Visual Arts Criticism

The principal difference between the book hack and the book artist is that the former succumbs to the conventions of the medium, while the latter envisions what else “the book” might become.

There is a crucial difference between presenting an artist’s work in book form—a retrospective collection of reproductions—and an artist making a book. The first is an art book. The honorific “book art” should be saved for books that are works of art, as well as books.

One trouble with the current term “artists’ books” is that it defines a work of art by the initial profession (or education) of its author, rather than by qualities of the work itself. Since genuine critical categories are meant to define art of a particular kind, it is a false term. The art at hand is books, no matter who did them; and it is differences among them, rather than in their authorship, that should comprise the stuff of critical discourse.

The attractions of the book as a communications medium are that individual objects can be relatively cheap to make and distribute, that it is customarily portable and easily stored, that its contents are conveniently accessible, that it can be experienced by oneself at one’s own speed without a playback machine (unlike theater, video, audio or movies), and that it is more spatially economical (measured by extrinsic experience over intrinsic volume) than other non-electronic media. A book also allows its reader random access, in contrast to audiotape and videotape, whose programmed sequences permit only linear access; with a book you can go from one page to another, both forwards and backwards, as quickly as you can go from one page to the next.

—“Book Art” (1985)

Thus, this book/exhibition [Books by Artists] is another example of the weak-minded fads of using the epithet “artist” to mean just visual artists and of talking about an emerging art not in terms of genuine critical categories, but in biographical categories. (What is important is not what you do, but where you came from or where you went to school; the results, if not the purpose, of this approach is nothing less than snobbery.) Biographical categories also have the merchandizing advantage of being more accessible to the buying public than art categories. (“New York school” was easier to sell than “abstract expressionism.”) Books by Artists would have more integrity if its title identified its real subject—Books by Visual Artists—which is not at all identical with the far more interesting contemporary art of alternative, artistic books.

—“Books By ‘Artists’” (1983)

We are coming to recognize visual literature as a distinct genre whose measure is simply the visual enhancement of language. Once the concept of a distinct genre is in mind, we can acknowledge that visual literature can appear in many media, only one of which is books. Paul Laffoley paints large canvases customarily filled with words, more syntactical than not, and images, to degrees reminiscent of William Blake, though quite different in style. Laffoley is essentially a visionary painter, who portrays unseen forces, mostly cosmological, who has conducted some of his activities under the name of The Boston Visionary Cell, Inc. Some of his paintings realize a density of words and symbols that reflect as they transcend charting. However, whereas Blake favored script that reflected the vagaries of his own hand, Laffoley’s literary style is blockish sans-serif letters whose bottoms make a straight line.

—“Three Visual Litterateurs” (1992)

I’ve never before had the occasion to review a book mostly in terms of what it says (or in this case doesn’t say) about my work; but I find no better way to reveal the limitations of Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books(1996) and would rather not resort to the ruse of getting someone else to elaborate my objections, more superficially “acceptable” though that subterfuge might be. At least in discussing my own efforts in this medium, Drucker’s book appears to be an inadvertent illustration of my suggestion in A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1993) that, “When a professor writes three words about an avant-garde subject, one of them is likely to be superficial and a second to reveal ignorance, even if the writing comes accompanied, as it usually is, by encomia from other academics.”

—“Sloppy ‘Scholarship’” (1997, 2006)