In Johanna Drucker’s 2005 article published in The Bonefolder, “Exemplary Work,” she laments that the “field of artist books suffers from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied, and under-discussed” (3). The article is a sharp critique, and yet it would be difficult to argue that she is wrong about some of what the artist book suffers from. Drucker has been writing about and making artists books for decades now, and is very much an insider: part of the history, theorizing, and discussing-class of the field. As an outsider, new to the world of artist books, I feel as though I come to this issue from a different perspective. Drucker and I share a love of the genre, and a concern as well, but as I have not been steeped in the culture but recently (and am perhaps late to the party), I wonder if her emphasis on “specific descriptive vocabulary,” a perceived lack of a canon of artists, or “critical terminology for book arts with historical perspective” (3) is quite the fundamental problem.
If one looks at a book published by Gehenna Press, such as Gypsy & Other Poems, a clear historical perspective is indeed evident. Leonard Baskin, the late artist, sculptor and proprietor of Gehenna Press, worked with one foot, at least, well within the Fine Press tradition of book publishing. In Gypsy & Other Poems, using the poetry of revered writer James Baldwin, Baskin created a sumptuous finished product which tactilely, aesthetically and emotionally adds to Baldwin’s work. Rather than illustrate Baldwin’s poetry, Baskin found inspiration in the man himself by reserving his artistic prowess for various portraits of Baldwin which follow the poems in the back of the book.
The poems are put forth with a fierce and pointed commitment to traditional Fine Press practices: the margins are of generous proportions, the letter face is beautifully composed in black and red ink alone, the quality of materials are in evidence. Baskin offers Baldwin, a man who suffered from an exclusionary racist society, to the reader with the dignity which he deserves as expressed in the reverence, quality, and gravitas of a 20th century Livre d’Artiste. Baskin’s influence in the history and canon of artist books can hardly be ignored. While taking from the conservative art form of letterpress, he advanced the craft by adding his intense, and often disquieting, etchings. William Morris may very well serve as the looming figurehead of the Fine Press tradition, but it is the Livre d’Artiste that brought the genre of book arts into a new century, and artists such as Baskin that moved it yet further forward.
Paul Eluard’s books such as Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire, (which to answer Janet Zweig’s litmus test: could certainly sustain me on a desert island) or the even more seminal, A Toute Epreuve, perfectly testify to a certain history and canon, of which Baskin was obviously influenced. The conversation within A Toute Epreuve between poet (Eluard) and artist (Joan Miro) is of the sort that initiated an entire genre of collaborative work: writer, artist and publisher, not necessarily three different people, but three distinct roles whose attention to the artist’s contribution altered and shaped modern artist books.
Whereas text was once the dominating distinguishing feature of books, the era of the Livre d’Artiste expanded the ground that a book could cover. The enthusiasm with which the Livre d’Artiste was received, testifies to the public’s appetite for the complexity of text and art converging in the intimacy of the book form. That complexity has exponentially increased as the artist book’s structure, materials, and dimensions are experimented with in earnest.
I don’t believe Drucker would argue with any of the above, she, more than I, understands the nuanced history of the artist book. Perhaps her complaint is really more along the lines of that particular history taking its proper place in the academic world. Where is the chapter on artist books in Jansen’s History of Art? Or E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art? There isn’t one. Clearly, the artist book is seen as something outside of the regular history of art. I don’t disagree with Drucker there, where I do quibble is over the question of the proper nomenclature or descriptive words. I approach artists books in the same way that I would approach any art. All of the questions Drucker wants to ask concerning one’s experience as a viewer applies as well to a painting as it does to a piece of literature, or an artists’ book.
We have the words and critical discourse in place. It is simply that artist books aren’t in the discussion. Why? The fact that artist books draw on multiple genres (literature, art, sculpture, the ubiquity of the utilitarian book!) should in no way discourage viewers or critics—one would think rather that it makes for a more interesting set of questions and challenges for artist and viewer alike. I believe the problem lies in the issue of access. A few years ago I did not even know what an artist book was. My complaint, or worry, is that no one ever sees these things. They are locked away in rare book rooms, a place many eschew or are ignorant of, and it seems to me, many books are now being produced with the sole aim of selling them to the institutions that lock them away. I rarely, outside of special shows or Medieval Manuscript museums, have seen books displayed in museums. And books, by their nature, resist the ease of display that paintings or sculptures enjoy. They must be handled, and yet, they cannot be handled. They demand time: to read, peruse, and turn the pages, and that poses problems in this ‘drive-by’ society. What to do? I’m sure I don’t know, but I can’t see a solution that does not involve a greater visible presence in the world: in museums, galleries, library displays, art history books…if people do not know they exist, they aren’t going to look for them, much less discuss their artistic merit, which, like all art, varies wildly, and is at the mercy of subjectivity.
*previously published in fall of 2014 in Smith College’s “The Artist Book in the 20th Century” blog.