Every trick in the book for wealthy collectors

A look inside the small, happy world of artists' books: one-of-a-kind, handmade books that combine original poetry and visual art...

Running down Mark Wagner's pale arm, from just above his elbow to the end of his little finger, is a row of tattooed blue dots and lines marking inches and half-inches. "Is it accurate? Sure," Wagner said of his ruler tattoo. "And this way I always have it handy.”

Wagner is one of the founding members of the Booklyn Artists Alliance in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The collective makes artists' books that are at once accessible and marginal, desired by wealthy collectors and made by frugal artists, some crafted to last, othersintended to fall apart.

Comprised of one-of-a-kind handmade books that combine original poetry and visual art, the genre is so diverse as to prompt questions about whether it has any limits.

Booklyn's pieces demonstrate the variety of artists' books. Some books, like Wagner's book “Tag,“ contain no printing, only hand-lettered stitched pages, photographs and clothing tags. Dylan Graham's “Library in a Book” consists of a dozen tiny, stapled books arranged on miniature fabric shelves.

One of Marshall Weber's books has paper made with human hair. Some books are triangular. Some artists make only edible books. Once you dispense with the notion that a book has to look like a book, it seems, most anything can be a book.

Originating in the early 20th century along with the Dada and Surrealist art movements, artists' books have steadily grown in popularity throughout the last decade.

The book arts are related to sculpture and painting, but the genre today stands on its own, said Toniya Tidline, book historian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Library and Information Studies.

In 1980, the Library of Congress adopted the term in its list of established subjects. Currently, the library has 155 works in its collection, according to the library’s Web site.

At least 113 libraries in the United States collect artists' books, said Jamie Munkatchy, also a founding Booklyn member.

The book arts scene is so small that few people, except for those either making the books or collecting them, know much about it. But the genre has become slightly more mainstream over the last few years, especially as private collectors start to realize the potential value of artists' books. Prices can range from $2 for a photocopied item to $90,000 for a rolled work on paper, Munkatchy said.

Booklyn alone represents more than 60 artists from half a dozen countries, including Germany and Korea. Partly through Booklyn's efforts, good book artists can make a modest living by selling their books to libraries.

Marshall Weber is the Booklyn member in charge of selling books to libraries. "They're far less affected by markets; there's a lot less speculation," he said, comparing libraries with the rest of the art world.

There's another reason, too, for book artists to sell their books to libraries. If artists' books aren't handled, then they aren't really fulfilling their purpose as books, Weber said. And because they are works of art with something to say, they should be accessible to as many people as want to see them.

Because of this quirk of the medium, the natural place for an artist book is not in a museum, placed behind glass and protected from greasy, covetous hands. According to both librarians and artists, the books belong in libraries where readers can get at them. Carefully.

"We have over 300," said Christina Favretto, rare books librarian at the University of California at Los Angeles. Artists themselves often have collections, too.

"Sometimes wanting to own a copy can be a reason for working on a book with someone," Wagner said. "Trading is big" among book artists.

The UCLA library's collection of artists' books focuses on artists from California. "Southern California is particularly rich," said Favretto, referring to the number of active book artists in the area.

The library's collection is popular, too. Favretto is comfortable with students handling the rare books, even if that means the books will eventually be ruined.

"I like the way they fall apart," she said.

The fact that the books will fall apart if they are treated as normal books is actually an important aesthetic component of the work. "I feel like sometimes some of the pieces I've done they have to be handled," Weber said.

"Not that I disagree with preserving culture," Weber added. "But it's like, 'I'm ephemeral! We're not archival!'"

And if that means making art that will disappear through being handled, so be it, he said. "Like the mandalas the Tibetan monks make; you make the whole thing, then you blow it away."