Sep 2, 2009

Artist's Books : A Historical Overview

This overview is an attempt to briefly map the historical transformations of the artist’s book as a genre with regard to its emergence and role in the discursive field. A part from mapping the historical shifts that has happened in the genre of artist’s bookmaking, I would be also looking at the critical instances the genre of artist’s book brought in, to the domain of art practice.

Many of the scholars who have worked on the history of artist’s books consider William Blake as the protagonist to this practice. One of the significant innovations the initial form of artist’s book had brought in, is the intersection of text/image. Works of Blake can be considered as good example for this, as many of his books have an integration of image and text to the extent possible. For him this practice was a strategy to gain certain amount of independence in the process of bookmaking, publishing and distributing.

Later to this in around 1890’s in France with the role of a Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard the artist’s books reappear but in different context. This attempt was in a historical time where the art market created by the bourgeoisie was dominant. Thelivre d'artiste as it was named, was an initiation towards showcasing the works of artists through the form of a book. But unlike the Blake’s attempt to overlap the image and the text, livre d'artiste adapted a form where there is a clearly marked distinction between the image and the text, sometime even having the original prints made by the artists illustrating a classical text. Though these books were meant for only specific audience and were not accessible at large because of its cost, some of the critics considered it as a radical attempt that has brought together the Image and the text and gave text the same prominence as to the image.

The key historical shift in the genre of artist’s books was at the time when many of the artists/political thinkers/activists joined together and published their avant-garde ideas in the forms of Pamphlets, Posters and Magazines. Though these were not books in the actual form, they were efforts to initiate radical ways of engaging with the idea of book itself. This radical move was later exemplified by the Italian Futurists in 1909 by publishing “futurist manifesto” on the front cover of French Daily newspaper Le Figaro. It resulted international disparage for Filippo Marinetti who was the key person behind it. Taking this as an event of rupture, and using the fame it has brought to him, Marinetti travelled to all over Europe spreading his radical ideas and made some of the practitioners to involve in book-making and pamphleteering. One of the strong ideological shifts that this movement has brought in is that, it has adapted methods of expression that have large distribution and also strongly negated the objectification process by the art gallery systems.

Later to Italy, artist’s bookmaking took a notable shift in Russia when the futurism as a movement was in place. The Russian Futurists created a series of artist’s books that radically challenged the assumptions of orthodox book production. Most of experiments by artists played with form, materials and content in their own way. For Instance works such asKruchenykh & Olga Rozanovaand Universal War by Kruchenykh one of the Russian Futurist Artist, has hand written text along with expressive lithographs and collaged elements. The distinct feature this process had is that, every single copy of this book was significantly different from the other, thereby distanced the practice from the orthodox forms of bookmaking. This aspect one would say is the crucial innovation the Russian Futurism has brought forth with regard to artist’s bookmaking. It is said that the Russian Futurism had gradually evolved into constructivism havingMalevich and Tatlin as key protagonists. The Constructivist books attempted to create a new proletarian art for a new communist epoch For Instance The design and text based works of El Lissitsky’sFor the voice had a direct impact on the groups linked to communism.

In the time of Dadaism that has cultivated the anti-Art ideology, forms like artist’s books, periodicals, manifestos and absurdist theatre became the main manifestations. It published number of significant artist’s books, such as George grosz’s The Face of the Dominant Class which is a series of satirical lithographs about the German Bourgeoisie. The approach of Dada somehow found a language to confront the Institution of Art, and also engaged with the socio-political complexities with radical methodological alternatives.

Surrealism as a movement was highly motivated by the studies on psychoanalysis especially the works of Sigmund Freud. His path breaking work World of Dreams in one sense was a conceptual motivation to the movement. The contribution of Surrealism as a movement to the genre of artist’s books was, it has brought back the form oflivre d'artiste (that was existing in France around 1890’s) and subverted it. For example in one of the works by Marx-Earnst titled Une Semaine de Bonte Marx takes the found images from the Victorian books and creates a kind of a collage. This attempt subverted the idea of original image that was dominant in the form oflivre d’artiste and by using these found images, it thus diluted the significant/economic value attributed to this form of bookmaking historically.

In the period Post-world war –II when the socio-cultural conditions were re-structuring and the so called new understandings about the world were coming forth, the artist’s book as a genre served as a convenient form to situate, distribute and share the ideas and interests of the artists in an international arena, especially with groups that operate in disciplinary grounds. Many of the leading practitioners in the post-war period tried to look into this genre more critically; poets from Brazil, artists from Holland and Denmark tried to de-construct the conventional structure of the book. For example in one the works by Isidore Isou, the work challenges the viewer to reassemble the contents of an envelope into a sequence of narrative. This in one sense can be understood as a production of interactive space where the viewer has to look and reassemble the work.

Motivated with these kinds of attempts the genre became more consolidated. Many artists felt bookmaking as a critical form to engage with different concerns within social/cultural/disciplinary milieu. For example: Yves Klein in his works such as Yves: Peintures and Dimanchecritically dealt with the issues of Identity and duplicity and in one sense challenged the idea of modernist integrity. ArtistsGuy Debord and Asger Jornworked a series of collaborations engaging with the aspect of psychogeography, created from the found magazines of Copenhagen and Paris respectively, collaged and then printed over in unrelated colours.

While speaking in the trajectory of de-constructing the form of the book the significant figure that is noteworthy is Dieter Roth. He created books with holes allowing the viewer to see more than one page at same time. He was the first artist to re-use the found books, comic books, printers’ end papers and news papers in a strategic way. The aspect of distribution of books was de-constructed by an artist named Ruscha who was almost contemporary to Roth, he distributed the original editions of his books in the gasoline stations that he had photographed, thereby completely moving away from the conventional ways of book distribution, as adapted by the art world.

Some of the crucial shifts had happened with regard to artist’s bookmaking in the time ofFluxus. Fluxus was a performance art group that utilized genre of artist’s books in a significant way. In a conceptual level Fluxus negated the role of galleries and institutions of art and brought art into a communitarian setup. One of the important figure affiliated with Fluxus who is necessary to mention here is George Brechth, his series of scores like Water Yam which were largely text based attempts are key to the understand the method of bookmaking at that moment and this method share characteristics with the several other editions of the Fluxus.

Conceptual Art as a movement adapted the form of artist’s books in much more strategic way with artists like Sol Lewitt, Bruce Nauman, Jaroslaw Kozlowski having artist’s book as a centre to their practice. For Instance one of the early attempts would be the exhibition that happened in New York in 1969 that featured a stack of artist’s books. This exhibition featured largely text based works by artists such as, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Wiener and Robert Barry. As these two movements (Fluxus and Conceptual art) need much more critical focus the later posts in this blog will engage with these two significant events elaborately with specific references.

It is said that in the period later to these, around the 1970’s the genre of artist’s books started being institutionalized. The mainstream understood the aesthetic/historical significance of this genre and tried to absorb this genre in to it. Many of the Museums galleries started collecting the artist’s books, even the form entered into the institution of Art pedagogy as a subject of study. There is also a constant re-structuring and re-defining that has been happening with regard the artist’s books especially after the intervention of newer technologies in the art practice, the role and function of the form has changed and spread into wider spectrums.

Thus this attempt of a historical overview with random references of the artist’s books, bring forth some of the crucial instances/questions in to the discursive field. Firstly the relation between the text and the image, the significance of their intersection as initiated by William Blake and later explored by others. Secondly the idea that, the artist’s book as a form can be considered as an activist because it primarily/historically negated the gallery system, and served as a radical methodological alternative. Thirdly the various manifestations it has gone through in different social/cultural/political contexts and how its institutionalization exemplifies the practice where historical ruptures are conveniently framed in by the mainstream in due course of time. It is necessary to note here that this small overview took into consideration some of the important shifts the artist’s book as a genre gone through in a western context. My later attempts will try engage with this genre more diversely and critically by understanding the developments of this genre in different geographies and contexts.

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