Left: Denise Aubertin, Shakespeare Hamlet, 1989; Softcover book and food materials, 9 ½ x 6 ¼ x 6 ¼ in.; NMWA, Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center; Gift of Julia Blakely
Hard to Define Artists’ Books from the Collection On view through March 23, 2018
Sarah Osborne Bender
Before I joined the staff at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, all of my visits to the museum included time with the collection of artists’ books. I knew of collections elsewhere, but only at NMWA were they almost always on display. In the galleries, I recall seeing Audrey Niffenegger’s dark and quiet book The Adventuress, Elisabetta Gut’s kinetic L’uccello di fuoco (Da Stravinsky), and M. L. Van Nice’s Swiss Army Book, a meta meditation on the form.
Below: Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain, 2004; Cloth-bound sewn book, 4 ⅛ x 7 ⅞ in.; NMWA, Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center
Upstairs in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, which is open to the public, there were more artists’ books on view. Pamela Spitzmueller’s British Museum Memoir, with shiny copper cover and crinkly paper pages, and Lois Morrison’s strange and enchanting book The Mexican DogTosser. Since I began my position at the museum in 2016, my role as custodian of this collection has been one of the pleasures of leading the library. While our efforts to create detailed records of each artist’s book in the library are nearly complete, only a selection have been photographed. The best way for me to get to know the collection was to sit in the rare book room and open every box and envelope, take each artist’s book off the shelf, and look at them one by one. Hard to Define is the result of that kidin-a-candy store experience. The show illustrates incredibly varied forms, from bound books to a shape-shifting book, to something not shaped like a book at all. There are books about making books, books about storytelling, books about history, and books about fantasy. Visitors often ask, “What’s an artist’s book?” This show answers: That’s hard to define, but it’s a lot of fun to try. Shakespeare Hamlet, 1989 Denise Aubertin (b. 1933) began making artists’ books in 1969. She took inspiration from contemporaries Dieter Roth, who made art from food and is sometimes credited with making the first artists’ books, and Tom Phillips, whose works are altered texts that use cutting and collage. She describes her early approaches: “I rubbed books on the muddy balcony. . .