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Artist books

Artists books are books, or book-like objects, wholly or primarily conceived (though not necessarily made or printed), by an artist, and usually produced in cheap, multiple editions for wide dissemination. Artist books are not books about art; they are books which are intended as artworks in themselves.

pages from Rough Sea Susan Hiller,
pages from Rough Sea, 1976

© Susan Hiller

Artists have been making books for centuries. Early examples include mediaeval manuscripts whose exuberantly decorated capitals and borders reflect the creator's interest in the overall conception of what a book is. William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience published in the eighteenth century, with their hand-coloured text and images designed and engraved together, can also be seen as artists books. But it was not until the 1960s that the book as an artist's medium flourished.

Why did the book format appeal so much to artists working in the 1960s and 1970s?

For the price of a theatre ticket people can now buy lavishly illustrated books on a variety of subjects from Icon painters or Cimabue and Donatallo to Salvador Dali and Pop Art.

Barrie Sturt-Penrose, The Art Scene, London, 1969
Page from From Around a Lake, Richard Long, 1973
Page from From Around a Lake, Richard Long, 1973

© The Artist

Technological advances led to a reduction in the costs of printing and publication, resulting in a growth in book production. This included art-book publishing, with publishing houses such as Thames and Hudson and Phaidon producing affordable art books written by a new generation of critics for a wider audience.

Books and magazines became the primary means of circulating new developments in contemporary art, and thus a familiar and natural resource for artists to adopt for their own work. Practically it also meant that the book became an affordable medium for artists to consider as a means to disseminate their ideas.

The impetus that led to artists adopting the book as a medium was not just a result of affordability however, it was very much related to the art scene, and to the ideas being explored particularly by Conceptual artists.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a rejection of the existing art world structures for the production and exhibition of art, in favour of artists exploring mediums and art forms not reliant on the gallery space for presentation. Cheap to produce and with the potential to reach a large audience through multiple copies, the artist's book as a medium suited perfectly artists interests in the democratisation of the art object, and subverting the existing structures.

Furthermore, as a medium it was eminently appropriate for Conceptual artists who emphasised the importance of an idea over an art object. Graphic treatments that could be easily reproduced and distributed in the pages of a book such as typescript, photography and diagrams, were entirely appropriate visual forms for relaying their ideas.

Focus on Ed Ruscha

When I first became attracted to the idea of being an artist, painting was the last method, it was an almost obsolete, archaic form of communication... I felt newspapers, magazines, books, words, to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing.

Ed Ruscha, as quoted in Paul J. Karlstrom, Interview with Edward Ruscha, California Oral History Project, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1980-81

Ed Ruscha, cover of Various Small Fires, 1964
Ed Ruscha, cover of
Various Small Fires, 1964

© Ed Ruscha
Between 1963 and 1978, Ed Ruscha produced sixteen books. With reference to his first book, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Ruscha stated that he thought of the title before taking the photographs, thus reflecting the conceptual artists' emphasis on the importance of the idea.

His books appear as photographic essays and follow a similar format with a title on the front cover, and the interior pages consisting literally of compilations of photographs. Although there is a narrative quality to some of the books, for example Royal Road Test, others are systematic collections of images illustrating the title of the book, as is the case with Various Small Fires.
Front cover of artist brochure News, Mews, Pews...
Front cover of artist brochure,
News, Mews, Pews..., 1970

© Ed Ruscha

This impulse to catalogue, to count and collect (many of the titles refer to the numbers of items photographed) again reflects conceptual art's interest in exploring sequences and structures, what Phyllis Rosenzweig refers to as 'the aesthetics of seriality'.

The documentary quality of Ruscha's photographs, has been compared to those by the great photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank whose work aimed to capture the life and culture of ordinary Americans. Ruscha similarly captures the ordinariness of life. There is a deadpan quality to the images of swimming pools or petrol stations, but also wry humour. In Nine Swimming Pools the banality of image after image of swimming pool, is disrupted by the final image of a broken glass (as the title page in fact warns us).
Page from Ruscha's Book, Royal Road Test, 1967
Page from Ruscha's Book, Royal Road Test, 1967

© Ed Ruscha

Page from Nine Swimming Pools, 1968
Page from Nine Swimming Pools, 1968

© Ed Ruscha
Page from Nine Swimming Pools, 1968
Page from Nine Swimming Pools, 1968

© Ed Ruscha