Artists brought to book

What happens when artists swap their canvases and paint for the printed page? Two new shows at the V&A speak volumes, finds Tom Lubbock

When Hitchcock wanted a weird shot in one of his films, he would tell his camera crew it was for a dream sequence. A similar principle applies if you want to do something a bit creative with a book. You can get away with almost anything – wild typography, oddly shaped pages, wordless images – if you call it a children's book. But if you want to make a book for adults, forget it.

Unless, of course, you channel your ambitions into that specialised field, the artist's book. You won't get bookshop distribution, but you can do pretty much anything you want, and the options are wide open – as two new exhibitions at the V&A make clear. One is big, in size and in spirit, the other small; one is mainstream, while the other is an almost underground current.

You'd have to look quite hard in the world of art or books before you came across the 15-odd book-artists in Certain Trees: The Constructed Book 1964-2008. They constitute a fringe tradition, mostly British, of visual-verbal-paper creation. Self-published, often collaborative, their practice grew out of the concrete poetry movement of the early Sixties. The pivotal figure is the late, great Ian Hamilton Finlay, artist, poet, gardener, philosopher, and some of his paper works are among those on view.

"Art is a small adjustment": one of his epigrams could be a motto for the whole display. The books, booklets and other paper productions here are modest, precise, laconic, fragile. There's a strict economy of words, images, pages. Their mood is quietly playful or quietly moved. Their concerns are often rural and domestic. They never forget where books come from: there's natural gravitation toward the subject of wood and trees.

The artists dwell wittily on their materials – on letters, typefaces, inks, paper, printing, the way books work. Steve Wheatley's Over the Hills and Far Away is a book whose leaves are cut in the shapes of dipping hills; overlapped, they become a receding valley. Thomas Clark prints the words "small grey bird of dusk" in deep blue letters, but the vowels are printed in grey, like birds in an evening sky. The five vowels, you notice, run a e i o u.

David Bellingham simply prints a row of lower case "i"s, sharp black, in two typefaces, alternating. The title is Johnston's Diamonds, Gill's Pearls. It involves a typographical aperçu. Edward Johnston and Eric Gill were 20th-century pioneers of sans serif alphabets. The dots of Johnston's "i"s are diamond-shaped; the dots of Gill's are perfectly round. Diamonds and pearls, then, and the small difference of the smallest detail is glorified.

Stuart Mills' booklet The Bridle Path is Filled with Clouds has a photo of puddles, brimming with reflections. The page opens and reveals. There's a knack for making imaginative leaps from the physical world of the book to the larger universe. Another Bellingham booklet reads, page by page, "in – the – turning – of – pages – we – regulate – light – and – shade". Ideally, you'd be turning these pages with your own hand. But as with any book show, exhibit and viewer are imprisoned behind glass.

All kinds of paper objects are included, as artists make something out of the card index (Simon Cutts), the firework (Martin Fidler), the paper aeroplane (Finlay), and the carrier bag, the ticket, the label. They celebrate the universal utility of paper, and its mortal transience – so easily burnt, soaked, crumpled, torn, blown away.

At the same time, these works are a model of carefulness. As they lay out printed marks on a page, you're conscious of the aligning, centring and spacing of words and letters. You see judgement at work, tact, the imperative to get it right, make it true. The achievement is not only exquisite, it's a kind of ethical behaviour.

Certain Trees lurks in a remote upper chamber of the V&A. Bang next to the museum's main entrance there's a much more "major" display. Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book opens tomorrow. The contrast is dramatic. Here is a world of big productions, big statements, big egos. Go through the door and you're face to face with a giant volume, man-height, standing upright and open, its pages cast in solid lead. It is, you may have guessed, a work by Anselm Keifer. It strikes a suitably grandiloquent note.

The show gathers a roster of post-war stars: Bacon, Balthus, Beuys, Bourgeois, Caro, Giacometti, Hirst, Kapoor, Koons, LeWitt, Lichtenstein, Long, Matisse, Miro, Picasso. It's not really interested in the art of the book at all (whose leading practitioners are seldom well known). It's interested in what a band of otherwise extremely famous artists have done when, from time to time, they had a go at a book.

Their approach is, in most cases, vain and thoughtless. They seem to regard a book, in itself, as a dismally humble and inexpensive object. The challenge they set themselves is: how can I elevate a pitiful thing like a book into something that looks like a work by a very important artist like me? And they don't have much of a clue.

Most of the exhibits are swanky, oversized, luxury, one-off or limited-edition items. They are essentially product, a kind of franchising, a way of squeezing the last drop of yield out of a reputation. Some are quite shameless exploiters – the Francis Bacon "books" consist of replicas of old leather suitcases found in his studio, each filled with facsimiles of 76 bits of detritus (photos, post cards) found in his studio!

And for the rest, they're mostly boxes of prints, which would be better shown in a row on the wall. Matisse's Jazz, say, is visually magnificent, but it gains nothing from being a book, a sequence of turnable pages. There are also some artist's coffee-table books and books with illustrations, commercially published. Only Daniel Buren's work is a piece of proper creative page-turning in pure colour.

Then there are the "book-based" sculptures. Oh dear. There's the moderately pretentious, like Anish Kapoor's Wound, where a pile of pages have laser-cut into them the form of Christ's-side wound. And there's the preposterous, in the shape of Damien Hirst's New Religion. Plan chest-cum-altar-cum-coffin-cum-exorcist's tool box, it's a total waste of space, and of talent too, because he could make a very good pop-up.

Certain Trees - The Constructed Book 1964-2008 (to 17 August); Blood on Paper – The Art of the Book (tomorrow to 29 June); both at V&A, London SW7; every day, admission free