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Classifying Artists' Books by their Structure
from the introduction to
1000 Artists' Books (2012)

From the introduction to 1000 Artists’ Books (Quarry: 2012) by Peter Thomas

What is an artists’ book? This question does not have a simple answer. Even if it were only, “What is a book?” the question would not be any easier to answer. This is because the word “book” is regularly used to imply both the content and the object itself. It is not unusual for a person to say, “I wrote a book,” and by that mean they wrote something to be printed in a book, rather than actually writing the words of a story in a book. And likewise it is not unusual for a person to say, “I made a book,” when they have bound a blank book that has no words or images inside. The concept of ‘bookness’ is not as simple as it may seem.

When the word “artist” is added to the word “book” the result becomes even more complex. What is art? The question has been argued, discussed, and dissected for centuries. As with book, the definition of art changes, and often depends on whether the process or the product is being considered. For example, cooking can be an art, but the meal created might not be a work of art.

It was not until the mid-1980s that the term “artists’ books” crept into common usage as a way to describe books made by artists. Before that the term was more commonly used to describe the livre d’artiste, books created by a publisher to pair illustrations by famous artists with well-known texts. In the same way that the first cars were called “horseless carriages,” the phrase “artists’ books” described both medium and product in terms of objects that already existed. There may be a better name, but so far there is no agreement on what it might be. But there is agreement to use an apostrophe and place it after the “s”, claiming the phrase to describe the genre of art works made by book artists.

In 2010 and 2011, Donna and I traveled around the country in our gypsy wagon artists’ bookmobile (20,000 miles, 35 states), teaching classes and talking about the book arts. Between stops, people would often chase us down to look inside the gypsy wagon and find out what we were doing. When we told them we were book artists they would often get a confused look, so we would explain: “A book artist is a person who makes books as their form of artistic expression, and an artists’ book is the creation of a book artist. A book artist makes books like a painter makes paintings.” Though simplistic, this answer often helped them understand that an artists’ book is a work of art, and not simply a means of conveying information.

I often used the gypsy wagon as a metaphor for the artists’ book saying, “When a person looks inside a regular RV what do they think? Usually nothing special, or something like, ‘How practical.’ But when people see our gypsy wagon they get excited, curious, and something magical happens. Commercially produced books are like regular RVs, practical and full of information. Artists’ books are like our gypsy wagon: they inspire imagination and wonder, and share something of the artist who created them.”

How does one know if a work of art is an artists’ book or only a 3-D painting or a sculpture? What are the physical and conceptual attributes that define an artists’ book? Generally, if an object has book-like qualities recognizable by either the maker or the viewer, then it is fair to call it an artists’ book. Some people get caught up trying to decide if a work of art is, or is not, an artists’ book. I find it more interesting to discover what the book-like qualities are, asking questions like, “Where on the scale of object to information does it fit?”

An artists’ book with pages that can be turned is a sequential art form that goes beyond the ordinary three dimensions of other sculptural art works. A masterpiece of the artists’ book can be enjoyed as a two-dimensional object when viewed in a photograph, as a three-dimensional object when on display in a glass case, and as a four dimensional object when held and read. If you find yourself frustrated because you cannot read the text or see the sequence when viewing the images in this book, try enjoying the two dimensional experience. If you really want to read or hold the book, you can always contact the artist to buy a copy, or visit a library or museum to see it.

Most art forms have recognized genres. Paintings can be labeled as landscape, abstract and portrait. A film can be called noir, comedy, or drama. Artists’ books do not yet have commonly recognized genres. To organize the 1000 images for this book I decided to focus solely on the structure, and defined four structural “genres”: codex books (books with pages joined to make a spine), folded books (books with multiple-fold pages), single-sheet books (books with single-sheet pages) and sculptural books (books made from objects and objects made into books). See below for a more detailed descriptions of these genres.

When traveling around the country we were frequently asked if we worried about computers and e-books taking the place of physical books and running us out of a job. I’m not worried. This is an exciting time to be involved in the book arts. Since the invention of the printing press, the book as a medium for the artist has been encumbered by function. Today, in the same way that photography set painting free, the personal computer has released the book from its servitude to information. Freed from function, the book can be an aesthetic object, a work of art. When electronic books become the primary distribution source for the written word, people will turn to physical books for aesthetic satisfaction.

The book, with so many possible forms of expression, is clearly the most complex and versatile art medium that exists. I believe that very soon artists will discover how to exploit these potentials to create works of art that today are still unimaginable. It seems very likely that by the end of the 21st century, paintings and sculptures will be gathering dust in museum storage rooms while the galleries will be full of artists’ books. Perhaps some of those art works will be books you first saw pictured here in this edition of 1000 Artists’ Books.

Peter Thomas

Peter and Donna Thomas, Santa Cruz


Information for structural genres

Codex Books

- books with pages joined to make a spine:

1. Books made with single-fold pages, joined to make a spine:

pamphlets, case bindings, designer bindings, long stitch bindings, coptic stitch bindings, stab bindings, French door bindings

2. Books made with single sheet pages, joined to make a spine:

perfect bindings, drum bindings, flip books, stapled pamphlets, post and screw,

Folded Books

- books with multiple-fold pages:

1. Books made with pleated pages or having pleated covers:

accordion books, flag books, Jacob's ladder books

2. Books with multiple sets of pleated pages attached to covers:

tunnel books, carousel/star books

3. Books with multiple-fold pages:

origami books, gate-fold books, map-fold books, maze books, flexagons,

Single-sheet Books

-books with single-sheet pages:

1. Books made with single-sheet pages attached by a single fastener, staple or sewing station:

fan bindings, palm leaf books

2. Books made with single-sheet pages placed in a container that acts as a cover:

portfolio of prints, Tibetan books

3. Books made with single-sheet pages rolled up:


Sculptural Books

- books made from objects and objects made into books:

1. Collections with at least one codex, folded or single-sheet book:

shrines, reliquary, vessels, containers etc.

2. Book-referential objects or book artworks:

altered books, wearable books, edible books, game boards, hinged blocks,

3. Work referencing the intent, use, experience, etc. of books:

installations, objects with letters on them, environmental books

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