"Artists' books are books or book-like objects over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself." Stephen Bury
Whilst artists have been involved in the production of books in Europe since the early medieval period (such as the Book of Kells and the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry), most writers on the subject cite the English visionary artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) as the earliest direct antecedent.
Books such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience were written, illustrated, printed, coloured and bound by Blake and his wife Catherine, and the merging of handwritten texts and images created intensely vivid, hermetic works without any obvious precedents. These works would set the tone for later artists' books, connecting self-publishing and self-distribution with the integration of text, image and form. All of these factors have remained key concepts in artists' books up to the present day.
With the advent of Japonism, artists in Western Europe became increasingly influenced by the cheap Ukiyo-e prints by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, both of whom created a number of famous printed books. Collected assiduously by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, books like Hokusai's 100 Views of Mount Fuji would exert an increasing influence on the development of western art, particularly Art Nouveau.
It was in France where the next important developments took place. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard started to produce lavishly illustrated books, designed to exploit the widening market for modern art and poetry amongst the Parisan middle classes. As a result, these have become known in the English-speaking world as Livres d'Artiste, despite the term simply being French for "artist's book". The term has gradually widened to become seen as antithetical to artist's books, which by comparison are usually seen as cheap, mass-produced and exalting the idea, rather than the quality of the materials, printing and binding of the former. Usually featuring famous texts by poets such as Mallarmé and Balzac, the images would be commissioned from a single artist who would work directly onto the printer's plates. A famous early example is Parallèlement (1900), a book of Paul Verlaine's poetry illustrated by Pierre Bonnard.
Many other dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, would take up Vollard's ideas. Other famous Livres d'Artiste from the next few years include Pablo Picasso's illustrations for Balzac's Le Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu and Henri Matisse's work on Poesies by Mallarmé.
"While many livres d'artiste are interesting on their own terms, they are productions rather than creations, products, rather than visions, examples of a form, not interrogations of its conceptual or formal or metaphysical potential." - Johanna Drucker
There are also a number of hybrid books from this era, in which either the artist has illustrated his own poetry (such as Wassily Kandinsky's Klänge (Sounds), 1912, printed in Munich, which would have a direct influence on Dada and the emerging avant-garde), or collaborated with poets to create visually dense 'synchronized rhythms of art and poetry' (such as Sonia Delaunay-Terk's extraordinary La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913), written by Blaise Cendrars.
As Europe plunged headlong towards World War I, various groups of avant-garde artists across the continent started to focus on pamphlets, posters, manifestos and books. This was partially as a way to gain publicity within an increasing print-dominated world, but also as a strategy to bypass traditional gallery systems, disseminate ideas and to create affordable work that might (theoretically) be seen by people who would not otherwise enter art galleries.
This move toward radicalism was exemplified by the Italian Futurists, and by Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) in particular. The publication of the "Futurist Manifesto", 1909, on the front cover of the French daily newspaper Le Figaro was an audacious coup de théâtre that resulted in international notoriety. Marinetti used the ensuing fame to tour Europe, kickstarting movements across the continent that all veered towards book-making and pamphleteering.
In London, for instance, Marinetti's visit directly precipitated Wyndham Lewis' founding of the Vorticist movement, whose literary magazine BLAST is an early example of a modernist periodical. With regards to the creation of Artists' books, the most influential off-shoot of futurist principles, however, occurred in Russia. Marinetti visited in 1914, proselytizing on behalf of Futurist principles of speed, danger and cacophony.
Centred in Moscow, around the Gileia Group of Transrational poets David and Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Vasilii Kamenskii and Velimir Khlebnikov, the Russian futurists created a sustained series of artists' books that chellenged every assumption of orthodox book production. Whilst some of the books created by this group would be relatively straightforward typeset editions of poetry, many others played with form, structure, materials and content that still seems contemporary.
Key works such as Worldbackwards (1912), by Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, Natalia Goncharova, Larionov Rogovin and Tatlin, Transrational Boog (1915) by Aliagrov and Kruchenykh & Olga Rozanova and Universal War (1916) by Kruchenykh used hand-written text, integrated with expressive lithographs and collage elements, creating small editions with dramatic differences between individual copies. Other titles experimented with materials such as wallpaper, printing methods including carbon copying and hectographs, and binding methods including the random sequencing of pages, ensuring no two books would have the same contextual meaning.
Russian futurism gradually evolved into Constructivism after the Russian Revolution, centred around the key figures of Malevich and Tatlin. Attempting to create a new proletarian art for a new communist epoch, constructivist books would also have a huge impact on other European avant-gardes, with design and text-based works such as El Lissitsky's For The Voice (1922) having a direct impact on groups inspired or directly linked to communism. Dada in Zurich and Berlin, the Bauhaus in Weimar and De Stijl in Holland all printed numerous books, periodicals and theoretical tracts within the newly emerging International Modernist style. Artist's books from this era include Kurt Schwitter's and Kate Steinitz's book The Scarecrow (1925), and Theo van Doesburg's periodical De Stijl.
Dada was initially started at the Cabaret Voltaire (Zürich), by a group of exiled artists in neutral Switzerland during World War I. Originally influenced by the sound poetry of Wassily Kandinsky, and the Blaue Reiter Almanac that Kandinsky had edited with Marc, artists' books, periodicals, manifestoes and absurdist theatre were central to each of Dada's main incarnations. Berlin Dada in particular, started by Richard Huelsenbeck after leaving Zurich in 1917, would publish a number of incendiary artists' books, such as George Grosz's The Face Of The Dominant Class (1921), a series of politically motivated satirical lithographs about the German Bourgeoisie.
Whilst concerned mainly with poetry and theory, Surrealism created a number of works that continued in the french tradition of the Livre d'Artiste, whilst simultaneously subverting it. Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), collaging found images from Victorian books, is a famous example, as is Marcel Duchamp's cover for Le Surréalisme' (1947) featuring a tactile three-dimensional pink breast made of rubber.
After World War II, many artists in Europe attempted to rebuild links beyond nationalist boundaries, and used the artist's book as a way of experimenting with form, disseminating ideas and forging links with like-minded groups in other countries.
"In the fifties artists in Europe developed an interest in the book, under the influence of modernist theory and in the attempt to rebuild positions destroyed by the war." Dieter Schwarz
After the war, a number of leading artists started to explore the functions and forms of the book 'in a serious way' Concrete poets in Brazil such as Augusto and Haroldo De Campus, Cobra artists in Holland and Denmark and the French Lettrists all began to systematically deconstruct the book. A fine example of the latter is Isidore Isou's Le Grand Désordre, (1960), a work that challenges the viewer to reassemble the contents of an envelope back into a semblance of narrative.
Yves Klein in France was similarly challenging Modernist integrity with a series of works such as Yves: Peintures (1954) and Dimanche (1960) which turned on issues of identity and duplicity. Other examples from this era include Guy Debord and Asger Jorn's two collaborations, Fin de Copenhague (1957) and Mémoires' (1959), two works of Psychogeography created from found magazines of Copenhagen and Paris respectively, collaged and then printed over in unrelated colours.
Often credited with defining the modern artist's book, Dieter Roth (1930-98), produced a series of works which systematically deconstructed the form of the book throughout the fifties and sixties. These disrupted the codex's authority by creating books with holes in; (Picture Book, 1957, for instance) allowing the viewer to see more than one page at the same time. Roth was also the first artist to re-use found books-comic books, printer's end papers and newspapers, (such as Daily Mirror, 1961) Although originally produced in Iceland in extremely small editions, Roth's books would be produced in increasingly large runs, through numerous publishers in Europe and North America, and would ultimately be reprinted together by the German publisher Hansjörg Mayer in the 1970's, making them more widely available in the last half-century than the work of any other comparable artist.
Almost contemporaneously in USA, Ed Ruscha (1937-present) printed his first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, in 1963 in an edition of 400, but had printed almost 4000 copies by the end of the decade. The book is directly related to american photographic travelogues, such as Robert Frank’s The Americans' (1965), but deals with a banal journey on route 66 between Ruscha's home in LA and his parents' in Oklahoma. In one of the defining innovations of the genre, Ruscha chose to distribute the original edition in the gasoline stations that he'd photographed, thereby completely bypassing traditional means of dissemination within the artworld. Like Roth, Ruscha created a series of homogenous books throughout the sixties, including Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966 and Royal Road Test, 1967.
Growing out of John Cage's Experimental Composition classes from 1957 to 1959 at the New School for Social Research, Fluxus was a loose collective of artists from North America and Europe that centred around George Maciunas (1931-78). Maciunas set up the AG Gallery in New York, 1961, with the intention of putting on events and selling books and multiples by artists he liked; the gallery closed within a year, apparently having failed to sell a single item. The collective survived, and featured an ever-changing roster of like-minded artists including George Brecht, Joseph Beuys, Daniel Spoerri, Yoko Ono, Emmett Williams and Nam June Paik.
Artists' books and multiples (as well as happenings), were central to Fluxus' ethos disdaining galleries and institutions, replacing them with 'art in the community', and the definition of what was and wasn't a book became increasingly elastic throughout the decade as the two forms collided. Many of the Fluxus editions share characteristics with both; George Brecht's Water Yam (1963), for instance, involves a series of scores collected in a box, whilst similar scores are collected together in a bound book in Yoko Ono's Grapefruit (1964). Another famous example is Literature Sausage by Dieter Roth, one of many artists to be affiliated to fluxus at one or othe point in it's history; each one was made from a pulped book mixed with onions and spices and stuffed into sausage skin. Literally a book, but utterly unreadable.
"Artists' books began to proliferate in the sixties and seventies in the prevailing climate of social and political activism. Inexpensive, disposable editions were one manifestation of the dematerialization of the art object and the new emphasis on process.... It was at this time too that a number of artist-controlled alternatives began to develop to provide a forum and venue for many artists denied access to the traditional gallery and museum structure. Independent art publishing was one of these alternatives, and artists' books became part of the ferment of experimental forms.' Joan Lyons.
The artist's book proved central to the development of conceptual art. Lawrence Weiner, Bruce Nauman and Sol Lewitt in North America, Art & Language in the United Kingdom and Jaroslaw Kozlowski in Poland all used the artist's book as a central part of their art practice. An early example, the exhibition January 5-31, 1969 organised in rented office space in New York by Seth Siegelaub, featured nothing except a stack of artists' books, also called January 5-31, 1969 and featuring predominantly text-based work by Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler Joseph Kosuth and Robert Barry. Sol Lewitt's Brick Wall, (1977), for instance, simply chronicled shadows as they passed across a brick wall, whilst Kozlowski's Reality (1972) took a section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, removing all of the text, leaving only the punctuation behind.
As the from has expanded, many of the original distinctive elements of artists' books have been lost, blurred or transgressed. Artists such as Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer routinely make unique, hand crafted books in a deliberate reaction to the small mass produced editions of previous generations; Albert Oehlen, for instance, whilst still keeping artists' books central to his practice, has created a series of works that have more in common with victorian sketchbooks.
In the early 1970s the artist's book began to be recognized as a distinct genre, and with this recognition came the beginnings of critical appreciation of and debate on the subject. Institutions devoted to the study and teaching of the form were founded (The Center for Book Arts in New York, for example); library and art museum collections began to create new rubrics with which to classify and cataloged artists' books and also began to actively expand their fledgling collections; new collections were founded (such as Franklin Furnace in New York); and numerous group exhibitions of artist's books were organized in Europe and America (notably one at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in 1973, the catalog of which, according to Stefan Klima's Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature, is the first place the term "Artist's Book" was used). Bookstores specializing in artists' books were founded, usually by artists, including Ecart in 1968 (Geneva), Other Books and So in 1970 (Amsterdam), Art Metropole in 1974 (Toronto) and Printed Matter in New York (1976). All of these also had publishing programmes over the years, and the latter two are still active today.
In the 1980s this consolidation of the field intensified, with an increasing number of practitioners, greater commercialization, and also the appearance of a number of critical publications devoted to the form. In 1983, for example, Cathy Courtney began a regular column for the London-based Art Monthly (Courtney contributed articles for 17 years, and this feature continues today with different contributors). The Library of Congress adopted the term artists books in 1980 in its list of established subjects.
In the 1990s, BA, MA and MFA programs in Book Art were founded, some notable examples of which are the BA at Mills College in California, the MFA at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the MA at Camberwell College of Art in London. The Journal of Artists' Books (JAB) was founded in 1994 to "raise the level of critical inquiry about artists' books."
In recent decades the artist's book has been developed, by way of the Artists' record album concept pioneered by Laurie Anderson into new media forms including the artist's CD-ROM and the artist's DVD-ROM.