Official website of the Foundation Juan March
Un Coup de Livres

THE BOOK AS A WORK OF ART*

The "artist’s book" is not an art book.
The "artist’s book" is not a book about art.
The "artist’s book" is a work of art.

June 18, 2010 - October 31, 2010

Stéphane Mallarmé Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Poèm (Detail: portada). Paris: Gallimard, 1914. © Bettina Brach.

The choice of the title Un coup de livres (A Throw of Books) for this exhibition is a homage to Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and to his book —and flagship work— Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Written in 1897, shortly before his death, the book was published in París that same year in the journal Cosmopolis. But it was only in 1914 that it was published by the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) in the form we know today. Stéphane Mallarmé conceived a book—"the" book—as a place in which poetic and visual spaces were inseparable.

We have arrived at the very heart of our subject, that is, the book in the strictest sense of the term: the book not as a receptacle for a text or for a series of images, or indeed for both, but as a space in its own right. Bridging the gap created in the art world by the artists of the avant-garde movements of the 1960s, publications of all kinds would play a predominant role in artistic creation, as well as in the diffusion of ideas and works. From the pamphlet to the multiple, publishing enabled the creators of works or actions that were often ephemeral and ill defined by art historians to leave their mark on art history.

Happenings, performances, concerts, films, installations, mailings, artists’ journals, and records would revolutionize the art system of the period.

Artists who wanted to eschew the art market and traditional structures began to organize their own events and to establish a communication network, as well as to find places in which to present their multiform projects.

It was within this new structure that the "artist’s book" was born and developed rapidly. The book was no longer a support for information, drawings, reproductions, or photos. The visual artist was no longer the illustrator of a book, he no longer shared it with its author, a poet or writer —he became the fully- fledged creator of the book. The book became a work of art in the same way as a sculpture, a painting, or an engraving.

Appearing as they did in the ideological context of the 1960s, artists’ books were the democratic artistic product par excellence. Thanks to the simple form and modest price of these publications, artists considered that they could not only conquer a market but, above all, give the widest audience possible the opportunity to encounter and become familiar with contemporary art. The comprehensive variety of "artists’ books" produced provides a reflection of all the artistic tendencies and styles developed since the end of the 1950s. And the vast abundance of contemporary creation is to be found in the immense library / museum created during this period. Some artists create their books and often publish them themselves; others even become publishers and bring out the works of their friends. Others still become booksellers and create places for the distribution of books. An international communication and exchange network is established in this way, by reason of this object, which can be easily circulated in the post.

Libro con elementos pop-up Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol’s Index (Detail: Book with pop-up elements). New York York: Random House, 1976. © Bettina Brach.

The interior aspect as much as the conceptual content of the "artist’s book" are as numerous as the forms adopted by contemporary art. The book has served as physical support for the ideas of conceptual artists, as a visual space for the minimalists and for certain painters and sculptors, and as narrative space for others. But it has also been the place of predilection for visual poets and for all kinds of other manipulators of the page and of writing.

The "artist’s book" is barely distinguishable from other books. We are here far removed from the luxurious bibliophile object, because luxury is not its prerogative and its value resides in its content. The "artist’s book" is generally of average format, of traditional appearance, and the papers and printing techniques employed are often unexceptional. However, these works are undoubtedly a discovery for their readers. There is no longer a story to be recounted, but a work of art that develops in space and time.

While not conceived as a didactic object, the "artist’s book," in many cases, enables us to understand the artist’s oeuvre. In fact, as the contents of the book unfold, the reader can follow the logic of an artist’s work step by step. Concept takes priority over matter. Clear ideas are set out unequivocally and hardly have need of artifice.

"Artists’ books" are conceived in parallel within the totality of a visual artist’s oeuvre, creating a permanent dialogue between the book and other creative forms. We should consider them as spaces of exhibition, of reflection, which allow us a privileged perception of the process of creation.

The book has become an original work rather than an ephemeral exhibition object of which, in the majority of cases, only reproductions remain.

*Extracted from the Introduction, by Guy Schraenen in the catalogue

Christian Boltanski, Livres (Detail: Books, ephemera, record). París: AFAA; Paris: Jennifer Flay (ed.); Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König; Frankfurt am Main: Portikus. © Bettina Brach.