The Pennsylvania State University

School of Visual Arts

Speed Dating Artists’ Books

Structured in the form of an artists’ book club, ART 411 Seminar in Contemporary Art, co-taught by Simone Osthoff, professor of art, and Henry Pisciotta, arts and architecture librarian, explores the book form as a medium, a metaphor, and also conceptually—as a site which simultaneously holds and produces content through original visual and verbal narrative structures and materials—and thus forges alternative forms of writing, of seeing, and of thinking.

As part of the class, Osthoff and Pisciotta organized the event Speed Dating Artists'Books in the West Pattee library recently. During the event, students and guests browsed through more than two hundred artists’ books from the Penn State Patee Library's circulating collection, with participants checking out a number of them for later projects. This book party was followed up a week later by a visit to the artists’ books in the Special Collections Library.

Oral histories told by artists, curators, collectors, and experts working in specialized bookstores, collectives, and art world institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are a central part of this course which took advantage of the almost five hundred artists’ books in the University Libraries. Not only did students have hands-on experience with contemporary artworks—many of them printed in small editions—but they also helped to broaden the Penn State’s collection, by making recommendation for the library’s purchase of new artists’ books.

The book as an intermedia art form exists in an experimental terrain that challenges traditional disciplinary boundaries. It further speaks to our multimedia digital environment, by referencing systems and codes as well as themes such as mapping, delay, travel, utopia, obsolescence, emptiness, and socially engaged art. The precedents, politics, and formal explorations of artists’ books are largely rooted in twentieth-century avant-garde art and poetry movements, from Dada and Russian constructivism to concrete, Fluxus, minimalism, and conceptual art.

The seminar also hosted a guest speaker series, which began with Andy Schulz, associate dean of research for the College of Arts and Architecture, who shared stories and experiences with the students. The class was surprised to learn that, as a graduate student at Columbia University, Schulz worked in the legendary Printed Matter bookstore in New York City, which specializes in artists’ books. While sharing anecdotes and showing samples from his personal collection of artists’ books, Schulz told students how he got that job, and became involved with the New York art scene of the 1980's. Part of his duties during that time were to write brief descriptions of artists’ books for the Printed Matter catalogue, some of which he read in the seminar.  

With the artists’ book speed dating and book party, SoVA and the library collaborated to give students direct experiences with processes, methods, and archives of contemporary art.