Issue Number: 107
This year, the Summer Exhibition features artists’ books for the first time. Below, scholar Stephen Bury provides a potted history of the art form in the twentieth century, while artist Stephen Chambers RA explains why he finds them exciting to make and to view, and comments on some of the works he selected
Ron King, 'Woodworm Log Book', 1987. @ Ron King/Photo Leonora Chan
The artists’ book is one of the more elusive and specialised of art forms. While artists, from Matisse to Anselm Kiefer and Patrick Caulfield, have explored this medium as a part of their practice, there is a close community of those who specialise in it.
The degree of involvement by the artist with the book format varies. At one end of the spectrum is the livre d’artiste (confusingly the French use this term for all types of artists’ books) in which the artist illustrates someone else’s text and which is usually a deluxe edition. Printmaking processes such as lithography and silk-screen printing allow a greater integration of text and image, as in Henri Matisse’s Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (1950) where the text is hand-written by Matisse, or Patrick Caulfield’s screenprints in Some Poems of Jules Laforgue (1973).
At the other end of the spectrum is the book-object, which is often a one-off. Ron King’s Woodworm Log Book (1987, above), at six inches high, is the smallest of several book- objects he has made from logs – the largest being 7ft. His monumental Tabernacle: Hole, Horse & Hell-box (2001) is a seven-drawer cabinet similar to those found in print workshops containing type and other materials used to create the book of poetry in the cabinet’s top drawer. This work is in an edition of 50 and is as much an artists’ multiple as an artists’ book.
In between the livre d’artiste and the book-object, there are works such as those by Ken Campbell who writes, designs and prints his books by letterpress, sometimes in unusual ways. For Firedogs (1991) he turned the metal type on its side and printed from that, with the idea of subverting the very orderly elements usually used to make a book.
Some of the more experimental approaches to making artists’ books originate in the early twentieth century when, for example, Russian Futurists produced cheap editions on newsprint and indeed any medium available (including, in the case of Alexei Chicherin, gingerbread). They printed them using hectography (a form of gelatine duplication) lithography, rubber stamps and collage. Vasiliy Kamensky’s Tango with Cows (1914) is printed on wallpaper with a corner of its leaves trimmed to form a pentagon-shaped book.
The 1960s saw a revival in the artists’ book as artists looked beyond the gallery system and the making of objects to exhibit in it. Avant-garde artists such as Ed Ruscha, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dieter Roth, and Bruce Nauman have all used the book form as an artistic medium. The artist’s book as the repository of an idea – where the artwork was no more than the description of the idea – was peculiarly fitted to be a favourite medium of conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt.
Artists are still making artists’ books at a time when the advent of e-books and print-on- demand have questioned the very physical existence of the book. The portability of the artists’ book and the pleasure of its tactile qualities have secured continuing interest in this medium from both makers and viewers. It seems this fascinating artform is surviving well into the digital age.
Looking at an artist’s book is a bit like peering into someone’s creative thoughts. The covers of the book are the skull and the pages inside are the brain. And I suspect that for many makers of artists’ books, this intimacy with the viewer is part of the experience, the book being almost a public soliloquy.
Holding a book and turning the pages is akin to a journey through a gallery and walking from one room to another, but done in a hand-held manner. Because of this, artists’ books are often neglected in gallery spaces – they’re like a secret artform, living in plan chests and archives. This is why there is a link on the RA website* where some of the books can be viewed online to look at more pages. It’s frustrating that the public won’t be able to touch the real thing, but my hope is that it will stimulate people to go and learn more about the makers themselves.
Woodworm Log Book, By Ron King (see top)
Ron King has spent his career pushing at the boundaries of what a book can be, frequently breaking away from the conventional page-turning format. This work challenges expectations of what a book might be. There is no text in this book – each page appears to have been eaten away, as if by woodworm, suggesting the history of the log.
John Dilnot, Weeds and Pests, 2009. @ John Dilnot, photo Leonora Chan
Weeds and Pests, By John Dilnot (above)
This is a leporello, or concertina book, which has images printed on both sides. The term takes its name from Don Giovanni’s manservant – in his marvellous catalogue aria, he lists all of his master’s conquests and pulls out an enormous concertina album with portraits of the seduced women. Here the illustrations of insects, caterpillars and weeds create a colourful menagerie of small woodland wildlife. The paper and cover are organic and recycled, which adds to the sense of being amidst the hedgerow.
Pantheon, By Ken Campbell (right)
Ken Campbell, Pantheon, 2000. @ Ken Campbell, photo Leonora Chan Ken Campbell trained as a letterpress printer and his books are often printed using this traditional process. Frequently, he prints each page several times, building up simple constructions of images. More recently, he has incorporated digital images into this traditional process. This book contains pages of abstract shapes and forms facing pages with recognisable images. It is bound in a traditional format, so pages are turned to reveal images in a sequential order, as opposed to a leporello.
Translate Every Statement into a Question, By Les Bicknell (below)
Les Bicknell, Translate Every Statement into a Question, 2010 @ Les Bicknell, photo: Leonora Chan Les Bicknell is using depictions of nature and wood and making an observation on the source of paper. The pages have been punctured and threaded with string, to form a linear web running through the book. The viewer is invited to imagine passing through the pages. The book can stand upright with pages open to make a three-dimensional vista through a pine forest.
* A page on artists' books including the chance to 'see inside' a selection displayed in the Summer Exhibition will be published on this website on 9 June