Speaking Volumes

In the middle of the tug- of-war over artists' books

Many of the books here should, in truth, be called livres d'artistes, luxuriously produced limited editions often containing original prints and intended for sale to connoisseurs. As Johanna Drucker explains in The Century of Artists' Books, livres d'artistesdiffer from artists' books in that they are "productions rather than creations, products rather than visions." Nothing about a livre d'artisteforces us to consider what a book is, what it means, and why. It doesn't matter whether it's bound in vellum or leather or bubble wrap; it's as if a sculptor began work on a statue without considering his medium. This is not to say that livres d'artistes, like the kind Peter Koch makes, are anything less than gorgeous. Nor does this mean that those who make artists' books are somehow above commerce, working in diligent starvation for their art; rather, like painters and sculptors, their goal is to express what they need to express, and if someone buys it, that's gravy.

Books (even artists' books) should be held and touched and read. As Koch puts it, "You can't hang your fucking artists' book on a wall." Unfortunately, the Legion of Honor puts the volumes in Plexiglas cases, using iMacs in every room to display electronic scans of the pages. Such presentation reinforces their preciousness at the expense of their power, making them impossible to read. Bookstores that carry artists' books offer white gloves for those who want to handle them. Would a similar arrangement for this show have been so difficult? In addition, the explanatory wall cards emphasize the artists above the authors -- you wouldn't recognize most of the writers anyway -- when real artists' books balance image and text.

Turn the Page: Though it's a gorgeous example of Picasso's illustration, 
this monograph shouldn't be called an artists' book.
Turn the Page: Though it's a gorgeous example of Picasso's illustration, this monograph shouldn't be called an artists' book.


Through Jan. 6

Tickets are $5-8


w ww.thinker.org/legion

California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (at Clement), S.F.

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When an artist who works primarily in one medium starts working in another, something changes: The new medium tells a different story. Books in particular convey information to many people at once and in sequence, creating what some call a "democratic multiple," which is different from any other art form. Paintings can include both words and images and can even incorporate series (as in a triptych), but books require you to flip pages, to take them in one spread at a time rather than all at once. Artists who work in the medium of books use that idea of sequence, of suspense and buildup and payoff, as part of their message. By labeling what are nothing more than illustrated tomes as artists' books, the Legion of Honor sets up an expectation that the form matters -- and it doesn't, any more than the frame around a painting.

Artists' books are substantially different from other forms of art -- they're not just tributaries or extracurricular hobbies -- and they deserve to be studied, taught, and understood at the same level as any other form. Though they exist in the area between several other arts (among them painting, writing, and the book arts), they form a unique category. They make us think about what books are and why they matter. When an exhibition uses and defines this art form in a way that's clearly wrong, it speaks volumes about the way we think about books as a whole. It's time for real artists' books to step out of the shadows, to bring art back into those objects we read in the bathroom and then toss up on a shelf.

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