FROM BOOK TO ANTI-BOOK
by Harry Polkinhorn
". . . the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be
expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by
corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal. . ."
-Blake, cited in Artists' Books, p. 155.
To arrive at a theoretical understanding of artists' books, it is perhaps
best to begin, as Richard Kostelanetz points out in his essay entitled
"Book Art," on a formal note: "artists' books" are those book-like objects
made by visual/literary artists which treat the book form as an artistic
genre comprised of dynamic sets of tactile/graphic as well as literary
potentials. A (false) contrast is suggested with "writers' books," thus
underscoring the futility of trying to classify art objects solely from the
point of view of the "initial profession (or education)"  of their makers.
Since a formal analysis of these unique objects poses such difficulties for
theory, they have generally been relegated to the lower-level rear stacks
of the grand library of high culture. The same has happened with pattern
poetry, also driven by visual and verbal energies. 
Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, in which
Kostelanetz's essay appears, makes this willful neglect understandable
through placing the books in a specific historical context, thereby
contributing valuably towards their restitution. With stimulating essays
by Dick Higgins, Lucy R. Lippard, Ulises Carrión, Shelley Rice, Barbara
Moore and Jon Hendricks, Clive Phillpot, Susi R. Bloch, Betsy Davids and
Jim Petrillo, Felipe Ehrenberg, Magali Lara, Javier Cadena, Alex Sweetman,
and Robert C. Morgan, this collection attempts to give the general reader
some sense of the richness of artists' books as well as suggesting the
first steps towards a theory whereby they can be explained. Complementing
these well illustrated studies are the "sourcebook" sections: the most
important collections of artists' books are detailed, giving information on
size, breakdown by subcategories, contact persons, cataloguing, and other
services provided by individuals, institutions, and archives. Because of
the ephemerality of many such books, the information in this section will
prove of inestimable value to scholars of the form. A comprehensive
bibliography follows, divided as to articles, books, reviews, and
The book as an artistic medium has been with us, in one form or another,
since books have been present in our culture. What has become known as
"book art, bookworks, or artists' books"  since about 1960 allows, even
requires, reconsideration of the nature of the book as an aesthetic medium
and as a cultural form. Even when considering traditional books made up of
text alone, we frequently forget that "the design of books is as much an
art as architecture, or painting, or sculpture. . . it exerts an esthetic
influence upon more people than any other art."  Books now are considered
primarily as non-image objects, although this has not always been the case.
"In antiquity the connection between painting and writing seemed obvious:
in ancient Greece the word 'egraphen' (i.e., written by) was affixed to the
artist's signature."  The separation of word and visual image, which took
place over centuries, is directly linked to politics: "Deterioration in
the language and in pronunciation is . . . inseparable from political
corruption. . . . Writing is the very process of the dispersal of peoples
unified as bodies and the beginning of their enslavement."  Separation of
codes and the social specialization necessary for their mastery and
transmission provide entry points for an analysis of culture.
Consequently, works which consciously rejoin the codes will be perceived as
politically subversive, since control of the production and distribution of
word and image is necessary to maintain the status quo.
If one can identify two main categories of artists' books - the editions de
luxe that emphasize the craft of the "fine" book; and the "anti-books"
Kostelanetz mentions, which push the form beyond conventional
expectations - then we can begin to understand why the theory which several
essays in Artists' Books call for may be lacking. With regard to the
former tendency, we find an earlier group of artists whose works consisted
chiefly of visual/plastic elements, yet who turned to the well made book as
a medium of expression. Typically these artists "illustrated" another's
writings. Such artist-illustrators include Ford Madox Brown, Edward
Burne-Jones, Birket Foster, John Gilbert, Frederick Leighton, John Millais,
D. G. Rossetti, John Tenniel, Aubrey Beardsley, Lucien Pissarro, Walter
Crane, Arthur Rackham, George Grosz, Miguel Covarrubias, Picasso, Matisse,
Marie Laurençin, Chagall, Braque, Bonnard, Degas, Derain, Dufy, Maillol,
Rodin, Roualt, de Chirico, Toulouse-Lautrec, Arp, Dali, and Ernst. These
artists and others collaborated with authors and dealers to bring out fine
books in limited editions not designed for a mass market, who could neither
afford nor appreciate them. In our time there are "Tatanya Grossman's
elegant editions of painter-poet collaborations by Larry Rivers and Frank
O'Hara, Jim Dine and Kenneth Koch, Lee Bontecou and Tony Towle, and Alberti
and Motherwell."  Kahnweiler, Vollard, Teriade, and other dealers have
done much to further such projects, also known as livres de peintre, which
can be seen as appealing to the elitism upon which they are based and which
informs them throughout. These take the book as what Carrión in "The New
Art of Making Books"calls an "accidental container of a text, the structure
of which is irrelevant to the book" (p. 32), including the visual imagery,
which functions like so much more text.
The other tendency mentioned above of course has its historical background
as well, which is well documented in the essays in Artists' Books. Blake's
illuminated books establish him as the spiritual progenitor of this line;
his contributions are interestingly analyzed from the technical viewpoint
of printing processes by Davids and Petrillo. Books which fall into this
category explore the medium and so necessarily develop a politics of
resistance and subversion. Simultaneously, the books become limited in
terms of audience appeal.
Since the two types of artists' books have such diametrically opposed
political implications, this dimension calls for closer examination. Thus,
Lippard holds that "the most important aspect of artists' books is their
adaptability as instruments for extension to a far broader public than that
currently enjoyed by contemporary art." (p. 48) This, of course, is valid
only for the visual imagery (if such a separation can be made at all) since
clearly the verbal element has always enjoyed such extension by the very
nature of printing. It is this bias towards the visual which mars Kelder's
comments as well: "many artists' books reject the de luxe concept, using
impersonal duplicating techniques, such as xerox, offset, and mimeo." 
What Kelder does not mention, however, is that impersonality was (and is)
the very essence of industrialized printing and bookmaking. The sacrifice
of conventional quality and the personal touch is no guarantee of aesthetic
interest, originality, or even, for that matter, a product more accessible
to the masses. "Good book design has almost no bearing on expense of
manufacture,"  which applies as well to artists' books. Try as it might,
the book cannot shake the dirt off its own history: "In its classic phase,
the book is a privately owned object,"  the reading of which requires
light, stillness, withdrawal from work activites; that is, the experience
of "reading" (viewing a painting) is very much a part of how the class
society structures consciousness. "Printed books were thus [with printers'
marks] early identified as articles of commerce." Furthermore, since
"Western culture unfolds by highly self-conscious modes of imitation,
variation, renascence, parody, or pastiche, from a strikingly small set of
canonic, classical texts and form-models. . . most books are about previous
books."  Industrialized printing techniques can be and are used very
effectively in artists' books; what counts here, however, is the control
over all aspects of production and distribution which the artists have
claimed as their own, as Ehrenberg, et al. make clear. The fact is that
when artists begin to produce their own work, most cannot afford a 4-color
Heidelberg offset press and must work with less sophisticated equipment,
which may explain the "impersonal" or raw feel of the product.
Rather than trying to understand the function of these books from the
viewpoint of their deviations from standards set by conventional books,
however, which inevitably dead-ends in some woefully inadequate form of
communications theory, a more useful approach, as Carrión points out, sees
the contemporary artist's book or anti-book as categorically rejecting the
hierarchic and linear elements upon which traditional culture has been
established ("In the old art all books are read in the same way. In the
new art every book requires a different reading", or "In order to be able
to read the new art, and to understand it, you don't need to spend five
years in a Faculty of English" (pp. 42, 43]). This rejection is mirrored
in the most obvious and important innovation in these objects, namely, an
attack upon or subversion of sequentiality. According to Alloway,
"Nonhierarchic form can be equated with the idea of repeateable
structure."  Not only is pagination frequently dropped (this alone would
unwittingly align the work with the Medieval incunabula, fifteenth-century
books which were unpaginated), but also there is no formal sequencing to
the subject matter, or if present it is parodied. This lies at the heart
of the problem, since "Seriality is . . . a basic social mechanism [in
that] 'each is the same as the others to the degree that he is Other from
himself,' Sartre says, and in this sense seriality is a vast optical
illusion, a kind of collective hallucination projected out of individual
solitude onto an imaginary being thought of as 'public opinion' or simply
'they'."  Such a philosophical/psychological view can easily be
complemented by reference to economic theory, which relates directly to the
"decay of plot" in modern literature because "that shared community of
abstrct values on which no writer can count any longer has been replaced by
something even more fundamental, namely the reality of purely physical
sensation . . . the reduction to the body itself,"  so that seriality in
our society can now most clearly be seen in the phenomenon of "advertising
and merchandising of mass-produced commodities,"  each of which like
traditional books is completely substitutable for all others of its kind.
Lack of sequence, absence of plot," diminished faith in the autograph . . .
antipathy to the gallery,"  radical exploration of physical properties of
book and non-book materials (within the general format of the book) all
characterize the contemporary anti-book and constitute one more evidence of
"the breakdown of absolute standards in art."  Nevertheless, meaning
itself is not rejected: a critique is an implicit assertion, and artists'
books resort to traditional, even ancient means such as the rhetorical
devices of metonymy and synechdoche, not to mention juxtaposition of
imagery and a new use of sequence and repetition.
In "Independent Publishing in Mexico," jointly authored by Felipe
Ehrenberg, Magali Lara, and Javier Cadena, we have a direct demonstration
of a theory of the anti-book; artistic forms are generated out of a social
context acutely conscious of arbitrarily constituted power structures.
Facing what Ehrenberg calls "the politics of our moment" (p. 183), artists'
books came into being in a situation which lacked infrastructure for their
support: "Generally speaking, avant-garde art [in Mexico] can only develop
under distressingly difficult circumstances: there exists no supporting
criticism, so experimentation develops in a vacuum. And there is no
funding whatsoever, no enterprising galleries willing to bet on rising
talent, no private foundations, no specific government grants, nothing."
(p. 172) Some universities end up providing alternative spaces for unusual
art. To complicate matters, Mexico's history of colonization, of economic
and cultural exploitation by foreigners, and her dangerously strained
relations with the United States serve to catalyze a contemporary
avant-garde much involved with book art.  Ehrenberg, Lara, and Cadena
detail the birth and spread of visual presses in Mexico, always relating
this to a situation of sharply aggravated political and economic tension.
Thus the essentially international or transnational nature of avant-garde
experimentalism, so often overlooked in purely formal analyses of artists'
books as a genre or form, becomes central for an understanding of the
political dimension of artists' books.
A good example of the work produced by Mexican artists in this genre is
Ehrenberg's own Codex Aeroscriptus Ehrenbergensis: A Visual Score of
Iconotropisms, recently published by Nexus Press in Atlanta, Georgia, where
the artist was in residence. No such press exists in Mexico, so the
high-profile, book-art production values evident in Codex are a direct
reflection of cultural difference. In his accompanying acknowledgements,
the artist says, "I might also mention Mexico's Consejo Nacional para la
Cultura y las Artes, and wish it better times. Had a peer jury not
rejected this book project, I would have never produced it at Nexus Press."
Ehrenberg's title makes playful reference to the history of the book,
"codex" suggesting a manuscript volume, "especially of a classic work or of
the Scriptures."  Yet the imagery and narrative seem very contemporary,
with no obvious references to the Bible. "Aeroscriptus" refers to the
spray-can technique with which much of the work was done. Thus the title
tells us that this book is ironically important, the technology of its
production is somehow central (allusions to the uncontrolled popular
proliferation of street art created with spray cans), and the artist's ego
will play a controlling role. As Ehrenberg explains in the accompanying
pamphlet, stencils have been used extensively in Codex, and both detective
fiction and the musical score should be considered in an interpretation of
The book itself is presented in almost a square format (c. 17" x 17").
Metal-plate, multi-color lithography is the medium. Printed front and back
on sheets then glued to form one long accordion-folded sheet, Codex works
with serial imagery appropriate to books. Key images are the television
screen, the tropical palm, cameramen, the gunman, the female body, arrows,
the skull (Posada), the night-club singer, stamps, and helicopters. The
main imagery on each spread reverberates with identical but smaller images,
often in black on white, running along a horizontal stripe at the top of
the sheets, providing a splitting, as if the work were commenting upon
itself through internal division. As well, it graphically alludes to
Pre-Columbian practices. This stylistically decenters the narrative,
playing it back through its own conceptualization. On the inside of the
accordion-fold are dark green palms against a blood-red sky. When the book
is open with the folded sheet fully pulled out, we have a large
multi-pointed star-shaped object. This presentation
suggests a circularity to the narrative; beginning and end join up to form
a non-linear yet open-ended structure.
Perhaps the artist's suggestion that the genre of detective fiction is our
best approach to Codex. This genre has always appealed to the masses,
suggesting a connection with popular culture important to Ehrenberg.
However, he complexifies easy interpretation through the panoply of
aesthetic strategies he has deployed in Codex. The strict linearity which
mass culture demands will not be found in this work; yet, the individual
images and the bright colors seem easily decipherable. There is an
accessible quality that the artist has carefully created in order to
involve the reader/spectator. We are in the Latin world of tropical palms
and an almost oppressive plant life, threatening gunmen, night-club torch
singers, military violence, sex, and death. Something mysterious has
happened; someone is fleeing. We have plentiful allusions to consumerism
(the bar code) and high technology as well. These are the elements of a
Latin version of the detective story. The reader/spectator is put in the
position of being the detective trying to decode the hidden messages which
structure this riotously colorful and ominous world. Transnational
economics emerges as a kind of interpretive backdrop, yet nothing is
bluntly stated. In the end is our beginning; the first spread features an
opposition between 16 mostly dark blue television screens and a single palm
tree printed across the folds of the accordion sheets. All gets
homogenized through the medium of television, as art divides nature into
its own underlying aesthetic structures. The simple chair and fragment of
a bed which appear on many of the television screens allude to our
principal activities as human beings: sitting in order to work or relax,
and reclining in order to sleep, make love, be ill, or die. Thus
Ehrenberg's seeming simplicity of imagery, style, coloration, and
presentation turns out to be a sophisticated guise, revealing an acute
sensibility in sharply critical conflict with its social, cultural,
economic, and natural surroundings.
1 Joan Lyons, ed. Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, p. 29.
2 See Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature,
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
3 Kate Linker, "The Artist's Book as an Alternative Space," Studio
International, (1980), 76.
4 Douglas McMurtie, The Book: The Story of Printing and Bookmaking,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1943, p. xxv.
5 Nicolas Calas, Icons and Images of the Sixties, New York: Dutton, 1971,
6 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1974, pp. 169-70.
7 Diane Kelder, "Artists' Books," Art in America, (January, 1974), 112.
9 McMurtie, p. xxviii.
10 George Steiner, "After the Book?" Visible Language, (Summer, 1972), 199.
11 McMurtie, p. 289.
12 Steiner, p. 201.
13 Lawrence Alloway, "Artists As Writers, Part Two: The Realm of Language,"
Artforum, (April, 1974), 41.
14 Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form, Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1971, p. 248.
15 Frederic Jameson, "Seriality in Modern Literature," Bucknell Review,
(Spring, 1970), 71-2.
17 Linker, 48.
19 Note, for example, the "Third International Biennial of Visual Poetry,"
an exhibition made up of works by some 400 artists from 41 countries
displayed in Mexico City.
20 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston:
American Heritage Publishing Co., 1969, p. 258.
First published in Visible Language, 25:2/3 (spring 1991)
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