The book has held its own as an info package since the scroll went out of fashion millennia ago. The basic ingredients are pretty standard -- words, some sheets of paper or parchment, an outer wrapping, a bit of glue or string to fasten it all together, et voilà. The format has rarely varied much, even as books got down-marketed onto pulp paper for the lower classes and gussied up with jeweled covers for the luxury trade.

But then came the 1960s with all their politics, attitude and iconoclasm. Eager to shake things up, artists embraced the book as yet another vehicle for self-expression and feather ruffling. Soon it was not just content, but the shape and design of books themselves that inspired the kind of playful invention evident in "Text/Messages: Books by Artists," which opened Thursday at Walker Art Center and runs through April 19.

Among the show's eccentricities are Robert The's "Cake Book" composed of triangular wedges cut from a book, stacked like a double-layer cake, slathered with wax "frosting" and served on an aqua dessert plate. Keith Smith's "string book" looks like a normal linen-covered text but opens into a wordless cat's cradle of string, woven through holes punched into blank pages. Richard Artschwager weighs in with a pair of book-shaped "Bookends" made from laminated wood clad in wood-grained formica. Tiny balsa-wood rooms and ladders unfold out of a notebook constructed by Sarah Sze, and Angela Lorenz had the text of her "Maxims by the Yard," woven into a spool of ribbon.

"In the 1960s artists began to take a look at what a book could be," said Walker curator Siri Engberg, who organized the show with librarian Rosemary Furtak. "There was a real 'anything-goes' attitude and a belief that books were a really dynamic way to disseminate information cheaply."

The design freedom of the '60s continues in the show's more recent books. Katherine Ng, for example, published stories on paper fortune cookies, and Chinese artist Xu Bing printed sayings of Chairman Mao on cigarettes encased in a box resembling the famous "red book" in which the communist leader's ideas were originally published. Slyly ambiguous, the cigarette texts seem to suggest that Mao's philosophy was a commodity that could be bought, sold and inhaled -- even as it was going up in smoke.

Niche books

In the past 25 years, Furtak has quietly assembled for the Walker a collection of about 2,000 books made by artists, concentrating especially on individuals whose sculpture, photos or other art is in the museum's collection. They occupy a specialized niche among the 35,000 exhibition catalogs, art magazines, biographies, art history and other volumes in the institution's library. More than 100 of the artist-made books are on display along with other work, including two large sculptures: a book-boat and a ghostly bookcase.

The Cuban artist known as Kcho sculpted a rowboat out of books -- many of them communist-era tracts -- that he read as a child. Beached on a library table, his sculpture poignantly recalls his youthful indoctrination in Castro's Cuba and the intellectual escape that literature may have offered on an island nation whose citizens often fled in leaky dinghys. The bookcase sculpture by British artist Rachel Whiteread consists of plaster casts of the spaces between books and their shelves, a strangely conceptual piece that attempts to make visible the void in which everything exists.

The bulk of the Walker show, however, is a celebration of artists' enthusiasm for books themselves. Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha's famous accordion-fold booklet of photos of all the buildings on Sunset Strip is there, along with some of his lithographic portraits of books he owns. It includes Ellsworth Kelly's elegantly minimalist interpretation of Malarme, Richard Diebenkorn's version of W.B. Yeats' poetry, and Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic account of Arthur Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell."

"A lot of the books are about French poetry, actually," Furtak said. "Mapplethorpe's Rimbaud could even be seen as a tortured self-portrait."

With their eccentric formats and free-form expression, many of the books trace their intellectual lineage to the iconoclasm of Marcel Duchamp. His influence is acknowledged twice, first with his "suitcase" sculpture containing 69 miniature reproductions of his own work, and second with David Hammons' "Holy Bible," a gold-edged leather-bound "old testament" whose text is a catalogue raisonné of Duchamp's complete oeuvre.

Related display at MIA

In the early decades of the 20th century, prominent European artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagal produced luxurious volumes illustrating texts by other writers and artists. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has an extensive collection of such books as well as a smaller collection of avant-garde contemporary works, 23 of which are now on view including books by Pierre Bonnard, El Lissitsky, Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, Kiki Smith and Minneapolis' own David Rathman. (Gallery 369, through May 24; 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls. ArtsMIA.org)

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431