Erik Ruin: Letter from Isolation, Ex. 1/6, sign. Screenprint, Leporello, 2019 (Signatur: 2 L.sel.III 501) | © Erik Ruin

Art meets book meets library: Artists' books

They belong to a bizarre intermediate realm – only few people would expect them in a library, least of all in an academic one. And yet, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek holds the presumably largest collection of artists' books in Germany.

Speaking about curating a collection of artists' books requires explaining first what it actually is that is being curated here, and there is no way of doing this. A certain dilemma – one possible escape from which is to keep attempts at defining brief, which most interlocutors are thankful for, but which renders most specialist colleagues belligerent. Well, all right: Artists' books aren't books about art, but are works of art themselves. One further possibility to explain them in one sentence would be: If the artist says that it is an artist's book, it is. By the way, almost every famous artist who you may be thinking of now has also created artist's books.

They have been around for centuries in fact – in the form of elaborate painters' books or as overall works of art, which were printed, illustrated, bound by artists themselves. Termed "artists' books", they have existed for around 50 years, their objective frequently being to make art public at an affordable price, to lower the threshold for accessing art and to make it literally "tangible". They are often inconsistent with our idea of "a book". In this case they are called concept books. Their underlying idea is frequently a subversive one; they address social grievances, for example in the form of quickly producible "zines".

During the Arab Spring in 2011, the artist Ganzeer (in the blog "Art between covers") acquired fame with regime-critical street art and graphzine-like artist's publications (a term in which "graphic" and "magazine" are mixed), which were most frequently duplicated in a hurry by photocopying. The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek owns the original of the personal "prototype" of one of these revolution publications (4 L.sel.I 5079).

Artists' books are not works of art which have accidentally adopted the shape of a book. One approach is even to define their nature by asking the exclusionary question whether what they represent and convey would also have been possible in a different form (of art). An artist's book was bound to become a book. This is possibly the main reason for it to live in the "intermediate realm", that is to say between libraries and museums. They are present here and there. In libraries, they are usually more easily accessible. Most of them are accessible for all users here, with some exceptions only being accessible for researchers.

Given the scholarly orientation of our institution, it may come as a surprise that the probably most important collection of artists' books with the possibly longest tradition in the German language area is located at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. However, an amalgamated concept of art and scholarship forms part of its historical foundation. The conservation of cultural goods, particularly in the picture-related field, even forms a highly topical focus, and for this reason the "Libri Selecti" have not only been conserved from the start, but the collection is one of the few collections in Germany to be actively curated and expanded.

But how does this work? How do you acquire artists' books? Pondering this question, I find that it is easier for me to explain how it does not work. It does not work like in most other departments, not by way of book traders, not by way of quota, not by way of lists, not by way of catalogues (by the exception of auction catalogues). I usually acquire them directly from the artist. Artists' books frequently have no ISBN. Often, they do not even have a colophon. Sometimes, they are unique specimens with original graphics or painting. Or they are published in the form of a mini edition produced at the photocopier, which is sold secretly. Hundreds of further scenarios are not only conceivable, but day-to-day reality, from auctions to personal recommendations, on to using social networks, which have turned out to be exceedingly useful when hunting for truffles. Basically, the practice of acquisition can be approximated only by an apposition of anecdotes, for example that of a unique book ordered from Moscow five years ago, which has not arrived in Munich to the present day, because the conditions of the Russian postal service for the shipment of a work of art have changed at the same intervals as the artist attempted to send it off (before the war).

Perhaps it is easier to state the criteria for making acquisitions? At any rate, there are a number of robust criteria, partly documented in the catalogue of our latest great exhibition of artists' books "Showcase".¹ It is less common for us to acquire unique books; the focus is more on books and publications published in small editions, frequently signed and numbered. Fundamentally, the objective of the collection is not comprehensiveness – for example with respect to one particular style, an epoch or also the work of one person – but exemplariness. When the collection already includes a work by a particular artist, this means unfortunately that the available budget is rather used for acquiring works by other artists who will then add new, different impulses to the collection – the more so as the collection is expanded on an international level. There are also exceptions to this, for such new impulses can also appear in the form of completely new periods of work of artists already included in the collection. Historically developed areas of emphasis are expanded via the antiquarian book trade (for example books of Russian Futurism and Constructivism), and new focal points are set: For example, books with the above-mentioned socio-critical concepts.

With "Letter from Isolation" (2 L.sel.III 501) the versatile US artist Erik Ruin cast a pensive light on Ulrike Meinhof by combining passages of her letters from prison (1972/73) with impressive portrait-type screen prints, creating an artist's book folded in the manner of a Leporello, which makes the person leafing through the work wonder how identity is constructed by language. Given its close connection to German social history, it is gratifying that our collection of artists' books includes one of the six specimens existing worldwide (viewable in its entirety on YouTube as an overall work of art with audio recording).

A very small edition was published likewise of "Hidden in Plain Sight", which is available at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek for the first time outside the USA (4 L.sel.I 5097): A small-format work, it addresses recently discovered private letters between the grandparents and the mother of the artist during the Second World War. Being Jews living in Leipzig, the grandparents had sent their two children to the USA on their own in 1938 and did not survive the Shoa themselves. Artists' books like these are personally moving and cultural testimonials at the same time – in this case with a foreword by Madeleine Albright – which are well worth discovering and conserving at public institutions.

Currently, artists' books are collated which address the issues of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. There are also artists' books already being created about Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. Thus, the portfolio work "Window of Hope" by the Ukrainian artist Olesya Dzhuraeva was added to the collection recently. At the start of the war, the artist was in a village on the outskirts of Kiev and created six wood engravings from firewood, with the aid of only an axe and a kitchen knife. She used water and soil as a replacement for ink. The forty existing copies were out of stock quickly.

Gaps in the collections can be closed when good opportunities arise, such as auctions of personal papers, like in 2018 and 2019, when numerous titles from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall were acquired at two auctions, which include, for example, underground publications from the GDR. Artists' books were often published in editions of 99 copies in the GDR, since they remained under the radar of censorship in this way ... however, this is a topic that would be worthwhile considering individually. Possibly in the blog.

Our artists' books (Libri Selecti) have a blog:

Almost all the Libri Selecti can be ordered for consultation in the Reading Room for Manuscripts and Rare Books. A number of (satisfiable) conditions are applicable only to the most valuable pieces. The circumstance that this is barely known is owed also to their existence as shade plants: For copyright reasons, most of them cannot be shown, which is applicable also and in particular to our online presence. Tip: Take your pick of your most favoured pieces here (website "Artists' books" with access to the detail search in the Libri Selecti) and place an order for the provision of the original works of art in the Reading Room of the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books.

Collection flyer

[1] Béatrice Hernad: „That is fantastic – a latin catalogue number! TOO much fun – Die Künstlerbuchsammlung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek“. In: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (ed.): SHOWCASE – Künstlerbücher aus der Sammlung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek: Katalog zu der Ausstellung vom 20. September 2017 bis 7. Januar 2018. München, 2017. p. 225-237.



Picture credits header image: 
Erik Ruin: Letter from Isolation, Ex. 1/6, sign. Screenprint, Leporello, 2019 (call number: 2 L.sel.III 501) | © Erik Ruin