Artists’ Books and Conceptualism(s)
Johanna Drucker

A Lawrence Weiner quote, „Learn to Read Art“, was once used on a promotional bookmark for Printzed Matter. The statement takes us right back to the inaugural moment of the connection between artists’ books and conceptualism. In the 1960s and 1970s, conceptual artists emphasized the use of language and photographic imagery as a way to distance themselves from the expressive gestures of abstraction that had been central to mid-20th-century visual art. Aggressive brushwork and big gestures of existencial angst were subsumed in a new mode of unexpressive and neutralizing representational modes. Block letters and typewritten documents cast handwriting and fancy typography into a quaint and obsolete mode.


In 1969 the legendary and enigmatic conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers, performed a work of visual criticism on that other most enigmatic of literary texts, Un Coup...  .Taking the 1914 version of the spatial, visual poem, Broodthaers redrew ist text blocks with solid black bands, calling the graphic structure into focus and attention as a system without reference to language or semantic value. The result, printed on translucent paper, creates a striking sense of space and of the articulation of spacial relations that structure the work. In Michalis Pichlers’ 2008 rework the blocks are cut out, creating a negative space and geometric pattern of cuts and absence. In this case the excuse fort he cuts is, that the poem’s orgnization already has a distinctive shape that has been exaggerated by the Broodthaers project.

These iterative versions of works establish a chain of ideas and projects whose relation to each other alone embodies an idea of seriality and procedures. The idea of remake and of version, using another existing work as point of departure, relieves the artist of the onus of originality while allowing the new gesture to stand as a novel gesture. Un-originality, anti-expressiveness – these are terms that are of more recent vintage than first generation conceptualism. But they establish the influence and longevity of ist fundamental principle of idea based work whose execution does not depend on old-fashioned  notions of inspiration. In principle, an idea can be conjured at any moment and executed systematically.


Drucker, Johanna, "Artists’ Books and Conceptualism(s)," in MULTIPLE, LIMITED, UNIQUE: Selections from the permanent Collection of the Center for Book Arts, ed. Campos (New York: The Center for Book Arts, 2011), 17–25.