The infinite variety of artists’ books
This post has been updated to include new information about Artstor’s public collections, formerly made available on Shared Shelf Commons.
Whether you consider illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages the beginning, or you start with William Blake’s self-published books of poetry in the 18th century, artists have been making books for centuries. But as Toni Sant recounts in his book Franklin Furnace and the Spirit of the Avant-garde, the term “artists’ books” is fairly recent. It only appeared in 1973 as the title of an exhibition at Moore College, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the Library of Congress adopted the term in its list of established subjects.
This delay might stem from the infinite variety of forms that artists’ books take, sometimes pushing our understanding of what a book is to unexpected extremes.
Thanks to Bucknell University and UNC-Chapel Hill, Shared Shelf Commons offers a generous sampling of more than 550 artists’ books to see this variety for ourselves. Bucknell University’s Artists’ Books Collection begins with an example from the late 19th century and goes all the way to the 21st century, while UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sloane Art Library Artists’ Book Collection covers the 1970s until today.
The examples in this post range from relatively traditional formats like Kyle Bravo’s The 24 Hour Self Portrait and the small pamphlets by Argentinean group la Comuna del Lápiz Japonés to Sandra Rowe’s playful concertina Snake or Irene Chan’s Ce?, which is both book and a box filled with intriguing objects.
Artstor’s public collections are openly available and fully searchable to anyone–with or without an Artstor subscription. They are shared by institutions that subscribe to JSTOR Forum, Artstor’s web-based service for cataloging and managing digital collections.