In the late summer of 2020, I visited a bookshop for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A book in the poetry section caught my eye because I recognized its design. The white spine of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) stood out from the shelf. I knew the book well, but I picked up this copy anyway. The cover’s smoothness felt familiar, as did the book’s heft, an effect of its pages being printed on thick, matte-coated paper. After David Hammons’s iconic sculpture In the Hood (1993) greeted me on the front, my hands flipped to pages 134 and 135. I took in a short breath.
Under a stanza of verse that reads, “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying,” there is a column of victims’ names: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks. I was doubly shocked. First, to see the names of recent victims appear in this book at all. Brooks had been killed by an Atlanta police officer on June 12, 2020, and the others had perished in the months before, all during what became a year of traumatic loss. But I was also shocked to see the names on this side (the right) of the facing-page layout. Their appearance here marked a terrible turn.
I had known from previous print versions that these pages contained a memorial to black victims of police and vigilante violence. Rankine made changes to the layout after the book was first published. A memorial for Jordan Russell Davis dated November 23, 2012, appeared in the first printing, and one for Michael Brown dated August 9, 2014, appeared in the second. For the third printing in November 2014, Rankine included the above-mentioned verse on page 135 and created a column on page 134 in which the phrase “In Memory of” repeats down the entire left side and four victims’ names appear on the right. Now without dates, the column fades from black to white and leaves the impression that more names could be added to it.
With this newer version of Citizen, I realized that the memorial continues on the facing page. Seeing the column here confirmed Rankine’s fade-to-white point that the list could go on forever. In the paradox of a memorial that continues to write itself, Rankine simultaneously remembers victims of racist violence and indicts the country’s persistent failure to arrest the imagination that incites such violence. I felt the weight and urgency of this reading while standing in the bookshop, copy in hand, a new impression left on me.
The copy of Citizen I picked up that day is not an obvious object of interest for book art criticism. It’s one of thousands of copies in the twenty-third printing of a book that, while published by an independent nonprofit, is industrially manufactured. It’s easy to purchase Citizen in person or online, though you can’t guarantee that you would pick up or receive this version. While challenging, the book is nonetheless very readable, which is why it is both a best seller and an award winner. But Rankine herself is not known as a book artist—a point of identification that critics, curators, and collectors use as a guide to value certain objects over others.
Yet, as I hope my experience with this text demonstrates, Citizen and its various printings, however they are encountered, ought to be part of book art discourse. My own circumstances encountering the copy are not incidental to this point. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and reckonings with racial inequality after the killing of Floyd have illuminated the need for book art criticism to rethink its protocols and parameters. At issue is not only the presumption of a privileged aura around a rare, if not singular, book object, but also the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color’s voices from the book art field. Self-perpetuating rationales for what constitutes an artist book and who identifies as a book artist are no longer tenable after witnessing the collective vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic and persistent racist violence. The present moment calls on book art criticism to reimagine itself around principles of access and inclusion.
To make room for this sort of encounter in book art, the institutional arrangements that built up the field’s terminology and discourse have to be put in check. Critics are well positioned to shift the terms of engagement. Their primary task would be to overcome the field’s built-in standards of judgment. To do this, they might bracket established criteria for valuing artist books and proceed from this open-ended question: How does the artist book?
The question invites the critic to describe an experience or encounter with an object, whatever its shape, characteristics, or labeling. By turning the word “book” into a verb, the question emphasizes that what’s important about an object is not its (self-)definition, but its doing, its affordances in the time and space of experience and encounter. This shift renders legible the affordances of Citizen in my own coincidental yet grounded situation of seeing it, touching it, and flipping through it in the summer of 2020. That my experience transpired in an everyday milieu is precisely what a focus on doing—on how an object appears to us and makes us think wherever and whenever we are—brings to light.
In addition to drawing attention to the book’s modalities, the question shifts the idea of the artist away from a strictly professional identity and toward a more expansive account of human craft and workmanship. By decoupling “artist” from “book” (and thereby sundering the possessive of the alternate phrases “artists’ book” and “artist’s book”), the question invites consideration of a wide array of actors whose artistic sensibilities are conducted through the book, conceived not so much as an empirical fact but as a medial concept. To the extent that any book books, we grant its maker(s) an artistic intent that supersedes institutional definitions of who counts as a book artist. This revisionary step would allow critics to write about creators of color like Rankine who have been left out of the discourse because their own sense of craft and purpose was never welcomed into the book art field. Now is the time to invite them in.
In so doing, book art critics would begin to open up the canon of objects available to their writing. Indeed, the very idea of a canon that runs from William Blake, William Morris, and Stéphane Mallarmé through figures associated with twentieth-century art movements and up to contemporary conceptual art would come under pressure when book is understood as an activity rather than a finished product. When critics attend to how any object books, then new artists of the book may be recognized beyond the frame of canonical legitimacy.
Consider the Codex Mendoza, a 142-page painted manuscript produced in Mexico City around the 1540s. Divided into three sections, the work documents preconquest Aztec civilization in word and image: political and military history, economics and taxes, and customs and cultural practices. While this information has made the Mendoza a well-known historical and anthropological source for reconstructing preconquest society, art historian Daniela Bleichmar emphasizes that the work is also an art object, revealing as it does the various forms of translation that went into producing it. The Mendoza was manufactured by a five-step process: Aztec artists painted figures on paper, informants gave oral accounts based on these figures, their speech was translated into Spanish by a Nahuatl-Spanish speaker, and that speech was then written down by scribes. Though this process inevitably distorted Indigenous perspectives for the benefit of a Spanish readership, Bleichmar shows how native artistry leaves traces that disrupt the imperial narrative. For instance, in a vignette depicting a painter-scribe teaching his son his craft, Bleichmar restores the Mendoza painter’s acknowledgment of his own art practice, particularly in the decision to color the codex black and red, “which the Nahuas used to refer to pictorial writing, to painted books more generally, and, more broadly still, to knowledge or wisdom.” By representing this tradition of Indigenous booking in the Mendoza, the artist decolonizes the very epistemic structures that have been propped up by Western books.
Another case where marginalized artists repurposed codex formats centers on nineteenth-century friendship albums. Black print-and-visual-culture scholar Jasmine Nichole Cobb notes that these objects, adorned with decorative covers and made up of blank pages to be filled in, were mass-produced for middle-class white women who wished to cultivate sentimental attachments in the industrial age. In its conception and manufacture, the friendship album “excluded antebellum African Americans.” Nonetheless, free Black women in the Northeast were able to access the format, which they used to foster a sense of community along intersecting racial, class, and gender lines. The resulting albums belie the format’s nonpolitical status. When prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, for example, visited the Philadelphia home of Amy Cassey, they left behind a personal record of their public commitment to the cause in her album. Just as subversive to the format were more intimate exchanges between Black women friends. Philadelphia activist, teacher, and artist Sarah Mapps Douglass left in Cassey’s album “a painting of the underside of a wild pink rose with four lines of copied poetry” that attest to the speaker’s love of a flower. For Cobb, the image-text combination “signals not only one black woman’s love of other black women but also the larger project of recognition at work among black women readers who could ‘interpret’ such complex contributions.” By rerouting a print commodity to suit their interests and needs, Cassey and Douglass activate the friendship album’s latent curatorial and artistic potential in ways consonant with booking.
As these examples demonstrate, moving away from a concept of the book artist affords critics the opportunity to engage a wider array of artists who book. The point isn’t just one of historical significance. Consider literary critic and media theorist N. Katherine Hayles’s reading of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), a book with “die-cut holes so extensive that the pages resemble lace; indeed, a reader must take care not to tear them, carefully lifting each and folding it back when read.” Hayles builds on Jessica Pressman’s idea that, in a post-Internet age where literary experience risks being flattened by the seamless flow of digital information, fiction writers embrace an “aesthetic of bookishness,” a practice of “entic[ing] readers to become intimate with the novels’ bodies through physical manipulations of their printed forms.” Tree of Codes is a story composed by erasure, with the new text emerging out of holes made to the source text, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (1934) in English translation from Poish. While Hayles gleans narrative complexity from Foer’s experiment, she is equally attentive to the “embodied senses” required to engage the object: namely, “tactile sensations, muscular manipulations, kinesthetic perceptions, and proprioceptive feedback.” The reading experience afforded by Tree of Codes thus traverses the mind-body dualism, highlighting the fragility of the analogue and the ways absence creates meaning. The book is a work of mourning and of remaking, and its aesthetic resonates with that of Toni Morrison’s scrapbook The Black Book (1974), Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), and Anne Carson’s book-in-a-box Nox (2010).
By leading with the question of how something books and following that line of inquiry to conceive the object’s manufacture as an artistic act, critics stand to add to the canon new and diverse genealogies of the medial concept of the book. Finally, then, I turn to literary critic and poet Edgar Garcia, who reflects on what it means to treat non-codex forms as part of the book’s history. He begins his commentary on khipu, the knot writings of Indigenous Andean people, also known as quipu, with an acknowledgement that European conquest and colonial violence imposed illiteracy on the “semantics of [this] sign system,” such that “nobody today can read the khipu.” Yet Garcia takes seriously the claims by Chilean artist, poet, and activist Cecilia Vicuña that, despite being cut off from meaning, khipu contains within its medial logic—a combination of “texture, textile, and text”—the capacity to “animate speech across its colonial interdict.” He contends that in the “sensuousness of the knots” themselves there survives a witness to erasure and persistence, a paradox that defines the contemporary affordances of khipu. By thus engaging with the anonymous non-codex media of the past, Vicuña frames her works, whether object- or performance-based, as “primary material contents for an ongoing khipu archive.” Garcia’s subsequent analysis of Vicuña’s QUIPOem (1997) insists on placing the book along a continuum of medial concepts, not least the weaving and sculpture of Indigenous semiosis.
These four examples of booking point to a future for book art criticism that is more inclusive of different perspectives and more expansive across periods and aesthetic categories. Like myself, the critics whose work I draw from would not consider themselves experts in book art. Yet their attention to objects’ modalities—to the book as a doing, not a being—has the potential to transform how critics describe books’ aesthetics in historical context and in everyday life. Far from a static or enclosed object, the book as a function of its situated modalities invites as many critical reflections on its meaning as there are makers and creators of books.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, 23rd printing (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014), p. 135. According to the publisher’s FAQ page as part of a teaching guidance called “Citizen in the Classroom,” Citizen had twenty-two separate printings since its original printing in 2014 through August 2020. While the bulk of the book’s content did not change between printings, the changes to page 134 have been the most prominent. See https://www.graywolfpress.org/citizen-classroom#faq for more.
Katy Waldman, “The New Printing of Citizen Adds a Haunting Message about Police Brutality,” Slate, January 7, 2015, https://slate.com/culture/2015/01/claudia-rankines-citizen-new-printing-mourns-michael-brown-eric-garner-black-victims-of-police-brutality.html.
The field’s canon is surveyed in Riva Castleman, A Century of Artists Books (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), and Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary, 1995). Castleman is the exhibition catalogue for MoMA’s survey of modern book art, which showed from October 1994 to January 1995. In addition to the relative lack of diversity among the artists represented, both works endorse a periodization of the field that limits the spectrum of objects they consider.
Daniela Bleichmar, “Painting the Aztec Past in Early Colonial Mexico: Translation and Knowledge Production in the Codex Mendoza,” Renaissance Quarterly 72 (2019), pp. 1379-80, 1364.
Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “‘Forget Me Not’: Free Black Women and Sentimentality,” MELUS 40, no. 3 (Fall 2015), pp. 28, 34-35, 38.
N. Katherine Hayles, “Combining Close and Distant Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and the Aesthetic of Bookishness,” PMLA 128, no. 1 (January 2013), pp. 227, 231.
Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglpyhs, and Khipu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), pp. 185, 186, 188.