Bound to be Beautiful

For some contemporary artists, the traditional idea of the book as paper and ink is up for grabs as was shown at a conference at Wellesley College

By Milo Miles
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ABC: The Artists' Book ConferenceWELLESLEY, Mass.— Last June, Wellesley College sponsored “ABC: The Artists’ Book Conference.” In this too-wised-up-for-its-own-good era, “Artists’ Book” is one of the few terms that evoke a blank-page stare. You mean a biography or a collected works, someone will ask? No, and it is not a monograph. It is a work of art, generated by some combination of artist, writer and printer.

But is that a book? And does it matter if it is a book or not? The simplest answer to both questions is that the proof is in the pudding or in this case, the binding. And the case has been made, many times over, in conferences such at the one at Wellesley College. It is a niche that has the benefits of escaping the predicament of art that has become a victim of international monetary speculation and lighter-than-air theorizing.

Throughout the 20th century, the idea of “illustrated books” became fuzzy around the edges, in ways that encouraged wild creativity. The modernists and their even more literary descendents, the surrealists, insisted that paintings, watercolors, pastels and collage shared co-billing with the text of a book. Sometimes that emphasis on the pictorial dictated the shape of the volume. Starting in the ’40s, freewheeling author-illustrators like Kenneth Patchen began to merge categories, integrating the disciplines of writing and drawing.

The 1960s completed the upheaval, the redefinition of what a book was supposed to be, as detailed in Betty Bright’s forthcoming “No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980.” Books began to morph into inventive shapes and unpredictable sizes, made up of materials ranging from plastics to steel. (More studies of artists who make art books and images of the books themselves can be found here.)

One sure sign that something is an artist’s book and not a routine illustrated edition is that there’s a whisper of tension about who’s going to lead the dance — words or pictures. The artists’ book world is divided into language people and visuals people, the two camps united by respect for talent and reverence toward craft. This playful conflict extends to the shapes a book can take.

Thus the question “Is this a book?” becomes more pointed as geometry and imagery take control: the idea of sitting and reading the so-called book seems quaint rather than practical. Perhaps, deep down, some of the book artists who revere language suspect those who are obsessed with images are exploiting the culture’s fondness for “books.” For word warriors, the soul of a volume resides in the excellence of its traditional content — print.

Broadly speaking, the language people and the visuals people don’t even agree on whether the word “edition” pertains to an artist’s book. Understandably, the language camp favors a print run of more than one. Economically, the trend among book artists is toward making so-called “multiples” because lower individual-item prices attract more buyers. But book artists who favor visuals, especially those who create their books by hand, show an understandable affection for the unique work. If the market wants more, they will make more, but not until the market asks.

And ask it will. Some of the most engaging remarks at the ABC conference came from keynote speaker Mark Dimunation, the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. He talked about how he evaluates books for the national collection. One juicy bit: for Dimunation, the more energy a book puts into explaining what it’s doing, the less energy it has to be worthwhile.

The Private Collecting panel, however, best demonstrated how artists’ books fit right into the parade of glorious fetish objects. Sidney Berger of Simmons College described his collector’s itch as a sort of rapture that busts the budget and overwhelms common sense. Robert Ruben sees his collection as an act of uplifting idealism, a way of gathering and preserving valuable bits of our culture in one place. And Duke Collier underscored that collecting artists’ books resists interpretation, though he suggested it helps create a realm apart from the everyday grind, a sort of pleasure dome made of shelves and pages.

Of course, not all artists’ books are made up of pages or use paper and ink. Still, if your gut tells you this thing is a book you want, Collier suggested, go for it, though it is not always easy to know what you are looking at.

Early in the conference, during an ABC-sponsored tour of the rare-book rooms and special-collection corridors in the depths of the Boston Public Library, our little group was invited into the book-restoration laboratory, where crumbling, ancient leaves were returned to full flower. A long table contained numerous examples of beautifully revitalized volumes, some restored to a happier state of their original, highly unconventional appearance.

At one end sat what appeared to be a hot plate with two burners, one covered by a plastic dish holding a sponge attempting to disguise itself as a hamburger. More than one person stopped and stared intently at the Hotpoint display. “What’s the concept of this book?” No BPL official responded, but soon the mystery was figured out: this is a restoration lab, and that instrument is used to make paste. It happened to be on the wrong table at the right time, a time when the idea of “a book” is up for grabs. Sometimes a book is just not a hot plate.

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