Artists’ Books


Artists’ Books

There are many conflicting opinions as to what an artists’ book should be. The term “artists’ books” first appeared around 1973 but books that could later be placed within this category began to appear in the 1960’s and 70’s along with social and political activism and the rise of conceptual art (p.13, Klima). Some artists produced books in an attempt to skirt the gallery/museum system to reach a larger number of people (p.25, Burkhart). They represented the “democratization of art object” and fine art commodity (p.47, Klima). In the beginning of the 1960’s, the editions, multiples, and publications of fluxus artists such as Marcel Duchamp can also be considered artists’ books, but they also have their origins in 20th century modernism, as well as the works of futurists, dadas, and surrealists, (p. 17, Bleus).

Artists’ books differ from the livre d’artiste of the 20th century, for example, books made by Picasso, Ernst, and Matisse, because they are not catalogues of an artist’s work, do not contain allusions to an artist’s other works, and the livre d’artiste that were popular in the 20th century also contained mostly original artwork. They are standalone narratives that play with the book form and history, for example the relationship between text and image.

Artists’ books tend to fall into one of two conceptual frameworks: first, books with unlimited multiple editions, rejecting finely crafted unique objects; these are “largely the production of commercial print and reproduction technology” (p.17, Klima). Within this framework, the artists’ book should make art and important ideas more accessible to a wider array of people, challenging limiting and capitalistic conventions of the traditional book. The second framework is that artists’ book should be a unique art object that provokes an emotional response and deeper engagement with the form. Artist’s might have creative control over small print runs, subverting historical norms of the book format and process of publishing.

The first conceptual framework might critique the artists’ book as a precious object only accessible to a limited number of people outside of the art world, and critique the ideology of the auratic quality of “authenticity” or rareness (p.66, Klima), and the latter might critique the machine-like emotionless quality of these mass-produced items, though it seems as though neither framework aims to be elitist. Artists’ books may be mass-produced political and cultural works, or handmade stories like zines which aim to be widely distributed and shared; zines are often donated with the knowledge that they will be potentially be digitized and reproduced.

One example of an artists’ book is Out of the Sky: Remembering 911 by Werner Pfeiffer. Out of the Sky was produced in an edition of 52 copies in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of the attacks. Pfeiffer is a German-American artist, born in 1937. He spent his childhood in Nazi Germany, which exposed him to censorship and book burnings, and also the ability of books and writing “to spread hatred and perpetuate violence and genocide” (Mattoon). After immigrating to the United States in 1961, Pfeiffer pursued a career in design and art direction, and became an art professor at Pratt Institute and director of the Pratt Adlib Press in 1969. There are only 52 copies of Out of the Sky, and it seems to only be available in art galleries and libraries.

Once Out of the Sky is built, the tower made of woodcut illustrations looms above you at over 5-feet-tall (on a table); if you look at the illustrations closely you will see grotesque black and white compositions of bodies and limbs intertwined; the tower also includes newspaper script at the top with names of victims. The book is contained in a large grey box that looks almost like a tombstone, and along with the paper material for building the tower, there is a large book almost like a chapbook which contains instructions for assembly and a first person narrative that memorializes 911 as well as acts as a political response to the violence and demonization of those critical of US politics post-911; the text is presented in narrow columns centered on the page, similar to the columns of a newspaper article.

There was a strange tension in piecing this book together because it was meant to serve as a memorial, but at the same time, as you assemble the book, it feels like playing a reverse game of Jenga; it was also awkward to set up this piece in the library, since there were many other patrons around quietly researching. Pfeiffer states in his artists’ book Endangered Species, “Our personal daily ‘fix’ of electronic news/entertainment documents is an experience of facts without awareness of space, distance, or time.” After reading this, I could better understand how this book is meant to challenge the way we interact with books and other news sources, forcing a more memorable experience with the medium. Pfeiffer seems to be advocating for the importance of the materiality of the book, and the powerful sensory experience of interacting with the form and content of a book.

A second example of an artists’ book— that I think is incredibly charming and also combats the stigma that reduces artists’ books to inaccessible elitist art objects— is a children’s magazine and scrapbook from Matanzas, Cuba (east of Havana), a product of Ediciones Vigia (which translates to Watchtower editions, named after Matanza’s location in Plaza de la Vigía, Watchtower Square). Vigia is an independent publishing house founded in the 1970’s (during the repressive cultural period). At Vigia, books are created by artists who volunteer with the press, and these particular books were made in collaboration with children and published by Alfredo Zaldivar, a a Cuban poet who also co-founded the press. There are a maximum of 200 issues of each Vigia book published (3 issues a year), all handmade, so they include the same textual material but differ in artistic details. These particular issues are built around the subject of puppet theatres or marionettes, and one of the issues speaks about the children’s play “the Ibeyis and the Devil”, where two twins, the sons of the orishas (or minor gods) Chango and Oshun, overcome the Devil and restore peace in the countryside where they live by returning the joy and growth of the mountain.


Vigia publishes handmade books that combine art, movable parts, and literature, using repurposed material such as paper from the local butcher, yarn, sand, fabric, leaves, dried flowers and botanicals, and tin foil, and dyed with various techniques including the use of coffee. Vigia also fabricated a brownish stock paper called “bagasse” from sugarcane because of the lack of access to printing material; stenciling techniques were developed for imaging and lettering, and most everything is hand coloured. The children’s magazines I looked at are stapled and bound together with string, and made of waste paper, industrial residue, natural elements, and textile components (Osborne); they are mimeographed, hand-coloured, and signed by authors. When the press began they only had one old typewriter and an ancient mimeograph machine. Now better known authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges have become involved with the press, and whereas the books used to sell for 1 dollar, now they sell for apx. 25 dollars.

They are available to purchase at their store and studio in Matanzas, and they are available to view in libraries and art galleries around the world. Vigia books also include ephemera, such as pockets filled with puzzle pieces, beaded necklaces, and tags (KC Studio). You can see flaws in the books, which is, I think, part of what makes them so beautiful and gives them the engaging and mysterious quality of intimate scrapbooks. These issues are all in Spanish, so it would require translation and more time with the material to better engage with the books, but I could still appreciate the artwork and the philosophy behind Vigia press. These books demonstrate how artists’ books can preserve cultural traditions, such as folklore and storytelling, as well as allow artists, no matter what their economic background, to share their stories and work as a community to create art.

Pat Allingham’s The Shrunken Head, at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books

Despite the challenges of storage, display, the strain on budget, and having to accommodate additional demands regarding books that are donated, I would advocate for these works in special library collections. There is a market for them because they are interesting narratives and visually stunning to exhibit, which could bring researchers and diverse communities to libraries, and their metacommentary on the codex format is a wonderful part of a library’s special collection. Another benefit of having artists’ books in a library is that the art and narrative can be preserved and made securely available to readers; artists’ books can perhaps be digitized, and the metadata can be collected, so it may reach wider audiences over time, and that way local histories can also be collected and preserved.

Works Cited and Consulted

Allingham, Pat. The Shrunken Head. Stayner, Ont.: Allingham Mazaro, 1985. Print.

Behar, Ruth. “Works in Handmade Cuban Books.” Ruth Behar. 2015. Web. 21. Nov. 2016.

Bleus, Guy. Art Is Books. Hasselt [Belgium: Provinciale Centrale Openbare Bibliotheek, 1991. Print.

Burkhart, Anne. “Articulate Activism: Artists’ Books Take Issues.” Art Education, vol. 60, no. 1, 2007 25–32.

Cornell University. “Werner Pfeiffer: Book-objects and Artist Books.” Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Kirsch, Elizabeth. “Ediciones Vigia: Handmade Cuban Books.” KC Studio. 1 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. “

Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print.

Mattoon, Nancy. “The bombshell book art of Werner Pfeiffer.” Booktryst. 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. What Are Little Girls/boys Made Of?Toronto: Transformer Press, 1989. Print.

Nochi, Kim. “Ediciones Vigía: An Introduction.” University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology,11 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2016.

Pfeiffer, Werner. Out of the Sky: Remembering 911. Red Hook, NY: Pear Whistle Press, 2006. Print.

Pfeiffer, Werner, and Philip Roth. Werner Pfeiffer: Endangered Species. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1994. Print.

Zaldivar, Alfredo, eds. Barquitos del San Juan : la revista de los niños. Vigia: Matanzas, Cuba, 1985. Print.


Eagle Lake Owls illustration

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Here is some artwork I did for a Winnipeg band The Eagle Lake Owls for their album cover in the springtime of 2016. Sadly, this was the final album for the band, and the members have all moved on to other projects and adventures. They are great storytellers and memory conjurers, have lovely vocals, folk melodies, and harmonies, and there is something about their music that manifests Winnipeg and the prairies so beautifully. Their music somehow makes me feel nostalgic and melancholy for cold slow moving Winnipeg winters.

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I have been listening to their music all afternoon on their bandcamp page, sitting in a cafe in Toronto, watching the rain. I love their music—but I think I love it most on a rainy day, or in the cold heart of Winnipeg winter.

A few of my favorites from their discography:

  1. Late Morning, from their 2011 release
  2. Hospital Walls, also from their 2011 release
  3. The Northern Wind, from their 2013 release
  4. Little Brittle Bones, also from the 2013 release
  5. Sunday Morning, from their 2014 release
  6. Late to the Party, from their 2016 release
  7. East Flat, also from their 2016 release

*If you like the Weakerthans, Elliot Smith, or Neutral Milk Hotel especially, you should definitely give them a listen here:

“Songs about long winters and endless summers, filtered through a dusty car window. Electric guitars and delicate harmonies clash above orchestral swells. The quiet moments threaten to birth chaos as songs sweep from hushed voices to dissonant noise like a prairie storm.”


Surrealist Drawing Game: Exquisite Corpse

EC (1)

Exquisite Corpse is a drawing game that the Surrealists played frequently to produce collaborative drawings and images; this version was made up in the 1920s in Paris by the surrealists Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. The name, “cadavre exquis” in French, was extracted from “le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine), a phrase mentioned during one of the early attempts at playing the game.

To play:


  1. Fold a piece of paper horizontally into three sections, or one fold for each person playing the game. I find the game works best with three people.
  2. Draw a design, landscape, figure, words, or whatever appears from your imagination in the top section and leave a few lines at the edge of the next fold, so that the next person has a few lines to pick up and continue drawing from. Don’t think too much about what to draw, just enjoy the freedom!
  3. Alternatively, you could agree on a set of rules for your drawings, or set a theme, or make it clear the sections should produce a figure; with the top being the head and shoulders, the middle the torso, and the bottom the legs, etc—but it is also really fun just to try it with no rules!
  4. Make sure no one spies on what you are drawing, and do not spy on the other participants! You might have to come up with a makeshift barrier to avoid this temptation (big books held up by bookends works, or laptops with the screen up and turned off).
  5. Fold your drawing under so as to make sure it is hidden (except for the few lines you made at the edges of the fold), pass the paper to the next person, and you will all repeat the step.
  6. Once everyone has added their section to all of the papers passed around, reveal each page one at a time, and be prepared to laugh and be amazed by the weirdos you are friends with. 


This drawing game produces silly but often surprisingly affecting and clever drawings, and it can inspire other creative projects and ideas.

I highly recommend playing this with friends or family during your next arts and crafts night.

* The above Exquisite Corpse was made several years ago with two of my friends; a freaky thing happened and my good friend and I ended up both drawing a bird holding a heart in its mouth, in a very similar position—to be fair, we were going through a phase of drawing many birds, but it was still odd.