Alternative Art Publishing:
Artists' Books (1960-1980)
by Stephen Perkins
What were the intentions of the artists who were
making books? Germano Celant sets forth their concerns in the
The years 1956-63 were however characterized
by the dialectic between hot 'informel' and cool 'informel' when
attention was transferred from the human and material elements
to the relationship between man and his media. This change in
emphasis coincided with the use of all existing media, not as
means but as ends in themselves. (1)
As artists began to explore the use of new communication
systems, the hegemony of painting and sculpture comes under attack,
and with it the status of the privileged object. These new media
initiated a profound questioning of the boundaries of the art
work and art practice, and fostered a period in which, natural,
biological, technological, linguistic, theoretical and philosophical
systems were explored through a constellation of intermedial
Many of these communication
systems were inherently duplicative, and this ability was seized
upon in the attack on the discrete, and original art object.
The concept of the 'multiple' promised an accessibility and 'democratization'
of the object. It was only natural that bookmaking would receive
the same scrutiny from artists exploring an expanded realm of
The artists' book
fit naturally into the intermedial activities of this period
and established itself as a site for a variety of practices:
a primary site for theoretical discussions, documentation of
conceptual projects, artist produced catalogues, in some cases
the artwork itself, and for others the site of collaboration.
The book the was the perfect container for these range of practices,
as well as being one of the most expedient and economical means
of disseminating new ideas within the ever increasing international
community of like-minded artists. By 1968, "...art produced
through the printed media, as opposed to being reproduced, increased
From the vantage
point of the '80s the eventual failure of artists' books to circumvent
the commodification inherent in the established dealer and gallery
system, even with the establishment of a parallel alternative
distribution system, was evident. Artists' books did not end
up lining the aisles in, "...supermarkets, drugstores and
airports..." (3), they were still only to be found in specialized
bookstores, many in limited editions, not all priced for the
person off the street, and for the large part still addressing
issues that would only be of concern to someone involved in the
affairs of the art world.
On a more positive
note what did occur was that artists realized the potential of
self publishing their work in book form. Books offered the artists:
- Total control over the end product and the subsequent experimentation
with typography, visual images, lay out and design.
- An accessible site for a range of concerns to be expressed
and communicated, be they personal, social, or political.
- An important link in the transmission and exchange of new
ideas across geographic and ideological distances, establishing
networks of artists with similar interests and concerns (conceptual
art, concrete poetry/visual poetry, Fluxus etc.).
- Direct communication to a potential audience not mediated
by critics, art historians or other guardians of official culture.
- A number of affordable printing technologies within which
projects could be realized depending upon the vagaries of personal
funding, available grants, and other potential sponsors.
1. Celant, Germano. "Book As Artwork:
1960-72." In Books by Artists, ed. Tim Guest & Germano
Celant. Toronto: Art Metropole, 1981. 85-104.
2. See above.
3. Lippard, Lucy. "The Artist's Book Goes Public."
In Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook. Joan
Lyons, ed. Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop, 1987.
Crane, Michael. "Exhibitions and Publications."
Correspondence Art. Michael Crane & Mary Stofflet, eds. San
Francisco: Contemporary Arts Press, 1984.
Four page overview of mail art publications from
early 1970s to late '70s. "Today's 'zines are reminiscent
of earlier dada publications and may have sprung from similar
concerns. The late 1960s and early 1970s, times of rapid widespread
social change, can be seen as parallel to the turmoil which followed
World War I. Responding to the latter was dada's cause: responding
to the former was the cause of many contemporary artists. The
periodical provided an excellent format and platform for both
responses. 'Zines have become a tradition in mail art."
Banana, Anna. About VILE. Vancouver (Canada): Banana Productions,
This book includes an article by Banana titled
"VILE History," which gives details about the seven
issues that were published between 1974-80. "VILE was inspired
by FILE Magazine's growing disdain for mail-art. It began at
Speedprint, a small instant print shop in San Francisco where
it became apparent to me that anyone could be a publisher."
Perneczky, Géza. A Háló. Budapest: A
Héttorony Könyvkiadó, 1991.
The only substantial study of artists' periodicals
between 1968-1988. This Hungarian book includes a brief English
summary titled, "The magazine network: The trends of alternative
art in the light of their periodicals 1968-1988." "The
marginal artistic trends that have sprung up in the past decades
from the various subcultures and from the alternative endeavors
that broke with the officially sanctioned art (for example mail
art or the popular branches of visual poetry or graphic art)
have rediscovered the genre of art periodicals for the connoisseur.
The publishers of these periodicals adopted the time-honored
editorial practice of non-profit papers and coupled it with non-professional
design and with a worldwide register of addresses to launch an
exchange network. Moreover, these new-born "samizdats"
took advantage of the inexpensive techniques of instant printing
and photocopying. As a result, the early seventies witnessed
the emergence of an international network of hundreds of such
alternative titles. The present volume has set itself the task
to collect and evaluate this Magazine Network."
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