Liz at Lancaster Recommends: Small Editions at Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts, Wits Art Museum

To do before end Jan 22

If there is one outing/exhibition/event you do before end Jan 2022, it’s to make an appointment to visit the 2nd floor of Wits Art Museum. Small Editions is an exhibition of some 100 works of Jack Ginsberg’s 3500 odd artists’ books.  International guests staying at Liz at Lancaster were rendered speechless about their visit to this exhibition.  Why is it so special? What is an artist’s book? Who is Jack Ginsberg? Where to start?   “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” And the beginning must be Jack Ginsberg.

100 artists’ books from Jack Ginsberg’s collection on exhibition at Wits Art Museum until end Jan 2022; Source of photo:
Exhibition of 100 works from Jack Ginsberg’s collection of 3000 artists’ books on show at WAM.  (Note WAM closes from 15 Dec – 15 Jan)

Who is Jack Ginsberg

Jack Ginsberg at a Wits alumni event.

This quiet unassuming generous man is the most extraordinary supporter of the visual arts in South Africa. He is a founding patron of The Ampersand Foundation which established the Ampersand Fellowship Awards for young professional South African contemporary creative artists and arts administrators. An Ampersand Award gives the recipient a funded one or two-month residency in New York at the Ampersand apartment. Paul Emmanuel was the first candidate in 1997.

Ginsberg is also a supporter of Artist Proof Studio which used to be in Newtown and has now relocated to Houghton.  And as if that is not enough, he is a board member and on-going art donor to the Wits Arts Museum (WAM). Apart from donating his extraordinary collection of artists’ books and books about artists’ books to WAM, he has donated his Walter Battiss collection of more than 700 artworks, books and related items.  

And of course Jack is a bibliophile of note: 

I came from a very bookish family, so I was surrounded by books all my life and I started collecting artists’ books and art by my late teens. I think my first book was a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland. 

What is an artist’s book?  

This is a relatively new genre or category of art making which started in the 1970s. Artists books are artworks in the form of books (well the loose definition of a book) rather than books about art. 

Joan Soppe About the Linens 1995 6 of 10

Do not expect only what “us oldies” understand as a “traditional” book, in other words paper pages bound in a cover. Artists being artists test the limits and stretch the boundaries. 


The Ginsberg collection includes books of all sizes (miniature to 10m long fold outs); a variety of unexpected shapes: triangles, circles, in boxes, house-shaped, even on a horse’s skeleton; materials range from hand-made paper and linen, to metal, wood, glass, cork, clay, ceramic, acetate, leaves, metal, fabric, leather, stone, tinfoil; as well as a surprising range of found objects like matches, stamps, sequins, coins, feathers and more. There are illustrated books using a range of different media, graphic novels, pop-up and pop-down books, digital books.

Allen Laing, Bookmatch Book, 2018 (front); Pippa Skotnes, Book of the Divine Consolation, 2004-18 (back).  Written in black on the skeleton of a horse (gold leaf added), Skotnes “book” refers to the original Book of the Divine Consolation written in 1308 by medieval German theologian Eckhart von Hochheim (known as Meister Eckhart), who was tried as a heretic. Source of photo: ArtAfricaMagazine  (Neither of these works is on the Small Editions exhibition.)

Over three thousand books in the collection, of which 500 are by South Africans

In the collection, although not currently on show, are works by well-known international artists such as Matisse, Miro, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Kruger, Picasso, Ed Ruscha, and Delauney, to name but a few.  

A 1913 poem by Blaise Cendrars illustrated by the famous French artist Sonia Delauney, One of the many famous international artists’s works in the Ginsberg Artist’s Book collection at Wits Art Museum
Peter Clarke Yuko 2004 unique This is behind glass in a display case – hence the 2 horrible reflection lines … sorry!
John Ross’s colophon for Refinery

Collaborative work across a whole range of skills 

All good art work involves a range of skills but artists’ books perhaps more than most. From typography (arrangement of typeface); to letterpress printing (text and image are printed from individually inked blocks where the matter to be printed is raised in relief above the printing plate); to the making of paper itself; to binding (which often becomes a ground for artwork); to conversations between image and text, images AS text and text AS images.  The colophon on the left (a colophon is the statement at the end of a book giving information about its authorship and printing), shows all the different aspects of producing Refinery

Refinery by John Ross a collagraphed cardboard book, taken out for us to experience and handle

Less than 4% of the collection is on the current exhibition 

The extent of the Jack Ginsberg collection is astounding and is brought home as one moves around the beautifully curated works in their glass cases, trying to take in the scope, variety and wonder of the works on display. It’s astonishing to think that only 100 of the 3000 works in the collection are shown on the current exhibition Small Editions.  

Ann Walker Les Heures du Jour 1991 Unique
Carol Schwartzott Song of the Colours 1994
A Concise Physiology of the Soul by James Renner 1994

What makes this museum experience so special? 

Prior to our visit, the curators had taken out several books (not on the current exhibition) for us to touch, feel, page through (after washing our hands very carefully).  An extraordinary opportunity to engage with these jewel-like objects in a very direct and experiential way.  Ginsberg says:   

Artists’ books are about a haptic experience of art – you have to touch them. Your fingertips know instinctively if you’ve picked up one page or two pages, and with an artist’s book you are forced into a sequential experience that the artist intended.

Here are some of the gems we opened, revealed, paged through and simply ogled in wonder, awe and admiration. 

Reverently turning each page of A Concise Physiology of the Soul 

And this below ….  

Casey Gardner’s Threshold Back cover

…… reveals, opens, unfolds into this: 


Casey Gardner Threshold

The Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts is open to the public from Tuesday to Friday, from 10:00 – 16:00 by appointment only.  Thanks to the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, there is R650K a year for 3 years (2 more?) for research staffing and development.  Ginsberg has also been instrumental in establishing an online database of South African artists’ books.



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