Dressing the text: on the road with the artist's book
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Dressing the Text:
On the Road With the Artist’s Book
Dressing the Text exhibition, travelling in U.S. through 1998, catalogue available by mail.

It is impossible to begin a discussion of the artist’s book without entertaining the issue of definitions. This is not the case with more well-known productions in the book art world, like the Fine Press Book, with its established aesthetic and practice based on high standards of craftsmanship and materials and attention to detail, usually in the service of an “important” text, printed with letterpress typography, in tastefully sumptuous bindings, with restrained illustrations that don’t upstage the text. Nor is it the case with the Livre d ‘Artiste that echoes the craftmanship of the fine press book, but usually has its production and design organized around the work of an artist (preferably a well-known one) who may also take part in the design of the book.

In our time something called the “artist’s book” (or perversely “the artists’ book”) is earning itself the status of a separate category, continuing a movement many think started in the 1960s in the U.S. Still developing, it seems at times like a hybrid version of the other two, but one that is open to a much larger range of design and content, as well as untraditional modes of binding and packaging. It is usually produced by a small independent press, hand-made or hand-assembled in small editions, or perhaps even produced as a unique object. These books and book-objects are the work of artists who are actively resisting the assimilative force of publishing and distribution by creating works that defy easy reproduction, creating a realm where the “contents” of a “book” do not have to be made to fit the printing and packaging norms of trade and university press book production. Such works pose a potential threat to the cultural iconicity of “the book” by challenging conventional category distinctions. This may sound like a definition, but what “book” means in this emerging art form (or medium? or genre?) is still not much more than a hand-held interactive object. Some practitioners and critics claim that the term “artist’s book” has a signification comparable to that of “painting” or “sculpture.” But with the still-limited exposure in galleries and museums, and the paucity of critical writing on the subject, it is impossible to achieve anything like consensus on a single definition.

We now complacently speak of “Greek Tragedy,” as if Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were all doing the same thing. But if we think of the century-long development of that genre, every new production would have been a test case, stretching or confirming each aspect that might help define its form. It was only towards the end of its development that Aristotle sat down to consider the theoretical task of defining it, looking at all the tragedies he could find and inductively coming up with a definition. How did he know what works to look at in the first place? He must have had an adequate working sense of tragedy already, as did the judges and audiences who presided over the institutionalization of the genre. To define something is to announce its limits, or to limit it—to draw a conceptual line or boundary that implies it has reached full development and its borders are secure. In the case of the artist’s book the limits have not yet been reached or recognized, hence critical agreement is lacking. This is altogether appropriate and exhilarating, giving every artist’s book event, whether panel discussion, gallery exhibition, or museum collection, a special importance as part of the process of encouraging, defining, and publicizing this new thing. I recently had the opportunity to be present at the opening of 187 submissions for the Dressing the Text exhibition in Santa Cruz, and to spend a whole day in a hands-on encounter with the 48 works selected by the jury, including one work by each of its four members. In my comments here I’d like to suggest how that exhibition itself will function in its three-year travels across the...