A selection of Artists' Books from the AA/PG Library.
A selection of Artists’ Books at the AA/PG Library

Artists’ books are works of art, like paintings or sculptures, but in book form. While book illustration has a much longer history, the book as art object is a product of the 20th century. Some of the early examples were created by Futurists and Dadaists in their politically-motivated pamphlets and magazines, by Fluxus artists in their happenings, and by conceptual artists’ in their work to dematerialize the art object. Artists’ books can also be unique creations undertaken with extreme care and attention to detail. Some are experimental and done by artists better known as painters or sculptors, as a way to extend their artistic practice. Many artists use the book format to create narratives to deal with difficult issues, with ideas that cannot be conveyed as clearly on a canvas or other medium. Some artist-made books illustrate the words of others, integrating art and literature. And some artists’ books do not have words at all. As a work created by an artist, the nature, appearance and purpose, of an artist’s book can be fundamentally different from what one might find on the shelves of the library.

Artists’ books exist at the intersections of printmaking, photography, poetry, experimental narrative, visual arts, graphic design, and publishing. They have made a place for themselves in the collections of museums, libraries, and private collectors. They have caught the interest of art historians and critics writing about art, and there are numerous studio programs in art schools dedicated to the art of the book, ushering in new generations of artists making books.

Because these works straddle the boundary between the art and literary worlds, they present certain challenges. Many artists intend their works to be interactive and expect their pages to be turned and the weight and texture of the book to be felt by the reader. However when on display in the museum, the book cannot be read; these works are often protected under glass, installed as art objects.

Artists’ books pose particular challenges to library catalogers.  Like installations or “mixed media” works of art, artists’ books often defy easy classification. Even after completing the difficult task of identifying an artist’s book as such, catalogers must describe the book – which might lack a title page, possess unusual physical features, or have several creators – so that it can be discovered in the library’s online catalog.  

Elements of geometry by Euclid. Sjoerd Hofstra. N7433.4.H6 E54 1994

To help users discover the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ unique collection of artists’ books, this website aims to make searching simpler and to draw attention to some highlights in the collection. Researchers seeking artists’ books in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives can Browse the Collection and can contact the individual library directly for an appointment to view a work.

The Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books Collection includes works by artists such as Georges Adéagbo, Ida Applebroog, Julie Chen, Laura Davidson, William Kentridge, Barbara Kruger, Sol LeWitt, Luan Nel, Yoko Ono, Ed Ruscha, and Claire Van Vliet. While some are widely available, many are limited editions, and quite a number of the books are unique and cannot be seen anywhere else but at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. 

Odyssey of a cockroach. Yoko Ono. N7433.4.O56 O39 2004
Odyssey of a cockroach. Yoko Ono. N7433.4.O56 O39 2004

The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives actively collects artists’ books through purchase and donation, and depends on the generosity of individuals like you to enrich the resources available to our community. Please consider supporting the Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books Collection through a donation to the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives  and select "Artists’ Books Fund" from the drop-down menu.