet, we listen well.

    What is the impact of such a book? Maybe it “makes an impression,” but again we return to pushing, pressing; doing, that is, instead of being; or acting instead of resting, which is the idea I’m groping toward. I’m trying to do things all the time, because I have come to equate changing things with doing things. But is this right? In tracing the lines of a manuscript, what am I doing? It’s hard to say, but I’m drawn to it nevertheless, because it’s the kind of doing that just feels like being.


    I’m Jennifer Buchi! I’m a poet, bookbinder, and cosmic dirt farmer living in Salt Lake City. You can reach me at, where you can also get a copy of the Soiscél Molaise instructions in PDF format if you’d like them.

  • 15 Dec 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Schulz, Christoph Benjamin (ed), The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art [Die Geschichte(n) Gefalteter Bücher: Leporellos, Livres-Accordéon und Folded Panoramas in Literatur und bildender Kunst]. Georg Olms Verlag: Hildesheim, Zurich/New York, 2019.

    It was an exciting day when this wonderful book about accordion books dropped into my mailbox. Coming in at just under 600 pages, The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art is comprised of nineteen texts by eighteen authors, with thirteen chapters in German, four in English and two in French. This book is exactly what this neglected area of artists’ book publishing has needed for many years, and it succeeds admirably in beginning to fill out a history of this bookform ranging from the fourteenth century to the contemporary moment, with an emphasis on accordions coming out of a variety of artistic and literary contexts in the twentieth century. I'm also happy to have a chapter included in which I examine three artists’ accordions that address issues associated with immigration.

    Christoph Schulz introduces the book with a substantial and deeply researched survey of the history of the accordion fold throughout different time periods. His text is presented in twelve sections and he explores the use of the accordion format across different genres including the accordion as panorama, chronology, picture gallery, children's book, and an exploration of both nineteenth and twentieth century book art projects, among others. Coming in at one hundred and seventeen pages this introduction is both an original and substantial contribution to this emerging field of study. 

    Schulz also contributes another chapter titled “Folded Texts and Leporellos in the literary Avantgarde and experimental Poetry,” in which he surveys the use of the accordion fold in experimental literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, and then concentrates on accordions coming out of the visual and concrete poetry movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In this section he examines the works of assorted artists who produced books in the accordion format at different times during their careers, including Emmett Williams, Hansjörg Mayer, Arrigo Lora-Totino, Richard Kostelanetz. Once again this is a deeply researched survey text that succinctly outlines the experimentation with this format in the twentieth century, with a deeper exploration of the works of its experimental and literary-based practitioners during the 1960s and 1970s. 

    Since I'm under a strict word count for this article I will briefly mention four chapters that appealed to me, including my own. These four texts all examine accordions created by visual artists rather than those coming out of the century’s literary environments. I should also mention that my understanding of some of the chapters in the book, particularly those in German and to a lesser degree French, was not very comprehensive. I would assume that many English readers would also have the same issues with translation across two languages.

    Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, a longtime writer on all aspects of artists’ books opens her text with the following, "The leporello is in itself only a binding, a way of folding the pages of a book so that it opens, as we say, 'like an accordion'. Nothing more. The word belongs to the technical vocabulary of the book and designates one of its modalities, one of its manifestations, one of its ways of 'making a book'. But, although it is tempting to think so, this does not determine a priori a function, nor does it privilege a priori a content.” This is a provocative opening statement, and one I would readily take issue with since the accordion's roots lie in other areas as well as the history of books. In her text Moeglin-Delcroix presents a succinct and insightful look at the accordion works of three contemporary artists: Peter Downsbrough, Bernard Villers, and Hamish Fulton.

    Stephen Bann, another writer with a long interest in artists’ printed matter, contributes a brief, but nuanced overview of a selection of eleven of what the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay described as his ‘concertinas.’ Bann befriended Finlay in 1964 and has written widely on him. This text presents a fascinating and detailed account of these 'concertinas' and their place within Finlay's larger printed matter practice, with the concertinas developing from his early 'standing poems,' to folded cards with texts on both sides, and finally to fully fledged concertinas.

    Jean Fremon contributes a rich text exploring the works and writings of Etel Adnan, and in examining her accordions she situates them within Adnan’s larger artistic ouevre which includes continuing activities as a painter, novelist, poet, and essayist. It was not until the early 1960s that Adnan encountered the accordion format, and this chapter includes an English translation of her fascinating 1998 essay "The Unfolding of an Artists' Book," in which she recounts her meeting with an old sailor in a cafe in San Francisco's North Beach, who introduced her to the accordion format, along with the rich possibilities inherent in this medium.

    My own text looks at three accordions that tackle issues of immigration from three different viewpoints and I explore how the format has been used to express these stories. I spend some time exploring the interwoven themes in Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felica Rice's wonderful Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Control (2014). The second accordion, Migrant (2014) by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro, is a vertical accordion that is taken up with a large drawing depicting a young mother, with her son and daughter, making the dangerous journey to the North. Finally, Eroyn Franklin’s Detained (2011) is a graphic novel about two detained immigrants in a deportation center who are slated for deportation, and the book recounts their interactions with other individuals in the center.

    In conclusion, Schulz should be congratulated for bringing into the world this first book that so thoroughly explores the rich and multifaceted history of this unique bookform, and medium, and for laying such a solid foundation for further research.

    Further Reading: See this post on my  Accordion Publications Blog for a complete list of the book’s chapters and the publisher's statement.

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

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

    When I developed an interest in artists' accordion books I searched around for writings on the subject and found, with the exception of one very recent book (see Part 2 of this blog post), there is a paucity of literature on the subject. It was against this background that I started my accordion blog in 2010 in an effort to bring artists' accordion books out from under this cloak of invisibility and to document their fascinating and vibrant history.

    With regard to that history, artists do not start using the accordion format until the early 1960s. From my preliminary research, the decade opens with an accordion by Yoko Ono titled Painting Until It Becomes Marble, which was collectively created by the visitors to her exhibition at the AG Gallery, New York in July 1961. This was one of her early 'instruction pieces,’ and aside from its beauty, it represents a radically alternative publishing model in which chance and audience participation are two vital ingredients.

    The following year, Timm Ulrichs and Warja Lavater created their own very different accordions, respectively titled Fragment and William Tell. This early Lavater work establishes her pictographic style that would become a central feature of the accordions she created throughout her extensive artistic career. And, finally, let's not forget Etel Adnan who created her first accordion work in 1963 and has used the accordion format in her painting practice ever since.

    The accordion book is a strange creature. Variously called an accordion, leporello, oriental-fold, zigzag, or concertina, it is a hybrid of the scroll and the codex, and it combines both the compactness of the traditional book and the expansiveness of the scroll. But it has one feature that neither of them possesses: when opened up, it reveals its sculptural presence.


    Joe Tilson, Proscinemi Oracles, Edizioni del Cavallino, Venice, 1981, ed. 200.

    The accordion format improved upon the scroll by offering the reader a greater ease of access to different parts of the story or text. One commentator has observed that the scroll has “a sequential access format” and the codex has “a ‘random-access format.’” Notable features of the accordion that improved upon the scroll include the ability to use both sides of the page and its protective covers, which enabled it to be transported safely.

    The accordion book is defined by one crucial and elemental feature, the fold. The fold gives the accordion not only its compactness, but is instrumental in creating the accordion's most pronounced attribute — expansiveness. In their open state, accordions fundamentally challenge the idea of the traditional book, and in a very literal sense they function as ‘expanded books,’ and they provide a space in which a richer play of texts, images and pages is possible than in the ordinary codex.

    Accordions also offer the viewer a very different reading experience than a regular book. Moving beyond our ingrained way of reading from left to right, the accordion offers the viewer a flexible way of approaching the book that includes reading and scanning the book from right to left, opening it up and viewing it as a whole, examining the individual pages and turning it over to discover what's on the reverse. An accompanying feature in any encounter with an accordion book is the high degree of handling and physicality required of the reader in their interaction with the book.

    The accordion format makes possible a huge variety of page pairings and sequencing across its length. At one end, there is the seamless panoramic space when fully opened, at the other, with one image per page, the accordion is turned into a mini gallery, all of this coupled with the many different combinations in between.

    Accordions also question the role of the reader, interrogating whether they are simply ‘readers’ or whether they become ‘viewers’ when confronted by these often very long bookworks. Accordions, in their own unique way, collapse any clear distinctions between the two terms and their associated modes of perception. To read, or to view, an artist’s accordion is to engage simultaneously on a number of levels with a multi-faceted bookform.

    Acknowledgements: "Scroll," Wikipedia search, 8.7.90; Leporellos, Etel Adnan, Galerie Lelong & Co., Paris, 2020; and Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books, Granary Books, New York, 1995.

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


  • 15 Nov 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Can artist books be categorized as activist art? This question nagged at me during the early part of 2019 as I began planning the Center for Book Arts’ summer exhibition, Poetry is Not a Luxury. Poring over a range of work by U.S. based women artists, I frequently came across examples that explore socio-political subject matter through a personal lens. The artist books, zines, and correspondence art that resonated most with me are unmistakably political given that they draw attention to critical issues, and yet most of these works have not been included in previous exhibitions or publications devoted to activist art. Searching through art historical monographs did not provide answers. What I found was that scholarly writing on book arts tends to privilege formalism, leaving little room for political content. Yet one can argue that the formalism of book arts in itself is political in the sense that artist books, zines, and correspondence art are accessible media, open to all levels of artistic ability and easily distributed to a wide audience. Reviewing the exhibition’s preliminary artworks—from Citizen 13660, a 1946 graphic memoir detailing a Japanese American artist’s incarceration in a concentration camp in Utah during World War II, to Survey (2010), a honeycomb-shaped accordion book that alludes to an artist’s experience as a recently arrived immigrant in New York—I was reminded of the feminist mantra “the personal is political.”

    Abandoning my initial art historical research, I turned to the writings of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, and June Jordan, radical thinkers who were central to shaping Third World Feminism, the twentieth-century movement that mainstreamed terms like “intersectionality,” “identity politics,” and “people of color.” Third World Feminism embraced creativity as a way of documenting, addressing, and amplifying the experiences of women, including how racism and socioeconomic marginalization often intersect with gender-based discrimination. Adopting Lorde’s idea that creativity is thus a necessity for women allowed me to approach the exhibition’s featured works in a way that honors the emotive (and political) power of subjectivity. Creativity, as Lorde reminds us in her 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” reveals “what we feel within and dare make real.” This understanding of the profound nature of creativity combined with the analytical lens of Third World Feminism seemed most apt for an exhibition that brings together a diverse group of artists who articulate the intersectionality that shapes everyday life in the U.S. for so many. By doing so, these artists encourage viewers to consider issues like war, migration, gentrification, mass incarceration, and xenophobia outside of statistical information and news headlines, to which Americans have become desensitized, bringing them instead into the realm of lived experiences. This leap from representation to engagement, from information to knowledge, is one of the essential aims of activist art.

    In “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” (1980), Gloria Anzaldúa reflects on the difficulty of addressing her peers, the Black and Brown women who were her friends and allies: “How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form?” Anzaldúa chose a poetic letter as the most effective medium for her task in the same way that the artists of Poetry is Not a Luxury turned to book arts. Later in the text Anzaldúa warns that “[t]he danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision.” My hope is that by bringing together these artists and presenting their works through this analytical lens that I’ve communicated how intimacy and immediacy are crucial to navigating our current political moment.

    Maymanah Farhat is the curator of Poetry is Not a Luxury. Organized by the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan in 2019, the exhibition is currently on view at the San Francisco Center for the Book and will travel to the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in 2022. 

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

    Audre Lorde’s 1977 essay Poetry Is Not A Luxury is compact in its 1,242 words, urgent in the delivery of its main message: that the “revelation or distillation of experience” –  the poetry that women carry within themselves –  is “not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.” 

    The exhibition POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY currently installed at the San Francisco Center for the Book showcases work of female artists who weave these aforementioned revelations and distillations through the core of their art practice. “There are no new ideas,” Lorde writes in her essay, “There are only new ways of making them felt…while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.” Curator Maymanah Farhat explains in her introductory catalog essay that artist books, correspondence art, and zines provide a landscape for female artists to explore ideas of feminism, personal autonomy, and artistic vision, often with an eye to easily sharing these narratives with others. For this exhibition, themes of community, collaboration, and communication are essential to Farhat’s curatorial choices, as well as Lorde’s message that “poetry,” for women, is an urgent necessity of one’s own personhood.

    Exhibited in SFCB’s gallery, the artist book Ana Mendieta (2004) by Cuban publishing collective Ediciones Vigía in collaboration with Nancy Morejón is striking in appearance: tall, slender, with a silhouette of a woman criss-crossed in ropes on the cover. Flaming items surround her body: a cross, a dove, a lamp. Upon opening the book, a reader is confronted with a wealth of materials which reference Mendieta’s earthworks: sand, egg shells, earth colored paper. A true collaboration between poet (Nancy Morejón) and publisher (Ediciones Vigia), the reader also becomes a willing third collaborator, experiencing Ana Mendieta with each page turn.

    Ana Mendieta :: Ediciones Vigía, Nancy Morejón

    Oakland, CA artist Patricia Tavenner was best known for her work in the worlds of correspondence art and zines. Tavenner actively corresponded with other feminist artists such as Eleanor Antin, Lucy Lippard, and Kathy Acker; her publication “Mail Order Art” was one of the first collaborative magazines of the correspondence art genre to feature essays, artworks, and interviews. 

    As part of the current exhibition, Tavenner’s self-published Four Years and More (1979) is a collection of personal musings and artworks. Reading through Four Years and More, one quickly realizes that community building and fierce independence were important paths for Tavenner. Proclaiming “I AM NOT A CONVENTIONAL ARTIST AND I NEVER HAVE BEEN,” she writes about the early collaborative beginnings of “Mail Order Art”: “I had no idea whether other artists were into the concept of art-by-mail…what I wanted most from this art shopper/newspaper was dialogue. As it turned out, so did others.” Patricia Tavenner’s life exemplified Lorde’s idea that one’s personal poetry is the “skeleton architecture of our lives,” the inner scaffolding upon which we hang everything else we create, live, and do. 

    Four Years and More :: Patricia Tavenner

    Jana Sim’s Language Möbius (2011) is an elegant 3D representation of communication and learning a language outside of one’s native tongue. Sim states:"The most difficult part of learning another language is everyday conversation where an immediate response is needed. Language Möbius is about my conversation process.”

    Three Möbius strips housed in a Jacob’s Ladder clamshell box represent the parsing out of language, the different phases Sim goes through (she calls it “the loop in my brain”): hearing English, thinking in Korean, then translating and speaking a reply in English. Two smaller Möbius strips (which are halved versions of the complete third) symbolize, in Sim’s words “the two languages tangled up in my head while in translation, which is why the sentences (on the Möbius strips) can’t be read.” 

    Language Möbius :: Jana Sim

    As an exhibition, POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY is a reminder that, for women, the printed word is crucial to sharing embodied ideas. The strengths and beliefs of each exhibited artist show us where we have been, where we currently are, and where we hope to be. Sharing women’s narratives – revelations and distillations, as it were – via the medium of artist books presents itself as one of the most viable options for illumination. Curator Maymanah Farhat writes: “accessibility (of artist books) not only implies the ability to reach a wide audience but also the ease and immediacy with which viewers are engaged.” It is this ease and immediacy which makes POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY a powerful, thought provoking exhibition, the embodiment of Lorde’s “new possibilities and strengths.”

    POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY: July 10–December 20, 2020

    For information regarding gallery appointments,

    Jennie Hinchcliff is the Exhibitions Manager at the San Francisco Center for the Book. She has curated numerous correspondence/artist book exhibitions. She currently lives in San Francisco. 



  • 15 Oct 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    To my surprise this series of posts has become a love letter to collagraph as a process. I am going to keep following this direction, because I see the “atom level” aspects of process as being critically important to the construction of the social and discursive parts of the field. Collagraph is about access and possibility. It is about creative reuse of materials, and about embracing chance. Collagraph allows emergent form and dislegible texts, and it encourages beginners and experienced printers alike to find their own way through process. It can be a metaphor for a whole studio practice.

    This post is technical. It gets into the details of how to make these ideas work  and is structured around discarding some basic assumptions about letterpress printing:


    You need a place to start, time, and a willingness to fail, to keep going, and/or redo things. Stay with the process of printing to see where it leads.


    I am framing my descriptions here around the use of a cylinder or platen press, but I realize that unrestricted access to that equipment is not a given. I think that it would be possible to adapt many of these approaches to hand printing because they don’t necessarily rely on large amounts of evenly distributed pressure to print. In fact—hand printing might open up even more markmaking possibilities. We are already seeing this with so much pandemic-era printing at home. (See Erin Beckloff’s post from September 1).


    Variability in matrix height is one of the main ways to produce marks with variety. A lower matrix will catch less ink from the rollers and print with less force. A higher matrix will catch more ink and print with more force. In collagraph you can control the height and amount of relief on the block by adding or removing material from the plate itself. Height can also be adjusted by packing under the base block that the plate is attached to (or adjusting bed height if you have a press with that capability). This can also be done with a platen press—you can use a base block made of multiple layers, and add or remove sheets of paper between those layers to make adjustments to height. (More on the multi-layer base below.)

    A single matrix can be printed at multiple heights to build up (or push back) color. A mark could be printed in one color, and then in the next run the matrix can be dropped in height, and printed with a new color. Building up color this way in painting is called scumbling. It produces a different color and surface effect than the layering of transparent solids and/or direct printing. There are other painting terms/techniques to explore in print-based markmaking: facture, pentimento, sfumato, impasto, manipulating edges, etc.


    or solid, or flat, or even, or consistent, or hard, or dry, or sealed against the ink, or composed of a single layer. The matrix is anything that can make a mark. A mark does not have to be pressed into the sheet—it can be brushed on, squeezed on, etc. There are so many possibilities—brush matrices, soft matrices, flexible matrices, multi-layer matrices, and things still to be invented. Matrices can be made to move, change, and/or decompose to produce a variable edition. A soft or flexible collagraph plate can produce marks of stunning delicacy and subtlety. Collagraph plates can also be made to glop ink on in impasto blobs. Dimension in letterpress can go both ways: into the sheet and coming off of it. (Pro tip: use oil-based inks or add cobalt free drier.)

    A reduction process for linoleum or woodcut is great way to make multi-color prints. With collagraph you can use an additive process instead, or both additive and reductive at the same time.


    The current remote teaching situation has shown that movable type can be a flexible and accessible material to work with. I am excited about all of the ways that people are combining hand techniques, digital design and fabrication, and what are essentially collagraph principles to make new type.

    Here is a formula that I have been using to quickly get close to type high with blocks/type:

    3/4 (0.75) inch MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard)

    + 1/8 (.125) inch masonite/plywood/acrylic

    + this barrier board from Talas (.056) inch

    = .931 inch—slightly above type high (reduce packing on your press to compensate, and don’t be afraid to adjust the rollers too).


    3/4 (0.75) inch MDF

    + 3 sheets of barrier board from Talas (.056)

    = .918 inch—exactly type high

    The above layers can be combined to make a base block—the MDF and either the masonite or barrier board, and then the last layer is whatever is being used for the type. A multi-layer base can be used on a cylinder or a platen press, and layers can be further split or subbed out with paper to manipulate height. The letterforms can be cut out of the masonite or barrier board, by hand or with a laser cutter or CNC router. Stick them to the base block with Boxcar photopolymer adhesive or double-sided tape. You can have type that you keep and reuse, and/or type that isn’t precious and can be destroyed in the process. This type can be combined with the collagraph matrix ideas described above. Type, like any matrix, does not have to be solid and perfect and precise—but it can be—or at least precise enough.

    “Precise enough.” That is really the point here—as the printer, that choice is yours. You don’t need permission, “proper” training or “proper” materials, and you definitely don’t need to follow a pre-determined aesthetic. You only need a vision and a desire to chase it. Do it all wrong, and keep doing it wrong until you push through the doubt and criticism—the field will be better for it.

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

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