I recently sat down with my mentor and fellow art librarian, Suzanne Rackover, to ask her some questions about artists’ books and book art – two genres of art that many are not even aware of. The Banff Centre’s Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives boasts an impressive collection of both genres, which I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with. Here’s a snippet from our conversation:
What is an artist’s book exactly?
If you asked 10 people this question you would get 10 different answers. Artists’ books usually, but not always, take the form of a book and incorporate text, photos, prints, graphics, and many other things. Artists’ books are often inexpensive and made in larger editions than book art. Some people even suggest that to be an artists’ book the edition size has to be at least 100 copies. A general definition that I work with is that if an artist says the book is an artist’s book then it’s an artists’ book!
So then what is book art?
Book art is more about the craft of book-making. Often book art will include handmade papers, special bindings, hand printing, complex construction, and perhaps complicated cut-outs. Book art is also often limited to a smaller edition, something in the ballpark of 10 copies or less.
How would you describe the library’s artists’ books collection?
The collection is so diverse that it’s really hard to sum it up in a few words. It is a collection that was built by several people who have a passion for artists’ books and book art. It includes many rare and unique books and artists’ publications created by artists from Canada and abroad. In addition to traditional book formats, the collection also includes multiples, unbound/open works, zines, artists’ magazines, photo works, mail art, sculptural objects and ephemera.
From the perspective of an art collector, are artists’ books and book art sound investments?
Some artists’ books have tremendous value, for example, a mint condition TwentySix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha can sell for several thousand dollars (our library’s copy is not worth anywhere near that) where others will likely not be worth any more than their original selling price. Much like buying art when purchasing artists’ books and book art you should buy what you like and buy what you can afford. The average price for an artists’ book is about twenty dollars and book art ranges anywhere from several hundred to several thousands dollars. Maybe the book you have will be worth something someday, or maybe it will simply be part of your personal collection that you cherish and enjoy. If you are concerned with value though, consider the condition of an item, you always want to buy an item in the best condition that you can afford.
What is your preferred artist book or piece of book art, and why?
It’s really hard to choose. I have a few favourite items in the collection. One is Yoko Ono’s Box of Smile, which is neither an artists’ book nor book art, it’s what would be considered a multiple. It’s a small black plastic box with a surprise inside, definitely worth taking a look at – it will make you smile! A book artist whose work I really enjoy is Newfoundland-based Tara Bryan, her whimsical book constructions show how complex book art can be; we have several of her works in our collection.
I also really like S.M.S. (currently on view in the library display cabinets) which is a collection of books and objects from some of the best-known 20th century artists representing many disciplines. People such Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg have all contributed to S.M.S.
If you have any questions about the Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives’ artists’ books or book art collection you can contact art librarian Suzanne Rackover at firstname.lastname@example.org