The Centre for Book Arts at the Wits Art Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Centre for Book Arts at the Wits Art Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED

At a time when the printed book is fast getting replaced by digital formats, artists’ books are offering some kind of resistance and carving a physical niche. These are artworks in the form of books and they’ve become highly collectible. Art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg, who has been collecting book arts since the early 1970s, has recently donated his collection to the Wits Art Museum.

The collection, now known as The Centre for Book Arts, is one of the top five in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere. It consists of 3,500 book-like artworks, including 400 works by SA artists. The centre plans to host four themed exhibitions annually to introduce parts of the collection to the public.

So what is book arts and what is its appeal to art collectors?

The US artist Ed Ruscha is credited with subverting the way artists approach books as a medium. In the ’60s and ’70s, Ruscha produced 16 artist books in which he moved away from the idea of illustrating or responding to a text. One such book is Every Building on the Sunset Strip, an 8m long concertina form printed on both sides with continuous photographic views of the landmark stretch of boulevard. The Centre for Book Arts owns a copy.

Artists’ books certainly don’t conform to the idea we have of books. Indeed, they could easily be something triangular or round, be made of glass or yet of banknotes. They could be typed on cotton handkerchiefs hand sewn to contain herbs and spices for an aromatic experience.

My personal favourite is an accordion-shaped book that performs a charming routine of unfolding itself outwards and shutting itself flat. The fact is, an artist’s book can be anything an artist says it is. Artists often collaborate with master printers to produce them.

Jillian Ross is the master printer at David Krut and long-time collaborator of William Kentridge. The pair have produced artworks in the form of books. Mark Attwood of The Artists’ Press has long been printing books for artists too.

One such is Qauqaua, based on a Nharo San folk tale. It contains hand-printed lithographs by artists from the Kuru Art Project in Botswana and the binding uses tanned goat skins. It is the first book printed in the Nharo language. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington included Qauqaua in an exhibition and listed it as one of 10 highlights from their collection.

One of 100 copies of ‘Leavings’ by Julie Chen. Picture: SUPPLIED
One of 100 copies of ‘Leavings’ by Julie Chen. Picture: SUPPLIED

Compared with limited edition prints, the upside for collectors is the relative affordability of artists’ books. A book may contain multiple prints that are signed and numbered, yet cost no more than one single print would.

Collectors should establish whether an artist book is unique or part of an edition. Book arts usually come in small editions of fewer than 25 copies. But there can be bigger runs too. Most of the time, books are created by hand and use a number of media such as paint, watercolour, silkscreen or stencil.

Much of the appeal of book arts resides in the compact size and physical contact. Books are made to be handled. The pleasure comes from turning the pages. On the flipside, this very quality becomes a challenge too from a conservation point of view. Books cannot be framed and they cannot really be protected: collectors should be mindful.

From a price perspective, book arts come as a pretty wide market. Collectors can pick up zines for R100 or less, but can expect to pay markedly higher prices for top artists in the secondary market. African American artist Kara Walker produced the leather-bound pop-up book Freedom, a Fable in a large edition of 4,000, which trades today for an average $5,000 (R75,000). Some of Kentridge’s books fetch up to $50,000 at auction.

To stay on top of new editions, collectors can follow a specialised network of bookstores, mailing lists, websites and periodicals. A number of fairs are dedicated to this special art form. Ranked as a vast fair, Codex happens biennially in San Francisco. In November Unlimited Edition, which attracted an impressive 21,000 visitors in 2018, takes place in Seoul.

Book arts is certainly not as commonly known and publicised as more traditional art forms, but it’s clear that the makers and the market are well organised. It is a genre that art lovers and collectors should definitely investigate.