It's always fun to go to a museum exhibition and step into a pile of steaming controversy. This time the show in question — “Artists' Books in the Modern Era 1870-2000” at the Legion of Honor — is a lovely presentation of 180 volumes from the impressive, immense collection of Reva and David Logan, who began amassing works by everyone from Joan Miró to Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns in the 1950s. At the exhibit's entrance is the first sign of confusion. On the introductory wall panel, the curator attempts to explain the content: “Artists' books (also called livres d'artistes or illustrated books) combine text with art, usually original prints created especially for that volume, to form a unified whole.” Under this vague definition, The Stinky Cheese Man might be considered an artists' book.
The next evidence of a problem lies in what the museum calls the “didactic gallery” — a reproduction of an artist's studio that includes printing presses, bookbinding tools, and paper samples — in the center court. The installation was created by Peter Koch, a Berkeley-based printer and designer whose own studio is a delightful whirlwind of ancient machines and works-in-progress. According to press materials, the presentation gives “a glimpse into the ideas, processes, and tools involved in the making of artists' books.” But that's not so: Many artists' books are created using none of these tools, and not every book made via letterpress, for example, is an artists' book.
The Legion of Honor has scored a major coup in getting the Logan Collection, and I can't deny that the exhibit is a wonder and well worth seeing. But in failing to get its terms right — by perpetuating the mistaken idea that artists' books are just books by artists — the museum undermines its own effort to bring recognition to this undervalued art form. If the public comes away from the show confused, thinking that artists' books are simultaneously so precious that they can't be touched and so common that they can be created by anyone with a few sheets of expensive paper, it would be a shame, because artists' books matter as much to our understanding of art as any painting or sculpture.
What is an artists' book? The debate over the definition has been going since the '70s, and two main camps have emerged. The first camp's definition is reductive, insisting, as Legion of Honor curator Robert Flynn Johnson does, that “all books produced by artists are artists' books.” But this is too simplistic: If David Hockney writes a book about, say, gardening, is it an artists' book? The answer, to me, is obviously no. The second camp's definition is less all-inclusive, claiming that an artists' book is an artistic vision that incorporates into its message the abstract or physical form of the book itself. Under this definition, artists' books know they are books and take that responsibility seriously.
What the latter definition means, in practical terms, is that one can't throw the work of a visual artist and a writer between two covers and call it an artists' book simply because an artist helped create it, and it looks nice. The Legion of Honor show includes Marc Chagall's interpretation of Nikolai Gogol's Les Âmes mortes, and it's certainly dazzling, the images rich in symbolism in the tradition of Chagall's best work. But there's nothing about this volume that contemplates the book form: It's just a series of original illustrations, bound in the traditional manner opposite some handsomely set text. Artists' books are books for a reason; there is something about the sequence of pages, the trimmed edges, the binding and the gutter and the paper, that adds to the impact of the images and words.
One example of a true artists' book in the exhibition is Babycakes With Weights by Ed Ruscha. It's an unassuming little volume, covered in light blue and bound with a pink ribbon, its title rendered in fuzzy letters. Inside, Ruscha first presents a photograph of his infant son, the boy's weight (“15 lbs., 8 oz.”) printed below. On the pages that follow are pictures of 21 cakes, their own weights duly noted (a coconut-topped confection is labeled “1 lb., 15 oz.,” for example). The book may seem like a joke, but it's not: It made me wonder why we list babies' weights at all. The cutesy photo-album presentation and the relentless sequence of cake shots are key to the message, playing on the food metaphors we use for children (“bun in the oven,” “I could eat you up”) and emphasizing the way we present our kids like finished dishes, noting their “ingredients” (red hair, blue eyes) in baby books. The words, images, and form of Babycakes conspire together to make the point. Babycakes couldn't be anything other than a book.
Many of the pieces in the Legion of Honor show are merely illustrated books, or titles with frontispieces by famous artists. In fact, an entire room is devoted to volumes illustrated by Picasso. In every case, you can read the words, enjoy the drawings, and move on without ever considering why this needed to be in book form.
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'artistes differ from artists' books in that they are “productions rather than creations, products rather than visions.” Nothing about a livre d'artiste forces 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.
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.