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.> 

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