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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 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Do you think an artist’s book can exist solely in a digital space, or does it need a haptic component in order to be an artist’s book? What are the essential haptic qualities of a book you can’t live without?

    As graduate students from the Mills College Book Art program, our curiosity led us to ask these questions to people within the book art ecosystem. Emails went to poets, book artists, letterpress printers, book designers, professors, collectors, theorists, gallerists, and librarians.


    "My gut says no because I love the touch and feel of a book that has the evidence of the human hands in the making, in the turning of the page, all the things that make a book, that make us unique as human beings.” —Truong Tran

    “I think an artist's book can be created in a digital medium instead of a [three dimensional] one, so then to read that book is to engage with it in a digital realm. And a digital artist book can do things a physical codex cannot, they operate under different rules and limitations.… [But] taking away the haptic component of art... cuts one's physical experience of the book off at the knees and some meaning is lost in the digital translation.” —Brooke Hardy

    “I do believe an artist's book can inhabit only a digital realm. It all depends on the outcome the artist wants the user to have and if it's the most effective method to do so.“ —James Tucker

    “Haptic qualities I can't live without is flipping the pages of a good book and looking for all the highlights and reading them.… I think some books can solely exist in digital space like books that have limited texture or are simply print and paper. But books that have special formats like pop ups, wonderful texture or special binding, I think those would be hard to appreciate in a digital form.” —Amber McCrary

    “While I think it is possible for artist booklike forms to exist in a digital space, I do believe that with the loss of the full haptic experience, the tradeoff is a certain loss of attention. This is a difficulty not only in times of quarantine, but in in-person exhibitions where artist books are frequently shown in vitrines or cases.... The haptic experience of the book is the romance, to touch, to hold.... I believe the connection the viewer experiences with this vulnerability ... is part of what instills the sense of wonder in the viewer. Does work that necessitates a haptic experience still matter today? Hell yes. Is it difficult to exhibit? Also yes.” —Michelle Wilson

    “Touch, textural contrasts & the ability to play with scale are big qualities I would miss, but I feel like it would present a fun challenge to try to explore those things in a digital space.” —e bond

    “...[R]ules are made to be broken, so if I say no, then someone very smart will do something in the digital realm that would prove me wrong.… I am interested in hand skills and the way we interact with and manipulate materials that we learn to know intimately through practice and experience. The object then embodies that human experience.… For me, the most essential haptic quality of a book is the feel of the paper as you turn the page. The type of paper, the binding, whether the paper is folded or loose, the grain, what the printing and the ink has done to that paper, all affect the experience of turning the page.” —Joel Benson

    “I typically suggest that students view [book] documentation, particularly the videos, as alternative artist’s books or a different iteration of their book. To experiment ... can free the artist and give them a different understanding of [their] relationship to their work....

    "While I love the tactility and deep connection made possible with an artist’s book, books are more than that. Just as my experience of a book can be enriched and may be even enlivened by experiencing the audiobook version, I expect an artist’s book in the digital space could excite my sense.” —Tia Blassingame

    “...[Y]es, I believe an artist's book can exist solely in a digital space. Would I like it? That's another question.… I think more than haptic, an essential quality of an artist's book is the ability to unveil a unique, layered, and oftentimes embodied reading experience.” —Inge Bruggman

    “Let’s start with the proposition that not everything has to be a book.... You are free to call anything by any word or sound—language is not a fixed condition, but a continually evolving process of creating meaning using context to orient communication.... Haptics are often cited as a missing element in digital work, but I argue that since we experience all digital media through some kind of physical device, there are always haptics included in the experience of a digital work.... Screen life [...] is an impoverished sensorium, limited to just sound and low-ish rez [...] color space. Real life is so much richer.” —Clif Meador

    “Heft turns out to be central, along with page manipulation and the ability to scribble marginalia.… While I am not willing to say that a digital native artist’s book isn’t possible, I have yet to see any example that is at all persuasive.” —Kathy Walkup

    “a book is a book is a book is a book.” —Yo Cuomo


    Joel Benson, Dependable Letterpress. Tia Blassingame, Scripps College Press and Primrose Press. e bond, Artist/Book Binder. Inge Bruggeman, University of Nevada, Reno and INK-A! Press. Yo Cuomo, Book Designer. Brooke Hardy, Book Artist. Amber McCrary, Abalone Mountain Press. Clif Meador, Appalachian State University and Book Artist. Truong Tran, Poet and Artist. James Tucker, Aesthetic Union. Kathy Walkup, Director, Mills Book Art Program. Michelle Wilson, Rocinante Press.

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

    How has the pandemic changed the experience of the haptic in your book art practice?

    “In some way I view this whole Global Pandemic as a vessel for democracy. Accessibility and Plurality. When we see the letters POD we think Print On Demand, but now I just think Publish On Demand. So many people generate works and copies of the work that are to be left behind building cities of forgotten books. 

    PublishOD is a relevant space to be considered. A space not yet fully understood. How many trees? How many books? Are we supposed to reserve forests for future books? Print and publish what is necessary and what is going to be used?” – Juan Pablo Ayala

    “What does the haptic experience mean to a book artist? For a medium that is based in object/object interaction, quite possibly everything. With the only option to connect with people today being the internet, creating and experiencing the haptic proves to be a challenge. While challenging, it is not one that should not be ignored. Computers, the internet, and the digital world offer ample opportunity to explore how books can exist in a synthetic world. We should take this chance to explore this reality, and not have to wait for new technology to free the digital medium.”  – Joey Gage

    We are currently reading Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft. In his book, Adamson introduces examples of art/work to illustrate and provoke thought about the delineation and relationship between craft and art. Though he does not include book art as one of the disciplines, the discussion is applicable. During the pandemic, we share book models digitally on Zoom. This has forced us to translate the experience of our craft verbally. Ironically, the digital barrier has emphasized our understanding and awareness of materiality and skill. It has provided a different perspective as book artists. Craft and art join in the print studio and bindery, shared materials, smell of ink, conversation, music, and community. With the pandemic, this has been sharply curtailed, and given us time to appreciate what is on pause. – Joni B Bissell 

    Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. 2007. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts; reprinted 2018.

    “Despite all the drawbacks in presenting and viewing a finished artist book virtually, there is something to be said for showing the beginning ideas of a book over a screen. Perhaps in removing the haptic it allows for concentration on the idea itself and not the misaligned paper or the tape holding the pages in place. Though the haptic seems to be a necessary part of the finished product, maybe in removing it for just a moment during the planning process, the idea is really allowed to flourish.” – Rebecca Josephson

    “What makes a book inherently a book? Is it the physicality of the object or the experience of the object through time and space? Is the physical interaction with the book inherent to the meaning of the book? What does the current lack of ability to have a physical interaction mean for the book as a work of art? What are books in a digital space? Does the digital platform become the medium of the book in the absence of a physical ability to handle or experience a book? 

    There aren’t concrete answers to these questions. Digitally interactive artists books do exist, but is it the same experience that a viewer has with a physical copy of that “same” book? The sudden lack of a haptic experience during the pandemic has forced us to question the convention of the book.” – Dina Pollack

    “Experiences are informed through our senses and the haptic experience has moved to the platforms of digital screens and videos. The engagement of a modified version, “digital experience” of the visual, limits the haptic experience. The pandemic has imposed restrictions on closeness, public engagements, and for lovers of the sensory experiences lack of touch limits our understanding of the haptic. There will always be challenges for those that seek to engage in the work that asks more of its viewers/ participants even without a pandemic. My hands will continue to create dreams and move ideas into the consciousness of physical form.” – Cinthia Marisol Lozano 

    Juan Pablo Ayala ‘21, Joni Bissell ‘21, Joey Gage ‘22, Becca Josephson ‘21, Cinthia Marisol Lozano ‘21, and Dina Pollack ‘21 are graduate Book Art Students at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Together, they are collaborating and moderating blog posts for CBAA for the months of March and April. 

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

    “The most conceptual works are always caught up in the most material specifics.” [1] Craig Dworkin’s statement describes in a nutshell the dilemma of teaching book art over Zoom during the pandemic. I miss the informal encounters in the studios over whatever challenge the Vandercook is tossing at someone on any particular day. Demonstrating Dworkin’s haecceity of paper under a document camera is no substitute for the “material specifics” and haptic experience of actual book handling. 

    In my graduate seminar at Mills College, I set proof-of-concept projects for the students based on a variety of readings, including “The Logic of Substrate.” These small projects are meant to be drafts, quick studies pointing toward an idea. The students’ No Medium projects often result in their most provocative solutions, ones that can be refined and developed into full-fledged artworks. Turns out working conceptually in the realm of Duchamp’s inframince can be highly motivating.

    Nudisme: Still with Jean Marais from Jean Cocteau, Orphée, 1950.

    In our MFA in Book Art program, the graduate seminars act as the through line during the two years of student residency. Students take the core seminar, The Material Book, during their first semester, then follow that with three more seminars. During that first semester we meet in the Heller Room, the room in the library that houses Mills’ Special Collections. In that space there were only two books that students were not allowed to handle, the Mozart manuscript and the First Folio. Ironically, once both of those were removed from the collection, the pandemic set in and now, rather than have the entire collection accessible, students have not been able to handle anything at all. This has had a crushing impact on our focus on material studies. To help make up for this, I have been lending books from my own library for grad student study, as has my colleague Julie Chen. And through a generous donation, the students also received two books made by the artist Clarissa Sligh which they were able to thoroughly study and then include in their own libraries. 

    Matching students and books turns out to be a challenging experiment. What do you choose when you are grouping five books and handing them to one student, who will in turn be creating a proof-of-concept project based on their perceived linkages among the books? In my teaching I prefer to have the students find their own meaning in the books they are reading and studying. My role, as I see it, is to lay the groundwork for that exploration by deconstructing basic book operation, by asking questions and providing prompts, by guiding them to other works that share similar conceptual scaffolding and yes, by sometimes modelling interpretation. This is close reading, but with artists’ books rather than literature. To that end, I do intervene when I think that the student hasn’t pushed hard enough, and I also try to provide a strong foundation through some grounding in theoretical and historical underpinnings. This work is best done in person and with the luxury of being able to grab an example from the Heller Room shelves that helps to magnify whatever discussion has developed during the session. When, in my undergraduate class on Freedom of the Presses: Resistance and Rebellion in Print, we were suddenly locked out of the studios and library last March, I switched to having the students read and examine the digital surrogates for real artists’ books on the highly accessible Women’s Studio Workshop website. Using these surrogates, we added a discussion about what students were missing when they couldn’t handle the actual books.

    Of course it’s not only faculty who are struggling. Students, even when they continue to have studio access, as our graduate students have had, contend with critiques in which slides and videos have to substitute for handling of the work. The lack of informal studio encounters means that troubleshooting and questions become formalized, and oftentimes are simply absent. Over the next three blog posts, graduate students in the Mills College MFA in Book Art will explore the acts of navigation they and other artists have had to design and sometimes struggle with over the past year. I look forward to reading what they have to say.

    [1] Craig Dworkin. "The Logic of Substrate.” No Medium: MIT Press, 2013, p. 25.

    Kathleen Walkup holds the Lovelace Family Endowed Chair at Mills College, where she directs the Book Art Program and teaches typography and letterpress printing, artists’ bookmaking and a graduate seminar on the material book. Her research interests include the history of women in printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. 

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

    Within literature, the challenge to linearity has fallen in and out of favor, though it generally manifests through either writing strategies, such as shuffling narrative pieces out of straightforward time, or through formal strategies that challenge the physical constraints of the traditional codex. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is an example of the latter, in which the book cover is in fact a clamshell box that opens to reveal roughly 28 loose signatures that can be read in any order, with the exception of FIRST and LAST.  

    Linearity might suggest that truth can be revealed through a singular path. The hyperlink as defined by Ted Nelson [1], however, eschews linearity and in so doing posits that truth is instead positional. In his 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Nelson observed that, “the structures of ideas are non sequential” and offered the hyperlink as a means by which a user can be presented with alternatives to conventional hierarchies.   

    Within 25 years of Tim Berners-Lee’s contribution of the world wide web in 1989, two in five adults on the planet have been initiated in Nelson’s hyperlinking. Much has been written about how the internet has changed everything from the way our brains function to the way we socialize to how we understand “Truth.” In thinking about artist books in this light, I would like to look in particular at how the photobook as a genre of artist book reveals its influence by the non-linear hyperlink. 

    Whereas photo books since the nineteen-twenties have largely been single monographs, over the last decade, there has been an increase in photobooks which present a number of volumes in different formats in a container of some kind – a clam shell, a cardboard box, a slip cover, etc. The material consideration of the book formats in these photoboxes places them within the larger artist book tradition. More importantly, these book formats also reflect the influence of our experience of the world through the lateral movement of the hyperlink as opposed to the linear movement of the traditional single codex. 

    A fine example of an artist photobox is Kazamu Obara’s Exposure (2016).  Exposure has as its focus Chernobyl and the box contains three formats – a soft cover, vertically formatted codex with text & images; a newsprint facsimile; and a horizontally oriented, hardcover photobook. Together, these formats provide three distinct perspectives: black & white found negatives with a reflective text; a historical reference; and a color view from inside a train and looking out as it transports workers to and fro from either side of Chernobyl. These 3 formats provide distinct perspectives that allow us to triangulate on the experience of this place: personal, historical, and documentary.

    An additional layer of photographic content is the inclusion of film negatives set between a number of pages and facsimile 4x6 color photos tucked into others. These elements push the material attention further into the artist book realm. A finishing touch unifying the work includes a couple medium format film labels. They not only create the cover imagery for both the outside box and the b&w paperback book inside, but also they actually wrap around the box and the book inside, creating a seal (like the film wrap) that must be broken to open. This breaking of the seal can be interpreted in myriad ways.

    Another notable photoboox is End. by Eamonn Doyle, Niaill Sweeney and David Donohoe. This 13x8in hard slip-cover, wrapped in translucent, neon yellow glycine contains a handful of variously formatted booklets with different thicknesses of paper, printing styles, number of pages, and fold-outs. The cumulative effect of End. is more associative and is distinct from Exposure in that it is heavily design oriented. There is a strong abstract sensibility throughout, with exceptional bursts of clearly composed, though somewhat surrealist, color photos from Dublin. While not as precise or poignant in its details, End. nevertheless uses the multiplicity of formats to interrupt a particular viewpoint, thereby challenging, poking fun with, and disorienting our vantage point as readers.

    To conclude, these photoboxes prove radical in terms of being broadly influenced by the hyperlink – represented by a diversity of perspectives that create a break from the modernist, single perspective, authoritative viewpoint. I leave as an open question whether this shift also reflects a change in the photographic community’s conception of “Truth” as it relates to the photographic medium.

    [1] Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, p. xxviii, ed. Ken Jordan, 2002, USA 

    Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.

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

    There is an artist book tradition based on the alliance of literature and visual art, from William Blake to Cendrars and Delauney's 1913, La Prose du Transsiberian et de la Petite Jehanne de France. In both cases, the distinction "artist book" stems from the interdependence of the written and the visual, in book form (as opposed to a text with supporting illustrations or vice versa). 

    When considering a definition of "literature,” Jonathan Culler writes, "We can think of literary works as language with particular properties or features, and we can think of literature as the product of conventions and a certain kind of attention." [1] So, literature (and I would suggest the artist book as well) is at once, defined by properties exhibited in the form as well as the attention authors or readers/critics give the form as "literature" or as an "artist book.” 

    I would like to examine how the artist book might work to extend what we understand as literature. For example, Christian Patterson's Bottom of the Lake is a facsimile of an altered phone book and yellow pages. This most functional, utilitarian form in Patterson's hands becomes a humorous, semi-narrative, pathos filled, portrait (of a town in Wisconsin) and self-portrait of the artist. 

    Relating to the idea that literature can be defined by the attention that is given to it, on page 2 in the upper-left corner, is the letter range ALB-ART.  However, the letters ART are circled by hand, thereby transforming the starting letters of a phonebook name to the word "art.” A declaration from the voice of the author.  

    Another notable alteration early on in Bottom of the Lake includes blue words spread top-to-bottom: “WHAT LIES AHEAD?” This establishes a narrative/visual arc that over the course of the book reveals itself. A last example includes an excerpt from a tourism pamphlet, "The purpose of this booklet is to present an honest and clear picture of Fond du Lac and the delightfully prosperous section of Wisconsin in which it is located. It cannot contain all of the information everyone desires. Citizens, boys and girls, read it seriously.” Patterson's inclusion has layers of meaning: The idea that the book will introduce a portrait of Font du Lac, the fact that it is a subjective view, and the tongue-in-cheek manner which suggests Patterson's will be a critical reading.

    Throughout the rest of the book there are verbal puns, autobiographic additions, meta deconstructions, black and white photos, among numerous other literary devices. Together they can be interpreted and re-interpreted in a free-flowing manner over numerous, highly literary readings. 

    Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's Holy Bible transforms scripture into literature through a similar mode of altering the original text with images and the underlining of particular words. However, where Patterson applies humor, Holy Bible is dark and penetrating. There are 512 images of an incredibly diverse range from the Archive of Modern Conflict, London, together with Adi Ophir's concluding text Divine Violence

    Textual alterations in Holy Bible are represented in a spread from Leviticus, where only the words "clean", "unclean", and "cleansing" are underlined in red, a total of 54 times, thereby pointing to the obsession with cleanliness and the dualism of the clean and the unclean. Pictorial alterations with text include a spread, where on the left side the red underlined text reads: "His own hands shall bring the offerings" and the overlaid image depicts two hands holding a spoon with a lighter underneath. 

    On the right-hand page, "blood" is underlined nine times, including the longer line "dipped his finger in the blood," which sits below an image of a figure shooting up intravenously. Together, these alterations meditate on the biblical notion of sacrifice, offerings, and the street experience thereof. Additional interpretations stem from the juxtaposition of the biblical with the real and reference to religion as the opiate of the masses. 

    Holy Bible unflinchingly questions our understanding of humanity's relation to violence as well as the relation the scriptural Bible has with violence. This work is very complex and my analysis does not pretend to be more than a look at the strategy these authors have taken to transform a scriptural text into literature through their artist book interventions.

    In synthesis, these artist book makers have taken traditionally non-literary works, including the phone book and the Bible, and re-imagined them through the form of the artist book. In so doing, these artist books have effectively expanded literature to include non-literary forms.

    [1] Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 28.  

    Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.

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

    Tina Darragh's 1981 chapbook On the Corner to Off the Corner contains prose poems largely derived from the language of the dictionary. Moreover, Darragh often takes advantage of the patterns suggested by the mise-en-page of a single page or opening (a spread signaled by the titles of the poems, which are taken from dictionary headers) [1]. Darragh is frequently drawn to the geometric figures that illustrate mathematical terms, and further she figures the page as a geometric space in and of itself. 

    For instance, the poem "'-lent' to 'leptorrhine' for 'X'"opens, gnomically, with paraphrases of the definitions of gnomon: "removing a parallelogram from a similar parallelogram (by taking one of the corners) results in a shadow seen as a cylinder by squinting." The word denotes both the stylus of a sundial, as well as "the remainder of a parallelogram after the removal of a similar parallelogram containing one of its corners," a figure illustrated with a lettered line-drawing on page 970 of Webster's New Third International from which Darragh quotes. But her collage of dictionary entries goes on to suggest that the page itself might be curled into a cylinder; the poem continues: "cylinders are also obtained by twisting grain on a tree." The language comes from the definitions of gnarl ("to twist or contort"; "a hard protuberance with twisted grain on a tree"), which like many of Darragh's appropriations appear at the very lower left corner of the dictionary page, but that page itself is made of ligneous pulp that allows it to be flexibly turned. 

    With the description of "taking one of the corners" to create the kind of depth that can cast a shadow, and the shifts in visual perception underscored by "squinting," we can begin to see the alignment of the book's titular corners with the corners of the codex [from the Latin for "tree trunk"] and those words — including the header ranges taken as the titles for the poems in On the Corner to Off the Corner — that the reference-book browser not only reads but handles with the haptic recognition of the page as a material object in three dimensional space. 

    This sense of the page as a plane that both contains printed illustrations of geometric forms and also constitutes a geometric form itself comes to be fully realized in the poem "'mobilizer' to 'modern language' for 'U'". 

    Beginning on the top left corner of page 920 of the 1967 edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, with Möbius strip, the first entry on the first column, the poem ends on the previous dictionary page, at the top right corner, where the first entry on the top of the last column finds -mo, the suffix used in bookbinding, abstracted from duodecimo, to indicate trim sizes. By making the two entries contiguous, rather than separated recto and verso, the poem performs a möbius operation with the fore-edge strip, the trimmed page-edge talking about page trim, as if the outermost edge of the page were in fact twisted and collated to join itself into "a continuous one-sided surface." 

    The poem, in short, both talks about folding a sheet of paper in a book and imaginatively enacts the folding of the sheet of paper that contains the description. As another poem in the volume remarks: "The definition is surrounded by trees." The vaguely surreal statement is in fact quite literal, pointing to the conifer-pulp paper on which the dictionary — and Darragh's own displacement of its language — is printed. We may often imagine the defining materiality of artists’ books as an element of the artwork distinct from, or even in contrast to, the referential semantics of its text; in Darragh's case, in contrast, we can see a material imagination of the book emerge from the mere conjunction of the most literal, non-literary dictionary definitions and the most unremarkable trade-paper stock. 

    [1] Tina Darragh: On the Corner to Off the Corner (College Park: Sun & Moon Press, 1981). A digital facsimile is available at

    Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography [Fordham, 2020], from which the present post has been adapted, and Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality [Chicago, 2020]. He teaches literary history at the University of Utah.

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

    I am accustomed to thinking about design in terms of impact, where the goal is to produce in an audience an immediate response of belief or understanding. How do we come to believe or understand, especially ideas that are not new? Some of the things we want to communicate—or rather that I want to communicate, with you—like “love one another,” say, or “don’t be afraid,” toward which artists have been groping for millennia, aren’t easy to absorb immediately. They aren’t marketable: that is, the principles of effective messaging are not governing factors in the same way they would be if I were to convince you to pay for something.

    The idea of one piece of art being more “impactful” than another implies competition, as though I must create the biggest collision at the highest speed. And I am all funned out with trying to provoke the biggest reaction, because the things I want to say to you—we’re strangers, after all—come not from me but through me. When I get those things confused, then what you hear is me—me, with my privileges and prejudices—instead of what I’d like to create for you, which, at its best, transcends those limitations. What would it look like, then, if I were to create a book that listened, instead of spoke? Because I have a feeling that being listened to and not spoken to is how we come to understand. 

    Within early illuminated manuscripts I chanced on books that listen—that rest and say little, so we can listen to ourselves. These books, when created—like the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells—neither conveyed new information nor educated, because everyone who could read them already knew what they said. Unlike churches, which could not be moved if threatened, manuscripts could be hidden, opening their visual space to viewers wherever they were. I have heard that books from as far afield as North Africa, Europe, and the Near East made their way to Ireland in the hands of refugees from political and religious wars, seeking a place to rest—at least for a time—in safety.

    The sanctity of illuminated manuscripts has to do, I think, with space—the interior space they contain for rest and reflection. Their page layouts create an ordered and highly patterned visual space, which is itself filled with ordered and patterned text and imagery, in ever-increasing complexity. These manifold textures share characteristics with mandalas and Islamic calligraphy; they create a sense of being drawn in deeper, in order to see. 

    The examples I’m using come from a religious context, where there is definitely a message behind the silence, but I think that message—whatever it is, doctrinally—comes second to image. The visual space engenders silence, and though someone might want to use the silence to proselytize, the silence came first and can stand on its own: as in, for example, cave paintings or ancient textiles, where the original message, whatever it was, has been lost to us, though the visual space remains powerful.

    I have imitated these early page layouts using Robert Stevick’s The Earliest Irish & English Bookarts, a straight edge, and a compass. Attached are instructions for the layout of the Soiscél Molaise cover, so you too can, if you like, draw a design with just a compass and straight edge. And pencil, I guess, and eraser, probably. The process can be maddening. Still, the quiet of the work can be passed on from its original laborers to us, and when things are quiet, we listen well.

    What is the impact of such a book? Maybe it “makes an impression,” but again we return to pushing, pressing; doing, that is, instead of being; or acting instead of resting, which is the idea I’m groping toward. I’m trying to do things all the time, because I have come to equate changing things with doing things. But is this right? In tracing the lines of a manuscript, what am I doing? It’s hard to say, but I’m drawn to it nevertheless, because it’s the kind of doing that just feels like being.


    I’m Jennifer Buchi! I’m a poet, bookbinder, and cosmic dirt farmer living in Salt Lake City. You can reach me at, where you can also get a copy of the Soiscél Molaise instructions in PDF format if you’d like them.

  • 15 Dec 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Schulz, Christoph Benjamin (ed), The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art [Die Geschichte(n) Gefalteter Bücher: Leporellos, Livres-Accordéon und Folded Panoramas in Literatur und bildender Kunst]. Georg Olms Verlag: Hildesheim, Zurich/New York, 2019.

    It was an exciting day when this wonderful book about accordion books dropped into my mailbox. Coming in at just under 600 pages, The Histories of Folded Books: Leporellos, Accordion Books and Folded Panoramas in Literature and Fine Art is comprised of nineteen texts by eighteen authors, with thirteen chapters in German, four in English and two in French. This book is exactly what this neglected area of artists’ book publishing has needed for many years, and it succeeds admirably in beginning to fill out a history of this bookform ranging from the fourteenth century to the contemporary moment, with an emphasis on accordions coming out of a variety of artistic and literary contexts in the twentieth century. I'm also happy to have a chapter included in which I examine three artists’ accordions that address issues associated with immigration.

    Christoph Schulz introduces the book with a substantial and deeply researched survey of the history of the accordion fold throughout different time periods. His text is presented in twelve sections and he explores the use of the accordion format across different genres including the accordion as panorama, chronology, picture gallery, children's book, and an exploration of both nineteenth and twentieth century book art projects, among others. Coming in at one hundred and seventeen pages this introduction is both an original and substantial contribution to this emerging field of study. 

    Schulz also contributes another chapter titled “Folded Texts and Leporellos in the literary Avantgarde and experimental Poetry,” in which he surveys the use of the accordion fold in experimental literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, and then concentrates on accordions coming out of the visual and concrete poetry movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In this section he examines the works of assorted artists who produced books in the accordion format at different times during their careers, including Emmett Williams, Hansjörg Mayer, Arrigo Lora-Totino, Richard Kostelanetz. Once again this is a deeply researched survey text that succinctly outlines the experimentation with this format in the twentieth century, with a deeper exploration of the works of its experimental and literary-based practitioners during the 1960s and 1970s. 

    Since I'm under a strict word count for this article I will briefly mention four chapters that appealed to me, including my own. These four texts all examine accordions created by visual artists rather than those coming out of the century’s literary environments. I should also mention that my understanding of some of the chapters in the book, particularly those in German and to a lesser degree French, was not very comprehensive. I would assume that many English readers would also have the same issues with translation across two languages.

    Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, a longtime writer on all aspects of artists’ books opens her text with the following, "The leporello is in itself only a binding, a way of folding the pages of a book so that it opens, as we say, 'like an accordion'. Nothing more. The word belongs to the technical vocabulary of the book and designates one of its modalities, one of its manifestations, one of its ways of 'making a book'. But, although it is tempting to think so, this does not determine a priori a function, nor does it privilege a priori a content.” This is a provocative opening statement, and one I would readily take issue with since the accordion's roots lie in other areas as well as the history of books. In her text Moeglin-Delcroix presents a succinct and insightful look at the accordion works of three contemporary artists: Peter Downsbrough, Bernard Villers, and Hamish Fulton.

    Stephen Bann, another writer with a long interest in artists’ printed matter, contributes a brief, but nuanced overview of a selection of eleven of what the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay described as his ‘concertinas.’ Bann befriended Finlay in 1964 and has written widely on him. This text presents a fascinating and detailed account of these 'concertinas' and their place within Finlay's larger printed matter practice, with the concertinas developing from his early 'standing poems,' to folded cards with texts on both sides, and finally to fully fledged concertinas.

    Jean Fremon contributes a rich text exploring the works and writings of Etel Adnan, and in examining her accordions she situates them within Adnan’s larger artistic ouevre which includes continuing activities as a painter, novelist, poet, and essayist. It was not until the early 1960s that Adnan encountered the accordion format, and this chapter includes an English translation of her fascinating 1998 essay "The Unfolding of an Artists' Book," in which she recounts her meeting with an old sailor in a cafe in San Francisco's North Beach, who introduced her to the accordion format, along with the rich possibilities inherent in this medium.

    My own text looks at three accordions that tackle issues of immigration from three different viewpoints and I explore how the format has been used to express these stories. I spend some time exploring the interwoven themes in Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felica Rice's wonderful Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Control (2014). The second accordion, Migrant (2014) by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro, is a vertical accordion that is taken up with a large drawing depicting a young mother, with her son and daughter, making the dangerous journey to the North. Finally, Eroyn Franklin’s Detained (2011) is a graphic novel about two detained immigrants in a deportation center who are slated for deportation, and the book recounts their interactions with other individuals in the center.

    In conclusion, Schulz should be congratulated for bringing into the world this first book that so thoroughly explores the rich and multifaceted history of this unique bookform, and medium, and for laying such a solid foundation for further research.

    Further Reading: See this post on my  Accordion Publications Blog for a complete list of the book’s chapters and the publisher's statement.

    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery, Subspace.

  • 01 Dec 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When I developed an interest in artists' accordion books I searched around for writings on the subject and found, with the exception of one very recent book (see Part 2 of this blog post), there is a paucity of literature on the subject. It was against this background that I started my accordion blog in 2010 in an effort to bring artists' accordion books out from under this cloak of invisibility and to document their fascinating and vibrant history.

    With regard to that history, artists do not start using the accordion format until the early 1960s. From my preliminary research, the decade opens with an accordion by Yoko Ono titled Painting Until It Becomes Marble, which was collectively created by the visitors to her exhibition at the AG Gallery, New York in July 1961. This was one of her early 'instruction pieces,’ and aside from its beauty, it represents a radically alternative publishing model in which chance and audience participation are two vital ingredients.

    The following year, Timm Ulrichs and Warja Lavater created their own very different accordions, respectively titled Fragment and William Tell. This early Lavater work establishes her pictographic style that would become a central feature of the accordions she created throughout her extensive artistic career. And, finally, let's not forget Etel Adnan who created her first accordion work in 1963 and has used the accordion format in her painting practice ever since.

    The accordion book is a strange creature. Variously called an accordion, leporello, oriental-fold, zigzag, or concertina, it is a hybrid of the scroll and the codex, and it combines both the compactness of the traditional book and the expansiveness of the scroll. But it has one feature that neither of them possesses: when opened up, it reveals its sculptural presence.


    Joe Tilson, Proscinemi Oracles, Edizioni del Cavallino, Venice, 1981, ed. 200.

    The accordion format improved upon the scroll by offering the reader a greater ease of access to different parts of the story or text. One commentator has observed that the scroll has “a sequential access format” and the codex has “a ‘random-access format.’” Notable features of the accordion that improved upon the scroll include the ability to use both sides of the page and its protective covers, which enabled it to be transported safely.

    The accordion book is defined by one crucial and elemental feature, the fold. The fold gives the accordion not only its compactness, but is instrumental in creating the accordion's most pronounced attribute — expansiveness. In their open state, accordions fundamentally challenge the idea of the traditional book, and in a very literal sense they function as ‘expanded books,’ and they provide a space in which a richer play of texts, images and pages is possible than in the ordinary codex.

    Accordions also offer the viewer a very different reading experience than a regular book. Moving beyond our ingrained way of reading from left to right, the accordion offers the viewer a flexible way of approaching the book that includes reading and scanning the book from right to left, opening it up and viewing it as a whole, examining the individual pages and turning it over to discover what's on the reverse. An accompanying feature in any encounter with an accordion book is the high degree of handling and physicality required of the reader in their interaction with the book.

    The accordion format makes possible a huge variety of page pairings and sequencing across its length. At one end, there is the seamless panoramic space when fully opened, at the other, with one image per page, the accordion is turned into a mini gallery, all of this coupled with the many different combinations in between.

    Accordions also question the role of the reader, interrogating whether they are simply ‘readers’ or whether they become ‘viewers’ when confronted by these often very long bookworks. Accordions, in their own unique way, collapse any clear distinctions between the two terms and their associated modes of perception. To read, or to view, an artist’s accordion is to engage simultaneously on a number of levels with a multi-faceted bookform.

    Acknowledgements: "Scroll," Wikipedia search, 8.7.90; Leporellos, Etel Adnan, Galerie Lelong & Co., Paris, 2020; and Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books, Granary Books, New York, 1995.

    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator, and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery Subspace.


  • 15 Nov 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Can artist books be categorized as activist art? This question nagged at me during the early part of 2019 as I began planning the Center for Book Arts’ summer exhibition, Poetry is Not a Luxury. Poring over a range of work by U.S. based women artists, I frequently came across examples that explore socio-political subject matter through a personal lens. The artist books, zines, and correspondence art that resonated most with me are unmistakably political given that they draw attention to critical issues, and yet most of these works have not been included in previous exhibitions or publications devoted to activist art. Searching through art historical monographs did not provide answers. What I found was that scholarly writing on book arts tends to privilege formalism, leaving little room for political content. Yet one can argue that the formalism of book arts in itself is political in the sense that artist books, zines, and correspondence art are accessible media, open to all levels of artistic ability and easily distributed to a wide audience. Reviewing the exhibition’s preliminary artworks—from Citizen 13660, a 1946 graphic memoir detailing a Japanese American artist’s incarceration in a concentration camp in Utah during World War II, to Survey (2010), a honeycomb-shaped accordion book that alludes to an artist’s experience as a recently arrived immigrant in New York—I was reminded of the feminist mantra “the personal is political.”

    Abandoning my initial art historical research, I turned to the writings of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, and June Jordan, radical thinkers who were central to shaping Third World Feminism, the twentieth-century movement that mainstreamed terms like “intersectionality,” “identity politics,” and “people of color.” Third World Feminism embraced creativity as a way of documenting, addressing, and amplifying the experiences of women, including how racism and socioeconomic marginalization often intersect with gender-based discrimination. Adopting Lorde’s idea that creativity is thus a necessity for women allowed me to approach the exhibition’s featured works in a way that honors the emotive (and political) power of subjectivity. Creativity, as Lorde reminds us in her 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” reveals “what we feel within and dare make real.” This understanding of the profound nature of creativity combined with the analytical lens of Third World Feminism seemed most apt for an exhibition that brings together a diverse group of artists who articulate the intersectionality that shapes everyday life in the U.S. for so many. By doing so, these artists encourage viewers to consider issues like war, migration, gentrification, mass incarceration, and xenophobia outside of statistical information and news headlines, to which Americans have become desensitized, bringing them instead into the realm of lived experiences. This leap from representation to engagement, from information to knowledge, is one of the essential aims of activist art.

    In “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” (1980), Gloria Anzaldúa reflects on the difficulty of addressing her peers, the Black and Brown women who were her friends and allies: “How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form?” Anzaldúa chose a poetic letter as the most effective medium for her task in the same way that the artists of Poetry is Not a Luxury turned to book arts. Later in the text Anzaldúa warns that “[t]he danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision.” My hope is that by bringing together these artists and presenting their works through this analytical lens that I’ve communicated how intimacy and immediacy are crucial to navigating our current political moment.

    Maymanah Farhat is the curator of Poetry is Not a Luxury. Organized by the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan in 2019, the exhibition is currently on view at the San Francisco Center for the Book and will travel to the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in 2022. 

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