Defining the genre has been an entertaining if daunting task, leaving most observers to describe what an artist's book is not. For example, an artist's book may not have pages and a cover. It is not a book filled with reproductions of artworks. It is not necessarily a finely bound volume, and it is not a monograph recounting the life and work of a particular artist.
An artist's book intentionally blurs the boundaries between its form and content. It does not refer outward to other subjects, but rather constantly refers inward to itself. The author/artist of such a book often serves as its editor, printer, publisher, and distributor, controlling every aspect of its creation and presentation. An artist's book is a work of art with characteristics borrowed from traditional books.
The history of artists' books is just as imprecise and debatable as its definition. Some experts point to the nineteenth-century publisher Ambroise Vollard--who hired Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet to illustrate literary works--as the producer of the first artists' books. Others point to William Morris and his reintroduction of bookmaking as a fine art craft. Still others look to the trends of the 1960s, and especially to the burgeoning world of alternative art forms, as critical influences on today's artists' books.
Though artists of many persuasions and backgrounds produce artists' books, the collection at Duke, which currently consists of approximately 150 volumes, focuses on works produced by women. These authors have seized the artist's book as an apt medium for exploring social, political, and personal issues. According to some authors, the "book" is inherently patriarchal in its efforts to proclaim a truth and establish a cultural order. Many women artists have thus transformed the genre as a means of subverting established concepts of power and order.
Highlights of Duke's collection include Sande Wascher-James's But She's a Star, Karen Stahlecker's Old Growth Altar, and Julie Chen's Bon Bon Mots. Produced in a limited edition of fifteen in 1998, But She's a Star is a handmade piece that folds out like an accordion. Postage-stamp images of famous women are printed on each page, and pop-out mylar stars embossed with images of "ordinary" women physically link each page together. The concept behind the book is that each woman is a "star" because of her individual strengths, regardless of society's recognition of her. The book is covered in cloth and embroidered with metallic stars.
Karen Stahlecker's Old Growth Altar, six copies of which were produced in 1995, offers another variation on artists' books. Stahlecker's creation, which resembles a shadow box, opens up into a miniature altar only a few inches tall. Handmade of speckled kozo paper, each leaf of the altar offers natural objects such as fern leaves, lichen, and tiny pinecones. Throughout the book, Stahlecker evokes interconnections between nature and spirituality.
Julie Chen's Bon Bon Mots offers an unusual tactile and visual experience to its reader/viewer/handler. This book looks like a candy box and opens to reveal five separate artists' books, each in the form of a piece of candy. The books, all composed by Chen, are clever and intricately shaped poetic reflections. A map of the box's contents is printed on the inside cover of the lid, and each candy/book is nestled in folds of richly colored cloth. Produced in 1998, Duke's is one of a hundred copies. The book's subtitle suggests the contents of both Bon Bon Mots and the Bingham artists' books collection overall: "a fine assortment of books."