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Artist Books

-A small exhibit featuring four additional books from the Collection is currently on display in the Mortimer Rare Book Room in Neilson Library from January 23rd to May 13th 2017-


 The history of books is a long one complicated by social, economic, and political histories compounded with the aesthetic principals and structural demands of a book. Artists books emerged out of several veins of artistry and bibliophilic tendencies and brought forth hugely diverse products. Book objets, fine press, unique books, and livres d’artistes are merely a few categories that fall in the realm of, if not directly under, the artists book umbrella. Johanna Drucker argues that artists books are not generally found outside of the 20th and 21st centuries and really emerged around 1945 and developed rapidly thereafter. Hundreds of pages have been dedicated to discussing the purpose of artists books, their sustainability, their merits as works of art, their merits as books, their place within art movements, and if they deserve to be made at all. As their position within the art and book world is contentious, Drucker argues that the “final criteria for definition resides in the informed viewer, who has to determine the extent to which a book work makes integral use of the specific features of this form.” To do that one must establish what is vital to the physical and conceptual construction of the book itself. For instance, artists books can be studied in categories that focus on standout points: the book as object, the text as the focus, the paper and printing as focus, the way the form and subject push back against previously held conventions, and so forth. These questions, problems, and elements are best confronted with physical examples to study.

The Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room is home to an outstanding book arts collection which highlights modern fine press books in addition to more local productions with the McGrath Collection of Connecticut River Valley book arts. The Rare Book Room houses books that cover the breadth of the book arts with titles ranging from Henri Matisse’s Jazz and Pablo Picasso’s interpretation of Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu to Carolee Schneemann’s Vulvas Morphia and Xu Bing’s Dishu: cong dian dao dian or Book from the Ground.


Most recently the Mortimer Rare Book Room received a generous donation from Nancy Bloch of roughly 200 artists books. As noted by appraiser Priscilla Juvelis, distinctive books in the collection include Suzanne Moore’s Zero: Cypher of Infinity and Donald Glaister’s Brooklyn Bridge: A Love Song. The appraisal process is a necessity for all new acquisitions and relies on the appraiser’s knowledge and experience to determine the value of the items. The value may depend on the edition size, if the book is a deluxe edition or a standard release, if it is out of print and the length of time it has been out of print, and the popularity of the artist and binder. 


Bloch was first introduced to books as collectible items because her father was a book collector, and she would go with him to auctions in New York City. Initially attracted by the beautiful bindings she saw at a young age, she went on to study bookbinding at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride, CO. Maintaining her interest in fine binding and beautiful craftsmanship, Bloch began to collect books that caught her eye. Sometimes searching for a book but other times just happening upon one at a book sale or fair, the collection began to grow. From her collection it is clear that Bloch has the eye of a craftsperson: some books are delicate while others are bold, but all are created and constructed of beautiful works designed with intentional artistry.

The books selected for this project, a brief exploration of only four books, are stunning in both structure and content. The books were selected not because they adhere to a strict definition of what an artists book should be, but because they each explore what an artists book can be. Click on the titles at the top of each page to further explore the books.

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