What Are Artist’s Books? (With Key Examples)

Artist’s books are a surprisingly varied and diverse artform that have persisted as an art form since the early 20th century.

Feb 20, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
what are artists books examples

 

Artist’s books are as they might sound – books made specifically as works of art. While they might sound simple, in reality they are some of the most complex and varied artworks you might encounter, ranging from one-off, sculptural artworks to cheaply printed multiples. In fact, many artists use the book format to explore creative intersections between art, graphic design, photography, printmaking, poetry, and more.

 

Many also experiment with making pages from alternative materials, as well as exploring unconventional binding and display methods, expanding our understanding of the term ‘book.’ Some are one off, rare objects, while others are printed in limited or large editions using cheap materials to allow for an easier dissemination of ideas into the wider public. In celebration of this rich and varied art form, we take a closer look at some of the finest artist books through the ages.

 

Early Artist’s Books

The five pamphlets and box from Max Enst’s Une Semaine de Bonte, 1934. Source: Auction France
The five pamphlets and box from Max Enst’s Une Semaine de Bonte, 1934. Source: Auction France

 

The notion of artist’s books first became popularized during the early 20th century. Art movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Constructivism saw artists toying with typography and graphic design, particularly within self-published manifestos and magazines, which inevitably led many to play with the book formation as conceptual art. From the get-go artist books took a huge variety of forms. For example, Surrealist artist Max Ernst’s radical series of collage pamphlets (or what he called a ‘collage novel’) Une Semaine de Bonte (A Week of Kindness), 1934, were a series of collages made from cut up journals and novels, reworked to conjure up a strange and dreamlike sequence of events.

 

Open pages of the Blue Rider Almanac, published in 1912.
Open pages of the Blue Rider Almanac, published in 1912.

Other artists experimented with journal-like formats, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s Blue Rider Almanac, published in 1912, a limited-edition publication which brought together ideas and artworks from a wide pool of creative voices. 

 

Experimental Practices During the Early 20th Century

Little Tentative Recipe, Dieter Roth, 1968. Source: Artist Books and Multiples
Little Tentative Recipe, Dieter Roth, 1968. Source: Artist Books and Multiples

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It was arguably during the mid to late 20th century that the artist book concept truly came into its own. Artists played with various printing, binding and presentational formats, such as concertina pages, boxed books or pages with slits and holes. Others sought cheap printing methods to produce a high-volume of deliberately lo-fi publications. Swiss conceptual artist Dieter Roth is often credited as the true inventor of the artist’s book as we know it today. A great experimenter, he tore apart the traditional role of books, playing with loose sheets, abstract shapes, and the incorporation of unconventional materials including food and plastic.

 

every building on the sunset strip ed ruscha
Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, 1966. Source: Christie’s

 

Following on Roth’s legacy, American pop artist Ed Ruscha has produced tactile artist books in a range of shapes and formats for decades, with many featuring his own deadpan photographs arranged into a non-narrative sequence. Other prominent and prolific book makers from the late 20th century are Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, who founded the independent publisher Wild Hawthorn Press in 1961 with Jessie McGuffie, and American abstract artist Richard Tuttle, who extended the elemental language of his works on paper into a series of daring and unconventional book projects. 

 

Contemporary Artist Books

Ode a l’oubli, 2002, Louise Bourgeois. Source: MoMA.
Ode a l’oubli, 2002, Louise Bourgeois. Source: MoMA.

 

Today artists continue to explore the artist’s book as a powerful means of presenting ideas in non-linear and unconventional ways. French sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ fabric book, Ode a l’oubli, 2002, has linen pages and binding made out of upcycled hand towels from the artist’s wedding in 1938. Onto each linen page, the artist cut and stitched a series of fabric collages made from scraps of her own clothing, thereby creating an intimate reflection on the memories bound up in textiles.

 

[2,3], 2013, Tauba Auerbach. Source: Artspace
[2,3], 2013, Tauba Auerbach. Source: Artspace

Meanwhile, American contemporary artist Tauba Auerbach produces artist’s books that explore the book formation’s natural dichotomy between two and three dimensions. In 2013, they founded Diagonal Press as a means of consolidating their diverse self-publishing practice. One of their most ambitious projects [2,3], is a large-scale pop-up book produced in an edition of 1000. Each page opens up to reveal an intricate and complex paper construct based on geometric patterns and shapes, some as tall as 18 inches, which can then be folded down and made entirely flat. They thereby explore the ability of the artist’s book to hide within its flat, folded, or gathered pages the potential for both conceptual, and literal, expansion.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.