The term Artist Book is indeed a controversial one when it comes to defining what exactly falls into this strange space between a book and a work of art. All over the internet you will different definitions. They all skirt around the same ideas, the same subjects, but no one is exactly the same… a bit like artist books themselves!
No matter which definition you choose – that an art book distinguishes itself from other art forms because they are “usually intended to be portable… are mixed-media…combine many processes” (Angela Lorenz, an artist) or that it “refers to publications that have been conceived as artworks in their own right” (Printed Matter, Inc.) – we all refer to the same pieces. In our minds, a simple definition of “Artist Books” could refer to when a book becomes more art than book. Not, of course, in a way that a picture book is more art than “book”, but in the way that the book is less something to be handled and read, and more something to be admired – in the way that art on the wall is looked at and admired.
So what types of components automatically alert the reader (or in this case, looker-on) that what they are looking at is, in fact, part of the gap between art and book? Well, there are many different options (ones that, if I’m honest, even we don’t know about), but some of the most obvious ones we can mention here. As WalkerArt.org states, “While literature is often a point of departure, artists’ books often bear little resemblance to conventional volumes. Many are sculptural, multidimensional, or made of material other than paper—some have no pages at all.” And there they are spot on – artist books can be made of anything at all. In fact, we at Swan’s Fine Books have a couple with string running through them or even twigs bound into them. The bindings can be so unconventional that they can not have spines at all! Perhaps they are accordion bound, or housed inside a special case made solely to display the item. The use of cutwork is often used, allowing numerous illustrations to be viewed at once or perhaps to simply make opening the work a work of art in and of itself. In any case, the motivating force behind artist books is to allow creativity and freedom of expression to reign!
So why should one bother with such an item? It is neither book nor art, and can be a confusing thing to behold. Looking at one displayed one can wonder how to handle it, whether it is even meant to be handled (some are, some aren’t!). So why should we concern ourselves with such items? Well, it may confuse, but Artist Books are meant to be eye-opening items. They are meant to be enjoyed as both art AND book, and, in our opinion, only serves to highlight one of the things we love most about books in general – their creativity and the passion in a book for sharing both words and illustrations or artwork. Creativity & imagination are keywords in both worlds!
Current Artist Book creator Charles Hobson hits the nail on the head when he describes why he works with these types of creations: “Artists’ books are anatural meeting place for image and word. Because of this, I work with books, particularly accordion and other sculptural forms of books, which allow both an intimate viewing experience and a group viewing experience to take place.” Artist Books allow for a different experience (in participation & observation from the viewer) from regularly-bound books, and perhaps that is a great part of their charm!