A discussion of “Artist/Author : Contemporary Artists’ Books”

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Artist/Author : Contemporary Artists’ Books

With essays by Cornelia Lauf, Glenn O’Brien, Clive Phillpot (he is the man holding the coffee cup and is strangely absent from the internet), Jane Rolo, and Brian Wallis

Interview with Martha Wilson

Book Design by Renee Green

As a guide to artists’ books, Artist/Author does a variety of things very well.  As a survey of the field of contemporary artists’ books, it is as successful as a survey can be.

There are a variety of excellent surveys of artists books including The Century of Artists’s Books by Johanna Drucker and No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 by Betty Bright.  What sets Artist/Author apart is its selectivity and the participation of two progenitors of the field of artists’ books, Clive Phillpot (former director of the library at the Museum of Modern Art) and Martha Wilson (founder of Franklin Furnace).

The introductory essay by Clive Phillpot provides a detailed “spectrum” of the field. The strength of Phillpot’s essay is that it shows the wide range of artists’ books production (an important acknowledgment and a helpful introduction for the novice).  For Phillpot the spectrum of artists’ books includes:

  • Magazine Issues and Magazine Works
  • Assemblings and Anthologies
  • Writings, Diaries, Statements, and Manifestos
  • Visual Poetry and Wordworks
  • Scores
  • Documentation
  • Reproductions and Sketchbooks
  • Albums and Inventories
  • Graphic Works
  • Comic Books
  • Illustrated Books
  • Page Art, Pageworks, and Mail Art

The “spectrum” is substantial, and it is substantive in that it fleshes out what one could “possibly” mean when one describes a work as an artists’ book.

One of the tediums of  many surveys on artists’ books is process of defining what is and is not an artists’ book.*  Artist/Author is no different in this regard.  Unfortunately, critics still feel the yoke of definition.  Though the field had arguably been in existence since the 1960s, all credible publications feel compelled to state, re-state, argue, probe, and thoroughly kick to death the idea of what is or is not an artists’ book.  While there is merit to this dialogue, the result is less pages for critical thought about the works and in turn a more general approach to artists’ books in general.

Phillpot has his own definition of artists’ books, which the reader can take as the books official stance.  His definition is a good one and is seemingly inclusive, in fact, it is much more inclusive then the definition I saw him give (at the 2008 Conference on Contemporary Artists’ Books sponsored by ARLIS and Printed Matter, New York) while discussing his collecting practice as director of the library at MOMA.  As Phillpot states: I would like to make a distinction between “artists’ books,” meaning books and booklets authored by artists, and  “bookworks,” meaning artworks in book form.  Artists’ books are distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together.  Indeed, one of the characteristics of the field is its mongrel nature.  It is populated with many subspecies and hybrids, and ultimately dissolves into the large universe of books, pamphlets, and magazines.  What really characterizes artists’ books is that they reflect and emerge from the preoccupations and sensibilities of artists, as makers and citizens.

The inclusiveness of this statement is perhaps misleading for the book as a whole.  The preoccupation of this book and Phillpot’s collecting strategy share a similar sentiment in that the focus is on mass-produced book-objects that are created by artists who self-consciously use the book form.

The jumping off point for this type of work and for the birth of contemporary artists’ books as a field is almost exclusively considered to be Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations.  If one begins the definition of the field with Twentysix Gasoline Stations then it is no wonder that works like livre d’artistes and handcrafted one of kind bookworks are left out of the survey and therefore generally left out of the field.

With that being said about what is left out of the field, what is included is an impressive array of books from some of the twentieth centuries most interesting (largely conceptual) artists such as Martin Kippenberger, Lawrence Weiner, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Sol LeWitt, Jenny Holzer, George Brecht, John Baldessari, Dieter Roth, and Claes Oldenburg, to name just a few.

The book itself is well-designed with color photos of all of the works in the physical exhibition (shown at the Weatherspoon art Gallery, North Carolina; Emerson Gallery, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Lowe Art Museum, Florida; Western Gallery, Washington; and University Art Gallery; Massachusetts).  Also included is a comprehensive list of Artists’ Books Publishers and a wonderful Selected Bibliography that includes articles, books, and exhibition catalogs.

Beyond these resources and selection of articles, the most interesting element of the book is Thomas Padon’s interview with Martha Wilson, the founder of Franklin Furnace.    Franklin Furnace was founded in 1976 to serve artists who chose publishing as a primary,”democratic” artistic medium, and were not being supported by existing artistic organizations. From its inception, Franklin Furnace’s energies have been focused on three aspects of “time-based” programming: A collection of artists’ books; a performance art program for emerging artists; and exhibitions of time-based arts, both site-specific works by contemporary artists, and historical and contemporary exhibitions of artists’ books and other time-based, ephemeral arts (from Franklin Furnace’s history on their site).

In the 1970s Martha Wilson began collecting artists’ books.  At that time the works were so cheap that they were marginalized from the artworld because of their lack of prestige and perceived novelty.   Most of the books were donated to the Franklin Furnace Library, which was open for research and browsing.  By 1993, when the collection was sold to the MOMA Library (which was run by Phillpot at the time) it had 13,500 titles.

Martha Wilson gives a great interview.  Her statements are bold and honest.  Read the following excerpt concerning the livre d’artiste tradition and its exclusion from the Franklin Furnace collection:

Q: So the reason that the livre d’artiste tradition– which has coexisted since the 1960s with what you call the luncheonette tradition– is not represented in the Franklin Furnace collection is really simply one of economics?

A: Well, partly, but there was also a curatorial policy on the subject.  Take Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Poems [no. 86], for instance.  The Poems were done on a stencil machine at Judson Memorial Church on paper probably left over from Vietnam War protest marches or some such thing.  The paper is crap.  Then they were stenciled, which is crap, and then they were stapled together, which is more crap.  If you look at the book in terms of materials it is a bunch of crap.  And ye t this is probably the most important work in the whole collection of over 13,000 objects because it is valuable by virtue of its idea.  So I’m sort of prejudiced against high-end stuff because while it is long on materials, it is very often short on ideas.  I don’t care about lithography, I don’t care about technique- no, none of that stuff impresses me at all.  I just care about the idea.  Once I saw a lavish book by Pierre Bonnard that was totally great in every possible way: the idea, the images, the paper, the binding.  So it can happen, I’m not saying it’s impossible.  But every often an artist who is focused on the quality of the paper is not focusing very much on the idea.  So I’ll just come out with it: I am definitely prejudiced in favor of idea-based work.

Q: But how can Franklin Furnace exclude an entire tradition, which continues to be valid, and still purport to represent contemporary artists’ books?

A: Don’t forget that works in this tradition were already being collected by MOMA.  Riva Castleman formed a lovely collection of livres d’artistes over decades.  So this was an area that was being well served; my area was not being well served.  The reason to jump in was not only to indulge my own prejudices but also to serve an area of the art world that was being completely ignored.  I was particularly miffed because I felt that this work was being ignored because it was done cheap paper.

While, I applaud Wilson’s insistence on the strength of ideas in artists’ books (and work in general), I think her responses devalue the importance of materiality in the creation of artists books.  Materiality is as key in the creation of artists’ books as it is in any other artistic practice.  When an artists’ chooses to create an artist book they should be keenly aware of not only the idea, but also the materiality (texture, fragility, impermanence) and objecthood (frame, economy, mobility, ubiquity) of paper and the book. “Crap” paper is a material and I can only give Oldenburg the benefit of the doubt that using “crap” paper was a conscientious decision.  That is interesting.  It is not that crap paper is better or worse than handmade paper, it is how those materials are used to create an interesting object.  It is the form and the content.

If we acknowledge, as Wilson does, that an artist can create a book object that hold a high standard for both idea and materiality, then why would be strive for anything but?

Artist/Author serves as a documentation of a particular approach to artists’ books.  It is an interesting and engaging testament to a large body of very good conceptual work.  As introduction, documentation of the history of the field, design, and reference– it is successful.  Unfortunately, this book, as survey (much like all the other surveys, but with nice glossy pictures) spends little time critically discussing specific works.

In the same way that a high standards should be held for the artists’ books themselves, critical work in the field must move beyond the survey format to a criticism that has clarity, seriousness and a depth that allows for thorough investigations of the books themselves.


*See “GLOSSARY” page for more.


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