Artists Books at the Kohler Art Library: A Laboratory for Learning

The exhibit Artists’ Books: Highlights from the Kohler Art Library is an opportunity to bring to a wider public’s attention a remarkable collection of library materials. The Kohler Art Library has been acquiring artists’ books since the early 1970s and there are now over 650 titles in the collection. Considered one of the finest and largest repositories of its kind in the country, the Kohler’s collection includes a broad range of creative work from over 150 presses and artists located around the world. Not surprisingly, artists’ books by Wisconsin artists make up a strong component of the collection. The books on display in this exhibit space and at the three additional venues (Memorial Library lobby and 2nd floor west; and the Kohler Art Library) are a delightful sampling of the many wonderful books that comprise these special library holdings.

The collection had its beginnings under the inspiring leadership of former Kohler Art Library director William C. Bunce who envisioned it as a teaching collection, a kind of hands-on laboratory for the book arts. This was about the time that Emeritus Professor Walter Hamady started teaching book arts in the Art Department. The growing collection of artists’ books began forming a body of information on typography, papermaking, graphics, and design that directly related to the book arts classes. As a visiting artist teaching, among other printmaking courses, bookmaking during this period, Claire Van Vliet would later establish a long-term relationship with the library and especially inscribe many of the books purchased by the Kohler from her Janus Press.

Bill Bunce’s spectacular collection efforts over a thirty-year period have resulted in an important educational tool that directly supports the teaching and research mission on campus. Along with many other studio instructors, Professor Jim Escalante, chair of the Art Department, and Tracy Honn, director of the Silver Buckle Press, have been strong advocates of this laboratory for learning by exposing their students to the structure and content of artists’ books. Because of the high quality of the collection and the hands-on approach promoted by the library, the books have been an unexpected source for discovery by students from institutions around the state. And exploration of the collection by the general public is greatly encouraged.

Recently, the Kohler Art Library became the fortunate recipient of a generous bequest to support the artists’ book collection. The Leonora G. Bernstein Artists’ Book Endowment has been established for the acquisition, support and promotion of artists’ books and related materials. The named endowment will help insure the care and growth of the artists’ book collection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upcoming plans include efforts to promote and increase this endowment by providing an opportunity for those interested to donate additional gift funds and/or gifts-in-kind to the collection.

Libraries like the Kohler play a critical role in the life of artists’ books by preserving these special materials, making them available to the public and through educational programs, scholarly writing and exhibitions. Librarians have been among the vanguard in recognizing the importance of this genre , and through their efforts of stewardship have made significant contributions to our understanding of the form. On the near and future horizon are exciting initiatives to enrich the use of the collection such as the creation of digital projects and online exhibits, the acquisition of book arts archives, and the development of annual book arts programming. With the help of this generous endowment and its ability to attract additional gifts, we look toward a most promising future.

Lyn Korenic, director

Kohler Art Library.

What Are Artists’ Books? an Introduction

Artists working with the form of the book are quite consciously attempting to solicit for their own endeavors the kind of attention ordinarily paid by readers to a text. The memory of reading infuses our manipulations of even the most drastically altered variants of the conventional book.

– artist and critic Buzz Spector

Artists’ books are a hybrid form. Artists make them for all kinds of reasons, and with different intentions. Artists’ books may be rich and fancy, or they may look as common as supermarket circulars. There is no one look about them.

The simplest definition of artists’ books is: “books made by artists.” Though bordering on the tautological, this is a good working definition for a rich and complicated genre.

One of the reasons discussions of artists’ books begin with efforts of definition is that they are a subset of a medium: the book. Paintings don’t exist outside of art, but books do. All paintings are made by artists (arguably of varying degrees of talent and professionalism; trained elephants and schoolchildren notwithstanding). Defining what is meant by the term artists’ book is a necessary requirement for a form whose related (non-fine arts) members include TV Guides and the Bible.

It’s important not to confuse artists’ books with art books, or books about artists (monographs, for instance). In the last several decades many artists have made books, and used the book form as a primary tool of expression. This movement into a relatively unexplored medium or genre needed a new descriptor. Artists’ books is the result, and though its definition is not entirely fixed, it is the term most often used to describe recent or contemporary book productions by artists.

Thinking of the artists as being responsible for both the text and the physical realization of that text as a book may be a helpful construct in understanding the field. The difference between an artists’ book and a book illustrated by an artist has to do with intentionality and degrees of control. The illustrator may be one of several subordinate collaborators who is responsible for one aspect of the book’s realization. In general, the book artist conceptually controls the whole publication.

What is it about book form that attracts artists? The books’ physical nature is one inducement. Structurally, the book is a gathering of bound, usually printed, pages. The properties of portability, sequence, and containment are of particular interest to visual artists. Other allures of the book form that have been exploited by artists have to do with function: readers invest books with authority; their use is known, and their presence is ubiquitous.

The book artist Walter Hamady has said “The book as a structure is the Trojan Horse of art – it is not feared by average people.” Artists may use the book’s many characteristics invisibly – the final work may not look that different from an ordinary book, or exploit them more self-consciously – the finished book may intellectually slay the reader.

Exhibits of books present a problem since all books are best experienced privately, through handling, and over time. The items on display here are like film stills: they give a fixed idea of a time-based medium. Books are experiential. The need to handle books at our own pace is essential for a fuller understanding of their meaning. As part of its mission the Kohler Art Library makes its artists’ book collection available to patrons for just this kind of in-depth, hands-on investigation. The spirit of the show is to give you a taste of what may be had at the Kohler.

Tracy Honn, director

Silver Buckle Press