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Writing > Essays

Indefinite Definition

You pick it up. It fits easily in your palm. The elegantly tooled leather is warm against your skin. You open it to a creamy white page. The crisp black letters invite you to feast on the paper’s surface. The finely detailed wood engraving on the next page draws you more deeply in the sensual relationship among all the elements.

You try to pick it up. An accordion-folded strip of high gloss paper tumbles out from the covers, making a fluttering whoosh sound as the pages open and close on themselves. Shiny bold-faced words slide across the slick paper, slip over the folds, and puddle onto the last page. You open it more carefully the second time, and your eyes race along with the text to the tangled finale.

You don’t even want to touch it. Not just bound, it is bound up, gagged and constipated by the sharp metal bands wrapped tightly around it. The metal squeezes the fore-edges of the cover and compresses the spine in an attempt to hold in the content. If only you had a tin-snips, you could unleash the secrets trapped within.

Is it an artists’ book? A fine press book? A book object? A bookwork? A livre d’artiste? Is it a book at all? Is it, or isn’t it, who knows for sure?

Apparently no one, but everyone is trying to provide the answers. Pick up almost any book arts exhibition catalog, sourcebook or conference schedule from the past ten years and you’ll see it addressed: “What is an artists’ book?” It’s an issue that just doesn’t go away, and I am also compelled to address it in this first column on artists’ books.

“Today the term ‘artists’ book’ is a very broad one, encompassing anything from photocopied books…to sophisticated bookbinding that comes out of the European tradition,1 stated Richard Minsky, founder of the Center for Book Arts in New York. Others are more specific, such as Lucy Lippard: “Artists’ books are not books about art or on artists, but books as art. They can be all words, all images, or combinations thereof. At best they are a lively hybrid of exhibition, narrative, and object-cinematic potential co-existing with double-spread stasis.”2 Furthering this idea, Gloria Hickey wrote: “Artists’ books are for adventurers. In this category every aspect of the book is open to bold interpretation and any artistic device is permissible in the service of expression.”3

The Binnewater Tides
Women’s Studio Workshop Press, Volume 8 No. 4, Fall 1991
Also published in the Minneapolis College of Art and Design newsletter as What Is an Artist’s Book, Volume 5, No. 3, 1993