Morgan Library showcases the beauty — and intimacy — of artist “LISTS.”
If you’re Generation Y, or in the latest group of tech-savvy kids who don’t remember life before texting, my hunch is good penmanship is not on your BFF list. In fact, TIME Magazine posits “we are witnessing the death of handwriting.”
According to an NPR survey, More than 8 in 10 Americans under age 60 currently use a computer at home or work. Most Americans say technology has significantly improved their lives, and they are demonstrating their enthusiasm through purchase power.
What does this mean? According to Steve Graham, a special-education and literacy professor at Vanderbilt University, the simple fact is — “Handwriting is just not part of the national agenda anymore.” As I see it, now the only professionals who consistently use handwriting in their work are doctors — and they suck at it.
But when you see The Morgan’s exhibition (from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art) you can’t help but be charmed by the personal, handwritten thoughts, inventories, and scribblings of some of the world’s most accomplished artists and writers of the last two centuries. And if you’re like me, you wonder if this personal method of record-keeping, list-making, and journaling will be lost — to endless pages of plebian helvetica medium font — forever.
There’s something so intimate about seeing Picasso scratch out Marcel Duchamp’s name phonetically, (Pic #2) as he informally lists European artists he recommends for the 1913 Armory Show (including Gris and Leger) — the first international exhibition of Modern art in the United States. And of course it was Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” that took the art world by surprise that year.
Assemblage artist Janice Lowry kept a journal for nearly forty years that filled 126 bound volumes. (Pic #1) Peppered with to-dos —“make plane reservation…. skin appointment,” and “get rain gutters” — she also weaves in dreams and random thoughts — each page thick with collaged images, paint, stamps, and stickers.
Architect Eero Saarinen’s “list of good qualities” — written in all caps — for Aline Bernstein, the woman who would become his second wife — shows a certain vulnerability, as he notes on the bottom, “I know this is not a good sentence.” (Pic #3)
In the sketchbook of Adolf Konrad, (Pic #4) we find an illustrated list of things the artist needed to pack for his trip to Rome and Egypt in 1962 — and on one page, he included a drawing of himself wearing nothing but his underwear.
Mobile sculptor Alexander Calder’s handmade address book, circa 1930, casually lists the street addresses for iconic figures like Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde. (Pic #5)
The exhibit, at The Morgan Library and Museum in midtown New York, also features notes from Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grant Wood, and H.L Mencken. The experience sent me back to the first time I ever saw Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream” at MOMA. I stood there aghast, staring, in awe that I could finally see the original work I had admired since I was 10. Reproductions did not do it justice.
There’s something so human — so connective — about seeing evidence of an artist’s personal touch — right there on the paper or canvas in front of you. Graphologists will tell you handwriting can define a personality or reveal one’s true self-image. “LISTS” provides us with one more tool with which we can explore some of the art world’s most creative minds.
“LISTS” runs through October 2nd.