Books

The Enduring Relevance of Artists’ Books

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‘The Century of Artists’ Books’ by Johanna Drucker (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s Note: This also appeared in our inaugural edition of Hyperallergic’s Review of Art Books and Zines.

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Few books or critics have as astutely examined the history and predicted the evolution of artists’ books as Johanna Drucker does in The Century of Artists’ Books (1994). Published over 20 years ago, this book not only highlights some of the foremost book artists — such as Dieter Roth, Ed Ruscha, Martha Rosler, and Emmett Williams — but also does so through a strikingly formalist approach.

Drucker, both a scholar and book artist herself, breaks the book down into its various forms — democratic multiple, codex, sequence, document, agent of social change — and makes clear that the indefinable nature of books continues to make them a relevant and exciting medium.

Drucker argues that “the artist’s book is the quintessential 20th-century artform.” Twenty years later at this year’s NY Art Book Fair, Drucker revisits this bold claim and the current state of artist books in the digital age. Even when her book was first published, she envisioned the lasting potential of books not in spite of enhanced technologies, but as a consequence of them. In her chapter on codex, Drucker devotes a section to “The Book in the Electronic Field,” in which she proposes “at least musing on the question of the electronic spaces of the book,” citing both the digitized documents in online archives and hypertext as book forms.

When The Century of Artists’ Books was reprinted in 2004 it included a new preface by Drucker where she continues to predict the expansion of book-related practices in the digital age:

Conceptualization of web-based work often borrows book metaphors, while specific critical understanding of new media has also given us new ways to reflect upon older forms. The book is a dynamic interface, a structured set of codes for using and accessing information and navigating the experience of a work. […] And they are not going away any time soon.

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Spread of ‘The Century of Artists’ Books’ by Johanna Drucker

Drucker’s claims are even truer today, as the space of the book has more commonly become the site of innovative works of art. A range of small presses and independent publishers, including Koenig Books Litmus Press, Primary Information, and Siglio Press, continue to work closely with artists whose primary medium is the book. Recently, the trend of book-as-exhibition has been taken up by the publisher K. Verlag together with SYNAPSE curators in a series that examines the Anthropocene hypothesis.

In collaboration with book artist Susan Bee, Drucker’s Fabulas Feminae (2015) celebrates important women throughout history, much in the vein of Judy Chicago’s installation, “The Dinner Party” (1979). Collaged portraits of revolutionary women, such as Rosa Parks, Virginia Woolf, and Susan Sontag, by Bee are each paired with an ode written by Drucker. The collages draw from popular culture imagery associated with each figure, using bright colors that jump off the spreads, while Drucker’s text is presented in equally dazzling colors and shapes, joining with images rather than simply appearing alongside them. In the Billie Holiday spread, images of her with flowers sprouting from her mouth like musical notes are accompanied by orange text in the shape of her silhouetted portrait, with a floral accent at the top right.

Fabulas Feminae concludes by explaining Drucker’s creative text, “written (sort of) by the Hapex Legomenon, a natural language processing program that automatically condenses large quantities of text into an abstract.” Much as she describes in The Century of Artists’ Books, Drucker explores the possibilities of computer programing and digital typography to enhance the visual dimension of printed books.

Though Drucker is certainly not alone in her close study of artists’ books — others of note are Dick Higgins, Lucy Lippard, and Clive Philipot — The Century of Artists’ Books offers a lasting and strikingly accurate picture of both past and future book-making practices.

Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books, publish by Granary Books, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker’s Fabulas Feminae, published by Litmus Press, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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