Book as Image: A Selection of Artists’ Books from The University of Iowa Libraries

September – October 1990

What exactly is an “artist’s book”? Among the many competing definitions, perhaps art critic Lucy Lippard best describes the scope of our exhibition: “Neither an art book (collected reproductions of separate art works) nor a book on art (critical exegeses and/or artists’ writings), the artist’s book is a work of art on its own, conceived specifically for the book form and often published by the artist him/herself.” We can find predecessors to what is now called the artist’s book at least as early as William Blake’s works, many of which combined word and image as an inseparable unity. One might even cite earlier forms of visual literature such as Renaissance emblem books and pattern poems. More direct precursors are two very different publications by Marcel Duchamp from the 1930s. The Green Box of 1934 was an enormous, lavish limited edition box containing carefully produced facsimiles of notes and diagrams for Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” one of the seminal art works of the century. Rrose Selavy (1939), on the other hand, was a small, unillustrated booklet consisting entirely of enigmatic, often erotic puns. These works anticipated several different trends in the contemporary artist’s book. Predecessors in the fifties and early sixties include the concrete poets (some of whom experimented not only with the placement of words and symbols on the page, but also with the physical form of the book), experimental art magazines like Aspen and SMT, and the publishing ventures of the Fluxus artists.

But the artist’s book as we know it has its origins in the 1960s; it developed largely as a means of creating an art form that would be independent of the gallery system. A book could be produced inexpensively, and could potentially be distributed to a much wider audience than other art forms. Typically, artists’ books in the formative years of the medium were printed in relatively large runs and sold for under ten dollars. They were conceived as a democratic, non-elitist art form; some artists dreamed of seeing their book works sold in supermarkets alongside the tabloids. The best-known examples of this early phase are the works of Ed Ruscha, small booklets of photographs with plain covers displaying titles which precisely describe their contents: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, in Los Angeles, and so on.

In the intervening quarter-century the medium has blossomed in countless directions. There is little agreement on the precise boundaries of the medium. Our exhibition does not attempt to adhere programmatically to any one definition of the artist’s book; rather, we have tried to illustrate the variety and potential of the medium. Viewers/readers will no doubt note some of the following tendencies.

An artist’s book may consist entirely of pictorial material, entirely of text, or of a mixture of text and image. Generally, the conventional reading sequence of the European book, from front to back (left to right), is assumed; often a narrative development will rely on this sequence. Sometimes, though, the “reader” is invited to create his or her own sequence by entering the book at any point, viewing the pages in any order. Still other works are so constructed as to completely frustrate the desire to read in a “normal” sequence. Some artists’ books masquerade as other kinds of publications, playing with their conventions: there are artists’ books in the form of calendars, stockholders’ reports, tabloid newspapers, comic books, and games. Some works incorporate previously published books, modifying them to create new works. Some call into question the very physical structure of the book, forcing us to wonder whether we can even call them “books.” Many critics prefer to place these works in the separate category of “book objects.”

As a general rule, the artist is responsible for the textual as well as the visual “content.” However, collage techniques are frequently used, and an artist’s book may consist entirely of a juxtaposition of found images and texts. A common type of artist’s book documents a conceptual or performance piece; such a book becomes the only permanent trace of an ephemeral art work. One major trend has been toward political-social criticism, particularly from a feminist viewpoint; this certainly has much to do with the medium’s origins as an alternative to the power structures of existing artistic institutions. The inexpensive production methods of most artists’ books are also in keeping with this revolt against the economic power structures of mainstream art. However, there has also been a recent trend toward producing expensive, limited edition artists’ books; several examples of these are currently on display in the Special Collections Department.

The works in this exhibition come primarily from the Art Library and from Special Collections, and reflect a longstanding interest in and commitment to the medium of the book in all its diversity. A number of the pieces are from the influential exhibition “Artwords and Bookworks,” first shown at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1978. After the exhibition had traveled around the country for several years, the entire collection was donated to the University of Iowa; it now forms part of the University Libraries’ collection in association with Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts, a program of the School of Art and Art History. Other pieces shown here are the work of University of Iowa faculty member Jim Snitzer’s Chicago Book project.

We hope that our exhibition will give you a sense of the diversity of this exciting, still evolving medium. The chief problem in mounting an exhibition of artists’ books is that displaying the works statically, in glass cases, undercuts the very intention of the medium. The artist’s book is meant to be handled, read, seen in its entirety either in sequence or at random. To display a few pages of an artist’s book is like looking at a few stills from a movie – it cannot give a real sense of the work as a whole. The museum-like setting defeats the artists’ dream of a democratic art form that could be seen by anyone, freed from the walls of museums of fine art. All we can do is admit that this is the case, and remind you that all of these pieces are in the collections of the University of Iowa Libraries. If you are tantalized by these glimpses of a few artists’ books, we invite you to visit Special Collections or the Art Library. There you will be able to see and handle (with care) these and similar works as their creators intended.


This exhibition was prepared by Timothy Shipe, Harlan Sifford, and Pamela Spitzmueller.