Movements and Collections of Artist’s Books

Pages from Destierro (1992) by Silvia Gruner


Movements and Collections of Artist’s Books

Author: Annie Abernathy

Archival Scholars Research Award Spring 2019


Silvia Gruner



“Destierro is a book-object in which a ritualized game that transgresses the everyday is photographed. The condition of ‘exile’ lies in the conscience of the body and its transience.” [1]

As Gruner rolls her body across the page for a performance, consider your own body’s performance with the object. The artist and her spiral binding seem to be in a permanent state of circular motion but only when acted upon by the viewer. This ‘libro-objeto,’ along with Gruner’s photography and film, exemplify her artistic practice, influenced by second-wave feminism and post-conceptual art.



As a culmination of my work through the Archival Scholars Research Award this semester, I created a pop-up exhibition for the Frick Fine Arts Library Reference Room. Throughout my research, materiality of the object led me to different understandings of the artist’s books and zines, so I wanted to connect an audience to these objects through touch. The above reading of Silvia Gruner’s artist book, Destierro, is specifically founded in the physical aspects of the object. Without flipping through the pages and moving with the artist and artist’s book, the work’s original meaning of performance is lost. My object-based research felt best translated into this pop-up exhibition where people could actually touch and interact with the works of art.

Instead of feeling the smooth finished pages of Destierromove through your hands, imagine scrolling through a PDF of the pages of the artist’s book on a computer. The spiral is nowhere to be found, and the only body interacting with the work is the artist’s herself. Gruner is still visible rolling across the page; however, the movement of the viewer is minimized and no longer necessary in experiencing the object. Digitization is useful in increasing accessibility to a wider audience, but the materiality and subsequent meaning of an artwork is lost in translation. Many artist’s books and zines had the purpose of being disseminated to a large audience to communicate a message, but they relied upon ephemerality to communicate these messages, which often dealt with activism and social issues.

In my pop-up exhibition, I wanted to highlight the ephemerality of these materials, specifically as collections often try to transform this ephemerality into permanence. The Frick Fine Arts Library collects many artist’s books and zines, but the work’s original meaning remains a foundation of the collection as library’s mission is to connect these works with a public. You can arrange a meeting to work with artist’s books that are non-circulating, and you can check out comics and zines from the library, too. 

During the two hours of the pop-up exhibition, every visitor had a chance to interact with the works of art in our collection. As touch was so important in my own research, it was important to me for the audience to handle these artist’s books and zines to understand their meaning and materiality together. In my audience evaluation, 100% of visitors agreed that touch enhanced their experience of the exhibition. In exhibition-making, it is time to liberate artist’s books and zines from behind glass and reunite them with touch of viewer and researcher.


[1] Translation thanks to Uma Balaji and Ivy Yen

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