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BOOK ARTS IN THE USA, By Richard Minsky

From: Richard Minsky <76665.3403@compuserve.com>
Wed, 31 Aug 1994 10:12:46 -0400

This message is being forward to the list and touches on some of our early
discussions: artist books, definitions...

   One thing I wrote about definitions which is not generally available in
this country is the introduction to the catalog of the Book Arts in the USA
exhibit. Although widely available in Africa and South America, in English,
French, Spanish and Portugese, by law the catalog can't be distributed in the
USA. It is intended as an introductory text for the uninitiated, so it might be
too basic for your list, but I thought some of it might be pertinent to your

 by Richard Minsky
 Copyright 1990 Center for Book Arts

    A single copy of a book is a curious thing.  Even when part
of a large  edition, it is rarely considered disposable.  People
have books on  their shelves that they haven't looked at in years,
yet they don't  throw them out or even give them away.  A passing
glance at the shelf  gives a reassuring feeling, a reminder of the
knowledge one has absorbed.  They  are old friends, these volumes,
and just seeing them reminds us not  only of their stories or
facts, but of the time we spent with them. 
     The oldest books we have in the shape we are familiar with--
folded  pages sewn through the fold--are Coptic manuscripts from
Ethiopia  and Egypt.  They date from about the years 100 - 400. 
This change  in form from the scrolls previously used required a
change in the technology of parchment production.  The folded page
was written on both sides, where the scroll used only one side of
the skin. The relationship between the structure of the book and
the development of its materials continues to evolve. 
     In this exhibit you will see how 51 contemporary Americans are
changing  the form and materials of the book to suit their personal
vision.  We  call this work Book Arts.
     In Book Arts the container works with the content.  The
materials  are tactile and often relate to the metaphor of the
text.  In some  cases there is no written text.  The book is then
a purely visual,  totemic or iconographic work, in which the image,
structure and materials  are the content.  The physical presence
of a book, its feeling and  smell, its weight, the process of
moving through its pages or unfolding it speak to our deepest inner
sensibilities.  The very form speaks of knowledge preserved and
communicated.  It represents our ability  to build on complex ideas
which survive millenia beyond the cultures  which created them. 
     Reading a visual book is not altogether different from reading
one  with text.  We bring to it our literacy -- not one of language
and  words, but of images we have seen and digested.  These can be
specific  to a subculture or of almost universal familiarity. 
We often think of publishing as making many copies of a book.  Some 
of the books in this exhibit are part of an edition, though the
edition  may be only five copies or 500, but there are also many
unique bookworks.  The  exhibition is the act of publication.  As
this exhibit circulates,  thousands of people will be exposed to
these books, and thousands  more will see this catalog. 
     Unfortunately you can't have the pleasure of holding these
books and  turning their pages, and you do miss out on an important
part of the  work because of that.  But many of them read well
through their plastic  cases and give you their message instantly. 
Here you can "read"  51 books in less than an hour! 

     This is the era of satellite communication, bubble memory, and
laser  videodiscs, but we are not engaged in a countertechnological
enterprise.  What  draws so many people to use "obsolete" tools and
processes  to communicate?  What makes these individuals build on
a tradition  of thousands of years of handcrafted books rather than
explore mass  communications through modern technology? 
     To start with: much of their work is on the frontier of new
technology.  Certainly  it is not electronic.  But modern
adhesives, inks and papers developed  from research in conservation
laboratories during the last 20 years  have radically altered the
chemical composition of the materials available  to today's
artists.  The works you see in this exhibit are chemically 
different from their predecessors.  Scientists observed that the 
paper in 15th Century books looked fresh and new, while paper from 
the 1880's was brittle and crumbling.  When the reasons for the
rapid  decay of 19th and 20th Century books were discovered, such
as the  acidic nature of wood-pulp paper, we were able to develop
deacidified  paper and paperboard impregnated with chemical buffers
which neutralize  the effects of air pollution.  Many of the
artists represented here  use these modern materials. The work of
others requires papers traditionally  made of rags or cotton
fibers, and some papers are hand made as both  the content and
structure of the book. 

     Many artists use commercial printing and photocopy technology
to produce  editions of their texts and images inexpensively, to
make them available  to a larger public.  These Artists' Books are
primarily works of visual  literature, in which the materials and
form of the book are not the  subject, but are primarily the
vehicle or medium for images and ideas.  Sharon  Gilbert's Poison
America, printed on a photocopy machine, shows  how a readily
available process can be used to communicate very directly. 
Leonard Seastone, on the other hand, uses flatbed lithography
technology  in Good Movies, and Ann Fessler's Water Safety is
offset  printed.  These three artists also use "found" or existing 
texts or images as a basis for their work.  Betsy Davids composed 
Dreaming Aloud on a computer and incorporated scanned video 
     The changing form of the book and its use as a medium of
unique visual  expression is a phenomenon which has developed in
America during the  last twenty years.  We take the means of
production in our hands;  it gives us the power and freedom to
communicate our ideas.  We are  not dependent on approval by a
publisher.  It doesn't require a lot  of capital.  The scale is
human.  Our medium doesn't need batteries.  It  produces no
radiation and is portable. 

     This is the most established field in the book arts.  Its
traditions  go back to Gutenberg, and its goal is the beautiful
printed page.  The  choice of typeface and the spacing of each
letter is important in  this work, as are the design of the page,
and the size of the margins.  Much  of this work is printed
letterpress and is concerned with the quality  of the impression
of the type in the paper.  The choice of text is  of great
importance.  Published in small editions, the text may be  the
first printing of a book of poems, a classic novel, or an
experimental  form combining typographic eccentricity with text and
illustrations.  Harry  Duncan's Cummington Press, and Andrew
Hoyem's Arion Press, are among these independent publishers.  Many
colleges and universities now teach these arts and we find Kim
Merker operating the Windhover Press at the University of Iowa,
Bob Tauber with the Logan Elm Press at Ohio State University, and
Walter Hamady, who runs  his own Perishable Press and also teaches
at the University  of Wisconsin at Madison. 
     What these people have in common is the importance of the feel 
of the book.  The reader is always aware of the physical presence 
and aesthetic of the page.  This aspect brings the work of
literature  into the world of visual art.  Often the cooperation
of many people  makes the book possible.  There may be a publisher,
editor, writer,  illustrator, papermaker, printmaker, typesetter,
printer, paper marbler  and bookbinder.  Some individuals go so far
as to do every one of  these operations themselves.  The control
of every aspect of production  creates a unique personal vision.

     Until about 15 years ago bookbinding in America was based
entirely  on various European models.  The traditions of the craft
were preserved  and disseminated by members of the Guild of
Book Workers, which has  been an active society for over 75 years. 
Recently, however, a new  interest in the development of materials
and structures has grown,  from several distinct perspectives. 
Hedi Kyle develops structures  based on her research in book
conservation, and is a leader in folding  paper structures and
non-adhesive binding.  Gary Frost and William  Drendel are among
those who develop structures based on historical  models, such as
ancient Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic bindings or  those of the
Medieval Celts.  In Fusion, Timothy Ely makes  the entire book,
using paints, inks, gold leaf and other substances  both on the
pages and the covers.  Jan Sobota makes the book into  a sculpture,
as we see in Ruce. 
     Bookbinding has transcended its origins as a craft involved
exclusively  in the preservation of text and the decoration of
covers.  The sculptural  and architectural qualities can be the
content of the book.  For Susan  Share this is not enough.  She
creates performances using the structural  aspects of compound
hinging book forms. 

     Are these in fact books?  Stella Waitzkin uses cast acrylic
resin  to make solid booklike objects, like Mozambique. Karen
Wirth,  who is a bookbinder, also makes solid books, including the
bronze Geomyth.
     These sculptures use the book as a totemic or iconographic 
artifact.  We include these in Book Arts because, although they may 
not have pages or work like books we usually see, they are about
the  very essence of what a book means to us, and communicate their
message  visually.  Waitzkin has said, I love books, but words
often get  in the way of communication. 
     There are books which don't fit any of these categories, and
that  is part of the excitement of this developing field.  Raymond
Holbert's  Daily Reminder is a diary filled with each day's
thoughts and  images.  Edna Lazaron's Terrorism deals with a
contemporary  issue in a form which goes back thousands of years
the scroll in a ceramic jar. 

     Please note that the catalog entries cover a wide variety of
objects  and formats.  There may be several artists who worked on
different  aspects of a book, particularly in the area of fine
printing.  There  I have chosen as the artist the proprietor or
director of  the press which produced the work, and the press name
then appears  in parentheses after the name of the individual.  It
is this person's  statement which is reproduced.  The other artists
who contributed  to the project are identified in the listing. 
     It was hard selecting only 51 artists to represent Book Arts
in  the USA, as there are hundreds more doing innovative work.  The 
excellent exhibit Artist's Bookworks in Print, curated by
Anne-Catherine  Fallen and Kevin Osborn, circulated in Africa five
years ago, showing  an entirely different group of artists.  In the
present collection  of work I have tried to present a broad view
of the varieties of work  that are currently being pursued, and to
include representation of  the geographic distribution of this
large country.

Best regards,
| Peter D. Verheyen, Rare Books Conservator, Cornell University Library |
|                B-39 Olin Library, Ithaca, NY 14850                    |
|     <wk> 607/255-2484 Email: pdv1@cornell.edu <fax> 607/255-9346      |
                                || ||
                               ooO Ooo

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