The Book as Art: Altered Albums
Inspired by the 1,000+ collection of artists’ books at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, this series of online exhibitions, organized by book format, introduces the boundless range of mediums, techniques, and topics artists explore to transform and reinvent books as we know them.
What is an altered book?
Altered books are art objects created with existing printed books. Artists transform books through varied techniques that may be additive (such as painting, collaging, or printing) or reductive (like carving, folding, or erasing). These processes reinforce or reinvent a book’s original meaning.
German Egypt is a vintage German-language book from the 1940s that Mary Bennett (b. 1944) altered without adding or subtracting anything. The illustrations on the endpapers, or the pages pasted to the cover boards, inspired the sculptural pyramidal shape. Bennett’s goal is to make new and wonderful creations from objects that have outlived their usefulness; to rescue books from landfills.
In Climbing the Walls, Mary Perrin (b. 1947) explores the frustrating experience of being housebound with small children. It reflects Perrin’s time as a young mother, when she was engulfed by the chores necessary to rear a family and left with little opportunity to create. She includes collage as a metaphor for “nesting”—one must search for and assemble just the right materials.
To make Britain’s Birds and Their Nests, Kerry Miller (b. 1957) dissected a discarded natural history book. She carved out the book’s pages and cut from them images of birds, which she then partially hand-colored and reassembled within the book’s cover. Miller’s dense arrangement of birds echoes their work as nest-builders and cacophonous communicators, characteristics notably shared by humans.
Egg-Plant hatched when H. Terry Braunstein (b. 1942) was inspired by the poem “Eggplant Epithalamion” by Erica Jong (b. 1942). Traditionally, epithalama are poems honoring marriage. Jong’s eggplant represents the creative process and human womb, as it contains seeds for production. An old book became Braunstein’s seed; she carved cavities and collaged images to visualize conception.
Sandra Jackman (b. 1937) combined found objects and paper engineering in On a Darkling Plain. Static emanates from a radio adhered to the book’s cover, as the action unfolds with pop-ups to display the drama of destruction. This book is part of the war-related art that Jackman has created since 1967. She notes that for most of her life, the U.S. has been involved in a military conflict.
In Dinner with Mr. Dewey, M. L. Van Nice (b. 1945) nods to the Dewey Decimal System of organizing books and a quote from 17th-century writer Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Call numbers—logical yet nonsensical—reveal a menu of astrology (130), the Bible (220), astronomy (520), food/drink (641), and meals/table service (642).
This online exhibition series is created with gratitude to Curator Emerita Krystyna Wasserman, who assembled the museum’s rich collection of artists’ books during her 30-year career.
Text is adapted from object labels from the special exhibition The Book as Art: Artists’ Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts (October 27, 2006–February 4, 2007).
Inspired to teach someone how to create an artist’s book or to make one yourself? Check out NMWA’s Art, Books, and Creativity Curriculum.
Online exhibition team: Traci Christensen, Deborah L. Gaston, Adrienne L. Gayoso, Alicia Gregory, Ashley W. Harris, Mara Kurlandsky, Elizabeth Lynch, Adrienne Poon, and Emily Shaw.
Photos by Lee Stalsworth unless otherwise noted.