While ‘the artists’ book’ is increasingly prominent in special collections and archives, in art institutions and libraries, it remains a notoriously slippery object. The term itself can mean many different things, from monumental one-off book sculptures to ‘democratic multiples’, and from handmade ‘altered books’ to publishing as conceptual art practice. This course aims to orient students in this lively, fascinating but complex field. It looks at the artists’ book in the broadest sense, charting its evolution and critical history from the mid-twentieth century onward, following its various strands and examining the main figures and practices associated with it. Through site visits to some of London’s most significant collections, at the Chelsea Library and Tate Library and Archives, we will examine first-hand a wide variety of key works, while in classroom discussion of key texts, we will explore some of the central debates and themes in this field. What connects apparently disparate works like Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963) with Brian Dettmer’s intricately carved books, or with Elisabeth Tonnard’s (possibly non-existent) Invisible Book (2012)?

There are many intriguing questions raised by the artists’ book: what kind of object is it, and what disciplinary perspectives and methodologies are needed for discussing and describing it? Where does it belong: on library shelves or in gallery display cases? How might it trouble our existing definitions and histories of the book? The module’s focus is not only on the conceptual issues raised by the artists’ book, however, but also on more practical matters. Through visiting expert speakers, we will explore the contexts in which artists’ books are made, published, sold and exhibited, as well as the current practices of bibliographic classification and cataloguing. The module will be of use to those who encounter artists’ books in the context of librarianship and curation. It will also be of interest to those who create or collect artists’ books, as well as those who simply want to understand them more deeply.

Course convenor