Vincenzo Agnetti “Libro dimenticato a memoria”

The book as medium (a brief history of the artist’s book)

Neither a book about art nor a simple showcase of art, the artist’s book is considered to be a genre existing in between imagery and literature. Artist’s books are manifestos, they narrate, archive or proclaim. Breaking with traditional forms of art-making, the format can act both as a catalyser and medium for art itself. Whilst it has been a recognised format within the artistic community since the late 1960s, it has often been a neglected component of the artists practice within the wider discourse. Gerhard Richter for example, world-renowned as one of the most important contemporary painters worldwide, has been producing and self-publishing books since the late 1960s. They have accompanied the artist’s production since its beginnings, but have only been properly exhibited in the last ten years.

The origin of the artist’s book traces a long history of interest in the book as an artistic medium. Up until the mid-20th century, this interest can be recognised as occasional experimentation with literature and illustration.

William Blake “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” (1789)

John Ruskin “The Nature of the Gothic”, illustrated and published by William Morris in

In many different ways, artist and craft makers have always been involved in the production of literature. The earliest traces of artistic experimentation with the book and literature as a medium were the colourful books by artist William Blake, published at the end of the 18th Century. At the second half of the 19th Century artists increasingly took interest in illustrative typography, greatly enriching and reconstructing the design of books. British textile designer, poet and writer William Morris, for example, illustrated and published books with intricately designed typefaces often on highly textured paper. His beautiful illustrations decorated the ornamented borders of literary publications such as “The nature of the gothic” by author John Ruskin, published in 1892. This publication can be regarded as an early example of collaborative creation and self-publishing of an artist’s book. It was published through Morris’s own private publishing house and printer “Kelmscott Press” Categorically, these two examples are defined as illustrative books. Nonetheless, they contributed towards the notion of visual art existing outside of sculpture and painting.

The actual genre of the artist’s book established itself as a phenomenon of the 20th Century. Early developments are outlined in the activities of various avant-garde groups such as the Italian Futurists, who were greatly invested in the communication through written poetry or manifestos. They ultimately contributed to establishing ways in which text is detached from its traditional structure and can be read through a visual exposition.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Zang Tumb Tumb” 1914

John Ruskin “The Nature of the Gothic”, illustrated and published by William Morris in

Italian futurist artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s, best known for the publication of the “Futurist Manifesto” in 1909 and his typographical artworks, set the foundation of the establishment of the genre in Italy. During this time, the emergence of these new mediums, such as the increasing experimentations with poetry by visual artists, stood in focus as an evolution within literary studies. Towards the 1950s, a radical turning point for the artist’s book as a genre, collaborations between separate art forms such as visual arts, poetry and music were increasing. Reflective of the post-war momentum, the artist book became increasingly more conceptual and served as a means to reconnect with the avant- garde.

With the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s, the genre of the artist’s book appeared as an independent entity for the first time. The artists of this decade believed that art could exist outside the preconceived notion and confinement of an object and its representation. Central to these developments were art critical writings such as “The artist’s book goes public” published in 1963 by American Lucy Lippard. In this piece of writing Lippard defined the artist’s book as a true form of art itself, that unlike an exhibition is truly reflective of the artist’s vision by disregarding any outside influences. Simultaneously the development of independent artist’s magazines during the 1960s such as “Avalanche” progressed the collective awareness about alternative artistic productions and independent writing and publishing. The efforts to distribute self-published content by artists during those times also intended to challenge the status quo of the institutionalised art discourse. The increasing popularity of artist’s books in the late 1960s in the US saw the production of some of its key publications such as “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963), Edward Rusch’s first artist’s book published in multiple editions throughout the years due to its acclaim. The medium became furthermore central to the ethos of following international art movements and collectives such as “Fluxus”.The collective produced several artist’s books about music for example. The format lent itself perfectly to their philosophy of achieving the democratisation of art. Making artworks accessible to people conceptually as well as physically.

documenta (5) catalogue by Edward Ruscha (1972)

In Europe, the writings of art critic Germano Celant, such as in the “Book as Artwork” essay from 1971, established the genre as a separate entity from literature, during a time in which there was still discourse around its categorisation in Italy. Celant’s recognition of the artist’s book as artwork proclaimed in the title of the essay, made it critically important to the acceptance and understanding of the artists’s book today.

One year later at documenta (5) (1972), its curator Harald Szeemann exhibited artist’s books for the first time at any edition of documenta. In collaboration with American artist Edward Ruscha, who designed the catalogue for this edition, Szeemann found a way to innovatively transform the traditional format of the catalogue.

documenta (6) (1977)

documenta (6) (1977)

At the time, the curator regarded the artist’s book as a natural extension of multi-media art, documenta (6) (1977) however would go a step further in alienating the genre by dedicated a separate exhibition to a large-scale presentation of artist’s books. Artworks made from pages of books, with the book as a medium, as well as artist’s magazine and artist’s books in their traditional format were displayed for the viewer to see through a vitrine or hanging on the wall.

Whilst the medium is still hard to define due to its ambiguous nature, there are a few characteristics that have been established throughout its history. Created by the artist alone or in a collaborative effort with other creatives, the artist’s book is often published as a unique product or in very small editions. Contrary to its presentations in vitrines as outlined earlier in regards to the documenta (6) exhibition, artist’s books are usually presented to be interacted with like regular books. Reading and physically handling an artist book can access a new understanding of material that artworks often do not convey or disguise.