Louisa Karapidaki’s interview reprint on the Artviews website, titled “Louisa Karapidaki: The art of artist’s books”
What are artist’s books, really? Is the term faithfully translated into Greek as “visual art books”? Are their rarity, antiquity and ornate cover appreciated by the book-loving and art-loving public? What is their artistic value? Are they in demand at auction?
So we asked art historian-archaeologist and independent exhibition curator, Louisa Karapidaki, to tell us more about them.
Interview with Zeta Tzioti
An artist’s book is a work of visual art and a collectible item, where the artist is its exclusive creator
— Ms. Karapidaki, what is an artist’s book?
— An artist’s book is a work of visual art and a collectible object, where the artist is its exclusive creator – contrary to an art book, a picture book, a bibliophile publication or an artistic book, where the creators can be many people of different specialties, such as the artist, the author, the poet, the bookbinder, the graphic designer, the printer, etc.
— Would you like to tell us more about its history?
— It is an art category, an autonomous genre, another form of artistic expression and visual experimentation, such as performance art, visual installations, mail-art.
Artist’s books emerged as a pioneering movement in Europe and America as early as the 1960s. One of the first examples of this art was the Fluxus creations of the 60s and 70s.
One of the best known books is Water Yam, by the American George Brecht (1926-2008), published in 1963. It was a box book, containing hundreds of small typewritten cards, mostly in cryptic writing, and from it a whole series was created, the “fluxbox”, “fluxscores”, “fluxkit”.
In the 1970s, the German artist Wolf Vostell presented a series of box books with three-dimensional content, Vostell i Aabenraa, which made a big splash, and then there was a boom in the creation of art books around the world.
— Could we describe them as a multifaceted and multidimensional art form?
— Exactly. These books are a genre of art that is accessible to the public in many ways, since they enable multiple codes of communication to develop between the creator and the viewer on the one hand, and on the other, a wide audience can acquire original works of art.
Like all works of art, artist’s books reflect the visual artist’s idea, messages, quests, mental world, aesthetics and beliefs.
— But does the Greek translation transmit the exact meaning?
— Here we will keep the English term artist’s books to distinguish them from the other types of artistic books (book of artists, collector’s book…), since in Greek there is still no proper term, but sometimes they are also called visual art books.
These are art objects that have retained the communicative power of the book and the glamour that the book exerts on people. Artists are inspired by the idea that books are an inexhaustible source of culture and knowledge, are synonymous with human culture, keep memory alive and, above all, that each person has a special familiarity with them.
They are books – works of art that are not subject to the rules of a book, i.e. the rules of typography, font, margins, shape, paper, the flow of a text. An art book can be flipped through, it can be opened in a spread, but it can also be a box or even contain no writing at all.
At this point I am quoting part of the catalogue of the exhibition Black in white, which I curated in the premises of the Historical Archive of Piraeus Bank with visual books, in the context of (Athens Book Capital City 2018) : “Unique works of applied art, handmade books by artists… Bound books; leporellos; books with painting, engraving or photography works; made of rare papers, in conventional or unconventional form; books-sculptures are presented with their polymorphic artistic expressions while maintaining their narrative power.”
— When do we consider a book a work of art?
— A book can be considered a “work of art” when it contains original artwork or when it has been illustrated by an artist and published signed and numbered.
For example, “The Pagoni” with the woodcuts by Yannis Kefallinos on texts by Zacharias Papantoniou, published in 1946; the books with engravings by Takis Katsoulidis and Yannis Psychopaidis; the books with embedded artwork by Alekos Fassianos; the artwork by Christos Santamouris; the illustrated books by Alexis Kiritsopoulos; also the giant work of Stephanos Zannis on the Homer poetry, which contains only original works with free thematic illustrations, after Zannis’ long engagement (since 1992) with “deep learning of Homer’s language and immersion in the stories and commentaries of ancient and modern scholars”.
All these books followed the logic of the classic book with its pages and the imaginary synergy between author and artist etc.
Concerning an artist’s book, it must be clarified that this is something completely different. This is a book-piece of art, an original creation of artists, who have retained the communicative power of the book. For example, the artist’s books of Dimitris Kontos, Alexis Akrithakis, George Hadjimichalis, Kirillos Sarris, Yannis Michaelides, Kostas Tsolis, Zoe Keramea, Peggy Kliafa, Giorgos Tserionis, Pelagia Kyriazi, as well as the work of the Cypriot artists, Maria Louizidou, Vassia Vanezi, etc.
— With their paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, rare notes, the artist’s books combine visual expression with narrative power in contemporary art. This kind of work is included in the exhibitions and collections of major contemporary art museums and it is arousing the interest of artists in the fields of painting, sculpture and installation. What is your own opinion?
— In museums, artist’s books have the place of a regular work of art. The Guggenheim Museum in Venice, for example: among the permanent collection, Duchamp’s iconic and pioneering book is on display. The Beaubour Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris has occasionally exhibited artists’ books in its permanent collections, for example those of the Fluxus movement. There was also the temporary exhibition “Livres d’artises” in 1985 with exhibits exclusively of this type of book.
— Tell us about the exhibitions of rare artists books in Greece.
— In Greece, apart from an exhibition at an older Art Athens, there have been periodic exhibitions in galleries: for example, the exhibition at the Technoplace “Preadexhibition”, which I curated in 2015; “Photolio & Typikon” in the premises of the printing house, where part of the exhibits were visual art books; as well as the exhibition “The library show” at the Eleftheria Tselios Gallery in 2017 with over 60 artists’ books, works by Greek and foreign artists.
In 2018, notable exhibitions were organized in museums in the framework of the events for “Athens, World Book Capital”, such as the emblematic exhibition “Greek Artists and the Book 1910-1967 and the Book as a Work of Art” at the Athens Municipal Gallery, curated by Denis Zacharopoulos, Artistic Advisor of the Gallery, Museums and Collections of the Municipality of Athens.
Recently, here has been a boom in the creation of visual art books, even art book fairs are organized, aiming at promoting visual art books.
— These books as auction items of big houses…
— All kinds of books related to art appear at auctions: rare and numbered art editions, editions with works of art in tirage limité, i.e. few copies, bibliophile editions, editions of particular interest in design, paper, etc. and very often artist’s books, which are treated economically as works of art.
For example, at the Drouot Paris auction house, they are often shown unique artist’s books. In 2016 an auction was organised only with books illustrated by artists and artist’s books.
— Collections of rare books. What characteristics make this kind of collections unique?
— There are many collections of various rare books: illustrated manuscripts, bibliophile editions, special editions, art books, editions with numbered engravings, handmade books, visual art books, etc. The uniqueness lies mainly in their rarity, their antiquity, whether they contain original artwork or numbered engravings, whether they are handmade, whether they have an elaborate cover in various materials, leather, fabric, metal, etc., or because of their artistic value, such as visual art books, which are unique or of a small number of copies.
— You have dealt with arranging such collections. What do you consider to be a proper way of sorting them?
— There was only one time when I had to sort a collection of art books: when I curated the exhibition “91 books with artworks by Alekos Fassianos” from the collections of the H. & S. Moshandreou Gallery of Contemporary Art at the Athens City Gallery in 2016. Countless attempts of classification followed: e.g. alphabetically by author’s name, according to the production workshop, according to the material, lithographs, woodcuts, engravings, collages, etc. I ended up with the chronological classification, since they were all works by a single artist.
— Alekos Fassianos, Konstantinos Xenakis, Giannis Psychopaidis: all three are very important. What kind of books have they illustrated? What about Zoe Keramea’s work?
— Yannis Psychopaidis is one of the Greek artists who have a large number of art books in their creative output. Besides illustrating many literary and poetic works published in special limited editions, Psychopaidis is also inspired by the structure of leporello, which offer an extended narrative to develop illustrations of his favourite themes. On these surfaces, he incorporates in their pictorial interventions reflections, opinions, questionings and other associations of his critical thinking on social and political issues. The characteristics of his mannerist painting remain unchanged: the organized realistic references of a fragmentary rendering suggest a peculiar spirituality with meditative implications.
Konstantinos Xenakis has been creating «artist’s book» since the 80s. On their pages, his works contain “ready images”, pre-existing images, “objets trouvés”, ready-made objects. These are combined with his own iconographic interventions – sketches, writings, symbols – and they are transformed into prominent sculptural compositions, having kept the thematic conceptual charge.
In his works, Xenakis often uses the iconographic power of familiar typographic symbols to penetrate the viewer’s subconscious and communicate the socio-political messages that concern him.
Following the long tradition of bibliophile books in France, Alekos Fassianos has designed a large number of books and he has over 150 titles in his creative output.
He collaborated with some of the greatest poets and writers of Greek and world literature, as well as with famous lithography and engraving workshops. His works also include monographs. His books include hundreds of his works, signed and numbered by the same artist: they are original paintings, drawings, estampes, pochoir, linocuts, collages, engravings (lithographs, silkscreens, painted silkscreens, etchings, pointes-sèches, linoleum engravings, papercuts or perforations, and augmented with the art of silkscreen printing and other mixed techniques.
A Greek artist who has been living in New York for thirty years, Zoe Keramea has created several artist’s book series.
Keramea traces in pencil or interferes with paper to create perforated surfaces. She creates the morphological adventures of geometric shapes in leporello books. In her schematized writing, the minimum is successively mutated and transformed into a mega. In the path of painterly pictorial metamorphosis, the floating shapes are rendered with precision. Despite their absolutely minimalist character, they are projected masterfully by the skillful combination of line and perspective through the chromatic contrast of the traced and blank surface of the paper.
Many other contemporary Greek artists have created visual art books, such as Markos Kampanis, Manolis Romantzis, Kostas Vittis, Maria Stamati, Manolis Anastasakos, Thodoris Lalos, Dimitris Efeoglou, Iphigenia Sdoukou, Eleni Kriki, Giorgos Giotsas, Venia Dimitrakopoulou etc.
Vassia Vanezi has organized solo exhibitions of visual art books and has created a large number of books: from handmade paper made of seeds and plant fibres and fabric. The material reference to the morphological particularities of her works is particularly strong, but also very symbolic. She is writing: «…they are books or objects – books where in its final appearance, the artist has a high degree of control and the book is intended as a work of art in its own right… these books are made for a variety of reasons.
They have helped to make art accessible to people outside the formal contexts of galleries or museums.»
They are often created to make art that is interactive, portable, mobile and easy to share… They challenge the conventional form of books and become sculptural objects themselves. They have helped to make art accessible to people outside the formal contexts of galleries or museums.»
In her monograph “Livres d’artistes, l’invention d’un genre: 1960-1980”, professor of art philosophy at the Sorbonne and curator (1979-1994) of the visual art book collection of the National Library of France, Anne Mœglin-Delcroix states that the visual art book contrasts with the bibliophile tradition, where books were collector’s editions of art.»
When asked what an artist’s book is, the curator of the fabulous exhibition “Unrestricted: an Exploration of Artist Books” at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center de Washington, Jan Dove said : “…it’s a question that needs to be answered, let’s say art books is a work of art but is it a book?”