Artists' Books, What Are They?

Betty Bright Book cover.jpeg

Artists' Books Definition 

Artists’ books fall under the overarching art category of Book Arts. Book Arts is a range of art practices typically conducted within a community of nonprofit arts organizations that first appeared in the mid-1970s. It includes papermaking, broadsides, bookbinding, and more.

According to Johanna Drucker in her book The Century of Artists' Books, artists' books must have, "some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book in order to succeed" (10). One definition of artists' books that sums up the basic idea of artists' books comes from Betty Bright in her book, No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America: 1960-1980, "Every aspect of the [artists’] book-from content to materials to format-must respond to the intent of the artist and cohere to a work that is set in motion with a reader’s touch” (3). 

This leads to one of the primary struggles with artists' books: where do artists' books belong and how should they be viewed? Betty Bright outlines this dilemma, “As art works they [artists' books] belong in museums and galleries; as books, they belong in libraries and book stores; as collectibles, they require both the privacy of reading and the public display of exhibitions” (xiv).

There is no one "right" solution for the display and use of artists' books. Artists' books occupy all of the spaces Bright lists in a variety of ways. Here at CSB+SJU, the Clemens Artists' Books Collection is available for in-library use. The artists' books are also displayed in rotating exhibits throughout the year.

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Categories of Artists' Books

Artists' books are generally broken up into three categories: fine press books, deluxe books, or book works. Of course, like all of Book Arts, there are exceptions, and some artists' books fall into more than one category.  

Most of the books in Duality: Artists' Books Exploring Multiple Sides are fine press books. Fine press books, as defined by Drucker, are "letterpress[ed], handset type, and limited editions, but can be used to describe carefully produced work in any print medium" (5-6). Bright generally agrees with this definition. She describes fine press books as, “celebrat[ing] the demands and rewards of craft: of pulling a mould and deckle from a vat of paper pulp, of sewing the signatures of a binding, or of printing on a hand press” (4). Across the board, most fine press books cater to their literary content with honed craft techniques. 

The deluxe book is harder to define as it has not been used as a consistent term. Most often, a deluxe book, “evokes associations with a star artist and high-cost collectability rather than with aesthetic innovation” (Bright 4). One such artist would be wood engraver Gaylord Schenilac. Schenilac's work can be seen in Old Swayback (2006).

Bookwork is broken down into two categories multiple and sculptural bookwork. Multiple bookwork is a large edition made using contemporary printing techniques and can be sold for cheap due to the large quantity made. Sculptural bookwork tends to be one-of-a-kind and aims to defy traditional book standards. Occasionally this has meant that the sculptural bookwork is a performance piece or an installation (Bright 5).

Artists' books encompass a wide range of topics, mediums, and craft production; this (seemingly) limitless way of expression opens the world to new and exciting pieces that are both art and books. 


Bright, Betty. No Longer Innocent. First ed., New York City, New York, Granary Books, 2005. 

Drucker, Johanna, and Granary Books (Firm). The Century of Artists’ Books. [Second edition] ed., Granary Books, 2004. 

Artists' Books, What Are They?