An Introduction to Artists' Books

What is an "artists' book"?  During this century the dynamic term has meant a book containing illustrations by artists (livre d'artiste), the multiple-copied and cheaply produced booklets made by artists, and limited edition handcrafted books produced as art.  

The notion of artists illustrating books goes back to the medieval period when artists collaborated with scribes in the creation of the illuminated manuscript.  Therefore the notion of the artist and writer working together on books in the early twentieth century is not a novelty.  The exhibition, From Manet to Hockney: Modern Artists' Illustrated Books, traces the development of more recent artists as book illustrators.  Artists such as Joan Miro and Henri Matisse are known for their book illustrations.  In 1949, Miro illustrated Paul Eluard's, À Toute Épreuve, in an edition of 130 copies.  In 1947, Matisse created his well-known book Jazz. which was not a collaboration with a writer, poet, or playwright but an individual production of Matisse himself.  The object owned by the Fine Arts Library is a 1983 reprint of the original of which only 270 copies were produced.

In 1963 the role of the artist in the artists' book changed dramatically.  With Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Edward Ruscha "established the paradigm for a new concept of the cheap multiple booklet as art."  ( Clive Phillpot.  "Twentysix Gasoline Stations that Shook the World: The Rise and Fall of Cheap Booklets as Art," Art Libraries Journal 18 (1993): 6.)  Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a book of photographs of gasoline stations on Route 40 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City.  Ruscha followed this title with other bookworks similar in theme but differing in subject matter.  These works include Some Los Angeles Apartments, A Few Palm Trees, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass.  The idea that artists could work within the medium of the book using both image and text to shape expressions or make statements caught on and developed into the artists' books we know today, the handcrafted book as art.  (Clive Phillpot.  "Books by Artists and Books as Art," in Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists' Books.  New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1998.)

The handcrafted book as art comes in so many flavors.  These artists' books can be artists' diaries or statements, historical, political or social commentaries, assemblages or anthologies.  In this form of artistic expression there are no rules.  

Exploring the Artists' Books Collection

Highlights from the Artists' Books collection:

Trunk Pieces

Apple, Jacki. Trunk pieces: New York, 1975. [Rochester, NY: 1978] LIBRARY USE ONLY

Jacki Apple is usually thought of as a performance and installation artist.  This artist book is actually based on Apple's 1975 installation at 112 Greene Street Gallery NYC which has been thought of as a diaristic self-analysis and compared to the format of a journal.

 book one   book one (inside)

Brunner, Helen M. Primer, ritual elements : book one. [Washington, D.C.: 1982] LIBRARY USE ONLY

Brunner's interactive "ancient" artist book is a prime example of the time invested into each individual book work.  This books edges have been burnt and the binding hand-sown, just as every copy of this work.

conversations with nature  conversations with nature (inside)

Hunt, Bryan. Conversations with nature. [New York: 1982] LIBRARY USE ONLY

Commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, Bryan Hunt created Conversations with Nature, a bookwork much in tune with his more traditional landscapes and sculpture.


Lehrer, Warren. GRRRHHHH : a study of social patterns. [Purchase, NY: 1987] LIBRARY USE ONLY

The Center for Editions at SUNY Purchase where this book was created, is a facility dedicated to the advancement of the art of the book. (colophon). This work is a collaboration which is how Lehrer creates most of his work. GRRRHHHH is based on the weavings of Sandra Brownlee/Ramsdale with chants and stories by Dennis Bernstein. Print run of 650 copies.

real lush

Osborn, Kevin. Real lush. [Arlington, VA: 1981] LIBRARY USE ONLY

Real Lush is an interactive flip book which lends itself to the act of flipping due to its offset tight bolted binding which forces one to view as a flip book.  As Clive Philpot states, "Real Lush is a vigorous example of an artist's bookwork."

twentysix gasoline stations

Ruscha, Edward. Twentysix gasoline stations. [Alhambra, CA: 1969] LIBRARY USE ONLY

Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a book of photographs of  gasoline stations on Route 40 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. "Twentysix Gasoline Stations is the work that established the paradigm for a new concept of the cheap multiple booklet as art" (Philpot, Art Libraries Journal 18:1 p.6).


Douglas, Helen and Telfer Stokes. Clinkscale. LIBRARY USE ONLY

Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas are known for their artist book collaboration projects. Clinkscale was produced after 1975, after the two moved to Scotland.  The accordian-style work, inspired by a Mr. Clinkscale, the propreiter of an accordian shop was one of their most successful works. Stokes attributes its success to its simplicity. 

To view the collection in its entirety click here.

Searching for Artists' Books in the Library

Try searching in our library catalog, in other library catalogs, or in WorldCat, using the following keywords:

  • Artists' books
  • Artists' books--United States
  • Accordion fold
  • Altered books
  • Book Art
  • Exhibition Catalogs
  • Fine press books
  • Handmade
  • Letterpress
  • Photography
  • Prints
  • Sculptural Books
  • Typography

You may also try searching by a specific genre or artist.