Artists' books

Publications which are now acceptable to call “artists’ books”, make their appearance right at the beginning of the sixties both in the United States and in Europe. Their production increases in the seventies following the political and social climate as well as the artistic trends of the time: conceptual art, pop art, fluxus, concrete poetry, and visual poetry.

“To begin with, writes Tim Guest, one could describe artist’s books as books produced by artists, books that are different from all other artistic publications because they do not comply with or belong to the fields of literature, art criticism or illustration. The overriding principle of artists’ books is that instead of being about art, they are works of art in themselves.”

One could point out that these works are in complete rupture with more conventional publishing such as artist’s monographs and illustrated books, because of their means of productions and distribution. We are much more familiar with these conventional books perhaps because we have been used to see them around us for much longer than artists’ books.

Leaving behind traditional printing methods such as etching and lithography, artists are now turning to new technologies such as stencil, photocopy, offset printing, silkscreen printing and more recently personal computers. herman de vries in the sixties uses stencils to make books and magazines. In the late seventies Bernard Villiers learns screen-printing to make his, and closer to us, Eric Watier resorts to the photocopier. As many home tools which allow them to work independently and free to manage their projects as they wish. Self-management and the fight against division of labour are topical issues at the time, not just in Art.

At the same time artists are freeing themselves of the existing printing and distribution networks by becoming editors themselves: Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland starts “Wild Hawthorn Press”, herman de vries “the eschenau summer press” as well as temporary traveling press publications in Germany, Dick Higgins “Something Else Press” in New York. Others are creating their own means of diffusion: Printed Matter by Sol LeWitt in New York, Art Metropole par General Idea in Toronto, Boekie Woekie par Jan Voss and Other Books and So par Ulises Carrion in Amsterdam, Workfortheeyeto do” by Simon Cutts in London, or Ecart by John Armleder in Geneva.

“It was a good way to decentralize the art system” writes Ida Applebroog about her own publications.

In an interview we published in 2005, herman de vries, a deutsch artist living in Germany and whose first self published book came out in 1960, commented:

“I didn’t know the medium of artists books or any publishers of such works and as I like to do everything myself I decided to do my own publishing in the simplest way; this is how I like to operate. There was hardly any money, I wasn’t loaded so I had to resort to the most basic means. To tell you the truth it was perfectly suitable. It was something new for me.”

It has to be said that the artist’s book world has never been and still isn’t at least not yet, a specialist field. There are no hierarchical structures or behaviours. Artists involved are often themselves publishers, curators, writers or critics, collectors and booksellers.

This approach to Art and life has generated a certain amount of fluidity and allowed many fruitful collaboration and friendships to happen, it is still the case today. Through the book form works and ideas have and are still flowing freely.