The Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AAPG) Library is pleased to acknowledge the donation of the artist book Florence by Laura Davidson. The book was donated by a library staff member and can be found in the online catalog.
Florence, Laura Davidson. 2003.
The AAPG Library has a collection of artist books (a book or book-like object that is intended as a work of art by its creator) and currently has a display of examples in the reading room. An interview with the book artist Laura Davidson has been featured previously on this blog. The AAPG previously had 5 books by this artist in its collection, but not any of her tunnel books.
Florence, Laura Davidson. 2003.
A tunnel books consist of a set of pages bound with two folded accordion strips and viewed through a central hole in the cover. The pages consist of a series of illustrations cut in different shapes and placed one behind the other. Openings in each of the pages page permit the viewer to see through the entire book to the back, and images on each page work together to create a sense of depth. What results is a dimensional scene like looking into a tunnel.
Florence is the first in a series that show the artist’s favorite views. This book shows a panorama of the city of Florence from the steps of the church of San Miniato al Monte. The artist has painted on Muirhead guides and Baedeker travel guides. The book is printed on #65 Mohawk superfine Warm White and the pages are laser cut and assembled by hand.
The AAPG library is delighted to add this book to its artist book collection and is grateful for the generosity of the donor. The book will now be available to users for display and study for generations to come.
In this interview with Libraries' intern Stephanie Fletcher, book artist Laura Davidson reflects on her inspiration, her artistic process, and the elusive definition of “artist’s book.”
Laura’s books are in libraries across the globe, including the National Gallery of Art Library, the Library of Congress, the British Library, the Victoria & Albert Museum National Art Library, and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. A selection of Laura’s work is currently on display in the reading room at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library.
Q: What inspired you to become a book artist?
A: I’ve made books since I was a child. I was first attracted to illustrated children’s books. For me, the feel and look of a book was just as important as the text, if not more. Then as a young artist I saw illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum — they changed my life.
Q: What attracts you, as an artist, to the codex and accordion formats?
A: Both forms draw the viewer into a narrative but each has a different rhythm. [With the codex format,] page turning slows the experience down, and since it is time-based, there is anticipation; the viewer gets to set the pace. With the accordion format, I have the opportunity to show the entire idea at once, and hopefully draw the viewer in to see the details of the pages.
Q: What materials do you use to create your books, and why?
A: Throughout the course of my work I have been inspired by, and have included, common objects in my work like clock parts, lantern slides, rocks, ticket stubs, and stamps. They each have stories behind them that are dear to me. I collect a lot of things that appeal to me visually, and these items often end up being drawn in my work or physically attached to it.
Q: How do you market your books? Do many art libraries purchase your books?
A: I have several ways of selling my books. I have a website. I work with book dealers and book art galleries, and I do occasional book fairs. I sell directly to several art libraries, rare book libraries in universities, and public libraries. I also have private collectors. In my neighborhood in Boston, we have Open Studios events, where anyone can walk through artists’ buildings. It is a great way for me to introduce my work to people.
Q: How do you intend your books to be used?
A: Good question! I want them to be used. I want them to be seen, to be held, and thought about.
Q: How do they inform young artists, librarians, and art historians?
A: With young artists, I hope that my books inspire them to trust their ideas, even the simple ones. With librarians, I hope they see connections to their collections because I am inspired by the rich history of the book. Art historians may also see connections since I often reference art history. In my studio there is a wall of shelves filled with art history books that I look at constantly.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as a book artist?
A: My greatest challenge as an artist is TIME — there is never enough.
Q: Finally, how do you define the artist’s book?
A: That question is often discussed and the answer is not easy. I can’t define the genre in a few lines, but I can tell you something else about my work.
Over the years I’ve continued to work in the book format for a simple reason. Since I experienced the exhibition at the British Library, I’ve tried to achieve the ‘beautiful book adrenalin rush’ that I felt when I first saw [those manuscripts], and indeed any time I see illuminated manuscripts. I can’t own these books, or touch them, or live with them the way that I would like to. But in my own work, I can try to pay homage to them.
Stephanie Fletcher was a Smithsonian Institution Libraries summer intern. She received an MA in art history from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is currently earning an MLIS from Dominican University. A former employee of the Newberry Library, she recently relocated to Munich, where she is an intern at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum.
The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) has a “hidden collection” of artists’ books that is underused by researchers and the public. Artists’ books are diverse in form and concept, making them difficult to define. Some are handmade, published as unique works or in limited editions. Others are inexpensive and mass-produced, available for nearly everyone to purchase and consume. Despite these differences, scholars generally agree that an artist’s book is a book or book-like object that reflects an artist’s creative vision and is intended as a work of art. Our assignment this summer was to investigate the SIL’s artist’s book collection, consider it in the context of other local collections, and develop a proposal to increase access to this relatively unknown resource.
Stephanie and Chloe with National Museum of African Art librarian Janet Stanley, photograph by Sam Schubert.
A major component of our internship was a series of research visits to other local libraries and artists’ books collections. These visits greatly informed our overall understanding of artists’ books, refined our definition of the genre, and improved our ability to analyze the books in the Smithsonian’s collection. They also gave us the opportunity to meet professionals knowledgeable about the creation, distribution, curation, and exhibition of artists’ books, including librarians, curators, book artists, and booksellers.
At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we met Krystyna Wasserman, the curator of book arts. She oversees a rotating display of artists’ books in the library’s reading room and curates the museum’sBook as Art exhibition series. During a visit to the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Mark Dimunation showed us a small percentage of the nation’s impressive artist’s book collection. He expressed a desire to increase the collection’s visibility and use, a concern that other librarians echoed. We also met with Lamia Doumato, head of reader services at the National Gallery of Art library, who showed us a selection of artists’ books that are now on exhibit in the museum.
Chloe and Stephanie study artists’ books at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, photograph by Anna Brooke
Another enlightening visit was our trip to the Corcoran College of Art + Design, where librarian Mario Ascencio collects artists’ books that refer to the theme “social consciousness.” He also acquires books that are excellent teaching resources for the college’s book arts program. We learned how private booksellers market and sell artists’ books during our visit to Joshua Heller Rare Books, Inc. Joshua and Phyllis Heller, the owners, taught us the importance of networking with artists and impressed upon us the very personal nature of the bookselling business.
Toward the end of our internship, we toured Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, an art community that specializes in papermaking, printmaking, and artists’ books. Their artistic director, Gretchen Schermerhorn, showed us how to make paper and how to create letterpress prints using movable type. These research visits brought us full circle, allowing us to explore everything from the creation of the artist’s book to its exhibition.
Detail of the artists’ books display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, photograph by Stephanie Fletcher
Our research culminated in a report that included a survey of the artists’ books holdings at the Smithsonian, recommendations for improving access to the collection, a proposal of themes for a future exhibition, and an extensive bibliography. We also created a small exhibit of artists’ books at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, which will be on display for the next year. Our internship was a headlong foray into the world of artists’ books. We emerged deeply informed and excited to reveal this “hidden collection.”
—Stephanie Fletcher and Chloe Barnett
Stephanie Fletcher and Chloe Barnett are Smithsonian Institution Library interns. Stephanie holds an MA in art history from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is an MLIS student at Dominican University. Chloe received an MA in art history and an MSIS from the University of Texas, Austin and recently accepted a job as arts and humanities librarian at Bucknell University.
This display presents a diverse selection of formats, media, and conceptual approaches from the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library’s artist’s book collection. An artist’s book is a book or book-like object that is intended as a work of art by its creator. Often issued in limited editions or produced as unique works, artists’ books exist in a variety of shapes, sizes, and media. They challenge our common perception and understanding of the book, demonstrating that the book is not limited to the codex format. The inventive combination of form, text, and image in artists’ books invite us to unfold, unfurl, read, respond, act, and create.
The artists’ books on view demonstrate the variety and depth of the genre. Maria Pisano’s Entangled reveals a delicate, layered floral design, whereas her X Y Z is a playful accordion-style book. Kurt Allerslev’s Hypotenuse (a2 + b2 = c2) juxtaposes organic materials with the form of a right triangle to communicate the parallels between mathematics and nature. Laura Davidson’s creations, including Visible Invisible, Inner Workings,and The Body Temple, artfully combine prints, found objects, paint, text, and wooden boards to produce sculptural books in codex form. Seasonal Turns: Four Accordion Books by Bea Nettles is a series of photographs that represent the four seasons. Finally, Fluxus artist George Brecht’s Water Yam is a conceptual work that invites participation, while Don Celender’s Artball is a set of “baseball cards” that encourages conversation and exchange.
This installation is part of a larger project to discover and highlight the artists’ books in the Smithsonian Institution’s art libraries. A team of Smithsonian Institution librarians and interns is analyzing the accessibility of the collection through the library catalog; investigating new ways to explore the collection through digitization and social media; and exploring options for collaborative projects both within and outside the Smithsonian Institution, including an exhibition and an ongoing artist’s book blog.
—Chloe Barnett and Stephanie Fletcher
The AAPG Library is located on the second floor of the Victor Building at 750 9th Street and is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
Image 1: Hypotenuse (a2 + b2 = c2)by Kurt Allerslev, 1999, unique, mixed media: beet juice, algae, turmeric, flower pigments, etc., mixed with plant and seaweed particles.
Image 2: Visible Invisible by Laura Davidson, 1992, 7 of 35, consists of one continuous sheet of cream paper folded to form 6 p. with handprinted lino cuts and other hand stamped illustrations mounted on 5 p.; bound in painted wooden boards with aluminum angel wing mounted on front cover.