25 Years: The Book Art Movement 1974-1999

Presented at the SHARP 2001 Conference
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia
July 22, 2001

The Book Art Movement

by Richard Minsky
Founder, The Center for Book Arts
New York City

As reading becomes more digital, there has been a rise in the creation and appreciation of the book as totemic or iconographic object. In the 1970's a scattering of artists amplified a tradition that evolved through Egyptian papyrus scrolls,  illuminated manuscripts, William Blake, Delacroix, William Morris, Vollard, the Bauhaus, the Constructivists, Futurists, Dada and Fluxus. 

Book Art has grown from an esoteric medium with a few dozen practitioners and no audience to a field with thousands of artists, a wide audience, and a developing K-12 curriculum. The act of publication for many of these authors is to produce a single copy rather than an edition, and to place it in an exhibition. The works often combine linguistic and visual literature.

Authors now integrate conservation bookbinding with conceptual art and all forms of printing technology, and during the last ten years there have been numerous museum exhibits including this type of work. Binders like Gary Frost and Hedi Kyle have invented new book structures which have been widely disseminated in a short period of time. Kyle's concertina form with alternating tipped fractional sheets has been used by hundreds of artists for unique and printed works. Thousands of schoolchildren are now taught this form every day.

Book Art has developed into a diverse field that includes fine press bookmakers like Andrew Hoyem, Diarists like Raymond Holbert, and authors who use photocopy machines to make books, like Sharon Gilbert. Betsy Davids was one of the first to switch from letterpress to computers to make book art. Many authors are using ancient book forms to express contemporary ideas, like Edna Lazaron's use of the scroll in a jar for a work on terrorism. Alternative book structures that are metaphoric or sculptural in their construction may employ several printing processes in one work, as in Clarissa T. Sligh's What's Happening With Momma? Material as metaphor is also used in miniature books, such as Jo Anna Poehlmann's Drawings in a Nutshell. 

There is a large group of authors who do not create their texts from blank pages, but whose work consists of altering existing texts. John Eric Broaddus worked this way, and there was a major exhibition at the Center for Book Arts titled The Altered Page. This exhibition drew on works from The Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami Beach, Florida. This collection, with some 65,000 catalogued works, has provided crucial support to many authors working in this field.

A look at the works of Stella WaitzkinTimothy Ely, Buzz Spector, Kathleen Amt, Antonio Martorell, and Claire Van Vliet gives a good idea of the range included in book art. 

The idea for an organization devoted to advancing book art came from Abram Lerner, Director of The Joseph H.  Hirshhorn Museum, in 1970. I had been the museum's bookbinder for a year, and then became their photographer. After shooting about 2,000 of the works in the collection, I realized that there was not one book in the museum as art. When I asked Mr. Lerner how that could be changed, he said, "If you want your books to be in museums, start an organization to promote book art and you will get museum shows."

At the same time as I was starting the CBA, Terry Belanger was organizing the Book Arts Press at Columbia University's library school. We had different missions that had some overlap. Where Terry was oriented to preserving traditional book crafts and the techniques of fine bookmaking in an academic environment, the CBA mission was to bring together contemporary artists and artisans in a public workspace, encourage cross-pollination of ideas and techniques, encourage collaborations, provide artists and small/fine press publishers with training and facilities in which to produce their work, mount exhibitions of contemporary and historical book art, and publish journals and exhibition catalogs to expand the public awareness of book art. In September of 1974 the Center for Book Arts opened in a storefront at 15 Bleecker Street in Manhattan. 

The first year or two exhibitions included hand papermaker Douglass Morse Howell, Bookbinder Daniel Gibson Knowlton, Book Artist Barton Lidice Benes (including his Book of the Dead, with rubber stamped text and illustrations made from the ashes of Hans Schneider), and Syl Labrot's Pleasure Beach, in which the images were created during the process of making the color separations. The Labrot exhibit included all the stages of production, from the original photos through the stripped negatives to the final book. Since 1974 the Center has mounted over 140 exhibitions. These include William Gibson's Agrippa, a limited edition with text on a computer disk that erased itself as you read it, published by CBA alumnus Kevin Begos; The National Women of Color Artists Book Project; and Bookworks by Tom Phillips.

The Center's first publication, Book Arts, was in a magazine format that included interviews with contemporary book artists like Barton Benes, Stella Waitzkin and Babi Jeri, reprints of 19th century articles on bookbinding and printing, articles on such diverse topics as techniques, book burnings, and the Diamond Sutra, and a calendar of events and exhibitions. Each issue contained an original print from a wood engraving. The circulation was international. CBA also printed and distributed documents that were considered important to the field, such as Ulises Carrión's seminal manifesto, The New Art of Making Books. Book Arts magazine was only produced in two issues, and was succeeded by Book Arts Newsletter, Book Arts Review and Koob Stra

The Center now has about 40 faculty members, all of whom are active book artists.

While Terry was organizing academically at Columbia and I was putting together the CBA, Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt organized Printed Matter, an artists' bookstore in Tribeca (lower Manhattan). This store addressed the distribution of artists' books that were produced as visual literature at a modest price, using available technologies like photocopy and offset printing, and there were hundreds of titles available for under $20. This represented a large and growing segment of the book art community. Lucy Lippard's 1973 book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 bridged the relationship between conceptual art and artists' books.

Though not specifically a book art organization, Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY, founded by four women artists in 1974,  provides facilities for papermaking and printmaking, and has been an important sponsor of artist book projects. In Rochester, NY The Visual Studies Workshop, a media studies school, has  produced over 400 artist's books since the early 1970's at The Visual Studies Press, under the direction of Joan Lyons. Joan is also editor of the 1984 classic, Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Source Book

In 1975 Joe Wilfer organized The First North American Hand Papermakers' Conference in Appleton, Wisconsin. This seminal event brought together about 30 papermakers who were creating fine papers for printing and printmaking, as well as paper art using dyed pulp, inclusions, and sculptural forms. During the following 25 years many authors made  works in which the content was created in the process of papermaking.

In 1977 The CBA organized a similar conference in New York, with 200 participants, that included a hand papermaker from Japan who was a Living National Treasure, and bookmakers Walter Hamady of The Perishable Press and Henry Morris of Bird & Bull Press. Henry delivered an incredible rant against what he called "Song of Solomonitis," that disease afflicting the fine bookmaking world that caused so many printers to produce one more redundant edition of a classic text like Moby Dick.

In 1976 Martha Wilson started Franklin Furnace Archive, which collected and exhibited artists' books, and also provided a venue for performance art. This collection eventually reached over 10,000 volumes and was acquired by the library of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the late 70's I  had a visit from Barbara Lazarus Metz, a CBA artist member from Chicago who wanted to start a center there. She co-founded Artist Book Works in a storefront, with a letterpress shop, bindery and exhibits. That eventually merged and became The Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, which is now directed by book artist Bill Drendel.

There are many academic programs. Columbia College is particularly interesting because it bridges the zone between academic and public workspaces. In addition to his own creative work, Walter Hamady ran a program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that was probably the most prolific book arts program in the country during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. In 1984 Richard Gabriel Rummonds organized a meeting  in Alabama of a group that became the Collegiate Press Council.  The group was renamed Collegiate Book Arts Press Council, and produced the National Collegiate Book Arts Press Exhibition, that had an influential nationwide tour 1986-88.  They later changed the name to the Council of Book Arts Programs in order to be more inclusive and less academic. 

There are many outstanding programs now producing book artists. Among them are those of John Risseeuw at Arizona State University, Steve Miller at the University of Alabama, Kitty Maryatt at Scripps College, and Kathy Walkup at Mills College. Ed Colker started many programs, including those at SUNY Purchase and The Cooper Union in New York City. He also updated and expanded the program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which had been host to important book artists in the late 1960's. Kim Merker established a strong program at the University of Iowa, connected to the Writers' Workshop and the Typographic Lab run by Kay Amertand. There are many more.

John Cole took a different direction in 1977 as the first Director of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It now has at least 42 affiliated centers nationwide, that promote literacy and book awareness. Not intended as workspace facilities, they have a broader mandate and work with regional partners to reach the public

Pacific Center for the Book Arts (PCBA) was founded in 1978 by a group led by book artists and educators Frances Butler, Betsy Davids, and Kathleen Walkup. This was not a facilities based organization in the beginning, but in 1996 Mary Austin and Kathleen Burch recognized a growing need in San Francisco and the Bay Area for a facility specifically designed for the book arts. They organized The San Francisco Center for the Book, which includes PCBA and The Hand Bookbinders of California. According to its website, it is the first and only center of its kind on the West Coast, modeled after two similar organizations, The Center for Book Arts in New York and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) in Minneapolis.

The MCBA was formed in 1983 when Jim Sitter was brought to the Center for Book Arts by Annabel Levitt, who published under the imprint Vehicle Editions using the CBA presses. I met with him and we discussed strategies for establishing, organizing, administering and funding a book art center. Jim was an incredible entrepreneur, who went back to Minneapolis and raised what seemed to us an enormous amount of financial backing, and opened a Center three times the size of what we had in New York. 

The Washington, D.C. area is served by Pyramid Atlantic in Riverdale, MD, which has been active since 1981. Artist Helen C. Frederick is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director. Pyramid Atlantic is serving as the owner, developer and manager of a new center: The Site for Electronic Media, Art and Technology (SEMAT) in downtown Silver Spring, MD. 

In the late 1980's the Library and Research Center of The National Museum of Women in the Arts started mounting an annual Book as Art exhibit. Most museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, regarded book art a subcategory of library research rather than as curatorial art. Clive Phillpot, the MOMA Librarian, purchased the Franklin Furnace Artist Book Collection in 1993, shortly before he left that position.

In 1995 Steven Clay's Granary Books published The Century of Artists' Books by artist Johanna Drucker and Stefan Klima's  Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature.. Though not about the Book Art movement, they extend the study of Artist's Books begun by Joan Lyons. Specific to this topic is the 2005 Granary publication of Betty Bright's No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980.

In the early 1990's Cheryl Shackleton Hawkins developed a program titled "Cultural Autobiography." Inner city teens came to the Center for Book Arts and learned to make books to express their inner feelings about their cultural heritage. The results were surprising and moving, and were good art. The program was written up in the School Library Journal, and similar programs developed nationwide. There are now courses for school teachers, project guide books, and other teaching aids directed at youth. Teaching book art has been shown to increase reading skills. The next phase of the Book Art Movement will be a conference on K-12 Book Arts Curriculum Development. By introducing kids to book art and giving them projects throughout elementary schooling, we expect that there will be a dramatic increase in both the number of authors producing book art and the audience for these works.

Additional References

Keith Smith Books
Peter Verheyen's Book Arts Web
Cor Knops' Book Information Website
Gary Frost's Future of the Book

Contact Minsky Please let me know if there are any corrections or additions.

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