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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.

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

    Clive Phillpot, former head of the library at the Museum of Modern Art, loosely defines artists’ books as: “distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together…. What really characterizes artists’ books is that they reflect and emerge from the preoccupations and sensibilities of artists, as makers and as citizens”[1].

    Kyle Clark teaching students the fundamentals of letterpress and pressure printing at the University of Michigan Library’s Book Arts Studio. Photo by Alan J. Piñon, director of Communication & Marketing at the University of Michigan Library.

    “[A]t the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together”[1], libraries have and continue to be defined as centers for learning and growth that extend beyond the covers of the Book, or traditional information media. To many, the integration of creative tools within library resources encourages creative freedom and more engaged forms of learning and growth. Book arts studio environments, encompassing a variety of book arts related tools and resources (i.e. letterpress printing, print media, bookbinding, hand papermaking, calligraphy, etc.), have emerged in several college and university library settings within the United States as places that facilitate creative research opportunities and engaged forms of learning. These book arts studio environments provide students and researchers with an opportunity to make critical connections through artistic and scholarly processes while also allowing these library patrons to produce creative work (artists’ books, prints, book art objects, etc.) as both research process and product through varied arts-based inquiry and research methodologies.[2] In a college or university library setting (or a public library setting) this mode of creative engagement lends itself well to providing opportunities for collaboration across disciplines, academic departments, and external communities.

    Among the American colleges and universities with library embedded book arts studio environments are institutions such as Wellesley College, Dartmouth College, University of Richmond, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Oberlin College, University of Utah, Colorado College, and several others. Each of the college and university libraries that host book arts studio, workshop, or laboratory spaces have a common grounding in their relationship to libraries as hubs for information, research, scholarship, and creative output. It is relevant to note that a few of the above-mentioned library-based book arts environments incorporate small press models for artist book and fine press publishing (i.e., those at Colorado College and the University of Utah).[3] The small press model within library settings, separate from academic departments, creates an environment where free expression can take place, transcending academic and artistic disciplines.

    In an effort to better understand the place of the book arts in current college and university libraries, I was fortunate to have been able to have conversations with the directors at three of the above-mentioned book arts environments: Katherine Ruffin, director of the Book Arts Lab at Wellesley College; Jen Thomas, director of the Book Arts Studio at the University of Richmond; and Sarah Smith, director of the Library Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth College. Each of these programs is unique, serving their home institution through a combination of book arts programming. Such types of programs include: course instruction/instructional support, non-academic workshops in the book arts, and in some instances providing open studio times for students and library patrons to work on class or independent book arts projects. One of the main commonalities of note within the library-based book arts programs of Dartmouth College, Wellesley College, and the University of Richmond is their collaboration with faculty (from a wide range of disciplines) in order to provide instructional sessions through their respective book arts environments. This type of engagement allows students to explore topics and themes from their coursework through the lens of book arts production, including through the production of artists’ books, prints, zines, and related book arts objects. Sometimes elements of book history or the study of the book as material objects are incorporated into these instructional sessions, as was described by Katherine Ruffin of Wellesley College.[4] In other instances, the book arts serve as a tool or methodology for critically examining complex areas of study. The latter was described by Jen Thomas at the University of Richmond in which a group of students from the University and local HIV community members explore and record narratives through the creation of artists’ books.[5]

    For the next Book Art Theory blog post I’ve written short vignettes highlighting the library-based book arts programs at Dartmouth College, Wellesley College, and the University of Richmond based on conversations with the directors of those three programs. Within these brief overviews, I have attempted to bring attention to aspects that are unique to each program while describing creative projects and/or the programming central to their operation within academic libraries and higher education.


    [1] Lauf, Cornelia, and Clive Phillpot. Artist-Author: Contemporary Artists' Books. 31. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1998.

    [2] Rolling, James Haywood. “A Paradigm Analysis of Arts-Based Research and Implications for Education.” Studies in Art Education. Routledge, n.d. doi:10.1080/00393541.2010.11518795. If you are unfamiliar with arts-based research methodologies, this is a nice place to start. As an artist practitioner-educator, I find an enormous amount of value in the work that has been written on arts-based research and its implications for creative scholarly communication.

    [3] “The Press at CC.” Colorado College, April 1, 2021.  “Red Butte Press.” Red Butte Press - Marriott Library - the University of Utah, January 4, 2020.

    [4] Clark, Kyle, and Ruffin, Katherine. Book arts in college and university libraries. January 7, 2022. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.

    [5] Clark, Kyle, and Thomas, Jen. Book arts in college and university libraries. December 16, 2021. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.


    Kyle Anthony Clark is an artist and educator living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kyle works at the University of Michigan Library’s conservation laboratory and as an instructor in the Book Arts Studio. Kyle maintains an independent practice and teaches courses and workshops on artists’ books, bookbinding, letterpress, and papermaking.

  • 14 Jan 2022 1:09 PM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    In our previous post, we rounded up existing infographics about artist books and encouraged our readers to plot them on a Venn diagram of our own. Then we each did this exercise as a way to get our collaborative conversation going. Things are slippery in the book arts world, hence the many versions of diagrams attempting to wrangle these objects and publications. We decided to lean into these different versions of categorization and post two versions, with a bit of justification.

    Levi Sherman’s proposed categorization of artist book infographics.

    Only one section of our Venn diagram remained unpopulated: infographics that deal exclusively with artist intent or audience. The book arts field seems to emphasize books rather than the people who make them or read them. This is notable since related fields had turned their attention to social, political and economic relations around the time many of these infographics were made. The best-known example may be book historian Robert Darnton’s 1982 “Communications Circuit,” which tries to account for the creation, reception, and survival of a book through all the humans that interact with it, and through the book with one another.

    Darnton, Robert. “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111, no. 3 (1982): 65–83, figure 1.

    Hiding beneath a misleading title, we did find one infographic that takes a similar approach: Kione Kochi’s “Clive Phillpot's diagram updated to illustrate new complexities in the age of digital publishing.” At first blush, Kochi’s corrective seems to be technological and thus a matter of materials and processes (a trail of ants march away from Phillpot’s fruit, each carrying a digital publishing technology). However, Kochi’s real innovation is populating Phillpot’s diagram with people and institutions (dealers, collectors, distributors, commercial galleries, chain bookstores, gatekeepers, museums, book art organizations, and artist publishers). Inasmuch as Kochi’s infographic deals with digital publishing, it is about changing relations among players in the field rather than the evolution of the book object itself.

    Kochi, Kione, “Clive Phillpot's diagram updated to illustrate new complexities in the age of digital publishing,” Temporary Services / Half Letter Press, 2015.

    Kochi’s intervention demonstrates the influence Phillpot’s fruit diagram has had on the field, so we were interested to see its evolution over time. One version differs from the fruit diagram only in the phrasing of “literary books” as “just books” and the use of simple geometric shapes instead of fruit. Did the fruit diagram dominate the discourse simply because it is more fun, or is there an important observation that, while art and books exert equal force on artist books, they are fundamentally different from one another (apple and pear rather than circle and circle)?

    Likewise, the fruit diagram organizes books into unique and multiple, whereas another version groups them by visual, verbal, and verbi-visual. Does the preference for the former reflect (or create) a field more interested in materials and process than conceptual organization and subject matter? Perhaps the utility of Phillpot’s fruit diagram is its ability to define or describe the field for outsiders, while other infographics we found do more for those already inside the field. Kochi’s ironic update is certainly meant for insiders, and so is Daniel Mellis’ “Handmade-o-Meter,” which was published in the Journal of Artists’ Books. By contrast, Ulises Carrión’s interdisciplinary media theory and Philip Zimmermann’s analysis of photobooks bring readers in from other fields.

    AB Gorham’s proposed categorization of artist book infographics.

    One could argue Manuel Portela’s diagrams capture the artist’s intent, although originally we hadn’t put them into that category. Portela is attempting to visualize the conceptual and textual strategies of the Danielewski text in a way that feels like a “close reading” but with visual workflow.

    Throughout our exercise, we thought of the infographics as either primarily verbal or primarily visual, but then decided to demarcate those infographics that make use of text and visuals equally. For example, there is a clear distinction between Philip Zimmermann’s photo-bookwork chart (which is essentially a list) and most of the other infographics, but some of the Phillpot diagrams are combinations of simple geometric shapes and concise wording. This may seem less important than the subjects of the areas of the Venn diagram, but it is certainly a part of the argument and perhaps reveals something about how the design of infographics affects the field.

    As mentioned above, Kione’s introduction of “digital publishing” to update the classic Phillpot infographic could itself probably use an update to address the myriad ways that digital media is being incorporated into the artist book world. It would be interesting to see how means of digital publication could become a set of categories for classifying artist books. What would these categories look like? What about books with apps, books with video components, books with digital soundtracks or video games connected to them?

    Ultimately, this structural exercise isn’t about finding the correct answer to our Venn diagram question. It’s about using the data collection of existing book arts (and book-adjacent) infographics and diagrams to get an understanding of the ways in which artists and theorists are thinking about book arts and publication. In this way, these diagrams are as much about the present state of the book and publication arts world as they are about the future — let’s focus on the gaps.

    Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director of Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

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

    There is a prevalence of infographics about artists' books. Infographics that display an inheritance from dematerialized/conceptual art; infographics that describe and demarcate the field of artists’ books; infographics that fulfill the need to communicate about a medium that is both spatial and time-based; infographics that function to teach bookbinding and letterpress printing (book arts). Why are there so many infographics about artists’ books? What do they tell us about or offer to the field of book arts?

    Is this unique to artists’ books? Are we in a field obsessed with defining itself? And what we might learn by surveying them?

    In order to answer some of the preliminary questions we looked at a set of example infographics and attempted to organize them according to "circles of meaning." Being that infographics are spatial, playful, and reductive, we agreed to start with mimicry in order to better understand how they function.

    In terms of data visualization, the relationship between the bookbinding worksheet and a manual for machinery is that both are pragmatic and a sort of meta-publication. Maybe this connection is related to design practices. Design practices stem (partly) from necessity (the need to organize and plot out on paper where to print, fold, bind when there are so many planes of existence in a book format), but also include the artistic impulse to visually manifest an abstract idea or emotion. It’s possible that these book arts infographics are a result of the artistic/design impulse to create a visual, as well as practical, guide for a field that has its foundations in an existing form or medium (the book). The inherent interdisciplinarity of artists’ books and its conception/metaphorization as a “field” or a zone of intersection lends itself to spatial representation, and, the ongoing concern with self-definition and self-examination continues to produce infographics in this vein.

    We evaluated the sample infographics and placed them into 3 large categories: Materiality/Process; Conceptual Organization/Subject Matter; Artist’s Intention/Audience.
    The resulting diagram brings up a few key ideas:

    1. artists' books are interdisciplinary, so it makes sense that the liminal spaces and boundaries will be important (even if they aren't represented)

    2. the point of a structuralist exercise might be to see the limits of discourse, i.e., what positions in the graphic ought to be populated and, if they aren't, what (social or material) factors are preventing them from being populated? 

    3. if the infographics are indeed reductive, how has that affected the field's self-conception?

    We propose using this Venn diagram to gauge infographics about book arts in the same way we would use those book arts infographics to gauge the bookishness of art or the artiness of books. Maybe this infographic becomes a way to talk about the types of critical theory and language used when discussing book arts and brings up larger ideas about the gaps. It will be interesting to see how people plot the various infographics on the structure we’ve created; we anticipate that some will be straightforward and others will be controversial. For example, Smith's conceptual books could be all about artist's intent and thus about artist/audience...but of course that is inherently contrasted to materiality and process, etc.

    In the spirit of book arts as an experiential art form, we would like to take this opportunity to ask the reader to participate in this exercise by deciding where each of the linked diagrams might fit. 

    Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director of Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

  • 15 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    James Joyce’s final book Finnegans Wake is simultaneously the most resistant and the most generous artwork that exists. 

    Resistant because although Joyce said that he could justify everything within it, this circular linguistic extravaganza remains labyrinthine, intransigent, and largely impenetrable to anyone approaching it (exactly, I think, how Joyce wanted it, overflowing as it is with riddles and inventions, and cross-historical and instantaneous perambulations). 

    Generous because it is continuously inviting us into its expansive, ubiquitous, and welcoming sui generis existence (this process, as Ovid and Giambattista Vico and Nature itself inform us, has to be continuous because that is the way the world effortlessly and insistently and without cease reprocesses and recreates and repossesses itself). (And what do artists do except reprocess, recreate, and repossess?) 

    I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake for about 45 years and still have a long way to go.

    Some years ago I decided to annotate the book for myself, and to draw upon (both drink from and decorate), and to disrupt it – sticking my inquisitive nose where it wanted to go, intertwining my meandering musings with its body, and jabbing it with marks and colours (and various found objects, including the whole range of bodily fluids and humours) as I saw fit and as I hoped would fit. 

    Yoking together my twinning interests in the illustrative and the intellectual, the verbal and the visual, the pallet and the palette, LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE, my current multi-year artwork, is a way for me to have some fun with the book that Joyce spent 17 years building.

    The tree outside my window is a simple place to start. Covid-bound as I am, it’s often the first and last thing I see. In the midst of my own idiosyncratic glossings – I integrate the research of various guidebooks (my knowledge of Persian, Rhaeto-Romanic, and Shelta is pretty shaky, to say nothing of my familiarity with the artificial language Volapük) and then embroider the text with my own specific amusements – I’ve painted and depicted various versions of this tree onto the pages. 

    The roots and the trunk and the crotches and the branches: trees can take on an uplifting amount of words and weight. I jigsaw as I go, fitting a few letters or words here and there, crafting the edges just so, making room for the thing to breath, and then trying to prevent myself from following my natural horror vacui instincts.   

    So is my artwork an artist’s book? At the end of my project (if such a thing will or should exist) I’ll have one copy of 628 pages of words and colours. But some of the originals are already being dispersed, so the entirety of LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE may never be entire. If I think too much about that, I begin to tire. So I just keep marking the time.

    Who knows what an artist’s book is? Do I know? I’ve always been partial to Marcel Duchamp: “It’s an artist’s book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is.”

    Peter O’Brien’s most recent book, Dream Visions: The Art of Alanis Obomsawin, was published in October 2021 by Viggo Mortensen / Perceval Press. His next book, Love & Let Go, will appear in March 2022. He has been working on LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE for about six years. More on the project:

  • 01 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The new publication Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History opens with a self-confident and self-aggrandizing flourish. On its website and within its first two issues (mid-2020 and mid-2021) it gives us various introductions of itself. 

    “Journals,” it says, “work the minor miracle of being both item and series: the pearl, and the string of pearls. Here at Inscription we aim for the mobility of the seventeenth-century pamphlet, the intellectual rigour of the monograph, the walk-through-wonder of the art gallery, and that delighted dance between form and content.”

    The beginning of the new journal, Inscription

    Inscription looks us in the eyes, earnestly, and informs us that it is intoning the multimedia magazine Aspen (1965-71), and the Vorticist, two-issue magazine Blast (1914-15). It speaks to us with a learned lilt to tell us that it is “an exciting new publication featuring work by practitioners – book artists, printmakers and writers – alongside academic discussion. Its focus is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces, and the processes of mark-making in the widest possible sense: from hand-press printing to vapour trails in the sky; from engraved stones to digital text.”

    And once more, with academic feeling, Inscription tells us it is “both a journal of cutting-edge research and a playful and innovative multimedia artefact.”

    So how is it on the fulfillment side of this promising serial ledger?

    The issues are supersized and expensive – so much so that no physical copies were made available by the journal for review. I had to depend on my MacBook Air and my iPhone, which along with iPads will be how most people access the journal. Neither of my devices provided a compelling or even a pleasant reading / viewing experience. 

    The opening piece of the enterprise is “On Stone,” by Serena Smith, a poetical essay on lithography that wanders back and forth through time. At play here, says Smith, is “the virtuality of duration, its tangible inscription, and the substrate of lithography stone, in an operation that brings together worlds of geology, autobiography, technology, and writing.” Smith writes with informed sensitivity about the marks made by history and hands. She’s working, after all, with objects that have the “capacity to ignite latent memory.”

    In the first issue we also have an intriguing essay on epitaphs in 18th-century England by Rebecca Bullard, which documents the idiosyncratic metamorphoses that have come down to us on monuments, in manuscripts, and impressed onto paper. And there’s a searching and touching essay on skin / parchment / inscriptions by Kathryn James. 

    I found some of the offerings, in particular “The Work as Will: Roland Barthes Reading Group,” rather pedestrian. Not Barthes – he is seldom pedestrian, except when he wants to be – but these fleeting fragments of commentary didn’t add much to my reading or to the pages of the journal. 

    The first issue is printed dos-à-dos, and with each spread on a slightly different rotational axis than the previous one. The format did add to my reading experience, but only to its frustration. I’ve got perfectly serviceable electronic devices, but I have no desire to tilt my damn laptop at a different angle to read each different page. 

    I would suggest to the editors a bit less “look at us!” dos-à-dos cleverness, and a bit more of a musical “Do Si Do,” or at least more “do / see / do” going forward. 

    Inscription 2 was easier to read on a screen (no rotating text!) and had stronger graphic material, although this time we get a series of PDFs rather than a complete one (which causes its own ponderous sequential challenges). 

    Fionna Banner, Full Stop

    Among the insightful pleasures for me in the second issue is the piece on organic and spontaneous library wormholes by Dianna Frid, Carla Nappi and Ian Truelove; the gushing, watery hole on the cover by Fionna Banner (who issued herself an ISBN in 2009 and registered herself as a publication: “a sort of self-portrait as a book,” as she says); and Christian Bök’s maelstrom soundscapes “The Oracle at the End of Time” and “Afterthoughts in the Void.” 

    I was prepared to make use of Inscription to get closer to Carolyn Thompson’s piece “The Beast in Me,” but I was unable to capture it from the Inscription website. I did eventually find the piece on Thompson’s own website, and its circular, tumultuous love is certainly worth a wider audience. 

    Some of the concerns I had with Inscription 1 are still evident in number 2. Co-editor Gill Partington introduces Erica Baum’s artwork “Piano Rolls” with the words “strange and compelling,” “subtle reconstruction that seems to elicit new possibilities of meaning,” and “an enigmatic kind of visual poetry.” I like Baum’s work, but do I need my hand held by Partington quite so firmly, quite so insistently, quite so helpfully? Please: let the work read and be and show itself. 

    Of passing interest to me was “Cigar Burn Apertures” by David Bellingham. I was intrigued that he describes at some length his art-making talents, but does not reference Antonin Artaud’s crazed, cigarette-burnt magic spells. 

    Carolyn Thompson, The Beast in Me (detail)

    One thing about Aspen: the contents of the gathered pieces complemented the forms in which they were presented. There was engagement and wit and newness and playfulness. I would be delighted for Inscription to meet or at least approach its own lofty ambitions. No thematic topic has yet been mentioned for issue number 3, which will begin to take shape in early 2022. Here’s a suggestion: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

    Peter O’Brien edited the journal Rubicon, which included interviews with Margaret Atwood and Mavis Gallant, poems by Eavan Boland, and artwork by Ann Hamilton. His books include Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table (about studying Latin with his daughter) and Dream Visions: The Art of Alanis Obomsawin, published in 2021 by Viggo Mortensen / Perceval Press. 

  • 15 Nov 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For several years I taught a graduate Book Art seminar at Mills College that met several times a semester. These classes grew out of a full-semester grad seminar, The Material Book, that I taught for many years. Students in that class asked that the work of the material book seminar be extended beyond one semester (the first semester of their two-year MFA in Book Art studies) in order to continue to discuss the issues that came up in their first fall of study. [You can read a bit more background in my Book Art Theory blog post “[Im]material specifics: Zooming through the pandemic,” March 1, 2021.]

    The main seminar focused on the theoretical, conceptual and historical study of the book as a material object. The three semesters of follow-up seminars continued those studies, but the nature of the projects for these seminars shifted from completed projects to rough outlines of ideas. These proof of concept projects generally were set as response to reading we were doing in the seminar, although other prompts (artist talks, a video, an article in the newspaper) could also apply. 

    Usually the prompts were simple:

    Read: Magali Rabasa, “Radical Politics and Organic Books in Latin America [1].

    Project: Make an organic book that takes into account the principles around the ways print books create community and a space for radical politics.

    Occasionally they were more detailed:

    Read: Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy and Book from the Ground [2].

    Xu Bing describes his iconic work, Book from the Sky, as ‘a paradox full of contradictions’ [p. 176]. He adds further contrasts: solemn yet absurd, external appearance vs. internal “essence.” Referring to the texts as characters denies the function of his pictorial forms; calling the work a book fails to recognize that it doesn’t qualify as one. There is an emergence of hyper-realism and abstraction, another point of possible tension.

    Using at least one of these areas of contrast as a point of departure, make a book that signals one of more of these sets of contradictions. Feel free to challenge Xu Bing’s ideas about his own work if you would like. And of course you can also work with his “doubts and sense of alarm about existing forms of writing.”

    The books that the prompts called for were meant to be not finished pieces, but drafts. I was always mindful of how much work the students were undertaking in the studios, and usually there was at least one student who was preparing for their thesis exhibition. What the students brought to the classes were rough to very rough mockups, with enough detail (perhaps one page spread filled in if the book were meant to be in page spreads) that we could grasp what they were trying to do and make comments on the concept. 

    Of course sometimes the results were not at all what I expected. One of the prompts was based on Kurt Johannessen’s Shine [3]. Johannessen is a Norwegian artist whose work is highly conceptual and often interacts with the nature of light. I consider Shine one of his most intriguing books. In it are fourteen photographic portraits printed in a glossy white ink on a white background so that the pages appear empty at first glance. You read the portraits by changing the way the light hits the pages.  The portraits are not identified, but they appear to be possibly friends or family members. What I see are portraits that are almost ethereal, as if I were somehow glimpsing into their disembodied selves. What the students saw were fourteen white portraits of fourteen white people. It was impossible for them to separate the lack of diversity in the portraits from the conceptual backbone of the book, which led to some scintillating discussion.

    Time after time, the students came up with striking concepts that were eminently workable as fully realized books. Since there was no time for them to realize these works, the projects became placeholders for future investigation. Many students expressed excitement in the idea that they would have at least one conceptual framework to develop into a finished work once they graduated. The projects became a bridge into the future, a material presence that offered life, and art, after grad school, with some initial critique already thrown in.

    [1] In The Book Club of California Quarterly, vol. LXXXV, no. 4, Fall 2020.

    [2] In Marshall Weber, ed., Freedom of the Presses: Artists’ books in the twenty-first century. Booklyn, 2018.

    [3] Kurt Johannessen, Shine. Zeth Forlag, 2006.

    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. In 2022 her exhibition, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, will open at San Francisco Center for the Book. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

  • 31 Oct 2021 9:51 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    When I walked into the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University recently, an installation immediately caught my eye. Ranged along three sides of a large balcony above me were bookcases filled with what looked to be thousands of books bound in bright cloth. As it turns out, there were 6000 books in the exhibition, all wrapped (not bound) in Dutch wax-print fabric. On the spines of some but not all of the books were gold-stamped names in large capital letters, some recognizable (Cameron Diaz, Steve Jobs, Teju Cole, Tiger Woods), some not. The order of the books appeared to be random. I say books, but in fact since they were wrapped we have only the artist Yinka Shonibare’s word about that. The label for this work stated that the names are “first- and second-generation immigrants or their descendants, or those who moved in the Great Migration . . . .”

    The label had a complex explanation about the use of Dutch fabric with its Indonesian batik designs, but no explanation for the books, nor does the website ( even mention the books beyond stating that the covered objects are, in fact, ‘hardback books.’ This must be a critical piece of information for the artist; what should we as viewers make of this? In the absence of seeing what the actual titles are of these books, a hardback book represents more authority than a paperback: We imagine what is printed in it has more value than its paper counterpart. Since we can can’t touch the books, we can only imagine—but we do—their heft and their permanence. What they have to say is clearly irrelevant since we have no access to that information even if we could pick up the objects.

    The artist thought it important to use books as the medium for this particular message, but if I were critiquing this project I would ask, as I have countless times over the decades of my teaching, why the books are there. Sure, stories are told in books, but books as objects also tell their own stories, and if you want to create work that is grounded in the book form, you had better have a clear conceptual pathway toward that making. Otherwise they are merely vehicles, the way, for example, the concept behind Tom Phillips’ iconic altered book project A Humument has circuitously led to legions of books being hacked into fantastic shapes as if they were hunks of soap, or to failed experiments (or ‘artwork’ as Wikipedia labels it) like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

    In my graduate seminars at Mills College we worked mostly with the codex. Alan Loney, whose The Books to Come (Cuneiform Press, 2012) was a staple of those courses, writes that book = codex + text. While I don’t limit the use of the word book to the codex, I do stress that, in its millennium or so of existence, the codex has not exhausted its possibilities. To explore those possibilities we might begin by reading about the page through the eyes of Bonnie Mak (How the Page Matters, University of Toronto Press, 2012). Mak’s examination of the non-verbal elements of the page and their expressive function is a strong jumping-off point, an initial way to understand the page as both a technological device and a holder of the ‘cultural residue’ of authors, scribes, sellers, owners and readers. Pairing Mak’s exploration of the page with Dick Higgins’ brief essay on the book as a ‘container of provocation’ (Dick Higgins, A Book, 1982) provides a broad basis for conceptualizing the book through the lenses of technology (the hide and reveal of page turning), history and art. Close reading of iconic examples of the codex like Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover, Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-six Gasoline Stations and Sol Lewitt’s Four Basic Kinds of Lines and Colour allows students to follow some pathways that artists have taken to explore the form.

    Of course students also did hands-on work to consider the conceptual nature of books. In the next blog post I will describe some of the proof of concept projects that students undertook in the seminars. Had the Shonebare work been available to us, we could have explored that installation through study and practice, perhaps by wrapping and amassing books to test and question the theory behind Shonibare’s approach to his work.

    * When you think about it, that category includes nearly everyone in the U.S. Who, after all, would be left, outside of the indigenous peoples of the land (who are not addressed here)?

    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. In 2022 her exhibition, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, will open at San Francisco Center for the Book. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

  • 15 Oct 2021 1:57 PM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    Exploring where Book Art fits in the broader art world and pushing the boundaries and definitions of Book Art is exactly what we’re here to do. That work is made easier because artist books lend themselves to expanding definitions and context anyway. Book Art situates itself along certain in-betweens – it can’t be placed in the same category as flatworks like much of painting, drawing, and printmaking, but it also isn’t exactly in the same category as more dimensional art like sculpture, ceramics, or even installations. Artist books often borrow visual language from typical 2D and 3D art forms, but a key element that works its way into discussions about books is the element of time. 

    Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan.

    I would argue that a majority of artist books invite time into the equation as a viewer: flips through pages, picks up the book to turn it around and inspect it, unrolls or unfolds or moves the book in other ways. This dimension of time through interaction is not necessarily absent from more two-dimensional art works, but it is not expected of those mediums. Three-dimensional art forms are more likely to encourage an interaction, triggering the additional dimension of time for the work, but even sculptures don’t carry that expectation in their core in the way that books do.

    Mock-up made by Beth Sheehan.

    Time’s role in books becomes more evident when trying to accurately document artist books. To fully capture an artist book, multiple photographs are needed at minimum. I would even argue that a recording of the book being handled is infinitely more preferable, and even then, the recording can hardly compete with interacting with the book yourself.

    Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan, alternate view.

    But this addition of time in Book Art doesn’t place it completely in a time-based artwork category either. Artworks that are typically called Time-Based art are more along the lines of videos, sound art, or performance art. This article by the Guggenheim explains that in addition to dimensions that the artwork may have such as height or width, these works all have the added dimension of a duration. Unlike the works discussed in that article, Book Art again fits just outside of the category because while time is a dimension of most books, duration is not.

    Book Art’s relationship with time feels like its defining factor for me. Each book will ask each viewer for a different amount of time each instance that the viewer interacts with it. It feels to me like the book’s gravity is fluctuating and time is dilating in response, like Einstein’s theory of general relativity (then proven through this cool experiment). The more gravity the book has affecting the viewer, the slower time flows for that viewer when handling the book.

    “Outside of Time” bookish installation by Beth Sheehan.

    This is why artist books don’t have a set duration. The amount of time a viewer spends depends on the amount of pull the book’s gravity has on them. Then, I’m left contemplating ways to increase the gravity of my books and wondering which artist books that I’ve encountered had the most gravity, pulling me in and bending my time.

    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 Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 01 Oct 2021 3:42 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    To me, repetition is indivisible from book arts. So often, bookbinders are creating multiples of the same book object through editions or within a series. Even in cases where we decide to create a single book, bookmaking still incorporates so much repetition – poking holes for sewing, gluing page after page, making fold after fold.

    In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is punished for his hubris and the punishment befitting him was an eternity of repetition. He was doomed to roll a boulder almost all the way up a hill, just for it to inevitably roll back to the bottom causing him to repeat the process over and over, forever.

    This myth begs the question, is repetition a punishment? And if so, are book artists gluttons for punishment? My answer to this question changes based on where in the bookmaking process I am.

    Image of Beth in a moment of frustration with a book project; a cheeky nod to Ai WeiWei’s Study of Perspective.

    Enjoying the punishment of art making, sacrificing for your artistic practice, and becoming the cliché of the “tortured artist” seems right along the lines of what someone would expect from a maker whose preferred medium is something as labor-intensive as the production of artist books. In fact, the myth of the Tortured Artist is so prevalent for all types of creatives that there have even been scientific studies conducted to research connections between creativity and mood disorders or mental illness. It is far easier to not make art than it is to make art, so deciding to create is a choice that requires a lot of buy-in from the artist. 

    Artist book edition by Beth Sheehan titled Beloved.

    Punishment is much easier to endure with the right motivation, though. Unlike Sisyphus’ boulder rolling, bookmaking is not futile. All the potential struggle and punishment that book artists put themselves through results in something of value – the artist book. This positive outcome then changes the narrative of the effort required. Instead of seeming useless, the work put into producing an edition of artist books becomes a devotion. 

    The value of the end product may provide enough motivation to cause an artist to shift from a state of statis to creation, but it still doesn’t condone repetition. The cost-value does not grow proportionate to the number of books produced, so where is the justification for the added punishment of creating more of the same book?

    Beth’s stack of boxes in progress at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

    Maybe repetition that results in a positive outcome becomes mediation. There have been several scientific studies about the benefits of repetition, including one in 2015 that looked at the act of repeating mantras and the effects that this has on one’s emotions and cognition. The results of that study state, “We demonstrate that the repetitive speech was sufficient to induce a widespread reduction in [blood oxygenated level-dependent] signal compared to resting baseline.” Repeating the mantra had a physiological effect on the participants, calming them down. I wonder if a study about the effects of physical repetition through bookbinding would find a similar result.

    I have heard countless book artists express the feeling that the production side of making their work becomes meditative. There is something so nice about doing tasks that keep our hands busy, but allow our minds to wander. Getting into the rhythm of editioning can be a moment of respite and catharsis in and of itself, ending in the added satisfaction of creating something.

    Edition of books, freshly cased-in by Beth at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

    In lieu of all my speculating, I should instead pose the question to the book arts community. What value do you find in the repetition of book arts?

    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 Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 15 Sep 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The repetition of printing offers consistency—each pass affirms progress through the stack of blank printer’s sheets, and the racked prints exude productivity. In early March 2020, under orders to evacuate the print shop, Emily Tipps and I hurriedly printed the title page and portfolio for the Festschrift for Bill, which I took home to build and disseminate. The project kept my mind and hands committed to progress. Two months later, still isolated from the presses and the people who use them, I shipped the completed portfolio to participants, receiving messages of warm appreciation in return. Connecting with the book arts community in response to the passing of Bill Stuart of  Vamp and Tramp Booksellers was a powerful healing and celebratory opportunity before the pandemic hit, and the impact was exponentially greater once the global grief began to settle in. 

    Feeling debilitated and disconnected, I responded to an open call on social media for Fluffle: a second Tiny Bunny Print Exchange, organized by Lisa Hasegawa and Yuka Petz. The invitation to indulge in furry cuteness also offered the ease of creating on a small scale (20 prints measuring 3”x 4.5”) in any media (not to be more than 40% digitally produced). I completed my edition with what I had at hand—a drawing from a stock image, “printed” pochoir with a carbon paper trace monoprint. The randomly selected prints received in return were a comforting reminder that real people were out there, alive and making. 

    Prints from top left to bottom right by Aimee Rosner, Taylor Cox, Lisa Hasegawa, Ryan Lindburg, Mary Jane Parker, Kiernan Dunn, Kerri Cushman, Rochelle Gandour-Rood, Monica Wiesblott, Yuka Petz, Jessica Peterson, Gabby Cooksey, Jodi Genest, Sara White, Yuri Loudon, Kenny Harrison, Kat Brown, Bill Moody

    In February 2020, Tony Guadagnolo invited me and 63 other SP20 owners to produce a 1920s jazz-themed print as a member of the 20 for 20 SP20 Print Collective. The Collective was formed as the pandemic took root, and the project was actuated “separately together” over the course of the year, with flexible deadlines in response to COVID-19 fallout. Tony kept in touch by emailing early jazz trivia questions and mailing collective T-shirts and printers’ manicules to participants. The following February, I joyfully received the smartly designed portfolio of 20 diverse prints. Simultaneously, I recognized that the critical value was in the collective productivity—being part of a larger whole whose individual members worked in parallel spaces in response to a common call with a shared timeline.  

    Designed by Tony Guadagnolo

    Work by Peter Bushell and Kerri Cushman

    Dan Mayer, the College Book Art Association Southwest Regional Leader, organized a member exchange with the theme of Environment in March 2020. The theme was sufficiently open to consider global or more localized concerns that seemed amplified by the period of intense news-watching and ceiling-staring. I felt connected with other makers in my region, all thinking about place, and repurposed feelings of angst and hopelessness to fuel ideation and printing. 

    Designed by Daniel Mayer

    Print by Karen Zimmermann

    Prints by Aaron Cohick and Amy Thompson

    In November 2020, I received an invitation to participate in the Hope is an Action Print Exchange, organized by Jessica Snow, Kseniya Thomas, and Jenny Wilkson. The genius of the call was in encouraging participants to take action by hoping, something accessible to all, with individual and combined effort. I was struck by the inherent potential of collective problem-solving and the power of connection across geographic as well as political and/or cultural divides. During a period when the world seemed suspended in time, involvement in the project gave structure and meaning to my creative output. 

    Stefanie Dykes sent a spontaneous call to print-action in early January 2021 for the Ethic of Love Portfolio, inspired by bell hooks’s essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” I was propelled by the two-month deadline, the powerful essay, and the knowledge that other printers were making and loving in unison with me. By April, all 25 artists had received a full set of prints, each in a 10” x 5” priority mailer with a window that gave the enclosed exhibition the opportunity to travel and spread the love. 

    See participant list for artists' names

    With the pandemic still raging, I’m grateful to be working on prints for Communities: West 5, organized by Sukha Worob and Andrew Rice, and Habitat, an effort by Mark Ritchie to “bring together” artists and writers to produce collaborative broadsides. The shared goals and deadlines help me prioritize the making—collectively, we are producing timely, innovative work that serves to connect us with one another and our audiences, despite our being distanced.

    Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography (University of Utah) and a BA in English/Philosophy (Boston College). Marnie teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books and other courses for the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is master printer and production manager for the Red Butte Press.

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