The University of Iowa Libraries'
Collection of Artists' Books

The University of Iowa Libraries has in its possession a collection of over 1000 artists' books by local, national, and international artists. These intellectually stimulating and visually exciting books push multimedia and interdisciplinary scholarship and artistry to their outermost limits, challenging their readers, or perhaps more accurately, their viewers, to question typically assumed definitions of art and text production, as well as the standard practice of reading.

Artists' Books: A Brief Explanation

During the 1960s, an art form which frequently combined paintings, drawings, photographs, and even mimeographed images with printed text, appeared on the art scene. Almost immediately following its arrival, both scholars and artists struggled to identify the specific structure, purpose, and aesthetic validity of this new mode of expression. At that time, members of the international artistic community endeavored to understand what set these "artists' books," as this medium has come to be known, apart from other forms of art, as well as other incarnations of the ubiquitous book. However, the amorphous nature of artists' book has made this process of definition exceptionally difficult, and the debate continues to this day. Yet as Johanna Drucker, one of the premier creators and scholars of artists' books, has explained, this difficulty should come as no surprise. Artists' books can "take every possible form, participate in every possible convention of book making, every possible 'ism' of mainstream art and literature, every possible mode of production, every shape, every degree of ephemerality or archival durability" (Drucker par. 23). Despite their continued ability to elude definition, the general tendency of artists' books to use text and image in dynamic ways has led Drucker to name them the "quintessential 20th century art form" and the "20th century art form par excellence". (Drucker par. 1, 2) Indeed, in spite of the confusion surrounding this art form, or perhaps because of it, artists' books remain an extremely important element of 20th century art.

The term "artists' book" has proven problematic for scholars and artists partly because of the art form's refusal to adhere to the traditionally respected boundaries between writing, painting, drawing, and fine-press printing. In any one artists' book, all of these mediums, or indeed none of them, can be employed by the artists, or group of artists, to create a finished product. In addition, the plethora of similar terms used to describe the variety of these disparate kinds of books and art forms have further complicated the process of definition. Other comparable terms have included "books art, book as artwork, bookwork, artists' bookworks, book objects, artists books (no apostrophe)" (Rossman par. 1). As Drucker warns, "there are no specific criteria for defining what an artists' book is, but there are many criteria for defining what it is not, or what it partakes of, or what it distinguishes itself" (Drucker par.23). However, despite the continued debate concerning the concrete definition of artists' books, it would seem as though a work can be considered an artists' book if, in a unique presentation of text and image, simply text, or solely image, the artist or artists can provoke in the reader or viewer a considerably altered view of the world in which they live.

Historically, though it had been influenced by several other literary and artistic trends spanning several centuries, the artists' book movement did not begin in earnest until the 1960s. At that time, the creators of artists' books combined elements from disparate forms of art in a desire to make socially progressive pieces that would be available to the masses. Since artists' books mixed medias and crossed academic and artistic boundaries in such radical ways, they were an ideal form with which to express socially progressive messages. In addition, artists' books were participating in an art form that, at that time, was still largely unexplored. Thus, new territory was open for exploration and experimentation. Even today, artists and writers turn to artists' books when they feel the need to express emotions or opinions that cannot be articulated through other, more classical creative means, such as painting, writing, or photography alone.

The University of Iowa Libraries began amassing a collection of artists' books in the 1970s. As Timothy Shipe and Harlan Sifford explain, many books in the collection "come from the influential exhibition 'Art-words and Bookworks,' first shown at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1978. After the exhibition traveled around the the country for several years, the entire collection was donated to The University of Iowa" (Shipe and Sifford, par. 8). In addition, "The Libraries also house a large collection of works from the University of Iowa faculty member Jim Snitzer's Chicago Book Project" (Shipe and Sifford, par.8). Since these two initial large acquisitions, the Libraries' collection had continued to grow steadily.

Through the use of this site, you will have an opportunity to briefly explore The University of Iowa Libraries' collection of artists' books and create a personal relationship with them. This one-on-one connection with these books is extremely important, for as Johanna Drucker has argued, "The final criteria for definition resides in the informed viewer, who has to determine the extent to which a book work makes integral use of the specific features of this form" (Drucker par.15). Hopefully, the images, information, and links provided here will allow you to develop your own sense of the artists' book as an aesthetic medium, mode of expression, and extremely influential part of modern history.

Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. The Artists' Book as Idea and Form . 8 April 2004. Available WWW:

Rossman, Jae Jennifer. "Artists' Books Information Resource." 8 April 2004. Available WWW:

Shipe, Timothy and Harlan Sifford. "Artists' Books in the University Libraries." Books at Iowa 54 (April 1991). 8 April 2004. Available WWW:

Artists' Books
A Sampling of the University of Iowa Libraries' Collection of Artists' Books

Previous Exhibitions of Artists' Books at the University of Iowa:

Local Artists:

Other Artists:


Helpful Information, Links, and Definitions:

Links to the Homepages of Other Book Artists:


Thank You

Thank you to the University of Iowa Libraries ' Department of Special Collections and specifically Sid Huttner, Amy Cooper, David Schoonover, Kathryn Hodson, Jacque Roethler, and Denise Anderson for their help, support, and patience with this project.



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