QofR: Tactility and artists' books

Another artist who I've been researching, and whose work is seminal to the development of artists' books is Dieter Roth. Roth began making books in the early 1950s; although various in their form, generally his works contain no text or figurative images, but are activated by the reader's actions and imagination. Kinderbuch is a 28-page, spiral-bound book, filled with colourful printed, opaque pages with di-cut geometric shapes. The reader is invited to engage in self-directed exploration through a kind of visual playground although choices are restricted to two directions due to the binding. The individual pages do not stand alone as they cut out sections always inform the reader of what is to come and what has gone before, giving a value from one page to the next.

A later work, Bilderbuch, is made up of 20 sheets of unbound, multi-coloured and semi-transparent foil, with no pagination or bibliographical information. Each sheet has various square cut out sections, which can be shuffled and compiled in numerous outcomes. The reader is invited to develop compositions by layering the sheets, in a kind of poetic optical performance.

The design also invites a non-linear experience of the book. The reader is permitted to move both forward and backward through the materials to view multiple compositions of blended colours and overlapping shapes. This forward and backward movement does not equate to a rereading of content per se but rather a bi-directional and dialogic navigation through a work of art.

In 1960 Roth won the William and Noma Copley Award, in recognition of his book projects, and opted to use the prize money to produce a new artist’s book. Over the next several years he worked via correspondence, sending the project in sections from Iceland, where he was living at the time, to artist Richard Hamilton, a longtime friend and collaborator, who oversaw its production in London. Copley Buch is about the process of making a book: its pages are an accumulation of Roth’s doodles and notes to himself; instructions on printing, production, and scale; mirrored and symmetrical images taken from an Icelandic children’s textbook; and a copy of a letter from the printer, who apologizes for having misplaced two pages intended for the volume. The object is neither directional, nor does it have a recognisable visual theme. Its only traditional feature is the requirement to open the container in order to sift through its contents. It is basically a series of paratexts, that have no text - the ultimate meta-materiality.

The thing that is so interesting in Dieter Roth’s work is the participatory element. In order to take on a meaning, the work must be engaged with. In order to question notions of linearity someone put flip the pages back and forth, or simply open the book or take out the piece of paper/pages. In this sense, it is an example of materiality as meaning. It doesn’t just enhance the experience, it is the experience.

This video from MoMA is an incredibly information discussion of Roth's work and his influential on artists' books:

I wanted to explore some other examples of how artist books engage the reader in a similarly participatory way. Although, due to lockdown I had to use online catalogues and my imagination to analyse how the books would work when touched.

Keith Smith, Book 91 (1982)

This artist book is part of series of ‘string books’. It contains a series of blank white pages that have been punched through with holes and strung together with linen chords. Smith gives explicit instructions that the book should be viewed with a single light source at a 45 degree angle to the left of the book, three feet distance. This light source is blocked by the chords and holes causing shadows to appear on the page; as the pages are turned the contents changes. It is only through the action of opening or closing, on behalf of the reader, that the movement and the meaning is created. When laid entirely flat the diagrammatic layout of the thread can be viewed, but the emphemeral dance of light, the life of the page is lost. When the book is closed darkness overwhelms.

Kevin Osborne, Real Lush (1981)

Real Lush is a striking shape that manipulates the viewers' experience of the book. The object is over 2 inches thick with 315 leaves bolted together within a stiff red cover. The positioning of the bolts one-third into the book hides a large section of the contents within the spine, enticing the reader to consider what has been concealed. This leads to a wider consideration on the book's linear form as an act of concealment as much as it is one that reveals. The binding also lends itself to being held easily in the hand and emphatically flipped through almost like a fan - the entirely image based and brightly coloured images blur together echoing the overlaid mixed media aesthetic.

Jac Batey, Be Nice When It's Finished (2014)

Made from a single A3 sheet and folded to make 16 pages, this artist book considers the ever-changing architectural landscape of Berlin, with its 'pink pipes, cranes, hazard tape and false facades'. The book can be read as a codex, with pages being turned to reveal snapshots of the city, or it can opened out fully to reveal its full size. This folded format is reminiscent of map, suggesting the only way to view the city in its entirety is in the contrived format of the map - itself undermined or made outdated by the consistently changing landscape. The reader is forced to tread delicately, once they've navigated the striped binding, unsure as to whether they are touching a fold or edge, unsure whether they should open, turn or close.

Cheryl Penn, Needle Girls (2009)

An extreme example of the transactional possibilities of the artist book is Penn's Needle Girls. The book is concerned with the subject of self-mutilation as a symptom of mental health crises. The page has taken on the role of the skin and has been punctured with needles and thorns, burnt and cut through, even stitched and bandaged. The needle-sharp tactility of the object forces the reader to handle it with great care to avoid physical harm; a gentleness that echoes the treatment needed for the individuals the book depicts.



  1. Goldstein, Andrew. 'MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki on how Dieter Roth invented the artist's book', seattleartistleague.com [online] updated June 2013. Available from: https://seattleartistleague.com/2016/10/19/books-undoing-dieter-roths-artists-books/

  2. Suzuki, Sarah, 'wait later this will be nothing', moma.org [online] updated February 2013. Available from: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/dieter_roth/works/copley-book/index.html

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