QofR: Artists' books

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Although a loose and baggy category, I would argue that what distinguishes an artist's book from other visual forms - sculpture or installation for example - is the necessity for manipulation. In order to reveal itself, an artist's book must be touched, turned, shuffled, twisted and held. Betty Bright offers the following definition: 'an artists' book is a book made my an artist... Every aspect of the book-from content to materials to format-must respond to the intent of the artist and cohere into a work that is set in motion with a readers touch’ . This definition makes them a particularly fertile medium for exploring the role of embodied experience.

Note on analogue vs digital

Artists' books can be both physical and digital. Digital artists books equally involve an embodied experience and require interaction in order to enact their meaning. The swiping, pinching, tapping actions we engage in when interacting with a digital book are parallels to the flicking, opening, stroking, scraping actions we engage with on a physical one. However, for the purposes of my research I am going to focus on physical books as that is where my own creative practice interests are held.

While early artist books can be seen in the 19th Century with William Blake and William Morris, as well as the livre d'artiste tradition, these were associated with fine deluxe editions and relatively conventional contents. They were made in pursuit of a market - emphasising their value through scarcity. Johanna Drucker states that the development of the artists' book as a separate field is ‘particularly marked after 1945, when the artist’s book had its own practitioners, theorists, critics, innovators and visionaries.'

The book had various formal aspects that appealed to artists who were looking away from conventional forms and media for reasons I explored in my blog on researching materiality. Firstly is the book's physical characteristics - it's an object with a structure and architecture, but also one with moving parts, it is interactive and multi-dimensional with numerous surfaces that allow for a range of artistic experimentation.

Secondly were the political and economic opportunities it provided. A large edition book is a public form of art allowing as many readers as copies - it democratises access. Unlike a conventional public sculpture that is seen in a single ideological and physical location, the book allows for a more personal and multifarious experience. Some artists were keen to find an alternative economic value for art - unlike value based on intangible notions of genius or singularity with no link to social use, the book had a actual economy, founded on production, distribution and sale.

Finally, the symbolic significance of the book as artistic medium. Arguably, if artists like Kara Walker are using sugar for its symbolic significance, artists who use the book as the basis for their creative practice are invoking the traditional constraints and symbolic currency of that object to inform the meaning of their work. The book is rich in its historic and cultural connotations: history, fiction, narrative, memoir, news, propaganda all of which encourage a fruitful area for engagement.

For example, linearity is a key characteristic of text, books and reading. Linguistic meaning is played out sequentially. We communicate in sentences that build sense through a set of pre-defined and accepted rules, using syntax and grammar to add structure and additional layers of meaning. Most Indo-European languages are read from the top left corner to the bottom right, and the book, as a physical space for text, echoes this sequentiality, hence the primacy of the codex form with its single spine and pages that turn progressively from right to left. Meaning is developed as we turn the page (irrespective of what is on those pages, text/image/texture. This is in contrast to the immediacy of sculpture, painting or installation. We may ‘read’ a complex visual image by looking at various parts at different times, but we can take in the whole in one moment depending on our physical proximity.

This tradition of linearity is a restriction that acts as a springboard for creativity through subversion or manipulation - you must have a set of rules that are universally recognised in order to break them. One example is Tom Phillips' work A Humument, a project I've been obsessed with for a while. Phillips started the project in 1966 when he resolved to dedicate himself to making art out of secondhand books. The work - often referred to as 'a radical treatment' - is an obscure Victorian novel that has been overlaid with collage, cut-up and ornamented. On the 50th anniversary of its inception in 2016, Philips completed a sixth and final reworking of the original that entirely transformed his first version.

A Humument plays with textual linearity in order to create a new meaning from the words on the page. The 50 year lifespan of the project enforces this non-linear narrative, while the reworked pages include references to modern history that in part appear to be anachronistic. To read it as one would a book is both humorous, poetic and baffling, but each page can also be viewed as an individual image, whose aesthetic invokes collage and pop art.

In 2015, as part of a project I was working on - IRIS, an artists' magazine of original visual and written work - I created the following pieces inspired by Tom Philips. I took the preface/editorial we had written (and included in the magazine) and treated it to create a sort of concrete poem that basically summarised the general argument of the editorial.

The slightly tongue in cheek poem that I created...


Sense - a complex matter?

Text has an immaterial primacy

Tangible marks set across the page

Thumbprints veiling type

Morph meaning

Limit of print

It is an experiment

Visual transformation

Retracing and


Another example I found of an artist playing with the conventions of the codex form was Colin Sackett's Black Bob.

The book is comprised of 63 spreads of an identical intricate black and white image of a shepherd, his sheep dog and flock beside a river. The image has a movement from right to left - following the pace of the man and animals, as well as the flow of the river. This echoes the progressive mechanics of reading as you turn the page to develop the narrative. The flip book evocation of the entirely visual book encourages you to expect some form of visual development, or perhaps a very subtle spot the difference. But this expectation is thwarted as each of the images is identical. The book therefore raises questions about narrative development vs the immediacy of the image. It also makes the reader start to question their own sight as your expectation and the reality clash.


  1. Bodman, Sarah and Tom Sowden, A Manifesto for the Book (Bristol: Impact Press, 2008). Available from: https://www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk/pdf/publications/manifesto-of-the-book.pdf

  2. Bright, Betty. No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 (New York: Granary Books, 2005)

  3. Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004)

  4. Philips, Tom. 'A Humument', tomphillips.co.uk [online]. Available from: http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument

  5. Schumann, Max, 'The Possibilities of the Artist Book', YouTube.com [online] updated 26 May 2015. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6k98lTXEcM&t=878s

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