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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.

  • 01 Jul 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    For this post I asked permission from Phil Zimmermann to publish a brief excerpt of his presentation at the 2016 Photo-Bookworks Symposium June 23-25 that I organized for Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY. The following excerpt includes the core of Zimmermann’s position and the graphic component here is a kind of visual essay unto itself. It should also be mentioned that Zimmermann’s creation of the graphic essay was inspired in part by the re-organization of his personal book collection into categories of photobook, photo-bookwork, artists’ book, etc.

    --Tate Shaw

    “The term artists’ books has been much bandied about in the photo community in recent years and is, I think, used perhaps a little too loosely. What makes a photo-based book an artists’ book? To step back a little, the term artists’ book, even outside the photobook world, is a term that is still contested, and there are many camps that argue about what characteristics determine what makes an artists’ book an artists’ book. I think that most practitioners would agree that an artists’ book is a book that is not merely a reproduction of images or texts that exist in another form, but a new time-based medium unto itself, with a unified conceptual content. The ‘book artist’ is the author and in control of the creation of the entire book. In almost all cases this would eliminate the use of a book designer or even possibly a pushy publisher who ‘knows what will sell.’

    Unless the designer is under the close supervision of the artist, the artist him or herself must have the overall creative vision with an artists’ book. Collaborations do exist, like Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage, and there, all contributors are given credit as the creators. This idea of what an artists’ book should be requires that the artist-photographer must educate themselves on book structure, history of visual books, methods of production, typography, and, on a more meta level: how to think and work in terms of a time based-medium, using sequence, rhythm, narrative arc and so on.

    So I went through my artists’ book collection and carefully pulled out any photobook that I thought was either by artists who self-identified as ‘photographer,’ or where I felt that photography was the primary subject and medium that was used. Many of these books were ones where the photos were not used in the standard ubiquitous monograph form that so many photographers love, nor were they coffee-table-type publications that galleries supported by subvention, and used as a form of publicity to raise the profile of their stable of artists. Those above-mentioned books were already segregated out and in my photography book section, they clearly did not belong in the artists’ book section. Of course there is nothing wrong with the photographic monograph book.   

    The question is: ‘What is it that you want to use the book for?;’ the photographer must ask themselves that. The monograph does the job of promoting single photographs or bodies of work, if that is what one needs and wants to do.

    But books are capable of much more.

    I have given out a chart which is a graphic expression of what I see as a linear continuum that follows the standard photographic book on one end, onward to the other end, where the photo-bookwork book is situated, the photo world’s version of the artists’ book.”

    --Philip Zimmermann, at the VSW Photo-Bookworks Symposium, June 24, Rochester, NY



  • 15 Jun 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    The first time I saw the Wikipedia “Artist’s book” entry was May 15, after reading this post by Philip Zimmermann to the “Book Arts Collective” Facebook group. Please read Phil’s statement.

    What does this have to do with Book Art Theory? Nomenclature, language, words, semiotics: syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, are fundamental to any attempt at understanding. Cognition is influenced by political, social and economic factors. In Wikipedia there is no entry for “Book art.” It redirects to “Artist’s book.”

    Public perception of “Book art” is influenced by eliminating its name as a field. This has practical consequences, influencing funding sources, college administrations, the collector market, the development of critical theory, and more. It constrains the opportunity set. People who are not in the field of Book Art, or are just entering the field, are likely to query Wikipedia, and will find that the field does not exist.

    We are the College Book Art Association. Our field exists. CBAA can and should provide leadership on this. It’s time for an intervention.

    For at least four decades "Artist's book" has been a subfield of "Book art," not the other way around. It took very few people to commandeer the Wikipedia entry, as Phil pointed out. Click the View history tab to see. 

    There are ways to correct Wikipedia. I am beginning to learn, just signed up with an account, and have not yet made any contributions or edits. There are procedures for speedy renaming and a Categories for discussion page. The first step will be to create and populate a “Book Art” entry that defines what “Book art” is, and identifies the subfields, with descriptions, images, links, etc. These would include "fine press," "sculptural bookworks," “installations,” “performances”, “artist books,” “altered books,” “designer bookbindings”, etc. Your help in defining “Book art” and naming all the subfields is important. Many works of book art involve several subfields, such as a fine press book in a designer binding, an altered book that is a sculptural bookwork, or an installation performance. Please comment below.

    Similarly, Wikipedia has a problem with Book arts, now a disambiguation page. That also should be a category, separate from "Book art," with subfields of bookbinding, typography, papermaking, printing, calligraphy, illustration, etc. linked from it. Many writers incorrectly use "Book Arts" to identify the field of individual made objects, rather than reserving it for the craft disciplines used to produce them.

    I have self-identified as a “Book Artist” since the early 1970s. A search for "Book artist" in Wikipedia results in "Artist's book."

    This will not be instant. It will grow and evolve. Whether or not you have experience creating or editing Wikipedia entries, please participate. The input of book artists, book art curators, critics, dealers and collectors in essential. Should we try to organize a collaborative Wikipedia Intervention at the next annual meeting in Tallahassee? The theme of the meeting is “Conspire.”


  • 01 Jun 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    The title of this post is inspired from the title of W.J.T. Mitchell’s work, What do Pictures Want: the lives and loves of images, which upon first read might seem absurd since inanimate pictures can’t want anything. But it becomes more meaningful after reading Mitchell’s theory that speculates in part upon an analogy of images as being alive, living organisms, separate from the physical apparatus that binds an image to a picture in object form.

    Because this is the Book Art Theory blog of the College Book Art Association I’ll make a connection here from Mitchell’s theory to book art generally and the teaching of book art. For instance, personally, when I teach book art classes, I require students to make physical dummies at every stage of a book’s development in order for the book to get out of the students’ heads and so it can “talk back to them.” Of course I understand the book drafts aren’t alive yet the analogy is apt and I will often speak of my own work or that of others as being alive, not yet alive, or dead.

    There too is an analogy to be made between art theory and living organisms since theories are ideas, suppositions, beliefs, best guesses. The good ones expand the limits of what was believed to be the boundary of possibilities. Theories are tests of possibilities meant for other theorists to scrutinize, further test, and challenge. They have a habitat and relationship, ecologically, with other organisms. And like Mitchell’s notion—centuries of thought, really—that images live somehow separate, double lives from the object that consciously reveals them, art theory comes alive from and proceeds to exist independently of what made it.

    Take an example from critic Lucy Lippard, one of a handful of writers who have theorized, however limiting, about book art. Before her brief but key essay “The Artist’s Book Goes Public” published in Art in America in 1977 (later collected in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons), Lippard made a significant theory and contribution out of the conceptual art environment growing around her contemporaneously in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her theory was published as a kind of annotated reference book in 1972 called Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972. It revealed the boundaries of a conceptual practice that came into being (just not always materially) during the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, Vietnam, and counter culture “free-for-all,” as she described the period. Lippard, an active part of that environment, responded to artworks also existing in that habitat, aptly posited about art’s dematerialization at the time, and then went about collecting all the possible evidence of this work’s existence as pointers for further study and theorizing.

    Perhaps conceptual art of that period was so far flung and such a free-for-all it wanted a theory and needed the larger process-based moniker of dematerialization to fulfill its lack of cohesiveness as an all-out movement. Or Lippard and others wanted to draw all the disparate work together to make more sense of the works since they were, after all, challenging to the status quo and certainly audiences must have needed assistance understanding these pieces. Perhaps the artists didn’t understand what was happening yet, either; I’ve heard it said—a little condescendingly, if you ask me—that artists need help from theorists in understanding their work.

    The point, in the end, is theory wants, needs, lacks the art work and the art work wants, needs, lacks the theory. Ecological problems seem to present themselves when one or the other doesn’t reside in the same habitat. But then maybe the requirement of this balance isn’t accurate. Perhaps I incorrectly understand the relationships between these two organisms of theory and book art. And since this is supposed to be a place for discussion—maybe a comment or two, at least—I ask then, what does book art want? What is needed, lacking, left wanting for book art, currently? Close reading of key books? If not close reading then recognition of key historical circumstances? Narratives that connect contemporary activities in the field at large? To be more readily considered by non-artists from outside the field? To be more widely understood or appreciated?


  • 15 May 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    A visit to the Netherlands gave me the chance to see the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, said to be the oldest book museum in the world. The original Museum of the Book, founded as a bequest of the Baron van Westreenen in 1852, contains over 20,000 items including a significant collection of medieval manuscripts and incunabula. In 1960, it became part of the Museum Meermanno, which brought together other significant collections of fine bindings, Dutch book design, calligraphy, Czech avant-garde books, Ex Libris (book plates), archives of designers and typographers, and other collections relating to the art and design of the book. The museum continues to collect artist’s books (Ode to a grand staircase by Julie Chen and Barb Tetenbaum is one that is showcased in the catalog) and presents exhibits which reveal different parts of the collection.

    Besides being in a charming building which was the grand home of the Baron, the museum contains many surprises (a notable collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects) and too many highlights to cover in this post. The current exhibit, The Book Inside, provides a veritable history of the book in six large rooms, from clay tablet and papyrus through modern printing and digital media. All items are selections from their extensive collections and the displays provide an opportunity for close inspection of binding models, stunning illuminated manuscripts, early bindings, and fine printings and modern artist’s books.


    Models made by Janos Szirmai, on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.


    Bindings from the 12th and 15th century on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.


    Love is Enough, written and designed by William Morris, printed by the Kelmscott Press on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.

    The Book Room is a dream 18th century library with wall and floor cabinets filled with van Westreenan’s extensive book collection. This includes a custom cabinet of the complete set Kelmscott Press books (53 publications in 66 volumes, all in the original vellum or half-cloth bindings). There are showcases containing many very large format books which include the Blaeu atlases and art books and portfolios. There are some gems displayed in this room, but one may contact Erik Geleigns, the Conservator Oude Collectie, about viewing other items in the collection that are in the Book Room cabinets or in storage.


    The Book Room in Museum Meermanno.

    The miniature book displays were an absolute highlight: the Meermanno has a collection of over 600 miniature books, including more than 50 from the 17th and 18th centuries. A sampling from this collection along with printed sheets and materials for making some of these books were on display (see image below) along with the stunning miniature library “Biblioteca Thurkowiana Minor.” Given to the Meermanno in 2012 by Guus and Luce Thurkow, it contains beautifully crafted globes, desks and chairs, a book staircase and miniature wood cabinets housing and over 1500 miniature books. These books were purchased or handmade by The Catharijne Press (owned and run by the Thurkows) and there is a video showing the making of some of the books and background on this marvel. (See http://petitpunt.blogspot.com/2012/04/bibliotheca-thurkowiana-minor.html for more information.)


    Miniature book display at the Meermanno museum.


    The Bibliotheca Thurkowiana Minor miniature library at the Meermanno museum.


    Pages of The Young Stork’s Baedeker, a miniature printed by The Catharijne Press.

    (All photos by the author, courtesy of Museum Meermanno, The Hague, NL)

    The current exhibition The Book Inside runs until May 29, 2016. Further information on exhibits, events, and museum collections can be found on their website: www.meermanno.nl. This is a must-see museum for anyone involved with the art of the book, and I would strongly recommend contacting the museum before visiting so that special holdings can be viewed!


  • 01 May 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    For my blog posts in May, I will be featuring two unusual museums which focus on different aspects of the art of the book. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is an intimate, light filled space located across from the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, MA whose mission is to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books.

    It is a museum that invites interaction and exploration of the elements of picture book art with energy, engagement and excitement. This is achieved by including much more than just the final polished, framed artwork which are reproduced in the books. The visitor’s experience is more of an immersion into the artist’s creative process and a window into their practice in shaping the book experience.

    Over the last few years, I have seen some very inspiring exhibits of picture book artists, including Leo Lionni, Eric Carle, Uri Shulevitz, Leonard Weisgard and William Pene du Bois. Besides featuring the original artwork used for their picture books, the exhibits also may include storyboards, sketches and different versions of pages by the artist revealing aspects of the development of the book as a whole. One is able to gain some insight into how the artist worked through the flow of images, the composition and interaction of text and image, and the building of page spreads for some of the books. I have also seen color separations (acetate layers), color testing and revisions, and sheets with printing instructions which shed light on the complexities of the process of developing and finalizing the art of the picture book. Some examples from the current exhibitions are shown below.

    Final illustrations for “WHAM! The dogcatcher’s wagon upset a wheelbarrow where two men were building a house.” And “SMASH! The dogcatcher’s wagon ran into a junk dealer’s cart.”
    Down Huckleberry Hill by Leonard Weisgard.

    Final illustration for “Father played his recorder for her.”
    The Sick Day by Patricia MacLachlan. Illustration by William Pène du Bois.

    Final illustration for “What big teeth you have…”
    Little Red Riding Hood by William Pène du Bois.

    (All photos by the author, courtesy of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA.)

    One of the galleries usually has an in-depth exhibit on Eric Carle’s early work and the development of his signature style and mixed media/collage techniques that are now so familiar from The Hungry Caterpillar and his many other works.

    The Carle museum offers educational programs that provide a foundation for arts integration and literacy. It houses an art studio (which has a full shelf of resources for book art related projects for all ages), a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries (with a full collection of Caldecott winners), and educational programs for families, scholars, educators, and schoolchildren. They also offer professional training for educators around the country and four onsite graduate programs in Children's Literature in collaboration with Simmons College (see http://www.carlemuseum.org/content/mission for more information.)

    Exhibitions in May include:

    A Taste for Adventure: The Art of William Pène du Bois ends May 1, 2016

    Magician of the Modern: The Art of Leonard Weisgard exhibit continues through June 5, 2016.

    The Art of Eric Carle: Hide and Seek exhibit continues through August 28, 2016.

    Louis Darling: Drawing the Words of Beverley Cleary is showing from May 17- June 5, 2016.

    Additional information on the exhibitions, programs, events and educational workshops can be found at the museum website www.carlemuseum.org.



  • 15 Apr 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    I have long been familiar with the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer in terms of his large scale paintings and mixed media work with themes rooted in German history, myth and culture, including confronting the cultural impact of the Third Reich. But I was surprised to see his sculptural work which directly centers on the form of the book and its expansive terrain of symbolism, which I experienced at The Margulies Collection in Florida. A bit of internet research quickly yielded a significant body of work focused on the book which has an important place in the book arts domain.

    As opposed to William Kentridge, whose artist’s books leverage the intimacy and the potential for personal interaction of the book, Kiefer works with the book form on a monumental and more abstracted level. “Derived from his interest in mythology, history, and knowledge, Kiefer often uses books as subject matter representing knowledge and civilization. Similarly, he frequently incorporates text into his paintings, including excerpts from poems, novels, and nationalist slogans as well as names of seminal figures, written in a scrawling script.” (http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kiefer-anselm.htm)

    His creation of monumental books with pages of lead, an element noted for both its toxicity and for its alchemical purposes, are central elements for a number of large scale works, including two at the Margulies Collection, shown below. “The ideology of alchemy is the hastening of time, as in the lead-silver-gold cycle which needed only time in order to transform lead into gold. In the past the alchemist sped up this process with magical means. That was called magic. As an artist I don’t do anything differently, I only accelerate the transformation that is already present in things. That is magic as I understand it.” (Anselm Kiefer, quoted in the Margulies Collection exhibit.)

    Sprache du Vogel (or Language of the Birds) has a stack of large book forms made of lead as the central body attached to enormous, expansive wings. The book as the symbol of transformational knowledge, enlightenment and an internal freedom emanates from the presence of this work.

    Die Erdzeitalter (or Ages of the World) is another monumental work with a stack of Kiefer’s abandoned canvases interspersed with sunflower stalk sculptural pieces and large books made entirely of lead. The book form here appears to relate more to processes of learning and understanding: books as repositories of knowledge and touchstones for greater personal development, as catalysts of transformation.


    Sprache du Vogel 
    (The Language of Birds) (image by the author)


    Die Erzeitalter (image from theartnewspaper.com)


    Die Erzeitalter (The Ages of the World) (image by the author)

    Other major works which incorporate large scale sculptural books include Breaking of the Vessels (see http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kiefer-anselm.htm); The High Priestess/Zwiestromland (see http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kiefer-anselm-artworks.htm#pnt_5); Buch (The Secret Life of Plants) (see http://arttattler.com/archivekiefer.html).

  • 01 Apr 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    For my two blog posts this month, I want to present information, comment and images on two artists who are well known for their work in other media but have also produced significant work in book arts domain.

    William Kentridge is a South African artist best known for his static and animated drawing (stop motion films), sculpture, printmaking, and the use of all these in his stunning Metropolitan Opera productions (including sets and costumes) of Stravinsky’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu. He has also produced a number of artist’s books including Lexicon, No It Is, Trace (discussed below) as well as Second Hand Reading and The Refusal of Time.

    Lexicon is virtually a facsimile of an 1825 Latin-Greek Lexicon apparently used by his father during college (we see his father’s name penciled onto the title page). The page spreads are the background for rough charcoal sketching which transforms from a coffee pot into a cat and more. This rigorous, academic reference book becomes a rough, playful and conceptual flip book. The intimate space and interaction possibilities characteristic of the book form are employed here to connect thought processes and concepts across distant points in time.


    Lexicon by William Kentridge, Photo by Ruth Bardenstein

    No It Is also incorporates antiquarian books, but in this case Kentridge selects pages from a variety of technical books and places them in thought provoking pairings on each page spread. The drawings on top of these pages range from static to animated, abstract geometric to playful figurative, black and white to color, and text to image. Again, the book form is critical in allowing intimate interaction/exploration of the background print and the drawing on each page and page spread. It also allows a flip book dynamic, oppositional page spread dynamic, and the creation of perception and meaning from absorbing the book as a whole.





    No It Is by William Kentridge, Photos by Ruth Bardenstein

    Trace is actually an exhibition catalog of prints at the MOMA which Kentridge directly responds to by drawing, printing and writing on translucent pages which serve as overlays to both recto and verso sides of a number of the pages. The book format allows for this conversation between past work and present thought and for participation by the viewer in creating different layering of the translucent and opaque pages. The result is an engaging and dynamic layering of meaning and response; one feels a part of Kentridge’s dialogue with his own work and his mind at play.




    Trace by William Kentridge, Photos by Ruth Bardenstein

    Other links that provide more in-depth information on Kentridge, his studio practice and work:

    Kentridge gave the 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard where he very personally and brilliantly discusses (and shows in various video pieces) studio practice and the development of his art and themes. http://mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/william-kentridge-drawing-lesson-one-praise-shadows; http://mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/william-kentridge-drawing-lesson-two-brief-history-colonial-revolts; http://mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/william-kentridge-drawing-lesson-four-practical-epistemology-life-studio; http://mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/william-kentridge-drawing-lesson-five-praise-mistranslation;

    For a probing discussion with Kentridge of his underlying themes and concept development, see “that which is not drawn” by William Kentridge and Rosalind Morris. (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/T/bo16862889.html).


  • 15 Mar 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    In Spring 2005, Johanna Drucker published an article entitled “Critical Issues/Exemplary Works” in the journal The Bone Folder. In The Journal of Artists’ Books, Fall 2007, Matthew Brown wrote “Book Arts and the Desire for Theory” (JAB22) for a review of the conference “Action/Interaction” held at Columbia College Chicago. CBAA was founded in 2008 in part to promote scholarship and criticism in the field. Levi Sherman recently posted in this blog promoting what he calls ‘Book Thinking’ (“artists’ books as discourse…considering formal qualities like structure and sequence within social contexts like literacy and book culture”) within the field and as a means for considering other disciplines (giving back). A stated goal for this blog is to “call attention to current criticism and theory about the artist’s book.”

    “We don’t have a canon of artists, we don’t have a critical terminology for book arts aesthetics with a historical perspective, and we don’t have a good, specific, descriptive vocabulary on which to form our assessment of book works,” Johanna Drucker wrote in 2005. In this context, she described her proposal for a meta-data base to serve as a resource for descriptive and critical data on artists’ book work. Soon after, Drucker launched Artists' Books Online based on developed descriptors and critical terminology. Matthew Brown wrote, “In the arts and humanities over the last thirty years, theory has done the work of challenging conceptions of aesthetic value, artistic production, and meaning-making…[T]heory has also had a salient institutional role: its vocabulary has given humanists a set of principles that help them speak across disciplinary divides. It is hardly a voice of unanimity. Instead, it is a shared language to maintain a conversation, enrich the debate, and deepen one’s learning.” Drucker and Brown are both asking for a part of a framework in which to do critical work on book art.

    Levi Sherman suggests that the book arts have built both criticism and scholarship that could be framed through what he is calling Book Thinking. What has evolved over the last ten years that allows for the optimism Sherman projects, suggesting that what both Brown and Drucker sought has gained a foothold?

    Crawling, with trepidation, out on that limb, I’ll suggest that the field is maturing. It is defining itself with greater clarity and expanding its range. It interacts more fluidly with other disciplines particularly as discipline specific art making continues to break down. This is evident in work being shown in both gallery settings and book fairs. The ‘zones of activity’ Drucker defines are discernable but with a merging, a talking to each other. For example, fine press work of imagination and visual acuity has expanded radically the work we see coming from that medium. This is evident in the interviews and writing that saturate our small dot of activity on the Internet (also oozing beyond our borders here and there). The ‘canon of artists’ is also here to be studied and mined; book art is becoming generations, not a generation.

    What is still lacking is some kind of accounting, a pulling together…the work that has been and is being done to build that ‘critical terminology’ and ‘descriptive vocabulary’ with ‘conceptions of aesthetic value, artistic production, and meaning-making’ in the book arts. Perhaps this is a time to take advantage of an accessible (practically), collaborative, and also challenging (“enriching the debate”) venue in which to rejuvenate (dig up) and solidify (document) this ongoing concern.


  • 01 Mar 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    “The poetry of erasure is taking place all around us. Underneath the pavement, behind newspaper headlines, on paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls… continuously peeling away and papering over itself. Its very surface is a living thing in flux between the dueling processes of decay and renewal…This world demands of its denizens a constant and vigilant revision of form.” Travis MacDonald

    Erasure crosses and mixes disciplines; emerges from impulses ranging from conceptual systematic experimentation to political inquiry to a destructive act to a conversation between an original work and its ‘renewal.’ Created by painters, prose writers, poets, book artists, and those artists who defy disciplinary labels, erasure can harmonize with an original or create a dissonance. As with any artistic genre or endeavor there are both successful works that resonate and burrow deep, and those that flounder, never penetrating the surface. Scraping or painting or cutting, a palimpsest is formed for the reader to decipher, to search through layers for meaning.

    In the last decade, erasure as a poetic form has rapidly gained momentum. The intersection with an aspect of the book arts—the object (or not object) and materials that make up that object—manifests in a consideration of material and form taking on greater significance. It gets more interesting in light of the wide range of production methods being employed as well as conceptual motives: one-of-kind, serials, digitally produced, originals reproduced and reconfigured before erasure, born and raised digitally, to name a few. Poetic and visual considerations are found in erasures by artists as distinct as Robert Rauschenberg, Amelia Bird, Jen Bervin, and Tom Phillips.

    Criticism that addresses this form from the varied perspectives of painting, writing and the book arts offers a rich means for assessing the work both historically and in this contemporary moment. Travis MacDonald in A Brief History of Erasure Poets provides a context that places erasures in a lineage including Oulipo, Language Poetry, book artists and current practice. He uses specific artists to elucidate varied approaches to the relationship the ‘eraser’ creates with the original work.

    On Erasure by Mary Ruefle, provides a personal perspective on the rigor involved and how erasure can be approached. She creates both one-of-a-kind and digitally reproduced editions. Andrew David King interviews six contemporary poets: Srikanth Reddy, Matthea Harvey, Janet Holmes, M. NourbeSe Philip, David Dodd Lee, and Travis MacDonald, “questioning practical and theoretical concerns surrounding erasure as a technique.”

    Poets Genevieve Kaplan and Mary Hickman both situate erasure poetry within a book art framework, contrasting the perspective MacDonald takes in allying it primarily with conceptual poetry of the 1960s. “While poetic appropriated books may not always be artists' books per se, it is helpful to use the contemporary artists' book as a lens to better understand these new texts,” Genevieve Kaplan writes. She digs into contrasting methods that address the physical form and means of erasing in the work of Jen Bervin, Mary Ruefle, and Erica Baum.

    Mary Hickman also uses Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle’s works to situate the work within the context of book art. “I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect.”

    Two last bits to offer up from a broader perspective encompassing painting and photographic manipulations are The Eloquence of Absence and Brian Dillon’s The Revelation of Erasure. The two essays consider erasure from perspectives such as censorship and deceit and include photography, painting, and text-based works.

    When we take a step sideways, address materials, ideas, critical approaches and theories that intersect our own activities and practices, but are often positioned in a sister discipline, it opens our thinking, poses new questions, asks us to move outside our own discipline in considering the book and why it is compelling to us as an artistic form. It can illuminate where we close our minds to other modes of thinking about the book, and what it means and represents when we move away from our own canon to consider it with our heads cocked to another side.


  • 15 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    Two recent book art theory blog posts use the phrase “the artists’ book.” This may be awkward, but it has precedence. Stephan Klima in his Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature notes, “A most confusing aspect of the debate is the spelling of the term artists books. Its first appearance, in 1973, omitted the apostrophe. Thereafter, it appeared with the apostrophe, and sometimes without. Typographical error may explain certain cases; but there are unexplained mysteries” (10). Johanna Drucker speaks variously of “an artists’ book,” “artists’ books,” and “artists book.”

    The history of the possessive apostrophe is somewhat murky. It is “a grammatical anomaly, a vestigial case marker . . . in a noun system [modern English] that has otherwise dispensed with cases,” writes Elizabeth S. Sklar. Its origins clearly go back to the case sensitive Old English, but there isn’t full agreement on its history and well into the 18th century most grammarians ignored the genitive plural, even claiming there was no such thing (177-80).

    In the instance of the artist’ book, I wonder if the apostrophe inconsistency stems from confusion inherent in the concept of the artist’s book itself. That the artist is the originator, the owner, if you will, of his or her artist’s book, is as significant as any other characteristic, if not more. Also, as Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” suggests, this is a new genre, unchartered territory with attendant lack of terminology.

    Ted Gachot, presently copyediting CBAA’s journal Openings, queried the use of the apostrophe in this context in an email to CBAA’s president Julie Chen. The real ambiguity, he explained, is whether the word “artist” refers to a person or persons responsible for the book, or simply describes a type of book. Here are excepts from his email:

    [T]he terms “artists’ books” and “artist’s book” create grammatical ambiguity because they are not formed in the way such terms are usually formed.

    A good example is “sailor suit.” The plural is “sailor suits.” “Sailor” in this case is an attributive (descriptive) noun. It remains the same no matter how many suits are being discussed.

    In “artists’ books” and “the artist’s book,” “artist” is still attributive (probably) but it is in the genitive case. When terms like this are formed in the genitive, the plural is normally formed the same way as with “sailor suit.” The plural of “farmers’ market” is “farmers’ markets.” “Artists’ books” is not the plural of “artist’s book.” They (when used in this sense) are . . . two ways of saying the same thing, of describing a type of book.

    But “artist” can also refer to an artist, and “artist’s book” to a book made by that artist. One can talk about a particular artist’s book (her book) or that artist’s books (her books), or if two artists have collaborated on a single book, the artists’ book (their book). If they’ve made more than one, they are the artists’ books (their books). “Book” or “books” in these kinds of clauses serves the same function as, and could be replaced with, “artist book” or “artist books.” You could even say an artist’s artists’ books (though it would be better not to).

    Unfortunately, neither “artists’ books” nor “artist’s book” has the internal logic that “farmers’ market” has. It seems a little funny to say “an artists’ book” if discussing one person’s book. It also seems a bit odd to say “an artist’s book” if the project is collaborative. That’s because the reader does not know whether to read the terms as referring to the artist or the book. [R]eplacing these terms with one formed with an attributive noun, like “sailor suit,” would clear up all these complications. There . . .[would be] none of the haziness that gets in with “artists’ books” and “artist’s books,” where it’s unclear whether they are descriptive or possessive or how to form the plural.

    Resistance to this may simply be the result of the field’s newness, of not being around long enough — certainly not as long as sailor suits, dog food, pig pens, and cat whiskers.


    Note: Works cited are easily found with the exception of the following, which can be accessed in JSTOR: Elizabeth S. Sklar, “The Possessive Apostrophe: the Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark,” College English (38.2) 1976.


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