Artists' books are contemporary phenomena that range from one-of-a-kind and small hand letterpress editions to larger commercially produced works. While most artists' books have familiar book structures, the genre's spectrum includes sculptural forms that push the boundaries of "what is a book?" and stand in physical contrast to the Digital Age. Although the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a resurgence in traditional book arts craft, the roots of artists' books grew out of the avant-garde Dada and Surrealist movements of the early 20th century.
Specialty papers, handmade papers, or commercially available copy papers are logical choices for the creation of artists' books; however, book artists are well known for their innovative use of materials. The JMU Artists' Book Collection is no exception. Women's Studio Workshop founders, Kalmbach and Kellner, integrated fungi and wordplay in their Pistol Pistil: Botanical Ballistics. Other non-traditional material types represented are: beeswax, blue jeans, brass bullet casings, machined aluminum, plexi-glass, and bisque-fired porcelain. Barbara Kruger's Surveillance is Your Busy Work (from her series of match books) is one example of realia paying homage to the Dadaist concept of found-object art and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes as book.
Kerri Cushman's Pumping Iron
JMU Libraries' Special Collections began building the artists' books collection with a modest purchase of 15 works from the Women's Studio Workshop exhibit in Sawhill Gallery in 2008. Thirty-five works were transferred from the Madison Art Collection the following year, and in 2013 a budget line was established for annual purchases. The Book Arts Interdisciplinary Minor debuted in the curriculum in 2015, and internationally renowned book artist, curator, and instructor Carol Barton's personal collections of approximately 300 artists' books and 700+ movable or pop-up books were acquired that same year. (Carol was the inaugural Dorothy Liskey Wampler Visiting Professor of Fine Art in 1992.) Today, the artists' books collection has grown to over 400 titles including works by major artists such as Julie Chen, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Edward Ruscha among others. Of note, is a forerunner of the artists' book phenomenon: Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp's First Papers of Surrealism exhibition catalog from 1942. Accordion, Coptic bindings, tunnel books, pop-ups such as Carol Barton's The Lookout, letterpress, and woodcuts, as well as sculptural pieces such as Kerri Cushman's Pumping Iron and Measuring Up represent some of the many diverse binding structures found in the collection. There are dozens of structures represented including: post, fan, flip, X-fold, concertina, and an unusual dos-a'-dos (back to back), Self-Dual by Ellen Knudson.
Pistol Pistil: Botanical Ballistics by Tatana Kellner & Ann Kalmbach of the Women's Studio Workshop