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Book Art Unbound
A trendy new medium binding together fine art and publishing finds a base in Northern California.
Feature by Cherie Turner


Interior view of the book ''S,'' 2005, Emily McVarnish

On a recent rainy afternoon in Berkeley, California, it was standing room only as over forty people gathered in Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore to hear Mills College book art professor and department head Kathleen Walkup discuss the artist book. The following Tuesday, revered book art professors and artists participated in a panel discussion titled “Book Arts Today: Amazing Intersections of All Kinds” at the famed Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco. Friday night, it’s a packed house of art lovers and hipsters at the opening of an exhibition celebrating the publishing of the final issue of über-zine Hot & Cold at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions (BRX). And each year, 2,000 students enroll in the over 350 classes offered by the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB). As all this excitement attests, the San Francisco Bay Area is a book art epicenter that’s feeding a vibrant and growing interest in the crossover region between publishing and art. Also being fueled is a healthy, lively debate as to what this genre actually is.


An Unwieldy Genre

It’s useful to lay some groundwork before delving into this unwieldy arena. Artist’s book, book art, art book, artist book, book arts—as similar as all these terms seem, the worlds they span can vary significantly, as can their definitions. Many such terms are used synonymously, or the same term may be used to refer to a very different object, concept, or practice. The setting of boundaries and definitions, wading through the grey areas, is highly contested, eliciting strong opinions. In an email response, Pete Glover, artist and co-owner of Oakland-based gallery/publisher Rowan Morrison Gallery, begins one reply with, “Art books (which is different from book arts!) …” And Berkeley-based book artist Sas Colby notes, “There are also hundreds of amateurs who have learned bookbinding, there’s the ‘scrap-booking’ world, and often these activities are lumped into the artist’s books world, to the detriment of serious artist bookmakers who understand form and content and other art criteria.” For clarity, terms here will be defined and used in ways that appear most common or agreed upon by those in the field.

Where camps tend to muddily part revolves around issues of content and craft, and then, of course, these worlds overlap greatly. Book art can generally refer to the entire umbrella covering all aspects where publishing and art meet. The craft end, the book arts, encompasses the bookmaking disciplines—binding, typesetting, papermaking, calligraphy. The artist’s book, or livre d’artiste—as coined by the French who began this genre in the early 20th century–is a finely crafted, limited edition, often quite pricey book that pairs original art with literature.

Then there is the artist book, which, loosely stated, is a work that utilizes the book form to present unique material that is conceptual in nature. It is about content, and not necessarily about the construction or preciousness of the object. It may be a mass-produced, open edition, relatively inexpensive item. (Accessibility and price are hotly contested issues in the genre with some insisting that, by definition, an artist book should be affordably priced and available all who seek it.) In its formal state, an artist book is a codex—the form we most commonly recognize as a book, with a bound spine and a series of pages. It may, however, be a unique or finely crafted limited edition object that stretches the boundaries of the conventional book form, verging on sculpture. As Walkup sums it: “It is a book that has unexpected content.”

As a genre, the artist book proper is remarkably new, only dating back to the mid-1960s.(Specifically, the beginning of the genre is often attributed to the publication of L.A.–based Edward Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1963.) Its nascent state helps explain the lack of formal boundaries. The upside is that Bay Area is replete with all aspects book art. “There’s no better place to be a book artist or viewer/collector than the Bay Area,” book artist Michael Bartalos says. Notes Walkup, simply, there are three centers in the country for book arts: “New York City, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.”


Bay Area Book Arts

San Francisco has long been a publishing town. Specifically, letterpress printing has been and remains strong. Notable among the many printers that employ this traditional technique here is Arion Press, a world-renowned fine press publisher of artist’s books, whose recent projects include Sampler, a book of poetry by Emily Dickenson illustrated by Kiki Smith, and The Structure of Rime, with text by Robert Duncan and etchings by Frank Lobdell. A division of Arion is Mackenzie & Harris, better known as M & H Type. Established in 1915, it’s the oldest and largest type foundry in the U.S. and is sought out the world over. To help preserve these two historic print-world icons, there is the Grabhorn Institute, which also works to perpetuate the book arts.

Berkeley-based Peter Koch Printers also publishes works in the livre d’artiste tradition. Additionally, Koch established the Codex Foundation that “exists to preserve and promote the art and craft of the book.” Among its efforts is a biennial book fair.

Located in downtown San Francisco, the Book Club of California (BCC) publishes fine press books on California and the West. Founded in 1912, it boasts among the founding members Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst), while former members include Ansel Adams, Oscar Lewis, and Norton Simon. Its publications range from reproductions of historic texts to books featuring original artwork and writing. A recent publication and BCC’s first children’s book, Let’s Play, features original artwork and text by renowned California print artist Francis Gerhardt and her two sisters. BCC also offers exhibitions, houses a historic library and provides educational programming.

Further, San Francisco is a center of hand bookbinding, and it is home to the country’s only museum dedicated to the craft, the American Bookbinders Museum. Featuring antique equipment and ephemera, the Mission District–based museum opened for regular hours each Saturday beginning this past September. As Bartalos succinctly observed: “The Bay Area is world-renowned for book arts.”


DIY Publishing

The zine tradition and experimental do-it-yourselfers also feeds into the plethora of creatively produced published materials; with greater accessibility to professional publishing tools, homemade publications are gaining in sophistication and presentation. “It is like zines are being elevated,” states Glover, “while the publishing process is getting a bit more accessible, so more people can get their work out there in book form.”

Retailers such as Mission District–based Needles & Pens stock a huge selection of well-respected self-published works. The Oakland-based art duo Chris Duncan and Griffin McPartland, creators of Hot & Cold, which features a collection of creations by artists of various disciplines, came out of the zine world. They recently completed their mission of creating ten issues of the publication; over the seven years they took to do this, Hot & Cold became a highly coveted and outstandingly popular endeavor—it’s been exhibited at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and collected in full by MOMA in New York. BRX—which is also home to a comprehensive art bookstore stocking artist books, zines, limited edition publications, and monographs—sold out the final issue before the show opened. (All Hot & Cold issues are made in an edition of 150, priced at $50 each).

“I’ve been publishing zines since I was a teenager,” says Glover. “The publishing side of the business [Rowan Morrison] just grew from making art zines.” Through Rowan Morrison, Glover publishes small runs of publications that fall somewhat solidly in the realm of the artist book. A recent project was a sketchbook by local artist Deth P. Sun. Doing it himself, Oakland-based photographer Paul Schiek created publishing venture These Birds Walk (TBW); in addition to one-off publications, TBW publishes a yearly subscription of four books, each featuring a body of work by a photographer. The resulting limited edition books (the first fifty subscriptions of the 500 available feature books signed by the artists) blur the line somewhere between artist books and unique monographs. Monographs are the realm of upstart publishing entity Paper Museum Press, the publishing arm of SF–based Park Life, a gallery and retail store. And book artists Emily McVarish, who also teaches at CCA, and Julie Chen, who teaches at Mills College, operate their own presses, Axel & Otto and Flying Fish Press, respectively.


Educational Resources

The Bay Area also offers numerous opportunities for book art education. An undisputed hub is the San Francisco Center for the Book. SFCB offers more classes than any other book arts organization in the country, notes Bartalos, who was the Center’s first artist-in-residence. In addition to a wide array of classes, the Center holds exhibitions, offers residencies, hosts events, and publishes. In the academic realm, San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), CCA, Academy of Art University, and UC Berkeley all offer various book arts courses. Mills College offers both an undergraduate as well as the nation’s first book art graduate degree; it’s headed up by Walkup, who is also one of the founding members of the newly formed academic organization, the College Book Art Association.


The Artist Book

There are not, as notes McVarish, many artists who have dedicated their career to the artist book genre. “That sort of commitment is fairly rare,” she says. Among those few, McVarish—who could be counted among them—singles out Betsy Davids, Professor Emeritus at CCA, and Johanna Drucker, who is known for her poetry and use of experimental typography. Both artists have been working in the artist book genre since the 1970s. Drucker is also a renowned scholar on the subject, having taught at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, among other universities; her The Century of Artists’ Books (which features work by Davids, among many others) is a seminal book on the topic. SFAI professor Charles Hobson has also long been exploring the book form, often employing unique binding solutions and other creative augmentations to his limited edition, fine press, highly coveted works.

Gallery 16, a gallery, fine printer, and publisher, co-founded the 1 Artist 1 Book series, which publishes artist books that do not feature fine printing; the binding is the glossy, institutional type familiarly seen on Dr. Seuss or Dick and Jane-type books, also known as library binding. The project evolved from the gallery’s involvement with limited fine press books—which it still continues to produce. “The SF Bay area has an incredibly rich legacy of artist bookmakers and fine art publishing,” states owner/artist Griff Williams. “I wasn’t interested in becoming overly concerned with the questions of craft, but rather providing a forum for artists to break the rules of tradition.”

“1 Artist 1 Book is designed to present a forum for idea-based artists on the West Coast to present a body of work,” explains Williams. “Conceptual art is difficult for galleries to support, as there is often no product associated with it. This is where the book becomes an important vessel for ideas that may not have a home elsewhere. The only stipulation we put upon the invited artists is that they must use the book to create an original work.” Artist books also feature prominently at Electric Works, a gallery, printer, and art book bookshop in the SOMA District. A recent stop in to view its creations of this realm, including the critically applauded, and massive, Dante’s Inferno by Sandow Birk, found owner Noah Lang and crew putting some unique labels on soup cans, a la Warhol—a recent project by artist Enrique Chagoya. “I consider this a book project,” Lang points out mischievously. “You have to hold it, it has elements of multiples and sequence.” After a short pause, he adds, “Yeah, we do like to be a little bit of a thorn—push the concept.”

Mrs. Dalloway’s features a selection of artist books provided by Another Room (formerly Another Room Book Arts Bookstore), and San Rafael–based Donna Seager Gallery represents and exhibits artist book creations. Book art viewing opportunities are also available through the special collections department of major libraries, including the San Francisco library and various academic libraries.


Why Books?

Beyond the discourse and dissection of who and what falls into which categories, there is the object itself. There is something distinctly enticing that continues to draw artists, art lovers, and collectors to the book form. “I just love the medium,” states Glover. “The sequencing of images, the use of text or lack of text, the size, the paper, the inks. All these factors make each book unique and pleasing (or disturbing).”

“The intimacy of the book form allows for the opportunity of very intense engagement by the viewer,” adds Chen, “as they must handle the book in order to view it and can control the pace of viewing.” As McVarish enthusiastically points out, the book offers an endless depth and richness for artistic expression, which has only begun to be tapped. As books become liberated by technology from serving as the primary disseminators of information, their form is freed to be explored in new ways as a purely tactile objet d’art.

Some, including Hobson, see technology playing a part going forward. “A [growing interest is the] combination of traditional book arts and contemporary digital media,” he states. “The Bay Area is especially well positioned because of its history in letterpress and its prominence in digital media.”

But today interest in book art runs far beyond just Northern California. “The interest in the book as art form is becoming popular all over,” says Koch. “This is a zeitgeist.”


This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine art ltd logo sml


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