The Book as Art: Unbound Books
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.
Books without traditional bindings include scrolls—long, rolled sheets considered to be the earliest book form—and loose leaf formats. Artists who make unbound books have the freedom to explore materials, scale, page sequencing, and the containers that hold their creations.
Women around the world experience similar life events. This universality inspired Inez Storer (b. 1933) to make The Uneventful Life of Doña Carmen y Constanza, which highlights the rites of passage—birth, marriage, motherhood, and death—of the imagined Doña Carmen. Storer created naïve illustrations by layering pattern, image, and color with Mexican oilcloths as the printed background.
Soap Story tells the true story of an unwed mother who is ostracized and barred from the only laundry facility in her Italian town. A wealthy doctor hires her to wash and cook, and they ultimately fall in love, marry, and have children. Angela Lorenz (b. 1965) silkscreened text on linen and encased the pages in six bars of soap. Readers must enact the protagonist’s labor to release her tale.
Taking the form of nine pages from a journal, Seven Windows situates readers as voyeurs following the daily activities of Madam Ching, a former alter ego of Renée Stout (b. 1958). Madam Ching brews perfumes and love potions, buys and sells exotic herbs and ingredients, and reads letters from loved ones. Stout included drawings and collages with stamps and cigar labels.
Ellen Sollod (b.1951) made Des vacances en Europe (European vacation) after a long trip to Italy and France. She included found objects gathered during her travels—bits of paper, ticket stubs, and fabrics—with monotype prints and collage to create a chronology of the experience. The loose pages are read sequentially, starting with a flight across the ocean and ending with her return.
In Teatimes, Allison Cooke Brown (b. 1950) recorded her daily ritual of pouring a cup of tea and writing in her diary. From a case that replicates a Salada tea box, readers select and unfold an empty tea bag and discover a fragment of a journal entry. Material that once held tea leaves now reveals handwritten personal reflections in sepia ink.
After the September 11 attacks, Emily Martin (b. 1953) found herself thinking about her family and seeking solace. She kept revisiting the idea of pie as comfort food, and she prepared one in the form of Eight Slices of Pie. A real pie plate holds Martin’s creation, which is made of wedge pages resembling pie slices. Each slice contains personal memories and pie recipes referencing her loved ones.
“She keeps her secrets in an amber jar so the light won’t fade them” is a chronological collage about people who inspired M. Jordan Tierney (b. 1963)—those in the artist’s life and writers known to her only through their words. The back of the scroll includes quotations from authors including Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) and poems by Tierney. This book is a conversation between Tierney and her muses.
Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) wrote 23 poems for Caroline, a book that honors the memory of German poet Karoline von Günderode (1780–1806), who took her own life at age 26. Oppenheim’s poems echo the life of the woman who inspired them through fleeting impressions of landscapes, weather, and personal encounters. Delicate etchings and embossings accompany the words.
As a teenager, Susan Huggins Leopard (b. 1948) grew interested in the work of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Past Surmise: Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson, merges the poet’s words and Leopard’s collected images to celebrate “small miracles of nature and being.” The book is composed of broadsides, loose pages that recall historical posters and advertisements, with antique type letterpress printing.
Suburban expansion, population density, and loss of undeveloped land motivated Susan Goethel Campbell (b. 1956) to make RIM. She surveyed residents living in a 12-mile-wide ring forming the circumference outside of Detroit about what they liked about their home’s location. Magnetized painted pages reveal responses and form a hollow circle, representing the impact of unmitigated sprawl on cities.
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.