July 17, 2013
The American painter Charles E. Burchfield once said of handwriting: “Let the mind rule the writing not the eye … someone will decipher your hieroglyphics.” Whether impeccable cursive or illegible chicken scratch, an artist’s “hand” is never far from hieroglyphic. It is distinctive, expressive of the artist’s individuality—an art form in and of itself. The handwriting of more than 40 prominent American artists is the subject of “The Art of Handwriting,” a new exhibition by the Archives of American Art.
Housed in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, “The Art of Handwriting” is guided by the notion that artists never stop being creative. “Being an artist carries through in all aspects of your life,” says curator Mary Savig. “Their creativity is lived and breathed through everything they do, and that includes writing letters.”
For each letter, note and postcard in the exhibition, a scholar explains how the formal qualities of the artist’s handwriting shed light on his or her style and personality. Curator Leslie Umberger of the American Art Museum finds in the “pleasant and practical” script of Grandma Moses her twin roles as artist and farmwife. For National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough, Georgia O’Keeffe’s distinctive squiggles and disregard for grammar reveal the spirit of an iconoclast. And author Jayne Merkel observes that Eero Saarinen displayed as much variety in his handwriting as he did in his architecture.
In some cases, an artist’s handwriting seems to contradict his or her artwork. Dan Flavin, for instance, was known for his minimalist installations of fluorescent lights but wrote in a surprisingly elaborate, traditional cursive. Art historian Tiffany Bell attributes the discrepancy to Flavin’s interest in 19th-century landscape painting. “Artists don’t live in vacuums,” says Mary Savig. “They’re really inspired by the art history that came before them.”
They are also shaped by their schooling. Many artists learned to write and draw by rote, practicing the Palmer method and sketching still lifes until they became second nature. Jackson Pollock is one exception that proves the rule: according to Pollock expert Helen Harrison, the artist’s messy scrawl had as much to do with his sporadic education as with his nascent creativity.
Handwriting may be a dying art, now that nationwide curriculum standards no longer require the teaching of cursive. Some have criticized the omission, citing the cognitive benefits of cursive instruction, while others argue that the digital revolution has rendered cursive obsolete. But for now, most visitors can still wax nostalgic over the loops and curlicues left behind by American artists.
Savig admits that her own handwriting looks more like Jackson Pollock’s than, say, the precise script of fiber artist Lenore Tawney. The variety of styles in the exhibition suggests that artists really are, she jokes, just like us: “Hopefully there’s a letter in here that is for every single person.”
February 15, 2013
Posters advertised a heady guest list for the 1913 Armory Show held in New York City, including, Matisse, Brancusi, van Gogh and Cézanne. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime gathering had it been true and not just a little bit of ornery fun on the part of organizers (unfortunately, van Gogh died in 1890 and Cézanne in 1906). Even without them, the show, which celebrates its 100th anniversary February 17th through March 15th, managed to make history.
“Going to the Armory Show is kind of like going to a sideshow,” explains Mary Savig, a specialist from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Organized by artists Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach and Arthur B. Davies the show, which featured some 1,250 works of art from both European and American artists, is seen as the moment modern art took center stage in the United States.
Everything from Impressionism to Cubism was included, sometimes to comical effect. Critics weren’t quite sure what to do with the radical new vision of art on view, particularly when it came to French artist Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic Nude Descending A Staircase. Audiences and critics alike became obsessed with what they thought must be an optical illusion or some sort of visual trick. Savig says, “There was this rhetoric in the newspapers formed around the idea that you would go and you would look for this woman in the painting and was she there? People couldn’t figure it out.” One critic in Chicago even held a very serious lecture trying to highlight precisely where the figure of the woman could be delineated. (For more about Duchamp and his painting, check out Megan Gambino’s document deep dive with materials from the Armory Show)
The New York Tribune declared it a “Remarkable Affair, Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.”
Other reactions were less kind. The International News Service published a cartoon by Frederick Opper that purported to explain art from the exhibition in four panels, including the room featuring “work by ‘nuttists,’ ‘dope-ists,’ topsy-turvists,’ ‘inside-outists’ and ‘toodle-doodle-ists,’ whom police are now trying to locate” and a dotted line which showed the “route taken by Old Masters after seeing advanced art exhibits.”
“That was also to the credit of the organizers of the show,” says Savig, “because they really wanted it to be sensational. They were really hoping to get these headlines that would grab people in to see for themselves what kind of unimaginable artwork was on exhibit.”
Savig, who curated the exhibit, “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” set to open at the Montclair Art Museum on Feb. 17, 2013, says that the show was also a personal mission on the part of the organizers. “[Kuhn] wanted American art to be equal to or eventually surpass the European works in the show. He really wanted. . .to show how avant-garde Europe was. But also, to show, hopefully, that Americans could also be at that level.”
Along with her colleague Kelly Quinn, who created an interactive, online timeline about the planning and execution of the Armory Show, Savig relied on the Archives of American Art’s extensive materials to get the behind-the-scenes stories. Kuhn’s letters back home to his wife, Vera, for example, detail his time spent scouring Europe for material to take back for the show. Writings from artists who volunteered at the show exclaiming over the inspiring works of art offer a personal testimony as to the impact the show had on the course of American art. And tiny details like a letter from a rabbi who lost his umbrella while attending the show, reveal, says Savig, the wide appeal of the show and the audience the exhibit was able to attract.
One example of the kind of passion the show could encourage comes from artist Manierre Dawson, who desperately wanted to buy some of the art on view. “There’s these really sweet pieces of his father saying that he can’t buy the Picasso because it would be outrageous to hang above the mantle and that really it would be better for him to spend his money elsewhere,” says Quinn. “But he had saved his money and he ends up buying a Duchamp drawing. He kind of consoles himself and says, it’s almost as big and almost as good as Nude Descending a Staircase.”
The show traveled to Chicago and Boston after New York. Despite requests from Baltimore, Des Moines and Seattle, the organizers only completed a three-city tour before getting back to their own art. But that was enough to accomplish the goal Kuhn and the others had set out for themselves: to revolutionize art in America.
January 25, 2013
Imagine walking in the footsteps of an artist visiting an art gallery. Are you feeling inspiration or intimidation? And what would you think if you happened upon an unguarded guard bored and asleep at his post?
The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which collects the sketchbooks, letters, financial records and other ephemera documenting the lives of American artists, answers some of these questions in its new show, “A Day at the Museum,” which opened recently at the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery.
Curator Mary Savig says that the multifaceted exhibit sheds light not only on the lives of the artists, but also on museums themselves—how they’ve evolved over time, as well as their roles as artistic incubators, educating and opening minds to art, history and culture. But before you dash away, alarmed by the didactic, consider some of the tales revealed here.
In one oral history interview, Conceptual artist Eleanor Antin recalls her childhood visits to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s. “I used to pick one picture. I’d look around seriously and I’d pick one picture that I would just study,” she says. “I’d look at other things, too, but I’d spend much of my time that day in front of that picture. I remember those [pictures] in great detail, because I really looked at them very deeply and with great pleasure.”
Sculptor Lee Bontecou also visited New York City museums in her youth. She tells the story of being stunned by a Van Gogh exhibit that she saw with her mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Both of us were bowled over. It was incredible,” she says in her oral history recording. “We both just held hands and went through the whole thing.”
Pioneering light artist Dan Flavin, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1960s, wrote to an art curator saying the museum’s exhibits inspired the early designs of his art. And it was collage artist Romare Bearden who visited Italy’s Museo Della Conservatori in the 1950s and found all of its guards fast asleep. “Anyone could have walked away with the whole museum,” he wrote to a mentor.
One document reveals that New York’s American Museum of Natural History, now one of the world’s most respected museums, was a bit more carnival than cultural when it opened. Painter Jervis McEntee wrote in his diary after a visit in 1877 that he enjoyed seeing a fat woman and a tattooed man.
“In a lot of ways, museum-going has changed,” Savig says, “so we want to show people the things that are the same or why things are different.”
The exhibit collects not only letters by famous artists, but diary entries, sketches from museum visits, and photos of the famous and digerati visiting museums. Other recorded stories delight us with the memories of special visits. In total, around 50 documents and recordings from the past two centuries are featured.
The main goal, Savig says, is to show how the range and depth of American art reflect the variety of experiences a person, artist or otherwise, might have at a museum: “Some people have fun going to see exhibitions with their children or their parents, and some people are just there to study, because they’re students, some people are guards. We really wanted to show a variety of experiences at museums, because that’s what our visitors will have.”
Savig encourages visitors to share their experiences, too.
“A Day at the Museum”—the museum exhibit about visiting museum exhibits—is open until June 2, 2013. The exhibit has its own hash tag, #DayAtTheMuseum, and a Flickr page on which museum-goers can post photos their trips to museums around the world. Check out some of the shared photos below.
November 22, 2012
Friday, November 23: ZooLights
It’s that time of year at last, when we get to see all of our favorite Zoo creatures as giant, light-up sculptures! That’s right, folks, ZooLights is back at the National Zoo. So yeah, you can go and enjoy the wildlife and educational extras (and you should) but the real show starts at night when dazzling greens, yellows and reds bring the Zoo to life. The show attracts 100,000 visitors each year. And new this year, the Conservation Carousel done in the grand tradition of old-fashioned carousels with handcrafted representations of the Zoo’s animal icons. Model trains, snowless tubing and plenty of photo opportunities, ZooLights entertains young and old. Admission is free. Parking $9 FONZ members,
$16 nonmembers. Begins Friday 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. National Zoo.
Saturday, November 24: Booksigning with Mary Savig, Handmade Holiday Cards
Author Mary Savig will be signing her book, Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists. With 190 reproductions of holiday cards straight from the Archives of American Art’s collections, the book is an historical tour of commonplace commercial graphic design. From the Mondrian-inspired abstractions to Japanese prints, the collection provides an alternative take on holiday greetings with designs by famous artist, including Josef Albers, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Robert Motherwell. Talk with the author about her research process and maybe get some ideas for your own holiday card. Free. 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Castle.
Sunday, November 25: Metaphysical Baseball
David Stinson will be at the American History Museum signing copies of his book, Deadball, A Metaphysical Baseball Novel, about a minor league player possessed by visions of baseball greats gone by. Driven to the point of obsession, he begins traveling the country to see for himself the vanished stadiums and places that made baseball history. A novel thriller, the book also incorporates plenty of baseball history that fans will appreciate and enjoy. Free. 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. American History Museum.
July 6, 2012
According to the theory of the six degrees of separation, she is connected to Albert Einstein, Cézanne, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frida Kahlo and President Ulysses S. Grant.
But who is Peggy Bacon?
Bacon (1895-1997) was a New York artist and talented caricaturist of celebrities and artists, however, her name is by no means well known. The Archives of American Art specialists, who created the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit, do not expect people to know who Peggy Bacon is—in fact, that’s the point.
While the original concept of the six degrees of separation dates back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who developed a radio telegraph system, the term became commonplace in 1990 when playwright John Guare debuted his production, “Six Degrees of Separation.” The play was based on the idea that no more than six acquaintances separate any two people.
Playing off the popular celebrity trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to prove that any actor or actress can be linked to Kevin Bacon in fewer than six steps of film roles, the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit creators hoped to show how a relatively unknown but well-connected artist was linked through archival documents to many of art and society’s most influential people.
“We wanted it to be surprising,” says Mary Savig, the exhibit’s curator and an archives specialist at Archives of American Art. “We chose Peggy Bacon because we knew nobody would know who she is.”
On display June 27, 2012, through November 4, 2012, in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, demonstrates how artists inform and inspire each other. “They don’t just work alone in their studios,” Savig said.
The exhibit is also intended to demonstrate the “shrinking world theory.”
The advent of radio technology, telecommunications and most recently, social media, has vastly increased the connectedness among the world’s inhabitants. In fact, Savig says, a study conducted last year by Facebook and the University of Milan demonstrated that social media has reduced the average degree of relatedness between each person on Earth to a mere 4.74 degrees.
“These documents show exactly how people are personally connected,” Savig says, pointing to a layout of correspondence and photographs connecting Bacon to artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Janice Lowry, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Archival letters and materials provide paper trails to document each of the connections in Bacon’s web of six degrees.
The incredible ability to present such detailed documentation stems from the concerns of former Director of the Detroit Institute of Art E.P. Richardson and art collector Lawrence A. Fleischman. Richardson and Fleischman founded the Archives in 1954 in Detroit as an effort to address the lack of archival material documenting American art and artists. The Archives of American Art became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, and today holds more than 16 million items in the world’s largest collection of primary resources relating to the history of American art.
The Archives’ fastidious documentation and research of their collection is what allowed for the success of “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon.”
In fact, on the exhibit’s opening day, a member of the public was shocked to find her former babysitter incorporated into Bacon’s web of relatedness.
“The woman pointed to the picture of Mary Chapin Carpenter and said, ‘She used to babysit me,’” Savig explains. Carpenter, a folk and country music singer, is bubbled into Bacon’s web as a sixth-degree connection.
Carpenter is included on the web for her connection to Joseph Cornell, who was the inspiration for her 1996 song “Ideas Are Like Stars.” Cornell is connected to Ad Reinhardt for their shared Christmas Eve birthdays and the fact that both artists’ works were displayed in art dealer Peggy Guggenheim’s 1943 Collages exhibit. Reinhardt described in a memoir how in 1938 he listened to loud jazz music carrying through the walls of the neighboring studio to his, occupied by Stuart Davis. Davis was represented by art dealer Edith Halpert who represented his work at The Downtown Gallery for close to four decades. Halpert opened her gallery in 1926 at which time she displayed the works of Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi. And Kuniyoshi developed a friendship with Peggy Bacon while the two attended classes together at the Art Students League.
The visitor’s relationship with Carpenter drives home the entire point of the exhibit, Savig says. “We all really can connect to Bacon.”