ON A trip to America in 1981, I first saw an artist's book by Stephanie Brody Lederman, the story of a Manhattan society lady. Written entirely on tiny powder puffs bound together by a thin silver chain, its form and terse script condensed a whole life - its pace, its brittle values, its silliness, loneliness and vulnerability - into something which could be cradled in my palm. There was also Lois Polansky, who expressed long- standing frustrations by using printing plates made from an old family photograph album to effect "The Changing of the Relatives" - with the help of nitric acid. These books are economical, intelligent and witty, and they are constructed out of the materials which best express their meaning. They do not make great claims for themselves, they simply exist.
Artists' books resist definition. It is easier to say what they are not - they are not books about artists or their exhibitions, nor are they secondary to painting or sculpture: they are self-contained art works which find their expression in book form. The range extends from massive metal tomes needing haulage machines to move them to Colin Hall's miniature book in a jar of sour milk and wild rice, a piece which is proving a curatorial problem for its owner, the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The National Art Library in the V&A has our finest collection of artists' books, although the permanent gallery for showing the work, promised seven years ago, has yet to materialise. Their recent purchases include "La prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne France", a 1913 collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendras that was originally planned in an edition of 150 copies which, laid end to end, would equal the height of the Eiffel Tower, an evocation of which brings both the poem and image to a close. For financial reasons, though, only 60 copies were ever completed.
The Tate Gallery Library also collects artists' books, and a new exhibition opening this week is the first chosen from among more than 3,000 in its possession. The Tate Library concentrates on a narrower field than the National Art Library, using this working definition: "A book (ie normally a number of pages attached to each other in some way) wholly, or primarily conceived (though not necessarily actually made/printed by) an artist, and usually produced in a cheap, multiple edition ..." But many, like John Bently's "Liver and Lights" series, which incorporates debris from the streets of Deptford, burst the bounds of the Tate's working definition, as do others made of copper, hair, bone, seeds, salt and pepper and simulated cow hide. Special cases have had to be made to accommodate Christian Ide's "Dream-time", a rendering of Bruce Chatwin's text which unfurls on a python- length rainbow of rich, oily, Japanese paper. Bruce McLean and Mel Gooding's slender "Apropos the Jug" (1988) with its pristine blind etchings and handcoloured details, and Mario Dalprais' "Mini-installation", whose contents include Smarties and toy pigs, are two more books which have broken out of the standard glass cases.
Many of these books are bought for pounds 20 or less, and pounds 100 is usually the most the Library will pay for a book. The Tate began its collection in the 1960s, when the influence of several key American artists was particularly strong. One of the most important of these was Ed Ruscha, who priced his now famous and (much sought-after) "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1962) at $3 and put it on sale in supermarkets, whilst Sol Lewitt stated that he wished his books to cost no more than a cinema ticket. Some books made at this time were printed in large editions with the dual aims of reaching a wide audience and of challenging ideas about the "preciousness" of art and the stranglehold of the gallery system. Allied to this was a questioning of what we expect to find inside a book: "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" is a sequence of grey photographs of petrol stations and an indication of their locations; no more, no less.
Ruscha's publications were also a backhanded comment on the luxurious, limited-edition livres d'artistes which publishers like Kahnweiler had produced in France at the beginning of the century, commissioning images from such artists as Picasso, Leger and Derain, and using rich paper and bindings. In keeping with his philosophy, Ruscha employed the printing process used by most jobbing printers, offset or photolitho. The British artist Telfer Stokes was influenced by Ruscha's work to establish his own press, Weproductions, and began to make photolitho publications which explored the structure of the book itself.
Often collaborating with his fellow artist Helen Douglas, Stokes banished drawing from his books on the principle that since this particular printing process was photographic, only photographic images were permissible. There is an ironic exploration of the normally overlooked surfaces which make up our books in "Spaces" (1974), where the textures, watermarks and brand- names embedded in high quality papers were photographed and printed on the much cheaper paper used for the finished work. In "Real Fiction" which Stokes and Douglas made in 1987, ideas about illusion and reality were investigated by means of tiny models of building work photographed within the opened pages upon which the images were eventually to be printed. The reader becomes confused by the mixture of scale and by the lack of a linear story, for which the eye searches through force of habit. Elsewhere, just when the brain is lulled into following the progression of a text or series of images, a human-sized thumb, apparently holding open the page, will interrupt the flow, or a life-size pencil which just happened to be lying within the camera's view will be included in the book, jerking the brain awake with its questionable reality.
Time - the sense of the time it takes to turn a book's pages, the illusory passage of time within a narrative or its visual equivalent - has excited many artists. Stokes and Douglas play with our expectations about the way a book will progress by taking a loaf of bread as their subject matter. A different slice fills each page until we witness the spreading of butter and treacle to make the sandwich that completes the sequence before being eaten.
Several of Colin Sackett's books are closely allied with Gyorgy Ligeti's music. He uses the composer's analogy for musical notes - "slices of salami" - to describe the pages of his book, "Continuum". Sackett, Stokes and Douglas are artists who use the book as their primary art form. (The most recent publication from Weproductions is "Water on the Border" (1994), a collaboration with children in China and those living near Stokes and Douglas on the border between Scotland and England.) For artists working primarily in other media, the book can be a complementary form. The text for Derek Jarman's film "Blue" was published as an artist's book in an edition of 150 copies, which come with a signed screenprint in an intensely blue box specially made for the purpose. There are an additional 25 copies each bearing an original painting by Jarman on their covers.
Hamish Fulton, David Tremlett (who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1992) and Richard Long (his "Mud hand prints" (1984) is probably one of the best-known artist's books) are all included in the Tate's survey. For these artists, the medium can document their travels, journeys on foot and the work made on the way, and allows the alert reader to experience that of the walker in a direct and vivid way.
The fullest integration of the worlds inside and outside the books has perhaps been achieved by Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the most prolific artists using the book form. His controversial garden at Stonypath, Scotland (open to visitors in the summer) incorporates texts carved into stone - just as he has proved the master of concrete poetry inside his tiny books.
Artists' books are used for almost as many purposes as there are people making them. If the books have anything in common it is probably that they are about noticing. They are an ideal means for conserving the apparently inconsequential - witness Robert Maude's delightful "Beware Off Dogs" (sic), which documents errors in public notices - or for attacking the art world itself - see Endre Tot's "Book of an Extremely Glad Artist" (1981). This includes the seductive "Night Visit to the National Gallery" sequence, in which a blackened silhouette of each painting is set alongside the details provided on the gallery labels, often the only part to which the hurried tourist pays attention. David Blamey manages to imply a mass of comment about the merging of First and Third World cultures in his slim "7 day Kathmandu" (1991) without undercutting our enjoyment of the errors which occurred in the daily chalking-up of the titles of the American films screened in a pizza restaurant in Nepal. Tony Kemplen's "SK329858" (1994), in the form of a pack of cards, is nevertheless a memorable account of the fatal crash which killed six American airmen on a site in Sheffield during the Second World War (the title is a map reference).
All these works throw into question the assumptions we bring to books and reading. Our education system may be in crisis but we can still assume a high degree of literacy: in theory at least, books are readily available to everyone. Such democracy has rarely been the case in other centuries (for example, the scribes in Ancient Egypt had a vested interest in keeping literacy levels low, to guard their own considerable status). Leaping several centuries, the Royal Academy's "Painted Page" exhibition last year provided the chance to see some staggeringly beautiful books from Renaissance Italy, which, whether handwritten or printed by the newly invented presses, were embellished with a profusion of exquisite illustrations, gold-leaf and fine bindings.
These books were commissioned by wealthy patrons whose libraries were status symbols. Through their books, they tried to present a society in which their own position was considerably more stable than wider circumstances suggested. A typical illustration depicts well-proportioned buildings which enclose a hive of activity among the handsome and well-dressed craftsmen and domestics, while the aristocrats concentrate on the elevated pursuits of learning or religious contemplation. The fragility of this apparently harmonious society is perhaps indicated by the number of props the patrons asked their illuminators to emphasise.
These books tell us a great deal about the society for which they were made. On the finished pages, there is rarely a square inch of empty space and the illuminations are busy with small details unrelated to the work in question. Such manuscripts were created for a society starved of images, where most people's exposure to painting was limited to whatever they might see in church. (Along with the easy availability of books we also take for granted a general access to works of art, forgetting how comparatively recently the public gallery has entered national life.) A glance at the Victorian illustrated books in the British Museum, with their elegant but dark engravings and their dense typography, will indicate how our reading patterns have changed.
The work in the Tate exhibition shows our own awareness of the limits of what it is possible or wise to express. Renaissance Italy had none of the constant visual assault which we experience from newspapers, television and film, billboards, graffiti, magazines. An author today can set a novel on a Caribbean island confident that - if only from a cinema advert for rum - the reader will have an idea of the setting, making long descriptions or even an artist's impression redundant. Such visual shorthand, the references to our common image-bank, is an essential part of the impact of artists' books. The manipulation of empty space is one of the characteristics of 20th century art, and what is edited out of our artists' books is as significant as what is included. The book form is, of course, under attack now from the CD-ROM and other computer technology. Jake Tilson, also in the Tate show, is active on the Internet and has a research residency at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford, where he is developing his ideas for electronic publishing.
However miraculous the inventions of the future may be, it will be impossible to replace the feel and intimacy of a book, a space both intensely private and publicly accessible. Inevitably, this relationship is lost when books are in glass cases and to mitigate this problem at the Tate, several artists have donated handling copies of their books which will be available in the gallery. Despite the democratic principles of the 1960s and 1970s, many books made at that time are now collectors' items that fetch high prices at auction, but the Tate bookshop will be stocking work in print by artists in the show - a rare opportunity to go home with a work from the Tate Gallery collection in your back pocket.
WHERE TO SEE THEM
2 `Artists' Books' at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1 opens on Tuesday. , who co-selected the books with Maria White, gives a lecture on Friday 8 Sept at 1pm. A one-day conference involving many of the artists takes place on 9 Nov (10am-3.45pm; pounds 10, pounds 7 concs). Info: 0171 887 8758.
2 `The Book and Beyond' at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7: to 1 Oct.
2 Glynn Vivian Gallery, Alexandra Rd, Swansea. `Beyond Reading': to 24 Sept. 01792 651738
Permanent stock of artists' books can be found at:
2 Eagle Gallery, 159 Farringdon Rd, London EC1. 0171 833 2674.
2 Hardware Gallery, 162 Archway Road, London N6. 0181 341 6415.
2 workfortheeyetodo, 51 Hanbury Street, London E1. 0171 426 0579.Reuse content