A Brief and Incomplete History of Artists' Books

The Libraries and Archives Canada provides a good definition of an artist's book: an artist's book is "not the reproduction of a work of art; it is a work of art in itself".

By this definition the illuminated manuscript The Book of Kells could be conceived of as an artists' book, indeed as a collaborative artists' book as it is thought to have been produced by three monk-artists. However, as The Book of Kells was created in around 800 AD, the term "artists' book" had not yet been coined. However, as the book and fibre artist Gwen J Penner reminds us, "The book as an art form did not begin with the coining of a term and we owe much to early book artists".


The term was perhaps first coined in France at the turn of the 19th century, when such a book was of course known as a "livre d'artiste". A livre d'artiste was an illustrated book the design of which was by the artist themselves, rather than copied from an artist's design. These were commercial, high-end collectible art objects.

An earlier precursor to the artists' book which may better fit the current definition is William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The author wrote, illustrated, and printed this volume of poetry himself in 1789. Blake could not find a publisher willing to let him write, illustrate, and print his own work, and so turned to self-printing and publishing. Blake printed his images and hand-calligraphed text using copper plates, and once printed, he and his wife Catherine painstakingly hand-coloured the images with watercolours.


Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow, plates from Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

In the 1960s, with the advent of conceptual art and Fluxus, artists' books came into their own. For the Fluxus artists, artists' books were a means of disseminating their work outside of the gallery. Similarly, Pop artist Ed Ruscha created artist's books which were inexpensive and widely disseminated, in an attempt to bring his art to a wider audience. 

The artist Deiter Roth, who was associated with the Fluxus movement, created an artist's book called Bok, in which he did away with the codex (the form of the book) in order that the reader could rearrange the pages as they pleased. The V&A's page on artists' books states that "
Roth's distinctive contribution to the genre (of artists' books) was his examination, through his bookworks, of the formal qualities of books themselves" through deconstruction and investigation.

 When I compile the pages of On Being Soft, I intend to make button holes in each page and string them together with ribbon tied in a bow, so that the pages may be rearranged in a similar fashion to those of Roth's Bok.

Poemetrie, Deiter Roth, 1968


Today, the genre of artists' books continues to expand, to include bookworks (typically altered books; books that have been "tampered with", some might say desecrated) and book objects (works which focus on the sculptural qualities and potential of a book rather than its written content).