Now the British are catching up. Livres d'artistes anglais, despite making little impact at auction here, are to have their own fair, with 60 exhibitors, at the South Bank Centre next Saturday (10am-4pm) - their first big public showing since 1984. The V & A is presenting displays of 'book art' throughout this year. The first definitive guide to British artists' books is due out in September. And the genre has acquired its first regular reviewer, Cathy Courtney in Art Monthly.
Cognoscenti who have watched conceptual art sprouting printed words - Magritte's 'This is not a pipe', Lichtenstein's 'I don't care] I'd rather sink than call Brad for help]' - will have been tickled to find conceptual art arising from the printed word. The rest of us will be thankful to find it packaged with printed explanations.
In the past decade, about 180 British artists have produced artists' books. Today, about 30 express their art mostly in book form and about a dozen exclusively so.
A typical British example is John Bently's A Book of Discarded Things, an edition of 57 whose cover is a montage of colourful objects found in the street between his home in Lewisham and his studio in Deptford: plastic bottle tops, toy pistol caps, coins. Inside are photocopied watercolours of discarded people and some blank verse, including the lines: 'This is a book / for all the orphans / abandoned by fate / and war.' Price pounds 50 from the artist, pounds 100 or so from a dealer.
Most work by top names changes hands for between pounds 120 and pounds 2,000. Retailers such as Zwemmer Whitechapel, the ICA bookshop, Liberty, Waterstone's at the Royal Festival Hall and Dillons have begun stocking artists' books. Waddington and the Marlborough Gallery deal in them.
The fair's organiser, Marcus Campbell, a London dealer in rare modern art books, says: 'Livres d'artistes have always straddled art and books in a commercially detrimental way. In Britain the market as yet does not exist. The output is almost entirely unseen, but it is prolific. It's an excellent time to start collecting.'
Silvie Turner is co-author of British Artists' Books: A Survey, to be published in September by her company, Estamp, at pounds 15. It aims to document every British artist's book. She has collated 25 definitions of livre d'artiste. The bluntest is by Marcel Duchamp, precursor of pop art: 'It's an artist's book if an artist made it, or if the artist says it is.' And her own: 'Not books about art, or books illustrating art or literary texts, but original works that are conceived as art using the book as the form of expression.'
Bently, 35, a graduate of the West Surrey College of Art and Canterbury College of Art, says: 'Information technology has made the book as we know it redundant. It is in the same position as painting was when photography was invented. Everybody said it would die.
'The great beauty of the artists' book medium is that you can combine almost anything. There are fine art aspects, craft aspects, literary aspects. It appeals to people who feel restricted by a single medium. What's more, it is no longer an underground activity. It is on the verge of becoming mainstream.'
Mainstream or not, breaking the boundaries between media has always been a subversive occupation, and the emergent British body of artists' books has gained a reputation for just that. 'A good artist's book should give you a jolt,' Mr Campbell says. The British version owes little to the continental fine-art tradition or to our own arts- and-crafts private press books. Its origins lie in the pop art of the Sixties, the seditious photocopied fanzines of the Seventies and the rebellious outpourings of the art schools of the Eighties.
Mr Campbell cites the American pop artist Ed Ruscha's anti-photography books of the Sixties as a big influence. His Royal Road Test, an attack on material culture, was ring-bound, like a car manual. Its photographs documented the aftermath of throwing a Thirties Royal typewriter out of a Buick at speed in the Nevada desert.
Bently cites as another influence the punk fanzine Sniffing Glue, distributed in and around Chelsea Art School and the King's Road in the late Seventies.
The most prolific British company publishing artists' books is Book Works Publications. Its Lost Volume: A Catalogue of Disasters by Cornelia Parker, published this year, contains pictures of squashed objects - a light bulb, war medal, bunch of grapes - and a real squashed object, a silver trophy attached by wire. Special edition of 30, signed and numbered: pounds 125 each. Standard edition of 500: pounds 12 each.
Works by the best-known British book artists such as Ron King and Ian Tyson crop up at literary auctions in this country. King, at 61 Britain's 'grand old man' of the genre, founded the Circle Press in 1967. His work sells mainly in the United States. Tyson, now 60, King's partner in the early days, founded Tetrad Press in 1970. King specialises in classical texts - Chaucer, Shakespeare - Tyson in contemporary poets. Auction prices: from about pounds 120 to pounds 900 for Tyson; pounds 500 or so for King.
David Hockney, John Piper, Patrick Procktor, Patrick Heron, Edouard Paolozzi and the late Elisabeth Frink are among book artists better known for their painting and sculpture. Hockney's artist's book Grimm's Fairy Tales is worth pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 at auction.
If you visit the fair next Saturday, be sure to buy a catalogue. That of the 1984 exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery, British Artists' Books 1970-1983 by Silvie Turner and Ian Tyson, sold for pounds 10 then and fetches pounds 60 now. Marcus Campbell (071-495 4412). John Bently (081-693 1362). Estamp (081-994 2379). Book Works (071- 407 1692).
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