Contemporary Artists’ Book Conference – 2

“Critical Convening on Terminology and Contextualizing Historic Material”. Reflection 2

Time: 26 February 2021
Organizer: Center for Book Arts, New York, USA
Artist’s Book Conference on “Critical Convening on Terminology and Contextualizing Historic Material” was part of the “2021 Contemporary Artists’ Book Conference” in conjunction with “Printed Matter’s Virtual Art Book Fair”.
How does inadequate, inconsistent, or unclear terminology limit our ability to write critically about artist’s books?  How can and should we recontextualize historical artist’s books? After a brief introduction, we invite you to join the founders of BAR and a group of international guests in this convening as we split into small breakout groups to explore these questions and work on developing recommendations.
The theme of the Artist’s Book Conference was not only interesting but also very important. Many times, I had to talk with art critics and press about “artist’s book” terminology.  I don’t know why, but this field of art for many art people is still unclear. And the first question always is: what does “artist’s book” mean? I never hear that somebody would ask, what does painting or installation mean?… The next question is why do you write “artist’s book”, but not “artists’ book”, or “art book”, or even “book art”?
So, I decided to attend the Conference, hoping to hear something new.
Like the organizers wrote, we had to join the group and discuss. The first short discussion had to be about terminology of “artist’s book”. And here, I am sorry, it was big “disaster”… not only in my group, but also among all Conference people from different fields: teachers, librarians, artists, designers & printmakers. Kind people. And they spoke American English very well. And that is all, I am sorry. So, for them “artist’s book” was the same as “art book” or “artists’ book”, or “book art”. No difference! Very sad – it was a very unprofessional talk.
But it made me wonder again why people, even in America, where there are so many creators of an “artist’s book”, don’t understand what an “artist’s book” is. And, thanks to this Conference, I think, I understood why.
But, in the beginning let’s look at “artist’s book” of MoMA’s definition:

What!? Are you still living in the early twentieth century? Who writes and administers such nonsenses? I am sorry for you. I am very sorry.
“Artist’s book” is never designed or illustrated. The “artist’s book” is art in itself. “Artist’s books” were printed in small edition about 100 years ago… and now some small publishers or “artist’s book” creators print it for different reasons, but mostly for commercial purposes. But now, in the 21st century “artist’s book” is not the same as it was in the end of 19th century or in the beginning of the twentieth. “Artist’s book” is a conceptual book. It has a clearly expressed idea governing all its space. The “artist’s book” is an interdisciplinary work of art and it has nothing to do with commercial printed artists’ book. An “artist’s book” can be just like a book, but it can also be an “artist’s book object,” an “artist’s book installation”, a “video artist’s book,” or even an “artist’s book performance.”

Artist’s book object. Rasa Janulevičiūtė
Artist’s book installation. Vincke Wolfgang
Video artist’s book. William Kentridge

So, let’s return to the terminology of the “artist’s book”.

Many people think that an “artist’s book” is created by an artist… any artist. And partly they are right. So, for them, if an artist creates a book, it’s natural that it’s an artists’ book, or book created by an artist. But the problem is that books created by an artist “artists’ book” and “artist’s book” are not the same. Book designers, illustrators and publishers “create” beautifully illustrated and designed, professionally bound and printed books. But such books are artists’ books, or books by artists – not an “artist’s book”!

The term “artist’s book” is an abstract term that has nothing to do with the “artist”. And that’s perfectly clear.

Book art. Rugilė Vilčiauskaitė
Conceptual artist’s book. Gabija Šerelytė

“Artist’s books” are created by children in kindergarten and primary schools or students in universities. They are created by artists and non-artists, by professionals and art lovers. An “artist’s book” could be created by architects and scientists. Anyone could create an “artist’s book”, if she or he wants to create, and create an “artist’s book”. The most important thing here is the intention. You can just write simple a diary, or you can create the diary as an artist’s book. You can make beautiful photos of your house and print them for your friends. Or you can create conceptual “artist’s book” about your house with the same photos. So, do you see the difference?

Conceptual artist’s book. Ed Ruscha. 1963

Ed Rusha  made photos on the road to his parents house and published the first modern artist’s book “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”, only because he had an idea. And it was not a photo book, or book art – it was a conceptual “artist’s book”.

Let’s think again!

Prof. Kestutis Vasiliunas

© Artist’s Book Museum 2021