Between the Covers: Opening Doors for Artists' Books: Book Arts Programs Are Springing Up across the Country, and Artists Who Make Book Objects Are Finding More Opportunities to Exhibit Their Works. but Will Commercial Fine Art Galleries Cash in on the Trend? (Artists' Books)

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In an era when new electronic technologies threaten to diminish the book's role as humankind's primary communication tool, there is a growing interest in artists' books, art works made by artists in book form.

"There is a sense of this medium having `arrived' with museum interest, traveling shows with catchy titles, workshops [and] maturing educational programs," said book artist and printmaker Karen Kunc, an art professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, at a symposium on artists' books and the book arts. Long a part of the art scene in Europe, now, said Kunc, "there is a groundswell of interest across America. In every national print competition one can now see artists' books, perhaps entered as a challenge to the parameters of the traditional definitions of the print."

Moreover, "there are increasing opportunities for artists to exhibit their artists' books," noted Rory Golden, executive director of the Center for Book Arts in New York. "There is an increased interest in making books by artists--and by crafty ladies" Added curator Krystyna Wasserman, director of the Library and Research Center of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.: "Artists' books are still moderately priced, easy to exhibit and a very creative way of expressing many artistic ideas. Artists' books are containers of ideas."

And although some dealers question what the marketplace is for these works, at Art Basel Miami in December, exhibitor Printed Matter, a New York artists' bookstore, sold $28,000 in artists' books, ranging from $5 Jenny Holzer pieces to a $7,500 portfolio of work by John Baldesarri and other artists entitled "Stills." "People were thrilled to see our prices, especially when Jenny Holzer works were priced in the thousands elsewhere in the fair," reported David Platzker, director of Printed Matters. "We made 470 sales in five days." Printed Matter, located in the heart of the New York art world just a few feet from the Dia Center, recently announced a partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art to commission the publication of new artists' books and related artists' publications, including projects with Vija Celmins, Rita McBride and Ed Ruscha.

An Undefinable Art Form

Artists' books are a hybrid, multi-medium art form. Artists create them for a variety of purposes, as one-of-a-kind objects or as multiples, made by hand or not, richly luxurious in materials or as offset publications. Artists' books can be structured as pop-ups, folded pages, scrolls, tunnels (giving visibility to what lies behind), fluttering flags, tablets or the traditional Western codex of folded pages sewn on one side. Book artists may use handmade papers, archival art paper, construction paper purchased in bulk or no paper at all. Artists' books do not always marry words or text with images. There is no one form or look to artists' books. Collectors must give up their pre-conceived notions of what a book should be, said Wasserman. "There is no prescription of what an artist's book should look like, or even that it has pages."

With most categories and genres of art, the art world does not spend much time defining what the genre is. "It is very wearying to the artists who make artists' books to constantly have to discuss what it is," said Carolee Campbell, an artist who owns Ninja Press in Los Angeles. Indeed, the simple definition of an artist's book is that it is a book made by an artist. Beyond that, a chorus of voices debates its very nature.

"The beauty of the medium is no one can define what it is," said art dealer Brian Valzania, owner of PABA Photo Arts Book Arts Gallery in New Haven, Conn. "It's not painting, sculpture or photography--but it can incorporate all of those elements. One of the beauties of a book is that you can touch it, feel the pages, go through it at a speed you choose" That is, if it has pages--or if the artist's book can be opened at all. …