The Archives of American Art
counts hundreds of thousands of lists in its collections, including to-do lists, membership lists, lists of paintings sold, lists of books to read, lists of appointments made and met, lists of supplies to get and places to see, and lists of people who are “in.” Every exhibition generates a list. Many are historically important, throwing a flood of light on a moment, movement, or event; others are private, providing an intimate view of an artist’s personal life. Architect Eero Saarinen
made a list of thirteen reasons why he loved art critic Aline Bernstein, whom he married in 1954. Acerbic journalist H. L. Mencken
made a list of his personality traits and numbered them between 1 and 29. Number 10 reads: “If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself.”
Almost every collection in the Archives contains a list of some sort, whether written down, typed up, or scribbled on the backs of envelopes or on the inside cover of a notebook. Lists are comforting. They set an agenda. They clarify and catalog. People formulate lists to impose order, to bolster an argument, to express an opinion, or to take inventory. In the late 1940s, art dealer Germain Seligmann — then living in Paris — made numerous lists of family treasures and gallery stock that had been seized and sold by order of the pro-Nazi Vichy government during World War II. His lists, including tapestries, silver, porcelains, and drawings, were part of his legal claim to retrieve stolen property.
List makers are task-oriented. Jeweler Margaret De Patta
kept a list of orders for her Modernist creations — rings, earrings, pins, pendants, bracelets — with the name of the piece and the purchaser. She obviously derived great satisfaction from finishing projects: when she completed an order, she crossed off the name of the buyer and the item, transforming her to-do list into a done list.
Lists tell us what we hope to do. Artist Janice Lowry
’s elaborate illustrated journals are peppered with to-do lists. The recurrent tasks (pay bills, make doctor’s appointment) are interspersed with her dream recollections and random thoughts, each page thick with collaged images, stamps, and stickers — a vivid backdrop for her daily chores. The lists propel her forward.
Perhaps the Archives’ most famous list is Pablo Picasso
’s recommendations for the 1913 Armory Show
, the first international exhibition of Modern art in the United States. Painter Walt Kuhn
, who played a major role in assembling the show, had limited knowledge of the European avant-garde. He relied on American artists then living abroad — Walter Pach
, Jo Davidson
and Alfred Maurer
— as well as Europeans in the know — such as Picasso — for introductions to contemporary European artists and dealers. Picasso names Marcel Duchamp
(spelled phonetically), whose Nude Descending a Staircase
(1912) would cause an uproar in the American press, Fernand Léger
and the Spaniard Juan Gris
, among others. Curiously, he did not include his friend and fellow cubist Georges Braque
, whose name was later added in Kuhn’s hand. In the end the Europeans stole the show, overshadowing their American counterparts.
Before the age of computers and easily updated electronic lists, artists like Benson Bond Moore
and Philip Evergood
kept current by manually adding information to their lists. Moore must have taken great pleasure in updating his list of prints sold from 1937 to 1939. He wrote the names of 273 collectors and their purchases on a single page until there was no more room to record another sale. The density of this register was proof of his commercial success. Painter Philip Evergood made a list of photographers and framers by gluing their business cards and other contact information together in one long strip. Each new attachment expanded his network.
It comes as no surprise that artists would illustrate their lists. In 1932, painter and color theorist Oscar Bluemner
made an illustrated list of his recently completed landscape paintings, including thumbnail sketches with information about the dimensions, date, media, and in some cases the subject of each work of art. His list was a graphic catalog, a snapshot of his current production.
Lists, whether dashed off as a quick reminder or carefully constructed as a comprehensive inventory, give insight into the list maker’s personal habits and enrich the understanding of individual biographies. They reveal the process by which decisions are made or show the distillation of an argument to its essential points. In the hands of artists, lists can be works of art in and of themselves. There are illustrated lists and conceptual art projects represented as lists. Every color chart is a visual list.
How many lists do you make or consult in a day? What does that tell us about everyday events? Common lists are firsthand accounts of our cultural history.This essay is an excerpt from Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Liza Kirwin, reprinted here with the author's kind permission.