workshop art
art of the book
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In 1990 we organized Book Arts in the USA, an exhibit which circulated through Africa and Latin America courtesy of the United States Information Agency. We are in the process of putting this entire exhibit catalog online, with photos of all 51 works, the artist's statements and photos of the artists. Click on the picture of the catalog cover to see what we're up to. For those who prefer to read in French, you can click on texte en français.

Below is the introduction by the exhibit's curator. It gives an overview of what Book Art is. 

by Richard Minsky

A single copy of a book is a curious thing. Even when part of a large edition, it is rarely considered disposable. People have books on their shelves that they haven't looked at in years, yet they don't throw them out or even give them away. A passing glance at the shelf gives a reassuring feeling, a reminder of the knowledge one has absorbed. They are old friends, these volumes, and just seeing them reminds us not only of their stories or facts, but of the time we spent with them.

The oldest books we have in the shape we are familiar with-- folded pages sewn through the fold--are Coptic manuscripts from Ethiopia and Egypt. They date from about the years 100 - 400. This change in form from the scrolls previously used required a change in the technology of parchment production. The folded page was written on both sides, where the scroll used only one side of the skin. The relationship between the structure of the book and the development of its materials continues to evolve.

In this exhibit you will see how 51 contemporary Americans are changing the form and materials of the book to suit their personal vision. We call this work Book Art.

In Book Art the container works with the content. The materials are tactile and often relate to the metaphor of the text. In some cases there is no written text. The book is then a purely visual, totemic or iconographic work, in which the image, structure and materials are the content. The physical presence of a book, its feeling and smell, its weight, the process of moving through its pages or unfolding it speak to our deepest inner sensibilities. The very form speaks of knowledge preserved and communicated. It represents our ability to build on complex ideas which survive millenia beyond the cultures which created them.

Reading a visual book is not altogether different from reading one with text. We bring to it our literacy -- not one of language and words, but of images we have seen and digested. These can be specific to a subculture or of almost universal familiarity. We often think of publishing as making many copies of a book. Some of the books in this exhibit are part of an edition, though the edition may be only five copies or 500, but there are also many unique bookworks. The exhibition is the act of publication. As this exhibit circulates, thousands of people will be exposed to these books, and thousands more will see this catalog.

Unfortunately you can't have the pleasure of holding these books and turning their pages, and you do miss out on an important part of the work because of that. But many of them read well through their plastic cases and give you their message instantly. Here you can "read" 51 books in less than an hour!


This is the era of satellite communication, bubble memory, and laser videodiscs, but we are not engaged in a countertechnological enterprise. What draws so many people to use "obsolete" tools and processes to communicate? What makes these individuals build on a tradition of thousands of years of handcrafted books rather than explore mass communications through modern technology?

To start with: much of their work is on the frontier of new technology. Certainly it is not electronic. But modern adhesives, inks and papers developed from research in conservation laboratories during the last 20 years have radically altered the chemical composition of the materials available to today's artists. The works you see in this exhibit are chemically different from their predecessors. Scientists observed that the paper in 15th Century books looked fresh and new, while paper from the 1880's was brittle and crumbling. When the reasons for the rapid decay of 19th and 20th Century books were discovered, such as the acidic nature of wood-pulp paper, we were able to develop deacidified paper and paperboard impregnated with chemical buffers which neutralize the effects of air pollution. Many of the artists represented here use these modern materials. The work of others requires papers traditionally made of rags or cotton fibers, and some papers are hand made as both the content and structure of the book.


Many artists use commercial printing and photocopy technology to produce editions of their texts and images inexpensively, to make them available to a larger public. These Artists' Books are primarily works of visual literature, in which the materials and form of the book are not the subject, but are primarily the vehicle or medium for images and ideas. Sharon Gilbert's Poison America, printed on a photocopy machine, shows how a readily available process can be used to communicate very directly. Leonard Seastone, on the other hand, uses flatbed lithography technology in Good Movies, and Ann Fessler's Water Safety is offset printed. These three artists also use "found" or existing texts or images as a basis for their work. Betsy Davids composed Dreaming Aloud on a computer and incorporated scanned video images.

The changing form of the book and its use as a medium of unique visual expression is a phenomenon which has developed in America during the last twenty years. We take the means of production in our hands; it gives us the power and freedom to communicate our ideas. We are not dependent on approval by a publisher. It doesn't require a lot of capital. The scale is human. Our medium doesn't need batteries. It produces no radiation and is portable.

Copyright © 1990, 2000 Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974