Artists' Book Books

By Spector, Buzz | Art Journal, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Artists' Book Books


Spector, Buzz, Art Journal


Stephen Bury. Artists' Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-1995. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996. 207 pp.; 97 b/w ills. $110.00 Johanna Drucker. The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995. 377 pp., 200 b/w. $35.00

The 1985 publication of Joan Lyons's Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook was the first in-depth compilation of critical writings on the modern emergence of the book as work of art. That same year Anne Moeglin-Delcroix organized Livres d'artistes at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, an equally comprehensive exhibition and catalogue of the form. It seemed then, to artists working with the book as subject and object, that the genre had emerged as a legitimate field for serious critical and historical assessment. The first large book and exhibition would surely be followed-and quickly-by others, marking the movement of the field from the margins of the art world toward its center. Indeed, in his preface to the Lyons anthology, Dick Higgins claims that artists' books are "a form which is not, per se, new, but whose 'time has come."' The quotation marks in this appraisal are subtle evidence of a doubt Higgins had about his pronouncement but couldn't discuss in such hortatory circumstances.

That cautionary skepticism appears to have been well-placed, if the subsequent bibliography of the history and criticism of artists' books is a criterion. Ten years would pass before the publication of another substantial volume on the subject, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books, in 1995. A second book, Stephen Bury's Artists' Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963-1995, appeared a year later. These two new studies offer histories of the genre and make critical distinctions between artists' books and such related objects as livres d'artistes, volumes of concrete poetry, and artistically embellished found books.

In his preface, Bury wastes no time revealing the predilections he brings to artists' books: "I will simply admit my bias: that my approach is an unhappy mixture of formalism (Shlovsky's as much as Greenberg's) and functionalism; I have a liking for minimalism and conceptual art; I dislike artist's books that owe more to a cottage industry tradition than to a need for an artist to explore the book form" (xv).

A librarian at Chelsea College of Art and Design, where he also teaches modern art history and theory, Bury reveals his experience in collection cataloguing in his succinct introductory definition of artists' books: "Artists' books are books or book-like objects, over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself. They are not books of reproductions of an artist's work, about an artist, or with just a text or illustrations by an artist" (1). While acknowledging the practical breakdown of his definition in the face of challenges by individual artists, these prefatory affinities guide his choice of significant artists' books for the chronology that occupies the greater part of this volume.

Following seven brief chapters elucidating an historical and critical compass for his selection, Bury offers some useful suggestions about how to develop and manage a collection of artists' books. Here his librarianship comes forth, as in his discussion of cataloguing as a means of identifying the work and its variations: "This can be schematized as a three-level hierarchy: at the top is the 'work,' in the middle the edition, and at the bottom, the individual copy, although with some books all three stages are collapsed into one or the middle or last stage might be missing" (26).

Bury makes no claims that his list, of around six hundred titles, is comprehensive. Even so, there are some surprising omissions here, notably among French artists making books. One finds no mention of Martine Aballea, Sophie Calle, Claude Closky, Paul-Armand Gette, Pascal Kem, or Francois Morellet (Moeglin-Delcroix's catalogue is also missing from the general bibliography). …

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