Reading Artists' Books

Distinct from the lyrical, playful, and enchanting Surrealist artists’ books that were shared among friends, modern artists' books are art objects using the vocabulary of books (sequential, codex, narrative, layout, record) to investigate its forms, materials, and themes. This change was marked by the publications of Dieter Roth (Bok (Book), 1958) and Ed Ruscha (Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, 1963). [1] These works don’t wholly belong in either the library or the museum collection, but both.

This form brings with it a new vocabulary and set of experiences: the works are typically sequential, not like a painting; are experienced through one-on-one engagement; a page is both a canvas and an exhibition space; the juxtaposition and interrelationships of text, imagery, organization, and structure produce meaning; seriality and/or sequence aren’t necessarily narrativizing or logical.


Mystery Girls' Circus and College of Conundrum, by Mare Blocker and Katherine Dunn (1991).

Successful artists' books “account for the interrelations of conceptual and formal, thematic and material concerns.”[2] These interrelationships can include:

  • The layout and relationship of text and image with the page, and across pages 
  • The progression of text and image (narrative, non-narrative)
  • Structure of the overall form, but also its organization. This can be described as linear, fast, slow, it can become layered through internal devices like gatefolds. 
  • Method(s) of production (handwork, printing, photo-processes, etc.) including binding methods and materials

This digital exhibition represents only some of the artists’ books in our Book Arts Collection; view a full list of these holdings. We hope you enjoy these artworks and marvel at the way form enhances content!  

Read more about the history and criticism of artists' books:

Johanna Drucker, "Artists’ Books & the Early 20th-Century Avant-Garde," in The Century of Artists’ Books (New York City: Granary Books, 2004). Available onsite.

Joan Lyons, ed., Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (New York City: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985). Available onsite.


[1] Drucker discusses how the Russian Avant-Garde explored artists’ books before Americans did, and we just didn’t know about it. See Johanna Drucker, "Artists’ Books & the Early 20th-Century Avant-Garde," in The Century of Artists’ Books (New York City: Granary Books, 2004), p. 45-67.

[2] Ibid, 122.

Reading Artists' Books