Artist books are like a museum without walls and proves a particularly discreet but equally fascinating genre of contemporary art.
Moving away from the hype of a booming market, the art lover finds wonderful works at small prices. An encounter with a silent genre.
ARTIST BOOKS CHECKLIST
- Unlike a painting, photograph or even an etching, the artist books do not speak to the crowd.
- The definition of artist books is as simple as it is vague: it is a book conceived by an artist and completed in contemporary technique.
- Artist books have been a discreet genre, and this market is set apart from the great records for contemporary art.
- The genre is not suitable for short term speculation with increases in value, if it takes place at all, happens over decades.
- In principle, the value of artist books increases proportionally to the value of the artist in the market.
- For inexperienced and young collectors, artist books are an uncompromised and inexpensive entry into the art market.
- The market is growing!
Artist books is a medium of the tête à tête, one with which deals entirely in its silence
Let us imagine two scenes: a man and a woman invite friends to dinner.
Recently, they have attended an art fair where they have purchased a magnificent work, an Ed Ruscha, and they want to present it to their friends.
The visitors are guided through the house, past other wonderful pieces, towards the new art piece. This is followed by sounds of "Ah!" and "Oh!" and "Fantastic!"
The hosts are happy to make their new treasure not only to themselves, but also to their visitors.
And now the second scene: a couple invites friends to dinner.
They too have bought a new work of art, but this is not hanging on the wall or standing as a sculpture in the room, but hidden in the shelf.
The couple bought something, and even when it is on a table, which is more vicious in its vividness: they bought a book.
Of course, it is not just any book; it is an artist's book, also by Ed Ruscha.
Nevertheless, it is completely different. The friends look perplexed, insecure, trying their best to understand, simply because the book is silent in the large room.
It is a medium of the tête à tête, one with which one does not entertain an evening society, but deals entirely in its silence.
Collecting books is, as the publisher, bookseller, collector and former gallery owner Yvon Lambert calls it, a "plaisir solitaire", a lonely joy.
Lambert knows exactly what he is talking about.
When he gave up his gallery after many decades to devote himself to the publishing of artist books, he explained that he was unsettled with the hysteria of the market and wanted to return to the origins of his passion:
to the quiet exchange between the work and viewer.
THE BOOK AS ARTWORK
In order to understand how, when and why the book has evolved from the explanatory booklet to the self-contained work of art, it is worth taking a trip into history.
We enter the year of 1963, California. "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" is a small-format, black-and-white offset-printed book portraying twenty-six service stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma.
The artist Ed Ruscha has just published a work that is a source of confusion among critics, collectors and gallery owners.
For his contemporaries the work is a mystery. It cannot be classified in any of the current genres. Neither is it a catalog nor a classic photo book: what is it supposed to be?
For Ruscha it is certain that this book is a work of art. Later he will say, "My pictures may not be revolutionary, but my books were like a breakthrough. For me, they were art, even if many people refused. "
The first edition of "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" counts 400 numbered, signed copies, each costing around $4.
In 1965 he issued a further edition of 500 non-numbered books and in 1969 a third edition run with 3,000 pieces (also around the $4 mark).
Ruscha will be right with his assessment, his gesture is revolutionary. It is - at least in the US - the first so-called artist book and the birth of a new genre.
In 1973, he received his academic seal with Diane Vanderlips's exhibition "Artists' Books" at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia.
On closer inspection one must however say that the impulse from California was not the first of its kind and Ruscha’s work is not the first artist's book.
The Austrian artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998) already created books in the fifties, which he regarded as works of art.
The political dimension behind it, the idea to place a cheap segment in its own work, to open it "for all", is however Ruscha own design and, even until today, is characteristic of the genre.
FROM THE SHEET COLLECTION TO THE CHAIR
If one looks for an exact definition, one quickly realizes how the genre in the history of art has been dealt with so far.
Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, the author of the only comprehensive study on the subject ("Ésthétique du livre d'art", available only in French) proposes a simple but vague explanation:
An artist's book is an artist-designed book.
This means that the object is determined both conceptually and creatively, from the idea to the execution, from the envelope to the typography of the artist alone.
The genre radically differs from the precious works of the bibliophile, but also from illustrated books of the avant-garde, which united writers and artists into collaborators.
A low-priced division of "Art for all"
Nevertheless, the term remains very open: if one speaks of artist books, one can also mean a classic book, a magazine, a collection of papers, a copy book, or one of the boxes popular in Fluxus.
The genre is flexible, its boundaries are not clearly defined. The reader may seem irritated at first, but this is where the appeal lies.
For Ruscha as well as his colleagues Sol LeWitt, John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner and many others, who followed Ruscha's "revolution" soon with their own works, artist books provide the possibility to break out of the elitist and institutionalized sphere of art.
A low-priced division of "Art for all".
Of course, the artist book is, in this sense, also a child of pop: it is a product reproduced with contemporary printing techniques and increasingly reproducible. It radically opposes the idea of the original.
Unlike the works of classical book art, it is not a valuable object but a mass product.
SINGE DIGIT TO THOUSAND SINGLE MARKET GROWTH
Nothing has changed in the original book making process, but a change in the market can be observed.
The early works of Ed Ruscha, for example, have become popular collectors' objects in the face of the cult status of the Californian artist.
The numbered, signed copies of the first edition of the "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" can now reach four-digit auction amounts.
Compared to other of his works, this remains very cost-effective – in May 2014, one of his paintings was auctioned for over $2 million at Phillips de Pury. However, the appreciation of under $10 to a few thousand is still remarkable.
The market trend of a Dieter Roth is similar.
Roth's marvelously chaotic and obsessive works of collages, poems, stories, and finds, which he published in his own productions, have gained tremendous value in the last decade:
books that could be purchased for nearly 40 marks in the 90s can reach several thousand euros today.
The same applies to artists such as Laurence Weiner, Christian Boltanski, John Baldessari, Sol LeWitt, On Kawara, Carl André and others, who were involved with the medium book in the initial phase of the market genre.
Basically one can say: the value of an artist's book grows proportionally to the value of the artist.
In many cases artist books are still treated as second-class works of art (typical of the fact that they are almost always auctioned as one lot), but they are recognized and appreciated as part of the growing awareness of an artist's overall work.
This applies in particular to those of the first generation of artist books mentioned above.
Especially first editions and signed books from this time are very popular, however many collectors are growing to distrust these, since this bites with the original idea of the artist's book.
Ruscha, for example, regretted having signed the first edition of the Gasoline Stations, and did not do it again.
Nevertheless, 40 years later they are traded for thousands of their original price. And yet, according to Berlin gallery owner and publisher Barbara Wien, the book would hardly be a speculative object.
Short-term profit margins are simply too low.
ART MARKET ENTRY POINT
For beginners there is a great opportunity.
Precisely because speculation and the big money in this area do not play a dominant role and the prices therefore remain in an affordable framework even with icons like Ruscha, the book is very good as an entry into art collecting.
Shannon Michael Cane, director of the legendary print maker Printed Matter (once founded by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippart) and curator of the annual NY Art Book Fair, said the book was an "entry point" and underlined once again the accessibility of the genre:
"At Art Basel, a maximum of 10% of the visitors have the financial resources to buy one of the exhibited works. Everyone at the fair can afford something. Many buyers at the NY Art Book Fair are not even aware that they have bought a “real work” of art.”
Another advantage for inexperienced collectors is the clarity of the market, which consists of many small and few large bookshops and publishers.
While the rapidly growing range of independent publishing, i.e. smaller, independent publishers, is limited to the very contemporary (and therefore often cheaper) sector.
The "big" bookshops, like established galleries, lead a mixture of books by young, new artists and artist-book classics of the sixties and seventies.
An important place for interesting finds is also the Internet, inexperienced collectors are still better advised in bookshops.
It is interesting that almost every fair for contemporary art, be it the Frieze, Art Basel or the Armory Show, also offers a department for independent publishing.
In addition, uber galleries, such as David Zwirner, now run parallel to the "normal" gallery work, publishing the books of the gallery artists.
AN INTIMATE INSIGHT
If you look at the inexperienced shopper, the classic collector of artist books is anything but green behind the ears. He is a connoisseur and usually long before his first book is an art collector.
The passion for the book is often associated with a passion for a certain artist, whose work he wants to possess or to understand.
The book is only an element of the puzzle; it is the key to a better understanding.
Barbara Wien, the gallery owner, believes that the fascination of the book lies primarily in the privileged, intimate insight that it provides in the world of thought and ideas of an artist.
The charm lies in the playful approach the artists cultivate with this medium.
Artist books is a new space in which the artist is free from curatorial and market constraints
Artist books is a new space in which the artist is free from curatorial and market constraints and can therefore also communicate differently with the reader.
It is precisely books, in which not only photographs or collages but also texts can be found, that are indispensable for the understanding of a work.
The artist books are an alternative to the often very boring catalogs. Here an artist finally explains himself.
For the "deep collectors" there is actually a special treasure hidden here: originally packaged information first hand instead of via critics and pre-digested half-truths.
Thus one could understand the artist's book as a form of "manual" for a body of work, which does not mean that one finds concrete explanations, but rather that in this quiet genre a special sensitivity, a tool to see the world through the artist eyes, which is often concealed in the louder art environments.
A GROWING MARKET
It is clear that both the market and the audience surrounding the artist book is growing steadily, but the hype is still missing.
It is true that independent publishers are firing like youngsters and even fairs like the NY Art Book Fair (about 370 exhibitors from 30 countries with 35,000 visitors on the last weekend of September), but the book remains a byproduct of the great contemporary art market.
For collectors, this is a great opportunity to move beyond the market curve and choose freely for taste and heart.
And even if artist books are for the art fan masses, it has spent far too long in the shadows.
Or as Barbara Wien says: "There is an enormous boom in this area. I think, precisely because the book in everyday life supposedly loses its meaning, the artist's book as an object thereby will gain in such. I see very good times coming to us."
The artist's book has a golden future ahead. It is high time to invest!