What if you took a book, got rid of all the pages, turned it into a box, and filled it with hair. Is it still a book?
This was the question at the recent Editions/Artists' Book Fair in Chelsea. The fair, presented by the Lower East Side Print Shop and now in its 16th year, offers a glimpse into the world of artists' books and a community that often gets less attention than its peers in painting, sculpture, and photography.
Let’s back up and start at the beginning, shall we? What are artists' books anyway? Not those heavy, fragrant slabs filled with colorful reproductions of an artist’s work — those are 'art books.' We’re talking about artists' books.
Left: An 'Art Book' by Friends with You Right: An 'Artist's Book' by Jonathan Callan
Artists' books are stand-alone works of art — books made by artists that use the medium of the book as a creative form. From there though, all bets are off. Artists' books today have a distinctly experimental spirit - one that seeks to push the boundaries of what a book can be...and do. They are made in editions many or one. Some tell stories, some do not. Some have pages, but no text - others have text that walks right off the page.
Poem (2000) by Jonathan Callan, Anartist Books
Artist Book from Cirrus Editions
This year's E/AB Fair, curated by Faye Hirsch, a contributing Editor at Art in America, gathered 40 exhibitors from around the US and Europe at the Art Beam building in Chelsea. Unlike the sprawling, stuffy, big money uptown affair, E/AB offers a more focused viewing experience — one that makes for a perfect introduction to this lesser-known form, and brings together key players in one place.
Anartist Books (New York)
In reality, artists' books have been around for as long as there have been books. But at a certain point, artists began to investigate the possibilities of the book as an art experience unto itself. For its devotees, these objects are very much the equal of a canvas, a photograph, or a sculpture.
For the collector, artists' books have another big advantage: they tend to be more affordable than say, a painting. You could own a Jasper Johns, or a William Kentridge, or a Kiki Smith artists' book of your very own, for far less than one of their gallery pieces. You can’t hang it on the wall, but you just might catch the bug and become part of this slightly cult-ish community of enthusiasts and collectors.
Artists' Books from Anartist Books
Upper: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger Lower: The Catcher in the Rye by Richard Prince
And since the pressure of serious moneymaking is more or less off the table, artists' books are often playful, whimsical, and just plain strange. At E/AB there was a immense book of psychedelic handmade marbled paper; a book that meticulously reproduced an actual piece of marble; a book with three-dimensional lettering rising up off the page; William Kentridge works printed on pages from the dictionary; a Richard Prince replica of a first edition Catcher in the Rye with Prince’s name replacing Salinger’s on the cover — and a favorite: a "book" that was actually just a box filled with hair.
If you call it a book, well, then it's a book.
Sometimes the artists' book world can seem like a contest to see who can make the weirdest book ever. In retrospect, this seems like a perfectly worthy undertaking.
The Book of Hair by Joni Mabi