- The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books
As the authors demonstrate in the course of their detailed study, the artist’s book is a protean genre that resists all attempts to classify or define it. To describe it simply as a book created by an artist, they rightfully declare, does not begin to do justice to the complex works discussed in these pages. Rather than demonstrate the futility of this exercise, which would have detracted from the analyses that make up the bulk of the volume, they adopt a brief working definition elaborated by Ulises Carrión. According to the latter, an artist’s book is a book “conceived as an expressive unity, that is to say, where the message is the sum of all materials and formal elements” (7). In other words, the Huberts add, it constitutes an “artifact rather than a vehicle for documentation or fiction.” Conceived as an art object, it derives its identity not from the words on the page but from its material existence. Despite the similarity in nomenclature, the artist’s book differs significantly from the livre d’artiste which, although the two may occasionally coincide, is governed by a separate set of rules. In the latter genre, texts and illustrations comment on each other repeatedly, creating a complex interartistic dialogue. In the former, verbal and visual elements conspire with each other to create an organic whole which, despite Carrión’s assertion, is greater than the sum of its parts.
How this miraculous transformation takes place is the subject of the present volume, which examines forty artist’s books published in English, French, and German. The authors’ superb analyses are complemented by numerous illustrations, including 23 in color, which demonstrate the genre’s endless variety. An exhilarating postmodern invention, the artist’s book assumes innumerable disguises and employs many different materials. Indeed, there seems to be no limit to book artists’ imagination. The creators of these [End Page 162] and other works share a common desire—bordering on an obsession—to free the book from its traditional shackles. Although some creations resemble conventional bound volumes, at least superficially, others assume a bewildering variety of sizes and shapes. While Bertrand Dorny’s Le Métronome folds up to form a pyramid, for example, Shirley Sharoff’s La Grande Muraille unfolds to become the Great Wall of China. In Ronald King’s Bluebeard’s Castle, a vertical construction, perhaps figuring the sun, emerges unexpectedly from the center of the book. Other works utilize cut-outs, appliqué, or transparent pages to create additional dimensions. It comes as no surprise to learn that the genre has been profoundly influenced by children’s’ books, for reasons which the authors consider at some length. This fact also explains why artist’s books are so much fun to read and/or manipulate.
Divided into thirteen chapters, The Cutting Edge of Reading imposes a welcome order on what may seem like anarchy to the uninitiated reader/viewer. Although some overlap exists between the different categories identified by the authors, the distinctions turn out to be quite useful. Following a brief introduction devoted to important issues and concepts, the second chapter considers book artists like Ania Staritsky and Pierre Albert-Birot who, raised in the livre d’artiste tradition, represent transitional figures. Devoted to “Visual Deviants and Typographical Departures,” the next chapter focuses on experiments with the printed page. While Chapter 4 analyzes the impact of artist’s books on our reading habits, which are radically dislocated, Chapter 5 examines artists who, like Tom Phillips, specialize in physical alterations. “The altered book . . . thrives on massive editing,” the Huberts explain, “as distinguished from the deviant book, which makes reading impossible” (73). The next two chapters are concerned with unusual accordion books and with artists who “question the involvement of art with the politics of consumerism in a troubled world in dire need of enlightenment and improvement” (123). Subsequent chapters are devoted to satire, the role of memory, and deviant narratives. Others examine artists who draw...