PRINT May 1982


Real Lush

THE TERM “ARTISTS’ BOOKS” seems to be applied more and more confusingly to anything in an art context that resembles a book. I would like to attempt to define this and some related terms. On one of the first occasions that the phrase “artists’ books” was used, it was implied that it referred to “books made by artists.”1 I have no quarrel with this definition, but would like to expand it so that artists’ books are defined as those books made or conceived by artists. The reason for this addition is that few so-called artists’ books are actually the result of a single person’s labor, even though one person may be responsible for the idea. Not many artists are involved in the entire process of bookmaking. Photographers, typesetters, printers, binders, and others frequently play a part in the production of the book. However, I am still a little uncomfortable with the term. One does not talk of “artists’ video,” or “artists’ photography”—so why “artists’ books”? Genres of art are not normally prefaced by their makers’ professions. If, for example, a general practitioner writes poetry the poetry is not labeled “general practitioner’s poetry”; it is just “poetry.” So why not just “books” or “book art”? After all, there is a strong tendency for the visual arts to be categorized by medium; hence video art, fiber art, body art, computer art, performance art, mail art, and so on.

I think there were two reasons for the arrival and acceptance of the term “artists’ books.” There was a definite need to stake out territory that excluded the moribund “art-of-the-book” tradition, as well as the art-book industry. Secondly, there was the implicit suggestion that artists’ books were just a sideline for artists whose principal activity was, say, painting or sculpture. But the specificity of the term was undermined by the fact that most collections or exhibitions of artists’ books almost routinely included works made by musicians, poets, and designers, even choreographers and philosophers.

Within this territory of books made or conceived by artists there are also artworks in book form, which is not the same thing at all. If we can leave the term “artists’ books” alone—since it seems, for all its faults, to be here to stay—we can at least make a distinction between artists’ books and artists’ bookworks. Ulises Carrión has defined bookworks as “books in which the book form, a coherent sequence of pages, determines conditions of reading that are intrinsic to the work.”2 OK. It should be noted that Carrión’s definition implicitly proposes that “bookworks” include books not made by visual artists at all. It also becomes possible to speak of “book artists” and not mean, by using this term, craftspeople who are concerned with binding, paper, and type to the exclusion of content.

The term “artists’ books” has been used to describe unique, or one-of-a-kind, books or book objects. These books tend to exhibit more painterly or sculptural qualities than those conceived for mass replication. Unique books are closer to the painting and sculpture traditions in that they generally emphasize the physicality of the book. They often amount to a series of paintings or collages bound into a volume; they are frequently solid objects constructed from a single substance, or a variety of substances. Multiple books might be said to be closer to the printmaking and photographic traditions, in that the question of the artists’ attitude to replication is more significant. Some multiple books do not come into existence until the presses begin to run, since there are artists who actually make decisions regarding composition after the commencement of the printing process. While multiple and unique books can often be distinguished by their look, it is primarily a difference of philosophy that separates their makers. Certain unique books stay within the craft tradition, while other unique books share the precious-object status of paintings and sculpture. Unique books reject the Gutenberg revolution; they deny the potential of proliferation. One of the thrusts behind the creation of multiple artists’ books, on the other hand, was the desire to make art more accessible through multiplication. Few art forms are geographically and physically more accessible than the book, which can fit into the pocket and can travel through the mail almost anywhere in the world. Books can be individually worn out; the whole idea is that there is always another one. There is no one original and the book can be reprinted; furthermore, each copy of a bookwork is the artwork.

Book objects very often only look like books—they may be solid objects which cannot be opened, let alone read; they become sculpture. Unique books can still be bookworks when, for example, the unique maquette for a multiple book is virtually identical to one of the multiple copies that it generates, and therefore shares those properties of the multiple excepting only its expendability. Multiple bookworks, as opposed to multiple artists’ books, are not as common as one might suppose. Few bookmakers produce works that are really dependent upon the book form. Many people gather pages together, but few conceive their work in terms of the medium. Which is one good reason to welcome:




Real Lush by Kevin Osborn was printed at The Writer’s Center Offset Works, Glen Echo, Maryland, from March through August 1981.3 So the book tells us. There are over three hundred copies; it is an example of the multiple bookwork. Real Lush is nearly 4 inches high, 5 1/2 inches across, and 2 inches thick. The 315 leaves of the book proper have been placed between six silvered endpapers, and a stiffer red cover. The title “Real Lush” is lightly embossed in silvery blue on the spine and on the front cover; it looks a real lush book. The pages are held together by two bolts, but the leaves of the book were pushed to one side of the vertical before the bolt holes were punched out, with the result that the bolts fix the book so that in cross section it is rhombic rather than oblong. One might surmise from Osborn’s other work that he was simply indulging his penchant for acute and obtuse angles in binding the book in this way. In fact it becomes apparent that this binding is actually functional; the pages comprise a very substantial flip book. Since Real Lush is primarily a visual book, and since several of its images progress from left to right, right to left, or spread out, the flip-book format enhances the motion of these images. But the book is no simple quick-giggle flip book.

Before attempting to describe the book and its imagery, it is worth drawing attention to the endpapers, for just inside the front and back covers is the reduced reproduction of a page from a book made nearly 500 years ago. The book is Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or “The Strife of Love in a Dream,” by Francesco Colonna, and it was first printed by Aldus in Venice in 1499. The presence of this image suggests several significant lines of thought. In his history of illustrated books Frank Weitenkampf declares Hypnerotomachia to be “perhaps the finest example of the harmoniously planned book.”4 It is indeed a fine wedding of type and woodcuts within the space of the page. By referring in his book to Hypnerotomachia, Kevin Osborn declares his awareness of the tradition of the harmoniously planned book. But Real Lush is unmistakably of our time. It is not some over-diluted remnant of an ancient tradition; it is in every way an artwork of the 1980s in book form and a vigorous example of an artist’s bookwork. C. G. Jung said that the Hypnerotomachia “is a picture of the Middle Ages just beginning to turn into modern times by way of the Renaissance—a transition between two eras, and therefore deeply interesting to the world of today, which is still more transitional in character.”5 Real Lush is similarly an artist’s response to our own period of rapid transition.

The page of Hypnerotomachia that is twice reproduced in Real Lush shows the woodcut in which Poliphilus, stretched out under a tree by some water, falls asleep and begins to dream. Presumably, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Osborn’s book also records a dream.

Real Lush is composed of 35 signatures, each of which is made up of nine leaves. The right-hand pages carry the narrative, the left-hand pages bear a sequence of nine related, apparently topographical images, repeated throughout the book with minor variations in a central episode. Every signature in the book carries a set of nine images, printed in a silvery gray, which give the book a recurring rhythm and over which are printed other images. The first page of every signature bears an outlined human figure simply drawn according to a system of proportion. In the bottom left corner of the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth pages of each signature are small drawings of male heads representing different racial types. In the bottom right corner of each page are two small figures, apparently ancient Egyptian and Nubian, wrestling. In each signature they start vertically and finish horizontally. If one flips the pages of Real Lush, the wrestling figures are constantly falling only to rise again, and they thus contribute to the overall rhythm. In addition there is another sequence demonstrating the bandaging and unbandaging of a hand. All of these sequences literally underlie, signature by signature, the images subsequently printed over them, to generate the heartbeat of the book.

The overprinted sequences vary enormously, from landscapes, to runners, to the huge head of an undernourished third-world child, to various animals, to a kiss, to fragmentary texts. In all there are about twenty basic sequences of images, which are sometimes printed in variant forms, mostly in color. Every signature carries the basic image sequence, but over this may be printed as many as twelve other images. Each page normally has two to five layers of imagery, and each image sequence is normally printed in a different color or combination of colors, and can therefore be separately deciphered and charted.

Most image sequences are repeated between five and ten times throughout the book, and appear each time in different combinations of the other sequences. Several of the sequences involve movement; thus runners sprint across pages, a seagull flaps and glides, an iron sweeps across, and in one sequence the military ominously rush in. The threading of these particular sequences through the book gives it a kind of mobile continuity, which is further enhanced when the pages are allowed to flip quickly by. The very last sequence in the book shows the gull gliding serenely up and out of the narrative, leaving behind the various occurrences and commotions.

Describing the contents and mechanics of Real Lush, however, does not begin to explain its dynamic. The essence of the book is the orchestration of the variant image sequences to form the whole, which can in turn be experienced fast or slow, in and out, forwards and backwards. The book starts with the overlaying of just a few images and is therefore initially easy to comprehend and to follow; then, gradually, there are more overprintings, more color, more noise, and more difficulties in deciphering sequences. The tempo of the book is well judged; after several signatures of densely packed images, there will emerge from a less complicated signature an image sequence that had been barely visible amidst a welter of other images, but that is now revealed. Indeed, the whole book involves a concealment and revelation of its elements.

Hypnerotomachia is a romance which narrates the pursuit of Polia by Poliphilus, their union, and eventually the vanishing of Polia when Poliphilus is awoken from his dream by the song of a nightingale. While including the fantastic, the story is also rich in the imagery of Colonna’s time. Osborn employs the imagery of our time, frequently recycled from postcards, photographs, advertising, illustrations, and graphics. With regard to narrative, however, in the case of Real Lush one can make no capsule summary. There are five fragmented texts seeded and repeated throughout Real Lush; these give the most explicit indication of a narrative. They all revolve around the perceptions of a young man. In one text the young man reflects upon his life, and refers to “the odors of dreams”—“lifting off”—“from pages of ink”; also to the fact that “he liked to escape into books where love is struggle and work is mating.” Two further texts involve the man’s mother and father, and one other describes a 21 year-old woman. Although one of the sequences of images is of a kiss in increasing close-up, this and the reference to the young woman are practically the only suggestions of romance in Real Lush, so any attempt to set up an analogy with the theme of Hypnerotomachia will not take us very far. While the verbal clues suggest the odyssey of a young man, they are not definitive; perhaps only the idea of dreaming is common to both books. Certainly flipping the pages gives rise to fleeting dreamlike images which remain in the mind rather than in the eye.

The fact that Real Lush is open to interpretation is one of its attractions; each page or sequence also sparks its own associations. A strong image, or a short pithy phrase, is repeated in different contexts as the permutations of printings work themselves out. And each takes on new meanings or associations by virtue of different juxtapositions or superimpositions. The general impression given by the book is of a life lived in our time. There is urgency, there is tranquillity. There is the rough and the smooth. There is love, there is violence. “Loose the violence. Lose the beauty.”

Clive Phillpot is Director of the Library, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and writes on art.


1. “Foreword,” Artists Books, Philadelphia: Moore College of Art. 1973, p. 5.

2. Ulises Carrión, “Bookworks Revisited,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter, vol. 11, no. 1, March-April 1980, p. 8.

3. Real Lush costs $25.00, plus $3.00 postage and packing in the U.S., from Kevin Osborn, P.O. Box 11147, Arlington, Va. 22209.

4. Frank Weitenkarnpf, The Illustrated Book, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938, p. 44.

5. C.G. Jung, “Foreword,” in Linda Fierz-David, The Dream of Poliphilo, New York: Pantheon, 1950. pp. xiii-xiv.