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The pages are stained red, blue, yellow and orange and have been cut into strips.

Detail of Oil Matter: May Be New York City, March '85 by Christiane Baillargeon, 1990.



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History of a Concept

Two schools of thought lay claim to the term "artists' books", each in its own way. Each comes from a different era and continent, and is shaped by the methods of book production, ideas and artistic aesthetics of the time.

The term livre d'artiste was coined in France at the end of the 19th century to describe books produced by painters who used more accessible printing techniques such as lithography to reproduce their images mechanically and various other book publishing techniques. The tradition of the illustrated book was well established in bibliophily at the time. But the livre de peintre—the "painter's book" in the French tradition—was different because it represented the refusal of some artists of that era1 to restrict themselves to using images as anecdotal illustrations to the text, or to accept that their creations served only as foils to the literary work. This new type of book proposed an interplay between the visual and written elements, originating in the artist's desire to participate fully and completely in the editorial endeavour.

The second and more contemporary meaning of the term "artist's book" emerged in the 1960s among artists involved in the European neo-Dadaist and the American conceptual movements.2 In this case, the artist's book was comparable to the mass medium of the book, and borrowed from its methods of production and distribution. Its construction was a deliberate departure from the book aesthetics prized by bibliophiles, and its value was based solely on its production costs.

These definitions show that there are two very different interpretations of the term "artist's book" emanating from two equally distinct philosophical viewpoints. The main difficulty in defining the term is based on the fact that, in French, the same term is used to designate various genres, and a specific vocabulary has never been developed for each genre. The English language, on the other hand, is more suited to terminological innovation3, and more adaptable to changes in the way that the artist's book was described conceptually and stylistically.

The production of the artist's book in Canada truly reflects its cultural influences. Books by Quebec artists were initially inspired by the French approach, while those produced in English Canada were influenced first by the British private press movement and later by conceptual art, which dominated the art world between 1960 and 1970. It is helpful to look back over certain periods in Canadian history to understand more fully the foundation on which today's artist's book is based.

Early in the 20th century, small-scale publishing in Canada was done mainly by private presses and contributed to the development of the illustrated book.

Book in front of the portfolio

Metropolitan Museum by Edwin H. Holgate.


In 1931, artist Edwin Holgate and writer Robert Choquette produced Metropolitan Museum in Montréal, considered a groundbreaking book because it was an artistic work produced without a publisher. Moreover, the names of the artist and author appeared in letters of the same size in the frontispiece, demonstrating, in the tradition of the French livre d'artiste, that one should no longer dominate the other. This period also saw the merger of the École technique (1907) and the École de reliure de Montréal4 (1937) to form the École des arts graphiques (1942). The presence of outstanding artists and craftspeople5 gave new impetus to the teaching of book arts and encouraged young artists like Roland Giguère to break into the contemporary art scene. Shortly after Refus Global was released in 1948, Giguère—a poet, an artist and a typographer—founded Éditions Erta, which inspired a revival in the publication of artists' books and the establishment of some private press6 that are still in operation today.

Opened face downwards, a royal blue cover with white print in the shape of a diamond is on the top left corner of the left side and bottom right corner of the right side. A black and white image of two gloves on a wooden plank.

Stoned Gloves, published by Coach House Press.


Toronto's Coach House Press was established in 1965.7 This non-conformist company was inspired by the ideals of that era's counter-culture movement. While it focused mainly on avant-garde literature, the company also published experimental and short-lived documents, including some artists' books. It produced such books by hand and in small runs that rarely exceeded 750 copies. Between 1968 and 1975, as a further expression of its intent to explore new approaches to producing and distributing books, Coach House Press left the names of the designers and production artists out of the colophons of its books.

On the left-hand page, a black and white photograph of the front of a car and the entrance to a house, various forest vegetation in the background, and a thumb of a human left hand on the edge of the picture. On the right-hand page, a black and white photograph of the front of a car, a speed limit sign to the upper right of it, forest vegetation and a dirt road in the background, and the thumb of a human right hand on the edge of the page.

Cover to Cover by Michael Snow.


In 1967, with its focus on conceptual art, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design8 (NSCAD) began to emerge as one of the most avant-garde schools in North America. The combination of a visit in 1969 by art critic Lucy Lippard9, the training given by innovative artists, and the purchase of an offset press kicked off the creation of NSCAD Press. From 197210 (NSCAD) began to emerge as one of the most avant-garde schools in North America. The company published 26 titles, including the writings of internationally acclaimed artists in the fields of performance, music and visual arts.11 These publications include Cover to Cover by Michael Snow, published in 1975 and still considered emblematic of this artistic movement.

Rectangular light blue book with a bold number 8 printed in black in a circle, the name of the artist is underneath, and a white label with the book's library call number is at the bottom-left corner.

Blue Book 8: Dec. 7, 1988, Oct. 2, 1989, published by Art Metropole.


At the same time, a group of Toronto artists called General Idea12 founded Art Metropole (1974), one of the first artist-run centres in Canada dedicated to the documentation, archival storage and distribution of all images. Since its launch more than 25 years ago, this bookstore/gallery has become an international forum for the conceptual art network. In December 1975, it presented one of the first major exhibitions of artists' books, entitled Books by Artists 1960-1975.

Whether born of individual or collective efforts, these periods in Canada's history testify to the creative vitality of Canadian artists and highlight the original contribution they have made to major international trends in contemporary art. The artist's book is now part of Canada's cultural world and its current incarnation reflects all the energy and innovation of the creations that came before and provided inspiration.

1 Édouard Manet, Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard.

2 The Swiss artist Dieter Roth, American Edward Ruscha and the avant-garde movement Fluxus.

3 Bookwork, book as form, book art, art in bookform, book in artform, etc.

4 Founded by the bookbinder Louis-Philippe Beaudoin.

5 Albert Dumouchel, Édouard Sullivan, and Arthur Gladu.

6 Éditions de l'Obsidienne, Éditions Art global, Éditions de la Frégate, Éditions Goglin, etc.

7 Coach House Press was founded by printer Stan Bevington and Wayne Clifford.

8 Under its new president, artist Gary Neil Kennedy.

9 Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. New York: Lucy Lippard/Praeger, 1973, 272 pp. (see Bibliography).

10 Kaspar Koenig was publisher until 1976, followed by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh from 1978 to the mid-1980s.

11 Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Reich, Claes Oldenburg, Hans Haacke and Donald Judd.

12 AA Bronson (Michael Tims), Felix Partz (Ron Gabe) and Jorge Zontal (Slobodan Saia-Levy/Jorge Saia).