Feminism and the Artist’s Book

For my final blog post, I’d like to bring in conversation Joanna Drucker’s Testament of Women, and Kara Walker’s Freedom: A Fable. These two artists’ books highlight the historically grounded exclusion of women. First, I’d like to give some context about the authors of these artist’s books.

Both female artists have varied experiences that drive their work. Kara Walker (b. 1969), a California native, moved to the South during adolescence. Her works often examine issues of gender, race, power, and history. Walker was also the youngest recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Award, has exhibited her work all over the world. The other artist, Johanna Drucker (b. 1952), is the inagural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. She is known for her work as a critic, poet, and book artist. Both artists examine gender and history in different ways.

Freedom: A Fable is an illustrated artist’s book that uses pop-ups and silhouettes to convey the African American female experience. Its layout is reminiscent of a children’s book, first, with its cover and codex structure, and simple text. Yet, we learn how complex and intricate each pop-up is, and the emotionally powerful story of a female slave’s challenges after emancipation.

Walker engages with the intersectionalities of feminism, including not only gender, but race. She uses the 18th-century black silhuoette forms that remind us of historical stereotyped representations of African Americans in minstrel shows and literature. Most of Walker’s silhouette art are typically installations that cover entire walls. Freedom lets the viewer interact with these images on a very personal, intimate level.

In contrast, Drucker’s Testament was written in response to Vanessa Och’s Sarah Laughed (a book of essays that retell and break traditional biblical tales to highlight women’s experiences) (Drucker, 2008). The stories of biblical women – Eve, Sarah, Miriam, are retold. By breaking their biblical and patriarchal origins, their lives are brought to the forefront. Drucker challenges the original content and emphasizes their personal experience, recasting this as a feminist book.

Both Walker and Drucker provide important testimony to the feminist realm of artist’s books in different ways. Freedom digs deep into the itnersectionality of race, whereas Drucker paints a picture to Western world’s historical view of gender. Their differing aesthetics are also important to consider. Walker’s two-tone color scheme, traditional page layout (image-text), interrupted by complex and carefully cut pop-ups keep the reader engaged. On the other hand, Drucker’s crude representations of biblical women, leading, diverse typography and layout, are also visually interesting and enliven the page. These female artists challenge the traditional codex in different structural, typographical, and material-based ways that I think, can both be appreciated.


Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, 1997
Bound volume of offset lithographs and five laser-cut, pop-up silhouettes on woven paper, 9 3/8 x 8 3/8 in.


Testament of Women: A New Translation To & From the Texts, 2006
Printed Letterpress, Linoleum cuts, 40 pgs, 
13 1/4 x 10 in.


Works Cited:

Drucker, Johanna. 2008. “Resident Artist (Guest): Testament Of Women.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, 15, Indiana Press. Spring 2008, pp. 202-211.


Photography in the Book Form: Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) was not about making beautiful photographs. It’s a square, thin, paperback book with 26 black-and-white photographs of gas stations along Route 66 during car rides between L.A. and his hometown, Oklahoma City. Similarly, in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), it’s a flat accordian pamphlet with a 25-foot-long Birdseye viewpoint of the two-mile strip. So, how did Ruscha’s books influence art and photography over the last fifty years? Why is he one of the central figures in photography from the late 20th century? How does his work successfully engage with the book form? These are questions I would like to explore further.

03-ruscha-mock-up-for-every-building-sunset-strip-1966_custom-7b11775b1eed7fd8c0dbc5fb32859b8f55477d17-s40-c85Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

Rusha’s photographs fell somewhere in between the spectrum of early California Pop Art and Conceptual art. They weren’t about emotional engagement. They were simply photographs of  “everyday subject matter presented in an uninflexed, repetitive manner” (Walker, 2012). The photography, layout, and typography all make a book like Twentysix Gasoline Stations a meaningful contribution to artist’s books of the twentieth century (Walker 2012). In the case of Twentysix, the size of the book is small in itself, as most of Rusha’s books were. The text is industrial looking, and the layout very simplistic with photographs and very little text, if at all. Twentysix’s very “Huh?” quality is what makes it engaging. We become intrigued by the book’s mundane, inconsequential quality. Yet, it appears that the artist, Ruscha, saw something in the landscape, the design, and the painting-like quality of the image, to capture it. In this YouTube video, Ruscha, he says how the white man now owned these gas stations that were previously Native Americans’ land. The images that he documented were his own “cultural curiousities”. (TateShots, 2013). Ruscha did not take pictures just for the sake of taking them. The subjects of his photographs were reality, visible or hidden. These photographs are emblematic of the period, but are also archival, reminants of the past that we can look to today, and there are many contemporary books influenced by them (See: Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, Twentynine Palms). 

Ruscha’s “anti-art” aesthetic and realism were and continue to be influential in the field of photography. His understated covers, simple typography, and seemingly ordinary subject matter were a new method of making books and making art. The books of Ed Ruscha are “Neither an art book…nor a book on art” but “a work on [their own]” and a “fragile vehicle for a weighty load of hopes and ideals” (Klima, 1998).

2004.466_ruscha_imageprimacy_v1_740Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962)

2004.461_ruscha_imageprimacy_740Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962)


Photographs from http://whitney.org/Collection/EdwardRuscha

Putting meaning into Contemporary Livre d’Artiste

I’ve decided to contrast two books, The WunderCabinet and Wordswordswords to demonstrate how they either align or go against Zweig and Drucker’s criteria.

I think The WunderCabinet: The Curious Worlds of Barbara Hodgson and Claudia Cohen (Heavenly Monkey Editions, 2011) would fit Drucker’s criteria as a “creative use of the book format.” The WunderCabinet is Hodgson and Cohen’s idea of what 16th-to-18th century wonder cabinet collection of natural and manmade objects. It stretches beyond the pages of a more “conventional” Livre d’Artiste, and is presented instead as an inlaid wooden box. Inside each compartment is a unique and delicate object, such as a shark’s tooth, fossilized coral and glass eyeball. It’s divided into two parts, Naturalia and Artificialia and engages the viewer in a very different way, causing them to carefully and curiously examine each artifact that was handpicked or hand drawn.


Zweig’s critique asks us to acknowledge whether the book “present[s] a new way of thinking”. Because of its one-of-a-kind detail, extraordinary bookbinding, and concept as a modern Renaissance wonder cabinet, I think it pushes our curiosities as an artist’s book. It embraces nostalgia and a sense of the old world in a new, tangible way. For those who happen to have access to the thirty copies in the series, the tactile quality to the book allows you to directly interact with the materials, unlike a typical experience in a museum. However, my one critique would be that the fragileness and limited accessibility does create a barrier to this particular artist’s book, which isn’t uncommon among Livre d’Artiste books.

IMG_3781 IMG_3778

For many in the course, Wordswordswords by Edwin Schlossberg (Universal Limited Art Edition, 1068) seems to be a favorite from Book sets 5 & 6. Yet, personally, I wouldn’t bring it with me on a desert island, and I don’t think Zweig would either. I can appreciate the role that the physical materials have, and the immediate tangible experience that unfolds, but to me, it lacks the curiosity and unique experience that The WunderCabinet gives viewers. I think the tangibility and interaction between book and viewer gave more meaning for me with Hodgson and Cohen’s work than it did for turning the pages of Edwin Schlossberg’s Wordswordswords. Yet, I think Drucker would find its structure and materials intriguing. It’s true – I will give it credit for bringing diversity in material, and it looks interesting.


Personally, I find that Wordswordswords has a more “art” feel than it does as a book. While the WunderCabinet certainly doesn’t have a deep underlying message of political and social change, it does teach us something about scientific reasoning and neo-Renaissance ideas in a physical, engaging way.

Le Livre d’Artiste: Abstract Illustration and Text

From an early age, I was familiar with one of Matisse’s prints from Jazz, “La Chute d’Icare” (The Fall of Icarus). It hung there, framed, in the blue-wallpapered dining room of one of my parent’s friends. I was always intrigued by its dynamic presence. As a child, I only saw a human shadow, bursts of yellow with a blue sky. After learning more about Le Livere D’Artiste, I can understand this print in a new way.  Book Set 4, Matisse’s Jazz (1945) intrigued me. I had never seen the entire book of prints before. The rigid lines, highly saturated colors, the fluid text, all combined with cutouts, make for an elaborate and interesting artist’s book. Matisse’s handwritten cursive text is married with the images. They’re complimentary to one another, and the words become part of the expression of art. Turn on some Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, or Dizzy Gillespie, and you’ll notice that Matisse’s colors and shapes convey the very essence of jazz music with a particular visual rhythm. There is a decorative relationship between text and image, and has particular significance because it was Matisse’s own writing.


I was also fascinated by À Toute Épreuve (1958), with text by the French Poet Paul Éluard and original woodblock illustrations by Spanish surrealist, Joan Miró. Carefully placed and arranged, the illustrations and text have a strong visual interaction. It’s alive and engaging, but also a little chaotic. The playful colors are illustrations allude to children’s drawing, but with extreme technical effort by the illustrator. Miró, solicited by the publisher Cramer, cut more than 230 woodblocks over eleven years to complete the project. Miró used traditional woodcut, as well as a technique called collotype, which combines natural and manufactured materials, creating texture to the abstract shapes. Early on in the project, Miró said,

“…I have made some trials which have allowed me to see what it was to make a book and not merely to illustrate it. Illustration is always a secondary matter. The important thing is that a book have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble.”

d5272532lBoth books discussed are exemplary of the Livre d’Artiste movement. Both also share an intriguing relationship between text and abstract illustration. While one was written and illustrated by the same artist, Cramer’s text combines an acclaimed artist’s interpretation of a well-known poet’s text, and marries the two together. Both have very different feels to them, but they balance the text in their own distinct way.


I Don’t Buy Your Books to Read: Fine Printing In Book Sets 2&3

Cheaply bound with pulp paper, or weighty and elaborate? Text and image, or image and text?

In the purest sense, Fine Printing is preserving and celebrating the relationship between Art and the book. William Morris was a catalyst in this quest, and went against the grain of utilitarianism and mechanization in the Western World. His attention to detail and adherence to quality over quantity with new technology was groundbreaking at the end of the 19th century. For Morris, Fine Printing was like a great love story. The typeface and overall aesthetic are liberating. When text meets the page, freedom, morality, and an iconic nature come to life. But, Is it inherently Fine Printing if its copyright by Morris himself? Do all the elements of design, page layout, and meaning add up? And, as Russem discovers, does text matter anyway? Does Fine Printing have anything more than an aesthetic value?

Open to the title page of Kelmscott Press’ edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from Book Set 2. Its aesthetic stays true to Betty Warde’s glass wine goblet. Burne-Jones, the illustrator wrote, “If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.” (Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 1894). This Chaucer edition was Morris’ culminating work, and a break-through in book design. Morris’ influence of medieval scholarship and revival of the handicraft are evident in its ornate initials and borders. The publication shows a combination of modern printing techniques with a traditionalist influence. The woodcut illustrations were by Edward Burne-Jones, a key figure in the “Pre-Raphaelite” school. The title page spread makes a statement, with its intricate and over the top wood print illustrations and gothic neo-black typeface.

Morris' Chaucer Title Pg

Now, if we think about Michael Russem’s limited edition of a short story, “Sleep,” by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (Book Set 3) with etchings by John Goodman, do we think of it as Fine Printing, too? A different era, a different aesthetic. But the handmade paper, typography, and binding – it has all the elements that make it Morris-esque. It’s just less arts and craftsy. I don’t think being a big, heavy book with ornate details makes it Fine Printing. Rather, it’s the process behind the details.

Russem Sleep Etching
An etching by John Goodman from Russem’s 2004 edition of Sleep.


The video below is a 1940s example of what Morris’ hand press would have looked like. I think it’s an interesting commentary and wonderful to see the process of what Morris constituted as Fine Printing.

Book Set #1: New Kreüterbuch

I have selected New Kreuterbuch (1543) or The New Herbal by Leonard Fuchs. I was most intrigued by its detail, content, and influence on later botanical literature. Its shift in approach, influenced by the scientific revolution, is intriguing.

The author, Fuchs, was a German physician, humanist and botanist. The first edition of New Kreuterbuch was first published in Latin, in 1542, and has approximately 500 plant-portraits drawn from observation in Fuchs’s garden at Tübingen by Albert Meyer.  These drawings were advancements in the realm of botanical literature. Although drawings had been used before (i.e. Herbarius Latinus), Fuch’s book transformed the page with carved relief woodblock carvings. The visual collaboration we see in New Kreuterbuch shows added technical delicacy and complexity alongside text. These medicinal plants come to life in the woodblock drawings, and the in-depth descriptions of the 400 German and 100 foreign plants is impressive. From the thin lines, to the figures’ three-dimensional nature, they certainly have a more scientific quality, more so than we see in the more stylized, thickly drawn plants in Herbarius Latinus. 

The detailed drawings were transferred to woodblocks by Heinrich Füllmaurer, and cut into wood by Viet Rudolph Speckle. Portraits of all three artists are included in the work. This was groundbreaking. Typically, the author would feature himself, but not other contributors. New Kreuterbuch does not include biographical information about the illustrators and carver, but it does give faces to the hands behind the imagery.


Like many books of its kind, New Kreuterbuch was used for medicinal purposes. Each page lists which ailments the plant cures. This was medicine. Herbal remedies. In our current scientific world, how would we portray our remedies in book form? Can you imagine, woodblocks of mass-produced pills? It’s interesting to look at the context of this literature, and how it is represented in book form, especially in a society that does not value medicinal herbal remedies as highly esteemed as it did centuries before.