But, what exactly is an "artist’s book?" What distinguishes a simple book from an illustrated book or a photo-book? How many types of publications, essentially different from one another, can be discussed within the context of the artist’s book? These questions and others like these often form part of presentations and texts accompanying exhibitions dedicated to the relationship between artists and books. And, truly, it is not easy to characterize, distinguish or "catalogue" the realities so diverse as those named "artists’ books," illustrated books, livres de peintres, photo-books, pieces of mail art, bibliophile editions, book-objects, pop-up books, publications of graphic art or artists’ magazines and catalogues. If we consider the materiality of these objects, materials unlike traditional paper, such as cardboard, wood, fabric, lead or plastic, the same problem of definition emerges. It persists when considering the objects’ forms and formats, which include circular and triangular books, accordion-shaped books, books that are transparent, packaged and boxed, etc., . . .


Domus aurea. Fascination Des Ruines, Anne y Patrick Poirier
Domus aurea. Fascination Des Ruines, Anne y Patrick Poirier.
Paris, Presses de la Connaissance, 1977.
Collection of the Fundación Juan March

The "artist’s book," in the literal sense, originated, according to experts Johanna Drucker, Guy Schraenen and Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, in early-20th-century publications such as Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, and in Italian and Russian Futurist experiments. Since then, the artist not only illustrates the book, but appropriates it, converting it into a work of art, therefore taking on the role of author or co-author. "Artists’ books since the 1960s are the result of what artists do with books, about books, concerning books, for or against books . . . The artist’s book is . . . one of the most essential and central aspects of 20th century art and its importance is based on the medium’s bearing witness to a new mode of thinking: that of the divisive climate of the 1970s, with its ideas of democratization and the public and universal diffusion of art . . . Artists’ books . . . are works of art that wanted to contravene the concept of market value, oriented on originality, small print runs, the artist’s signature and the art work’s institutional receptacles, the gallery and the museum. They are works that – much earlier than the new technologies – exposed the museum’s conventional systems of exhibition, registration and classification (of painting, sculpture, graphic works, etc.) to new challenges, because they were works that could not be traditionally catalogued." (G. Schraenen).

The conception of the book as a work of art modified books’ visual forms, transforming some into documents of actions and performances, and others into self referential objects, and yet others into spaces of conceptual experimentation, both verbal and material

Indeed, Mallarmé’s famous observation that everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book, experienced a true resurrection in the art world since the 1970s. In exhibitions and in museums’ collections, and, above all, in the activity of artists’ collectives closely involved with conceptual art, the book took on the same value as the traditional work of art. Finally, the book had broken with the limits of its function as a material support for text in order to "compete," as an "artistic object," with works of art.

The conception of the book as a work of art modified books’ visual forms, transforming some into documents of actions and performances, and others into self referential objects, and yet others into spaces of conceptual experimentation, both verbal and material. Such a transformation had obvious theoretical and institutional consequences. The artist’s book as a work of art – reproduced, copied and photocopied, in short, multiplied – accessible to all in any place, functioned as a "democratic multiple" (J. Drucker). This newly democratic notion opposed the traditional understanding of the work of art as a unique object, which was jealously guarded by institutions that defined what was (or wasn’t) art. Accordingly, and operating with an implacable logic, the artist’s book created space for forms less tied to the modern notion of artistic intention to join with it. These forms include the illustrated book, the photo-book, artists’ magazines and catalogues, multiples, objects and journals. They also may include a variety of visual works, from photocopied artists’ books to publications of the highest quality, from the unique work of art to the numbered print series, and even publications whose print run reaches several hundred.

Cent mille milliards de poèmes, Raymond Queneau
Cent mille milliards de poèmes, Raymond Queneau.
Paris, Gallimard, 1961
Julio Cortázar Library
Collection of the Fundación Juan March

Artists’ (Books and Other Publications), 1947-2013 showcases, therefore, a spectrum of initiatives concerning books and other publications of some 50 artists, designers, writers and poets, among them world-renowned names, as well as others less widely recognized, but no less important in the national and international artistic panorama.