News | February 8, 2023

Early History of Artists' Books in New Exhibition

Reginald Walker/Collection of Gerard Charrière/Center for Book Arts

Reginald Walker, Haqazzuzza, 1985. Rubber stamps and coptic binding. Collection of Gerard Charrière, London

Successful artists’ books blend the craft of its making—paper, binding, scale, and printing method—with a conceptual premise tied to its status as time-based media in which the idea of the book—sequence, repetition, and audience activation—is essential to its meaning. While early exhibitions and writing on artists’ books maintained both these practices, including unique and small-edition handmade books that verge towards sculpture alongside mass produced photobooks, paperbacks, and stapled zines, the history of artists’ books has since shifted, prioritizing only the democracy of the genre and ghettoizing expensive, unique, and sculptural bookworks.

Craft & Conceptual Art: Reshaping the Legacy of Artists’ Books, curated by Megan N. Liberty and currently on show at the Center for Book Arts in New York, revisits this early history, tracing the foundation and production of book art organization across the US. This exhibition shows craft and conceptual art not to be opposites, but rather two ends of a spectrum of book art practices.

The exhibition highlights book art production beginning in the mid 1960s that was exhibited from 1973-1996, drawing a—albeit zig-zag—line from the first cited US exhibition of artists’ books at Moore College to the founding of San Francisco Center for the Book, charting an expanding definition, practice, and legacy of bookmaking across the US.

It includes a range of artists, from Liliana Porter, Howardena Pindell, and Suzanne Lacy, to Barton Lidice Beneš and Sas Colby. Leaning heavily on the archives and exhibition history of institutions devoted to craft and conceptual art, this exhibition revisits who and what was considered an “artists’ book.” In doing so, Craft & Conceptual Art sheds new light on both ends of the sliding scale between craft and conceptual art, allowing us to better understand the growing field of artists’ book production.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring contributions by David Senior, Sur Rodney (Sur), Kayleigh Perkov, and Tara Aisha Willis, and a selection of reprinted historical texts.

Craft & Conceptual Art runs at the Center for Book Arts until March 25, then moves to the San Francisco Center for the Book (April 24 - June 18), and then to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (August 26 - October 22).