FROM FLUXUS TO IPAD: A very short history of artists' books

Sarah Bodman
Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books
July 2011

 

The contemporary artist's book has emerged gradually from the French livre de luxe tradition of the mid-19th century, where texts by authors — including the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98) — were published in exquisite editions featuring images by artists such as Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Matisse produced many livres de luxe, and in 1947 published his well-known paper-cut collage book, Jazz.

In the 1960s, as a freer society emerged after two world wars, artists explored alternatives to traditional means of producing and exhibiting artworks, moving away from more established gallery shows towards more public interaction. The period from the early 1960s to the late '80s saw the emergence of movements such as Fluxus, an international group of artists who wanted to explore multiple art forms. These groups embraced art in the form of books, pamphlets and scores, published by hundreds of artists including Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, Joseph Beuys and Emmett Williams. Over the last 40 years, Fluxus' philosophy of collaboration and documentation has been inspirational for many artists, who quickly began to publish their art as affordable book-works using offset lithography, photocopying or screenprinting. It was as a result of this trend that the contemporary artist's book became frequently referred to as a 'democratic multiple', the idea being that anyone could afford to buy work by an artist.

More recently, artists have been using developments in technology, from desktop publishing in the 1990s to electronic books and publish-on-demand (POD) in the 21st century. The British artist Tom Phillips began his altered bookwork A Humument in 1966, scoring into the Victorian novel 'A Human Document' by W.H. Mallock after reading about William Burroughs' 'cut-up' technique. Phillips has continued to create and publish variant versions of the book since the 1970s, and launched his A Humument, App for the iPad in November 2010, introducing it to a new generation 45 years later.

Advancing technology has also allowed many artists to design books on their computers, uploading them for print and distribution through websites such as lulu.com and blurb.com, building upon that 1960s tradition of the democratic multiple through affordable, unlimited editions, now printed to order. Paradoxically, many of the cheap books produced in editions of 1000s in the 1960s and '70s are now very collectable, and expensive, items today. A seminal example of this is the American artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) who has produced several editions of book works since the early 1970s. His definitive style, seen in titles such as twentysix gasoline stations, has been referenced and copied by many artists making books today, so much so that an exhibition, 'Follow Ed (after Hokusai)', of about 100 examples, curated by Tom Sowden and Michalis Pichler, is currently touring venues alongside some of Ruscha's original books.

Artists around the world produce books as art through many concepts and formats, from unique works or small editions of handmade books, to commercially printed large editions, such as Stephen Fowler's Home Made Record Sleeves. This book series is currently on its third volume, celebrating the artist's collection of record sleeves found in charity shops, each sleeve lovingly made by the record's previous owner, with designs ranging from collages cut from magazines to scribbled felt tip pen drawings. Fowler collects these records, DJs with them and photographs them as a documentary tribute to the homemade. On a similar recycling theme, Lara Durback of No No Press has begun a series of books with Greg Turner, produced entirely from found materials, in honour of what some people might call rubbish. The first in the series Garbage Research 1: Hoarders and those resembling Hoarders, was produced in an edition of 100 with collage and writing over reused papers for the Dusie project, where artists swap their books.

In Australia Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison have been producing individual and collaborative books and zines since 1999. Many of their books are produced as small editions in response to their real travels or imaginary flights of fancy. In 2010 they visited London and from this Jennison created Quadrupeds drawn from London's Natural History Museum collection. A recent one-off book, In Padova, Looking for You, produced by the two artists for the Loved & Lost Society in Melbourne, Australia, was created from an old tourist souvenir album. It has been beautifully embellished with collages of exotic wildlife, and pencil text additions by Haby and Jennison. As it is a unique piece, the artists have made a charming short video, Over My Shoulder, which takes you through the whole book online.

This is really just a tiny taster of artists' books, to explore further do visit one of the regular exhibitions, fairs or festivals that take place around the world. Some upcoming fixtures include The London Art Book Fair, at the Whitechapel Gallery, 23–25 September 2011, The Small Publishers Fair, Conway Hall, London 11–12 November 2011, and the Printed Matter NY Art Book Fair in November 2011.

Sarah Bodman
Cassone magazine: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books