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15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM • Susan Viguers

Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

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  • 15 Mar 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When I was in undergrad (Memphis College of Art, R.I.P.) we had a fantastic foundations class called Idea, Process, and Criticism (IPC). I hated every minute of it because it felt like the goal of the class was to show us just how depthless, expected, and trite all of our ideas were. So many of us were trying to make projects about giant topics like climate change and body image and our own voices were hardly in the work. That class, along with the rest of my education at MCA, was an important catalyst for changing my approach to idea generation and helped me become more confident in my decisions as an artist. But even with the boom of accessible online learning spurred by the pandemic, I still find myself wishing that the equivalent experience existed in the non-art-school environment.

    There are plenty of assumptions about what being an artist means or what it looks like and most of those assumptions are manifestations of the (ridiculous) idea that “creativity can’t be taught.” In this brief article, I want to go back to the beginning of the art making process: the ideas; and I want to start a conversation about methods, tools, and teachings for idea generation that lead to deeper and more nuanced artworks. 

    When you are first starting anything, it can feel like you are floundering - never quite sure if you’re going about things in the best way and not sure if you know all the “rules.” This can be especially true with more abstract processes like idea generation. In that first semester of undergrad, I knew (in theory) that art could be about anything but through the assignments and discussions in IPC, I had to confront my preconceived notions regarding what I unconsciously thought art should look like, what it should be about, and what my role was as an artist - all of which were caricatures of the truth.

    When you finally believe that your work can be about anything, where do you start? How do you continue thinking about ideas and at what point do you start making? There are so many things to consider:

    • What topics are you interested in?
    • What is the goal of your work?
    • Why does this work have to be an art piece?
    • Who is your audience?
    • What do you have to say that differs from what others have said?
    • How does your work fit into a larger context?
    • How can aesthetics/processes/materials aid your ideas? 
    • How do you want your work to be experienced?
    • What do you want audiences to take away from your work? 

    And so much more. It’s a lot. But you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time.

    I start by asking myself what I’m interested in. You’ll notice I did not say “what do I want to make work about” because that is already jumping too far ahead. What topics do you actively seek out more information about; if you had to talk about a topic for hours, what would that topic be; is there a topic you find yourself perking up for if you overhear others discussing it? My answer to various forms of that questionwould probably be: memory, the function of time, sci-fi and speculative fiction, perception and reality, LGBTQIA+ stories, multiple universe theories and quantum physics, relative truths, dinosaurs, how memories inform our identities, and cryptids. (Honestly, sometimes it’s also helpful to make a list of things you are not interested in.) All of those topics are still huge though, so let’s narrow the focus. 

    What’s the goal of your work? I think a lot of artists think their work has to do something big and important which is why many of us in IPC immediately tried to make work that confronted huge issues. But one artwork can’t possibly solve such large problems and expecting your work to do so isn’t fair to the work, nor is it fair to the topic. So what is your goal for this one artwork? Why do you want to make this piece? Along those lines, beginning to answer that question can also help you start to think through how the work will manifest. It’s a slow process to work your way through continuously asking questions about your artwork before you begin creating, but I feel like the quality and effectiveness of artwork raises with each additional consideration.

    Note: All images are of my studio. 

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 01 Mar 2023 12:30 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    February 16th-19th, 2023 was the inaugural Tropic Bound fair and symposium: the first international biennial artist book fair set in Miami, Florida. As with many things, the pandemic changed the original timeline for Tropic Bound, causing the fair to be years in the making but therefore also highly anticipated. As I walked around the fair, elated to finally be amongst all of those incredible books and book-lovers, I found myself thinking about the way location (and the slightly more abstract notion of place) impacts the way one experiences artist books and the like. 

    Michele Burgess, Director of Brighton Press, showing her artist book The Blood Book

    Location and place play a large role in the way something is contextualized, affecting the attitude people approach something with, the connections and associations people make with something, and the reception of that thing. The contextualization of artist books is mused over relatively often within the community, although mostly in regard to situating book arts among fine art or craft, where those lines should blur, and where distinction and labels are beneficial. But what about place?

    How does a place like an artist book fair contextualize the artworks present in a way that a place like the Institute of Contemporary Art (located only a block from where Tropic Bound was) doesn’t? How do fellow exhibitors contextualize the work of other exhibitors at a fair? How does the city the work is seen in contextualize the work itself?

    Aldeide Delgado, founder & director of Women Photographers International Archive, discussing works with Tayina Deravile

    With the inundation of digital spaces becoming the new Normal during the pandemic, the general sense of place seemed to blur for everyone as events fluctuated from being solely location-dependent in-person events to accessible regardless of their base location through digital space, then occasionally utilizing a hybrid model and finally, now, often back to location-specific in-person events.

    Naturally, seeing the work over the backdrop of Miami adds a different flavor than one would experience in a different location and Tropic Bound took place within Paradise Plaza in Miami’s Design District, surrounded by stores including Gucci, Louboutin, Balenciaga, and Givenchy. This may seem like a somewhat comical pairing when considering the differing price tags, but Miami’s Design District embraces contemporary fine art, both on the streets and within those luxury stores in a way that high-end retail districts in other cities do not. Furthermore, Miami’s Design District is situated just north of the Wynwood district: an arts district known for its colorful street art, skate punk aesthetics, and funky nightlife. Because of the nature of Miami as a place, the eclectic collection of the sixty-three exhibitors at the fair felt especially harmonious, with each table displaying an excellent range of niches within the book arts community that mimicked the ranges within the city. Exhibitors showed all manner of books: from chapbooks to fine press books, movable books, zines, portfolios, art objects, tools, and so much more – each feeling equally at home at Tropic Bound.

    Dale Zine and O, Miami exhibitor tables

    Furthermore, the influences present from the base locations of the exhibitors themselves added to the contextualization of the works. With Miami’s proximity to Central and South America, the fair included quite a few exhibitors from Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile as well as featuring eight exhibitors from Florida itself. Additionally, the fair’s line-up seemed to hint at its East-Coast accessibility with the bulk of exhibitors coming from the Northeast, although there was still moderate representation from other locations as well. With this unique group dynamic, I felt like I noticed commonalities among areas of the book arts community that I would not have noticed among a different group of exhibitors. As I circled the fair, I couldn’t help but relate the works I saw on one table to the works on several others: noticing common themes within the topics contemporary makers are exploring in their projects, discovering similarities such as more makers using traditional print techniques, or spotting ways certain books changed the way I interpreted others.

    Sarah Horowitz with Two Ponds Press showing her book titled Footprints

    Tropic Bound left me inspired by everyone’s creativity, care, and passion for artist books and their tangents and I am excited to see how this new avenue for community continues to expand connections in its next iteration in 2025.

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I received a beautiful handmade book for Christmas from my wife. It was a book that she made at a book making activity at the library where she works. I love this book. Beyond the sentimental reason that my wife knows me enough to give me something that I think is beautiful, I think that the craft of this simple book is lovely.

    The book I received for Christmas 2022.

    I love the touch and smell of the suede leather cover. I love the beautiful long stitch cover binding. I love the saddle stitch bound quires. I love the tooth of the paper, though I cannot see a watermark on it to tell what specific kind of paper it is. This book, like most handmade books, is a smorgasbord of sensual stimuli. I enjoy this personal book so much that I have no idea what to do with it. I do not want to disturb its pristine state. I could use it for a journal, but I already have one. I could use it for notes, but notes end up getting thrown away eventually. I could use it as a sketchbook, but then it will get dirty!

    I never had these sorts of conundrums about my sketch and note books as an undergraduate in art school. At that time the use of materials was about discovery, exploration and mastery of process through making mistakes and, as a result, learning what works and doesn’t.

    The personal nature of this gift, and my own pondering about what to do with it, has prompted me to muse upon what is a book's purpose? Is it there to be beautiful or to be used? Or is any use of a book beautiful?

    When I read books that are works of literature or critical theory, I underline them copiously. When I am critically examining artist books and book works, I take pictures of them, capturing them from every angle and transcribing any text that is present. Then, I print out the text and images and underline salient points, circle important visual details, so that when I write about them, I can highlight what from my perspective are the most important portions of the work in question. The books and printed-out iterations of artist books that I read and evaluate look like coloring books when I am done.

    Interacting with books, interacting with book art, interacting with information in books, either visual or textual, is a physical and intellectual dance for me. Reading books, experiencing artist books and book art satisfy a need to connect both visual and literary aesthetic threads together. The connection between the two leads to the contemplation of ideas about how they connect and disconnect the visual and the textual. Therein lies a problem for me.

    I am usually reading multiple books and articles at the same time. Recently I have been reading about the historic vanguard/avant-garde in Latin America and how artists created networks of ideas between art theories and individuals all over the Americas and Europe. I have also been reading manifestos of publishing that relate to artist book production across the globe. I also frequently return to the prose and poetry of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who regularly examines the importance of books and writing. I recently started reading Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide (1986) that addresses the dichotomy of high-art and mass culture and how the two have been separated based upon a question of quality. In his introduction Huyssen states, “to reduce all cultural criticism to the problem of quality is a symptom of the anxiety of contamination. … The boundaries between high art and mass culture have become increasingly blurred, and we should begin to see that process as one of opportunity rather than lamenting loss of quality and failure of nerve. … Neither postmodern pastiche nor the neoconservative restoration of high culture has won the day.” [1]

    The conflation of these theories and histories and their application to artist books and the book arts all rolling around in my mind have produced the same questions as the beautiful but utilitarian book that I received for Christmas: Do I want to get these theories dirty in the liminal world between literature and visual culture? The personal nature of my reading of such theories and ideas causes me to ponder: What is the purpose of theory? Is it there to be beautiful or to be used? Or does any use of theory produce a beautiful, or at least mildly innovative, result?

    All of this rumination has resulted in my desire to ask you the reader, the book arts practitioner, the book arts theorist, members of CBAA, what theories are you talking about? What is fascinating to you right now? The readership of this blog represents a broad spectrum of people interested in the book arts that extends from the novice to the most skilled practitioners. I am hoping to hear some of your interesting ideas.

    Some topics I expect to see are the following:

    The importance of the haptic nature of the book.
    Personal rituals/processes/spiritual approaches to book creation.
    Book markets, pricing, marketing, and distribution.
    Representation and spaces for works from marginalized peoples and cultures.
    Books as interdisciplinary frameworks.
    Materials, and what they represent as physical objects that reference different cultures and cultural printing practices.
    Structural analysis of the book.
    Artist books and the book as alternative mise-en-scene.
    Appropriation as practice.
    Conceptual art and writing.
    Reading and readership.
    Queer identities.
    Social context, publishing, and public space.
    Tackling western-centrism (overcoming anxieties of contamination).
    Corrupted and not-as-corrupted economies.
    Print-on-demand (POD).
    Internet, digital and post-digital publishing.
    Poetics of the everyday.
    Material conditions of book production.

    Other ideas that you have, which have not been touched upon above.

    Honestly the only thing I would be disappointed with would be if no one comments at all. 

    Still further, if you have an idea that requires an extended forum for its elaboration, as editor of CBAA’s journal Openings: Studies in Book Art, I think I can find a place for your article.

    [1] Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. 1986. pp. ix and xii.

    Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.


  • 01 Feb 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In a New York Times opinion piece from January 15th, 2023 [1], Frank Pavich presents gorgeous images from “Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1976 version of ‘Tron.’” [2] The images in the article are beautiful vintage stills from the incomplete circa 1970’s film. The catch is, these stills do not come from an incomplete film. Instead, they were generated by an A.I. program called Midjourney. The A.I. images were easily created:

    “A simple prompt is all it took. A few words – in this case, slight variations on “production still from 1976 of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Tron” – followed by under a minute of waiting, and a computer deep in the racks of a data center somewhere, sifting through the numbers encoded into its memory banks associated with the words “Tron” and “Jodorowsky.”

    “It has scanned the collected works of thousands upon thousands of photographers, painters and cinematographers. It has a deep library of styles and facility with all kinds of image-making techniques at its digital fingertips.” [3]

    This description highlights the importance of the quality and quantity of metadata that connects subjects across collections between “photographers, painters and cinematographers.” These descriptive textual connections provide the foundation for a network of signification. This concatenation of text is translated by the A.I. into works of visual art that appear authentic, at least relative to the searched-for subjects and terms. Pavich rightly questions:


    “To what extent do these rapidly generated images contain creativity? And from what source is that creativity emerging? Has Alejandro been robbed? Is the training of the A.I. model the greatest art heist in history? How much of art-making is theft, anyway?

    “What will it mean when directors, concept artists and film students can see with their imaginations, when they can paint using all the digitally archived visual material of human civilization? When our culture starts to be influenced by scenes, sets and images from old films that never existed or that haven’t yet even been imagined?” [4]

    What impact can this type of technology have upon the book arts?  Artists, photographers, book artists and others create new and fascinating works. All artists already create using portions of the archived cultural materials of human civilization. And so it is incredible to imagine how book arts could move forward in new and creative directions if they were based upon art and images from the history of art that never existed, but which appears plausible enough that it should be incorporated with the archive. In Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” (1981) he begins by talking about what he considers “the finest allegory of simulation: the short story by Jorge Luis Borges titled “Del rigor en la ciencia” or On the Rigor of Science (1960) [5]. This short story tells how in a lost empire there were cartographers that were so precise that the map of a province was the size of a city, and the map of an empire was the size of a province. Eventually the cartographers, unsatisfied with these previous disproportionate maps, created a map of the empire that was the exact dimension of the empire and coincided exactly, point by point, with the empire itself. As the empire declined, it witnessed “the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the desert.” [6] Baudrillard then points out that:

    “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the [Borgesian] fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours.” [7]

    The book, and by association book arts, are the most portable, and arguably the most permanent, repository of human experience and knowledge. While books are perceived as preserving territories of referential being, artist books and the book arts have manipulated, and will continue to manipulate the “referential being or substance” of all history. However, as the metanarratives that define “referential being or substance” are pushed aside by all forms of art, there are many new permutations that can, and will, occur. Using the book as the locus of physical creation, like the map of the cartographers, book artists are creating “the map that precedes the territory.” The simulation mirrors a reality that was not, but that could have been.

    “It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.” [8]

    The creation of a movie that was fabricated by an A.I. able to extrapolate what things could have been and provide a hyperreal simulacrum of what it can interpolate based upon shreds of metadata that represent the last vestiges of the map presents a reason why the book arts are so important today. They can take the cast-off metanarratives and ideologies that propose absurdities regarding what could happen, but probably should not, and promote a new way of looking at the world that could employ the irrational in order to alter our perception of the past, and thus reconstitute what it means to live in the present. Imagine as a project, for example, the fabrication of a simulated hyperreal history book, which employs near authentic facsimile images of history to recreate and alter history from what it was to what it could have been. This represents both an incredible tool for education as well as indoctrination. It’s enough to give the cartographers the willies.

    [1] Pavich, Frank. "This Film does Not Exist: [Opinion]." New York Times, Jan 15, 2023, Late Edition (East Coast).  [2, 3, 4] Ibid.

    [5] Borges, Jorge Luis, “El hacedor” (1960), from Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge Luis Borges: Obras completas. Tomo 2. Emecé Editorial, 2005. p. 241.

    [6] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1994. p. 1. [7] Ibid.  [8] Ibid., p.2]


    Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

  • 15 Jan 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Hanging on my office wall is a poster of Philip Guston’s “Book” (1968). In it, an open book floats amid broad, lively strokes of gray gouache. Rows of vertical tick marks line the book’s facing pages.

    Book, 1968; Gouache on panel; 30 x 32 in.; Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    I purchased the print at the Tate Modern gift shop in 1998 as an undergraduate student with chaotic interests in language and visual arts. I was not at all familiar with Guston’s work and had not seen the painting in the flesh, but even in its filtered state of reproduction the image immediately resonated. I didn’t question this feeling; instead I snatched up the print like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. Over the years, it has hung in dorm rooms and apartments and now in my office. I have carried it as a personal emblem and even imagined it as a portent of my life’s trajectory. Clearly it is easy to get mystical about this image. But I am less susceptible to magic and more inclined to dissection these days, so What is it about this picture of a book?

    Of course this is not Guston’s only picture of a book. When he eschewed abstraction for figuration (or “things”) in the 1960s, he painted dozens of them. Many stand alone as in the piece described above. Occasionally a finger touches or points toward the book, indicating its tangibility. In later, more complex canvases, books appear as still life elements and props. The book is only one of many recurring image-objects in Guston’s work, and seems to be among the less discussed. Certainly a simple book is less unsettling than a pile of shoes, not so visceral as a tangle of hairy knees or giant unblinking eye, and certainly not as disturbing as hooded Klan figures smoking cigars, driving cars, or painting canvases.

    Untitled, 1969; Acrylic on panel; 30 x 32 in.; Private Collection

    But Guston’s books warrant a closer look. While potentially neutral at first glance, amid his other preferred talismans the book can take on a sinister aspect (hateful rhetoric, violence-inspiring dogma). Or it can be read as a beacon or touchstone amid the debris of societal trauma and personal pain: a means of escape, connection, or even the possibility of enlightenment. Formally, Guston teases out the visual relationship between books and other objects in his canon, like shoes and buildings, making visual metaphors that work in multiple directions. Removed from its relational context, the floating book might connote any of these things and more; it reflects the viewer. 

    The illegible symbols in Guston’s books imply meaning, and can mean diversely. The capacious quality of the symbol of the book (in Guston’s works specifically, and in general) is part of its attraction as an artistic medium. The term “blank canvas” alludes to a starting place of pure potential; “the book” as a starting point might be figured as rife with the practical and the magical. Concretely, the book is a tool of communication, which affords artists opportunities for pacing, sequence, and tactility, as well as material and compositional intention. But to begin with the book is to start with a powerful signifier—one that can hide in plain sight, on a table, say, or appear to vibrate out of the second dimension, like that poster on my wall.

    Painter's Table, 1973; Oil on canvas ; 77¼ x 90¼ in.; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C


    Tallman, Susan. "Philip Guston's Discomfort Zone." The New York Review of Books 68.1 (2021): 12. Web.

    The Guston Foundation:


    Emily Tipps is Associate Librarian, Instructor, and Program Manager at the University of Utah’s Book Arts Program, and the owner/operator of High5 Press.

  • 01 Jan 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book, Michael Hampton’s goal is to shift the grounds on which scholars seek to answer that perennially pesky question, “What is an artist’s book?” In a gray-papered and un-illustrated 26-page (numbered A-Z) Exposé bound into the middle of Unshelfmarked, Hampton files the artist’s book in an “ecosystem” that ranges from tramp art to pooh sticks via hopscotch, sewing bees, football fanzines and “rubbish of every kind.”  

    Hampton uses Germano Celant’s Book as Artwork 1960/1972 as his initial frame of reference. He has worked with this catalogue previously; in 2011 he published a manifesto, THEARTISTSBOOKANEWHISTORY, that also referenced Celant. Hampton’s manifesto forms the basis of this current longer work. In both, Hampton takes fundamental exception to the notion that the first true artists’ books were made by William Blake. Instead, he offers several examples of medieval manuscripts as truer harbingers. Leaving aside the obvious differences between Blake’s completely self-generated work and that of the scribes who wrote other people’s words in the psalters and Bibles they made beautiful, the idea that an enormous range of historical work feeds into the current notion of what constitutes artists’ books is compelling, if not exactly new.

    Hampton contrasts his broader definition with that of the “informal guild” of authors who have written about artists’ books. Hampton’s list represents an accurate assessment of recent writing on the medium. It includes among others Lucy Lippard, Clive Phillpot and Anne Mœglin-Delcroix. Not all of the writers on Hampton’s list, however, embrace a unifying definition: Johanna Drucker, for instance, titled her 1995 book The Century of Artists’ Books as an intentional challenge to Riva Castleman’s earlier catalogue of livres d’artistes, A Century of Artists’ Books.  

    In 1978 Joan Hugo, who formed her ideas about the book’s possibilities while working as a librarian at MOMA, the New York Public Library, and the Sorbonne before landing at a small art college in Los Angeles in 1957, curated the first of two of the most influential early exhibitions that envisioned what the artist’s book could become. Hugo stated that before printing all books were made by artists, and later wrote, “. . . one has only to recall of the history of the book from painted stones and cylinder seals to Medieval jeweled covers and Russian Futurist books on wallpaper, to see how flexible these limits [of artists’ books] actually are.” 

    Hampton’s fifty examples of artists’ books fit within Hugo’s parameters and would generally receive no argument from the authors in his “guild.” His canon includes Ed Ruscha, Dieter Roth, Marcel Broodthaers, Ronald King, and the Bechers. Also included are the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Vesalius anatomy, an advertising volvelle from the 1940s and a stack of Charles Babbage’s punch cards. This broad inclusiveness underpins much contemporary understanding of the medium while helping to create barriers to a formal definition of the form and even to a discussion about whether artists’ books belong in the gallery or the library. Hampton might perhaps say neither.

    Michael Hampton. Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book. Axminster, Devon: Uniformbooks, 2015. 174 p. ill. ISBN 978-1-910010-06-8. £12.


    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College, where she taught studio, history, and theory classes in book art for 40 years. Her course What We Printed: The history of women & printing will be offered through California Rare Book School in July 2023. She is a founding director of College Book Art Association.

  • 15 Dec 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    This post is adapted from an essay I wrote for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) newsletter in 2003. I present this as some preliminary groundwork about the potential tension between teaching and learning in academic book art studios and in maker spaces. Professor Jeffrey Groves, Harvey Mudd College, and I will explore this topic here in Spring, 2023.

    Several years ago I was a student in a bibliographic seminar with a renowned scholar. As a practitioner of bookmaking, I found myself more and more concerned as the seminar progressed at the sheer volume of misleading or simply incorrect information that the scholar was passing on to the students. There were two of us in the seminar with extensive hands-on experience (my specific production knowledge is with letterpress printing, although I was also employed in the offset trade for several years). We spent our evenings chuckling over the unlikely production scenarios being discussed during the day. We also wished that the scholar could allow for correction and discussion in class, but it was not that kind of seminar. Finally, I began to wonder if in fact the incorrect knowledge that my fellow and sister students were absorbing even mattered very much in the long run. Wasn’t it true that the scholar had been passing on this same misleading information for years without any evident effect on either the scholar’s reputation or that of the students under the scholar’s tutelage?

    Actually, I suspect that it does matter. As the book as artifact comes under closer scrutiny by historians, students, and scholars of literary criticism, an understanding of just how its component parts came together should provide greater insight into its overall material functionality. An appreciation for the basic production methods of bookmaking allows for the recognition and acknowledgement of anomalies when they appear. Similarly, research may yield odd disparities and unlikely occurrences among the textual explanations of, say, a particular printing methodology that the scholar can feel more confident in questioning if he or she has a solid baseline of practical knowledge. Curious references to unlikely production scenarios not only prompt caution with regard to the immediate source, but suggest the need to query other production-based statements the writer may be making.

    Hands-on knowledge can be useful in iconographic study as well. A nineteenth century advertisement for Hoestetter’s Stomach Bitters has had a home for some time among my slides of women printers. In the foreground, a row of women are sitting on low stools at small platen presses, their backs to the viewer. Behind them, a row of men are standing, likewise turned, in front of a bank of type cabinets. From this evidence it is reasonable to assume that the seated women feed the platen presses but perform no other tasks requiring movement such as inking, lifting the forms in and out of the bed, or even removing the stacks of printed paper to the bindery, while working in this mixed-gender environment. In another image from the same time period, a single woman is shown standing at a large treadle-powered platen press. The image is on a poster advertising the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union in San Francisco. That the woman is standing is indicative of a much more interactive relationship with the machine than that of the women in the stomach bitters ad. This woman is actually a printer, with control over the same facets of the operation that the first women lacked. The researcher without first-hand printing experience might notice and comment on the disparity of these postures, but might not link the two postures to separate practical working methods and might not undertake, say, a census of employees in the print shop to determine who might be performing other work there.

    Granted, iconography can be misleading. Many ads for early typesetting machinery show elegantly dressed young women sitting daintily at various Rube Goldberg-style contraptions which, according to the makers, will finally allow type to be set mechanically. More than one of these machines resembles more a home pipe organ than a piece of useable typesetting equipment. The misleading information in these ads, however, is the appearance of women as the operators. In fact, the ads suggest not that women would be operating these machines – an unlikely occurrence at that time in the face of the powerful typographers’ unions – but that the machines are so easy to operate even a woman can do it.

    Mining the books themselves for their artifactual evidence is, for the maker of books, an essential component of research. The idea that microfilm or a digital surrogate could substitute for the hands-on knowledge of the artifact itself is not workable. For non-contemporary books, I want to know the condition of the type or plate from which the book was printed, the depth and evenness of the impression, the heft and opacity of the paper, the production method of any images, the quality of the binding materials and whether the book is in its original binding or, if not, when it might have been rebound. Articulating the rationale for the often crude productions of the American Colonial period, appreciating the high level of mechanical reproduction in the nineteenth century, and evaluating the reliance on hand-work in the machine-age printing of the Bauhaus are acts which the book scholar can undertake, of course, but are actions which become more viscerally understandable in the wake of actually having undertaken them.

    I am not suggesting that any scholar whose interest lies within the materiality of the book would not comprehend and appreciate the same aspects of the book without practical training, nor am I suggesting that every scholar with an interest in incorporating artifactual aspects of the book into his or her research should do hands-on training. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt. Bibliographic presses connected to library schools, now largely made redundant, recognized the value of practice coupled with theory. Acknowledging the need to understand process as part of the scholarly training could lead, at the very least, to discussions between the scholar and the person with hands-on experience.


    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College, where she taught studio, history, and theory classes in book art for 40 years. Her course What We Printed: The history of women & printing will be offered through California Rare Book School in July 2023. She is a founding director of College Book Art Association.

  • 01 Dec 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When did text become content? Using the idea of transition in book art as a presented viewpoint, one way to examine this transition is by looking at both the vocabulary of bookmaking and the language/s used in the books themselves. If we choose one set of terms, text and content, we can consider one point in time when the vocabulary of bookmaking moved from discussing the historically correct text-and-illustration axis toward referring to the various aspects of the book – words, pictures, materials, form – as its content.

    This transition from text to content has its contemporary grounding in the 1970s, when the term artists’ books first came to prominence. (Stefan Klima places the first use of the term in 1973.) [1] The roots are formed in a complex web of events and movements that appropriately do not limit themselves to simpler categorizations. One avenue moves through the territory of conceptual art. This pathway led the art historian Lucy Lippard to consider the artist’s book the paradigmatic art dematerialized object, which she does partially by assigning literary value – that is, text – to books such as those of the wordless books of Los Angeles pop artist Ed Ruscha. Other aspects of Lippard’s definition – use of a serial scheme, time-motion involvement, and above all a denial of the expected identity of the form--help us to begin to formulate a definition for artists’ books, which is of course still elusive nearly forty years later. [2]

    Lippard along with others opened Printed Matter in NYC in 1976, which helped to solidify the place of the democratic multiple as cheap, portable and accessible, important for their “adaptability as instruments for extension to a far broader public.” [3]

    Lippard was also a pivotal voice in another movement of importance to a transitional art world, based in second-wave feminism. Her interest in the democratic stance of artists’ books (in her definition of them) is echoed in the philosophy of the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building. From there, in 1975, the graphic designer Sheila de Bretteville and her founding colleagues artist Judy Chicago and art historian Arlene Raven stressed the need to contextualize women’s design through the just-polished lens of feminist art historicism.

    The women’s work that de Bretteville promoted had much in common with Lippard’s de-materialized object, as reflected specifically in the 1975 catalogue, Women and the Printing Arts. [4] The emphasis in this work was “mass produced personal statements” with a focus on production methods, the use of multiples and a reciprocity at the maker-reader axis through the use of invited response to the work in question. The word creativity is in fact avoided in nearly all of the early descriptions of these multiples in favor of less signifying words and phrases such as ‘activity’ in the ‘printing arts.’

    The 1970s provide us with several avenues for tracking some new directions in bookmaking. In Rochester, NY, Visual Studies Workshop was already actively seeking new solutions to expression through the book, through books by its co-founder, Joan Lyons, and the work of many other artists.

    On the West Coast, the deep tradition of fine printing provided a pathway for using the abandoned technology of letterpress to cross over into territory that afforded more opportunity for a stronger integration of elements and a more conceptually-based framework from which to operate. This territory was informed in part by an active and visible alternative culture, with its appropriation of conventional forms such as the Art Nouveau poster and the comic book to speak to new and selective audiences. In San Francisco the prankster has been an endearing presence, and in the 1970s Holbrook Teter and Michael Meyers used traditional letterpress and relief printmaking techniques along with found images to turn their books into performance art. [5]

    Other publishers whose self-definition was vacillating between literary fine press printer and book artist were subverting the fine press format to create revisions to the codex form, while visual artists like Nat Dean were studying traditional fine binding in order to translate its principles into a new language of form and scale. And the conservators, particularly Gary Frost and the energetic teacher Hedi Kyle, were traveling the country peddling their explorations of form at weekend workshops. Based on the necessary exploration of materials and the need for non-intrusive binding models, these conservators were explaining in a fundamental new way, as Frost puts it, how to operate a book.

    As these books began to migrate from the library to the gallery, the problems associated with exhibiting 3-D, tactile, often small-scale forms in a white cube whose hallmarks were size, distance, and untouchability sent many artists seeking more sculptural forms for their work in order to make them accessible in that format. While that experiment continues, there is now little need to challenge the comprehensive meaning of content in contemporary artists’ bookmaking, nor to question the acceptance of new dialects in the language of the book.

    This essay was first delivered as a paper in 2003. It is offered here in the spirit of continued appreciation for the history and development of artists’ books.


    [1] Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A critical survey of the literature. NY: Granary Books, 1998.

    [2] See Lippard, Lucy, ed. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 . . . Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1973.

    [3] Lippard, Lucy. “The Artist’s Book Goes Public.” Lyons, Joan, ed. Artists’ Books: A critical anthology and sourcebook. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, p. 48.

    [4] Women and the Printing Arts: a catalog is a set of 38 ring-bound 5x7” cards, each advertising a different book by women artists, most of whom were connected with the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building, Los Angeles. It was designed by Janet Bubar, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Penelope Suess and issued in 1977.

    [5] For information and work by Teter and Myers, partners in Zephyrus Image, see Alastair Johnston, Zephyrus Image: A bibliography, Berkeley: Poltroon Press, 2003, and Spirit Photography: A Fireside Book of Gurus, a facsimile produced by Cuneiform Press in 2012.


    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College. Her research interests focus on the history of women and printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. The catalogue for the exhibition she curated, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, is available through the San Francisco Center for the Book website. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.> 

  • 15 Nov 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    What are some considerations as an artist book is planned? 

    Lately I’ve been thinking about this topic, prompted in part by a comment from artist Sarah Nicholls. There are probably as many approaches as artists. I know I haven’t used the same one for each project. Sometimes an idea comes quickly, inspired by an observation or experience. Other times ideas emerge from deep research, reading, and thinking about a topic, and much experimentation. 

    Regardless of how ideas come, here are some broad questions one might consider as the work evolves. 

    1. What is my piece about?

    If I can write this down, it’s helpful both for making the work, as well as presenting it. A succinct statement can be a touchstone as the work evolves, and it can evolve as well. 

    2. Who is my audience? 

    This was the question Sarah Nicholls mentioned to me, one that she keeps in mind. She paired that with: When is the work for (now and/or later)? I hadn’t thought in those terms exactly, but they are good questions. And they lead to follow-up ones. If I know who will read the book, where, how often, and why it would be read, it can affect decisions about materials, structure, final cost, distribution, access, and even content. For example, if a book is delicate or complicated to operate, certain collectors may have less interest. I can always choose to ignore the question of audience, if I just want to make the work I want to make. And sometimes it does find an audience.

    3. How can I keep a high level of craft?

    This is of importance to me. I generally want to produce all parts of my work myself. But sometimes there are stumbling blocks to this: access to equipment or lack of expertise in a technique. Hiring fabricators or collaborating with others can solve this problem, but it can increase a budget and add challenges to an efficient workflow. Some projects will be worth the added expense and complexity. When it is not, I can change the means of production to something I can do well. Limitations can sometimes inspire creative solutions, but it can be a frustration. 

    An artist book of mine, largely completed in mid-2019, remains unfinished for such reasons. I imagined a wooden box that would both protect and activate the item, but finding the right woodworker was a challenge at the time. I reconsidered my concept to something I could build myself, but that solution wasn’t quite right. I still haven’t prioritized completion of the project, but finding a way to achieve my original concept is on my list of goals for 2023.

    4. What are the economics of the project?

    Detailed budgets are valuable and especially important if using fabricators or expensive materials. They are also helpful in determining a cost-effective edition size and in justifying (if only to myself) the price I ask for my work. This includes keeping track of the labor for the book’s production. There are real costs in making art, and it’s important to know them.

    5. How can I complete the book?

    Let’s face it, many of us have ideas that we explore and eventually discard. It can be a challenge to complete a project. Here are a few suggestions to keep on track:

    • Care about the idea. If I don’t care about it, others probably won’t. And I’ll be less likely to finish the work. I’ve put projects aside or dropped ideas and moved on after working with them for a time. There’s no harm in that. Sometimes there’s not enough there.

    • Write out a schedule to keep momentum. Or a set of instructions to complete a particular task. Anything seems possible when broken down into manageable steps. I find this especially useful when working on an edition or reacquainting myself with a technique, even if it’s just the order in which to proceed.

    • Make the project big enough for budget and time efficiencies, but not too big or complicated that it becomes unmanageable or lasts longer than my interest in the topic. Maintain an effort-reward balance. 

    • Have an accountability partner to help each other stay on track with projects. This has been useful for me in the past. More important I find is to have a first reader-viewer who helps me know how someone interacts and understands the book. These don’t need to be the same person. As an independent artist, it’s very valuable to have conversations about my projects with trusted art friends.

    I once gave a very complete model to someone for feedback. Not only did I see her stumble slightly with the form, but she didn’t quite understand the text as it was until I added one more line of information. I was too close to the subject matter to realize these issues until I witnessed someone reading the book. Because I hadn’t finished the book yet, I could make adjustments. 

    • Make the entire edition at once. My editions tend to be small, but I find it more efficient to set up in production mode and complete the edition in one span of time. And it feels great to have it completed.

    What questions do you ask yourself? What are your considerations?

    Stephanie Wolff works with paper, text, textile and the book form, often with content drawn from research in libraries and archives. Her artist books have been exhibited in the U.S. and Germany and are in many collections, public and private. She teaches book arts workshops both online and in person. @stephaniewolffstudio

  • 01 Nov 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Recently we had a post about a book that was made from a series of paintings, carefully lit and photographed, color corrected to get as close as possible to the originals, ending with a link where to buy the book. Along the way is the story of the Kickstarter campaign to raise production funds. Is this book art theory? Is it book art? 

    In a 2015 post, Elizabeth Kealy-Morris quotes Johanna Drucker, defining the artist’s book as: “… a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work and […] a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues.” [1]

    Is the book of paintings an art book rather than an artist book? Does it matter? A text was added to the book, but although many images of the paintings are shown, the text is not. If it is an important part of the book, integral to it as a work of art, the relationship between the text and paintings should be seen in the post, not just inferred. Does intent make a difference? 

    I happen to like the concept behind the paintings, but that’s not the point. I ask: is the economics of book art a suitable subject for a book art theory blog? We’ve had other posts about the economics of publishing, but is selling a specific book, whether art book or book art, something that the blog should do?

    We’ve completed seven years of twice monthly Book Art Theory blog posts, about 170 things to think about. The authors are mostly practitioners, varying in experience, including college students, recent graduates, unaffiliated artists, librarians, publishers, and senior faculty who have created and administered book art programs. 

    In 2016 we voted to revise the blog’s mission statement. You can read all about that, and the theories behind the Book Art Theory Blog. We aim to make it more inclusive, with diverse voices and representation from marginalized communities and individuals. Some book artists are misfits who got into this field as a refuge. I identify with this and have had students from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who were marginalized within their communities as strange. 

    It’s worth reading every post on this blog. Sometimes the essay prompts discussion as interesting as the original post, such as Critical Questions. Blog posts often present a personal experience of working, whether it’s making as meditation, studio as sanctuary, or haptic nostalgia.

    Among the topics addressed with insight and good links are social engagement, critique of bookworks, preciousness, experimentation, and legibilities,

    A theme that has been appearing more frequently is the politics of book art.  Several posts are on gatekeeping, inclusivity, and cultural appropriation within the field. Some take up a specific issue, like gun safety. Others deal with the general dynamics of book art as activism and the conceptual framework of publishing book art. 

    Peter Tanner took a chronological approach to this blog and came up with a different set of posts. Well worth your time to explore.

    There’s something to learn from each post, even those by novices who are thinking about topics that have been explored for decades but they approach naively. Sometimes that gives a fresh viewpoint. And if you have something to add on the subject, participate! It’s a conversation.

    [1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004) 2.

    Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.

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