“This exhibition is an attempt to illustrate the emergence of the book as a provocative, sympathetic, and widely practiced medium among contemporary artists in the United States. The show includes well over a hundred examples of book art, every one of which proposes a different formal and/or contextual exploitation of the form. These book works range from the publication of purely verbal material hardly different in method or message from the items one encounters in bookstores and libraries to the fabrication of unique sculptural objects whose shape refers deliberately to, and takes liberties with, the book.
The attitudes that paved the way for most of the artists’ book-works included in this exhibition were formulated by the second wave of Modernists in the early 20th century. The aesthetics promulgated by the manifesto-waving Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and other “ists” applied to more than just the fine arts. Literature, music, drama, dance–every conceivable art form and, in fact, social and political forms as well–were addressed by these committed bands of artists intent on changing the world through a new vision. That a single aesthetic (take your pick) could apply to all art forms inevitably implied that the boundaries between art forms were themselves superfluous. The Futurists developed a printed poetry of graphic images; the Constructivists devised a theater of light, sound and abstract motion; the Dadaists realized a spoken poetry of non-verbal sound and even musically rhythmic and thematic ordering; the Surrealists fabricated painting-poems fusing word, image, and object. All these mixed media and intermedia were proclaimed, championed, and practiced in the numerous periodicals tirelessly generated by the energetic avant-garde. Publishing themselves and each other, they found, was at least as provocative a way of disseminating their views as making pictures, writing poems, or even staging demonstrations in the street. (“Alternate media” long predates the underground papers of the ‘60s!)
After World War II, the successors to these inspired madmen and women were less concerned with social action, but they could not help but be influenced by their predecessors’ involvement with intermedia and especially with printed formats. Concrete poetry, Lettrism, and other fusions of word and image are clearly descendants of the Futurists’ parole in libertá and the Surrealists’ poems-peintures. By the mid-1950’s, certain individuals had surfaced whose refusal to discriminate between letter and image generated a similar refusal to discriminate between page and picture plane. Of these, Dieter Roth (a.k.a. Diter Rot) is probably the best known.
While all this ferment brewed in Europe, America remained a cultural backwater. Perhaps under the influence of such talented exiles from the Old World as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Hans Richter, as well as American poets such as Kenneth Patchen and Charles Olson, American artists slowly awoke to the possibilities of performed and printed visual art. By the 1950’s, a tradition of close friendship, cooperation, and intertwined aesthetic aims had developed among writers and artists in both New York and San Francisco. In this atmosphere, Happenings devised by Kaprow, Oldenburg, Whitman and Dine emerged as a specifically American blend of art forms, and their notebooks became a major influence to the development of artists’ books both here and abroad.
A parallel development to Happenings was Fluxus, a definite presence in the atmosphere of American and European art since its inception in New York in the late 50’s. Although Surrealist-oriented magazines and folios had been published throughout the Americas since the early 40’s, the pariticipants in Fluxus were the first in the United States to produce publications and objects that could be called artists’ bookworks, as that term has come to be defined. The Fluxus newspaper and printed editions issued by George Maciunas, and the more formal books and pamphlets of Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, appeared between 1961 and ’68. By the late ‘60’s the Fluxus artists were not alone in their production of artists’ publications, but they remained the only artists to base their work heavily on the book medium.
Conceptual artists have made extensive use of the book format. More and more, the book came to be regarded as a documentary medium for conceptual proposals, a kind of meta-catalogue for otherwise essentially unembodiable gestures. The books of Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, and others published by Seth Siegelaub are outstanding examples. The relative cheapness and potential multiplicity of the books countered the preciousness of unique art objects, an attitude which these artists sought to supercede. One of the last exhibitions at Joseph Kosuth’s Lannis Museum of Normal Art in 1967 was “20 Artists Present Their Favorite Books” (Ad Reinhardt presented the Manhattan yellow pages.) At the same time, a number of other artists who were tempermentally or geographically isolated from New York preoccupations with concept and process were also concentrating on the book format. Experimental art-oriented periodicals like Aspen and S.M.S., that were related but not limited to conceptualist modes, expanded the physical form and definition of the magazine, and by extension of the book itself.
The explosion of styles in the 1970’s heralded by many as the opening volley of the “post-modernist era” has been accompanied by an expansion of the early conceptualists’ experimental attitudes towards media. Forms and substances previously excluded by definition from the realm of fine art–photography, film, video, artists’ performance, walk-in installations, sound installations, and publishable formats like records, broadsheets, and books now receive consideration and respect equal to that shown painting and sculpture. The new modes are even championed by some as superceding traditional visual media. This concentration of attention has led to a kind of faddism-by-medium with everybody talking about, watching, and doing video one year, performance the next, books the next, records the next. The volatility of this situation has proven beneficial to those who have found their proper niche as a result and do not merely hop nervously from format to format.
It is hoped that this exhibition imparts a sense of the vast, perhaps infinite range of possibilities open to artists’ books. Artists’ books can be published in large press runs, issued in limited edition or uniquely fabricated. They can be printed, hand-made or use any combination of hand and mechanical devices, such as rubber-stamping. They can be made up of words, of words and pictures, of pictures, or of actual materials which have been incorporated into a book. They can document the artist’s (or others’) experiences, depict or delineate other narration, or exist entirely as self-contained phenomena, commentary on the social, aesthetic and general experience of books and bookness. They can be funny, sexy, mystical, formal, repetitive, ephemeral, huge or delicate. The items in this show are for the most part single volumes, but there are several multipartite pieces. To illustrate the broadness of the format, documentations of whole libraries fabricated by Stella Waitzkin and Jeffrey Lew and of a book large and well-equipped enough to live in build by 1966 by Alison Knowles have also been included.
Book art is not a single style, it is many styles finding a medium. It is not a single medium, it is many media finding a format. It is not a single format, it is many formats finding a context. It is not a single context, it is many contexts finding an artist. It is not a single artist, it is many artists finding a public.”
–Peter Frank and Martha Wilson
Introduction to Artists’ Books U.S.A. catalogue, 1978