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Artists’ books bring text to life through art

By Jacqueline Muñoz

The definition of what constitutes an artist’s book varies significantly depending on the social or critical circle observing the book.  Is it an artist’s book, a livre d’artiste, an artist’s illustrated book, bookart, pop art, or a fine press book?  If one were to look up the term and read any of the numerous essays about it, there would certainly be canonical titles offered and artists’ names as well—Henri Matisse, Ed Ruscha, and even William Blake, to name a few.  Seeing these three artists of vastly different periods, styles, and mediums is proof that a single definition would not suit all audiences.  In the preface in Artists’ Books: a Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Dick Higgins writes, “There is a myriad of possibilities concerning what the artist’s book can be; the danger is that we will think of it as just this and not that.  A firm definition will, by its nature, serve only to exclude many artists’ books which one would want to include.”

Although the history of artists’ books is as vigorously debated as the definition, artists’ books truly began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular with the idea of the “democratic multiple”—well suited to the social and political climate of the times. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and George Brecht’s An Anthology of Chance Operations are just a couple of examples from this period housed at the Ransom Center.  Though it may be difficult to define artists’ books, often times you will know one when you see it because they can be quite unique—like a work of art.  Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books offers one distinction as “books made as direct expressions of an artist’s point of view, with the artist involved in the conception, production, and execution of the work.”  A few of the more “artful” examples in the Ransom Center collection include Clair Van Vliet’s Aura and Countercode archeo-logic by Timothy Ely.  Some of the characteristics present can include plates or illustrations cut from wood, linoleum, stone, or even metal; the bindings can be made of leather, wood, metal, etc.; the paper can be handmade, stitched, rolled, cut, or folded; and there is no limit to shape, size, and sometimes even sequence. Some artists’ books are even designed to be shuffled like a deck of cards and read in any order.

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  At the Ransom Center there are numerous examples of artists’ books, ranging from Henri Matisse’s famous Jazz to Henry Miller’s heartfelt Insomnia or the Devil at Large to smaller press items like the collaboration of artist Steven Sorman with poet Lee Blessing in Lessons from the Russian. There are even a few gems in the collection that have until now escaped categorization as artists’ books.  We are reviewing seminal bibliographies that address the evolving definitions of the genre and plan to revise and expand available resources to make the books in the collection more accessible.  To search for artists’ books in the Ransom Center’s collections, access the UT Library Catalog: type in “artists’ books” (in quotation marks) and limit the results to the Harry Ransom Center.  There is also a checklist of artists’ books available in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms.

Lynne Maphies also contributed to this blog post.


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In the Galleries: John Speed’s Postdeluvian Genealogy from the First Edition of the King James Bible

By Io Montecillo

Historian John Speed (1542–1629) worked with Hebrew scholar Hugh Broughton to create a 36-page genealogy to accompany the first printing of the King James Bible. The genealogy traced “euery family and tribe with the line of Our Sauior Jesus Christ obserued from Adam to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Speed’s genealogy (1611) portrays the then-popular view that Noah’s sons went on to populate specific regions of the world: Shem to Asia, Japheth to Europe, and Ham to Africa. In the Americas, pro-slavery advocates used the “curse of Ham” to justify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.

Speed’s genealogy and other manuscripts related to the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.


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Alice in Burnt Orange: Salvador Dalí’s rendition of the Lewis Carroll classic at the Ransom Center

By Sarah Sussman

Sarah Sussman is a graduate student in the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Though currently writing about nineteenth-century American Spiritualism, she is interested in Surrealist art, children’s literature, and British literature as well.

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel that stretches the imagination and playfully defies logic has been adapted by a number of artists throughout the years, but perhaps none have been so well-suited to put their own spin on the English author’s topsy-turvy adventure as Salvador Dalí. The surrealist artist’s galas might have rivaled the Mad Hatter’s tea parties, and his paradoxical identification of himself as a sane madman would have put him at home as one of Carroll’s whimsical characters.

Dalí’s illustrations for the novel come more than 100 years after its original printing with John Tenniel’s images. Although many will be familiar with Tenniel (a number of his images can be seen reproduced today on all sorts of Alice ephemera), the Dalí prints are far less common. Viewers will be struck by the artist’s intensely vivid, color-saturated heliogravure with woodblock prints. They offer a new way to read Alice’s Adventures, from a twentieth-century perspective only Dalí could provide—from an outlandishly sized, wide-eyed, dashing white rabbit, to dripping fluorescent mushrooms, to larger-than-life butterflies and, yes, even one of the artist’s signature melting clocks. It seems especially fitting that this portfolio is at The University of Texas at Austin, because Dali’s edition is highlighted entirely in burnt orange, from the portfolio’s burnt orange box, to its burnt orange typographical accents, to its featured frontispiece of Alice, looming large in frenetically etched orange lines, carrying a jump rope or a hoop against a cloud-scudded sky.

Published in New York by Maecenas Press–Random House in 1969, the portfolio-style book features 12 prints to correspond with each chapter of Carroll’s book and an original signed etching as the frontispiece. The Ransom Center’s copy is signed and one of 2,500 portfolios. Dalí’s rendition is a well-paired match for Carroll’s adventure and a lively part of the Ransom Center’s holdings.

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Clues help date pair of Hebrew Bibles with common thread

By Paul Johnson

Behold this pair of Bibles. They were both owned by Andrew Fletcher (1653–1716), noted as the “Scotch patriot” in the Dictionary of National Biography. Fletcher had an interest in politics and letters but is often remembered today for his extensive library, believed to be the finest library in Scotland at that time. His distinctive signature can be seen on both images and in a Ransom Center copy of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611).

The first image is of the title page of a 1525 Hebrew Bible printed in Venice by Antwerp-born painter Daniel Bomberg. This was his third Hebrew Bible and the first to present the Masora, critical notes made on manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures before the tenth century. It is dated ‫ה”רפ on the title page, indicating 1525. The colophon, shown in the second image, is dated ח”רפ, but Darlow and Moule (no. 5086, Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1903) cite C.D. Ginsburg, who believes that the letter ח was substituted in error for the letter ה, thus changing the date from 1525 to 1528.

Also shown is a second Hebrew Bible. It was printed by Christopher Plantin of Antwerp in 1566. Leon Voet’s extensive bibliography on the Plantin Press [no. 650, The Plantin Press (1555–1589): A Bibliography of the Works Printed and Published by Christopher Plantin at Antwerp and Leiden, 1980] notes that the matrices for the type used in this Bible came to Plantin from his partner, Cornelis van Bomberghen, whose uncle was Daniel Bomberg, the printer of the 1525 Hebrew Bible. So, the two Bibles have a common thread.

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Win a signed copy of an Alan Furst book

By Alicia Dietrich

Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska
Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska

Alan Furst, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, has added a new novel to his list of historical espionage tales set in pre-World War II Europe. Mission to Paris (Random House) follows the story of Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl who travels to Paris in 1938 to make a movie and participate in an informal spy service being run out of the American embassy in Paris.

To celebrate this publication, the Ransom Center is giving away a signed copy of a book by Furst. Visit the Center’s Facebook page to enter to win.

Read a Q&A with Furst about the new novel and his writing process in the Wall Street Journal.

Need more for your Furst fix? Cultural Compass has compiled a list of interviews, videos, recommended reading, and more.

-Watch videos of Furst discussing how he develops atmosphere, the importance of first drafts, his archive at the Ransom Center, and why he writes spy novels.

-Furst’s novel Spies of Warsaw is being turned into a miniseries starring David Tenant and Janet Montgomery by the BBC. Listen to Furst read from the novel.

-View a list of books recommended by Furst

Read a Q&A with Furst

-Read “Interrogation of a Spy Novelist,” which originally appeared in The Alcalde magazine.

In the Galleries: Anatomy of the King James Bible title page

By Io Montecillo

The title page of the 1611 King James Bible is the first title page of an English Bible to feature a depiction of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though this Bible is traditionally called the “King James,” the title page does not announce the king’s patronage by featuring his image. View a full-size version of this image here.

The imposing architectural frame, suggestive of a church edifice, is full of human figures, including Moses and Aaron, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. Traditionally, Jesus had twelve Apostles, but the thirteen depicted here include Matthias, who replaced Judas after his betrayal (Acts 1:26), and Paul, who described himself as an Apostle in Romans 1. Each apostle is represented by a symbolic attribute, though not all are easily identifiable.

The first edition’s title page and other materials pertaining to the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

New book explores "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace"

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace."
Cover of "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace."

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a collection of essays that examine Wallace, his writing, and his place in literary history, has been published by University of Iowa Press.

Wallace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

Molly Schwartzburg, former Cline Curator of Literature at the Ransom Center and current curator at Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, contributed an essay about how Wallace’s manuscripts and personal library were handled and processed after they arrived at the Ransom Center.

Other contributors include Don DeLillo, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and David Lipsky, and Wallace’s Little, Brown editor, Michael Pietsch. The book was edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou.