Artists’ books, bookworks, book-objects…?

“The term ‘artists’ books’ seems to be applied more and more confusingly to anything in an art context that resembles a book. I would like to attempt to define this and some related terms…” – Clive Phillpot (Artforum, May 1982)

In the art world, the term ‘artists’ books’ quite often seems to get thrown around without much consideration. As you know by now, we are really passionate about art books, however this art-artist-book-phenomenon-thing is so complex we decided it’s time to get a bit of clarity. With guidance from one of the most respected experts on this particular field of art forms (the esteemed Clive Phillpot) we are on a quest. There are a number of examples of books that we have (amongst our huge list of publications) which lend themselves rather nicely to this topic; whether they are artists’ books, artist bookworks, or catalogues for exhibitions about artist-made books. If you’re curious, then read on…

Clive Phillpot was Director of the Library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1977 to 1994. He is, arguably, the ‘godfather of artists’ books’ and without a doubt he knows his stuff. For five decades he has dedicated himself to raising the medium of the book to the status of a high-art-form and bringing such objects into museum collections (hence, his job at MoMA). Our publisher friends JRP|Ringier in Zurich have published a superb anthology of Phillpot’s most notable writings, Booktrek and it’s an essential read for any artists’ books/bookworks enthusiasts.

In his mission to differentiate between book-forms, Phillpot talks about “unique, or one-of-a-kind books, or book objects” made by artists; works that owe their existence perhaps more to the mediums of sculpture and painting. Some of these objects might look like books but not function in the usual way of, say, having pages you can turn, for example. The rather nice, Book Worlds / Buchwelten exhibition catalogue really celebrates this sort of book-object-making by artists. It’s full of notable examples of artists experimenting with the book-as-material, from Anselm Kiefer to Katie Paterson, and many others. Not surprisingly, John Latham’s work is also included in this group exhibition. His sculptures made of actual books are iconic. He called them ‘Skoob’ books and this summer Lisson Gallery in New York is host to an exhibition specifically exploring this aspect to the artist’s oeuvre. We are especially looking forward the new Skoob Books catalogue.

So, what about books which have a certain print-run, and of which there are multiple copies? Phillpot suggests that “multiple books might be said to be closer to the printmaking and photographic traditions, in that the question of the artists’ attitude to replication is more significant”. In cases like this there is never a single, original version and therefore when the book is (re)printed, “each copy of a bookwork is the artwork” and this is where, “the book form is intrinsic to the work”.

The seminal British ‘land artist’, Richard Long has always been thoroughly involved in the making of any books with his name on. The art of the book is actually significant in his practice, which can sometimes be overlooked. We have a number of his books but most notably, Dartmoor is a Long ‘multiple’ that you might say is a perfect example; it’s ring-bound and rather playful in the way it encourages the reader to explore various combinations of images and texts. Whilst we’re on the subject of landscape, walking and art, we should really mention Anne Moeglin-Delcroix’s, Ambulo ergo sum: Nature as Experience in Artists’ Books which explores the synergy in Richard Long’s book-making alongside that of his contemporaries, Hamish Fulton and herman de vries.

If it’s a ‘book of books’ you’re looking for then this is arguably the best one we have – An Invocation: Five Hundred and Thirty Books from Southend Central Library is a phenomenal bookwork by Turner Prize nominated artist, Mike Nelson. It literally is a book containing nothing but the covers of 530 books. A lovely piece of work. Each book which inspired this 1000 page tome is buried inside the cavity walls of Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea.

Clive Phillpot has a strong association with the development of Printed Matter in New York. It’s not surprising that Printed Matter sell (as we do) copies of Erica van Horn’s, The Book Remembers Everything (which is one of the American writer/book artist’s more well-known collection of book/ephemera works). This legendary NYC-based distributor of artists’ books, bookworks and printed ephemera also sells some of Allan Kaprow’s seminal instructional performance booklets such as, Echo-logy. This particular photo-novella multiple created by the ‘Happenings’ guru is prominently discussed in the Henry Moore Institute’s, Books and Sculpture publication alongside considerations of works by Lucy Lippard, Naum Gabo and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Well, maybe we haven’t quite done justice to Clive’s meticulous work in defining sub-genres, but we hope that you have found our personal selection of some curiosity and inspiration?


Picture credit: a spread from the book, Ambulo ergo sum: Nature as Experience in Artists’ Books by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix (Walther Koenig, 2015).
Posted on 22nd June 2018
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