Art Works Blog

Field Tripping to the Archives of American Art

Washington, DC

An informal photograph of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, snapped during lunch at Kahlo's house. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, 1941 / Emmy Lou Packard, photographer. Emmy Lou Packard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian?s Archives of American Art feels like an art history textbook that has exploded from its covers. But instead of masterpieces leaping from page to reality, it?s the minutia, mementos, and paraphernalia of the art world?s hidden corners. In one box, there?s Alexander Calder?s sketchbook. In another is a photo of Jackson Pollock eating watermelon with his family. Here?s a menu from the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show. Tucked between other documents is an early, illustrated edition of Langston Hughes?s "The Negro Mother," hand-colored by Prentiss Taylor. For an art lover, the Archives is a place of pure magic.

The other day, I took a field trip to the Archives?s headquarters in downtown Washington to have a poke around. Founded in 1954, the AAA today holds 16 million items that cover nearly every aspect, period, and icon of American art. It?s both completely mind-boggling and utterly overwhelming, but Elizabeth Botten, who works in the Reference Services division, helped me make sense of it all. Below are a few of the highlights she shared, all of which are available to view online. Many collections are digitized in full, so have fun exploring!

Edward Ruscha's business card

I love this early business card from Edward Ruscha. I don't know what is most endearing: his title, the phonetic guidelines for his name, or the fact that he didn't actually include any contact information. It's a statement piece in its own right.

Edward Ruscha's business card, 196-?. Lucy R. Lippard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Armory Show menu

In 1913, the country's first major exhibition of modern art took place in New York City's 69th Regiment Armory. Now known simply as the Armory Show, it was a definitive moment in American art history, when audiences were shocked---yes, and awed---by works from artists such as Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Duchamp. Below is a menu from the event's press dinner, signed by artists and critics in attendance. Note that both "friends and enemies of the press" were invited. According to an article published the next day in The New York Times, the highlight of the dinner was a "high-kicking contest," won by artist D. Putnam Brinley. At "nearly seven feet tall," the leggy Brinley must have been quite a sight.

Armory Show dinner menu signed by guests, 1913 Mar. 8. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Letter from George Brecht to Joseph Cornell

Any letter from George Brecht to Joseph Cornell would be considered significant. However, the one below is typed on a piano roll, which immediately moves it into the realm of the truly fascinating. (Before the letter begins, Brecht points out where in the score the "really good movement" gets underway.) The spacing of the text looks as if it is written in verse, making the letter's expression of professional admiration seem all the more poetic. The letter poignantly closes with, "I send you my love, dear Joseph with the hope that we will never meet since, if we did, we would both be disappointed I think."

George Brecht letter to Joseph Cornell, 1967 Jul. 19. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Harrison Cady's sketchbook

When I think of sketchbooks, I generally visualize a compilation of crude, unpolished studies. They're the practice, not the perfect. Going through some of the sketchbooks at the Archives however, it's clear that for the very talented, sketchbooks themselves are often beautiful works of art. Below are two pages from illustrator Harrison Cady's sketchbook, filled with color, movement, and life.

Harrison Cady Sketchbook, ca. 1943. Harrison Cady papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Andy Warhol fanzine

In 2007, the Archives acquired the papers of legendary art dealer Leo Castelli. Among the many gems in the collection is this amazing fanzine dedicated to Andy Warhol. Nearly every line is a triumph of cheeky splendor, from the title itself, Andeeeeee Monthly (wee hope) Gazette, to the anthem "Andy the Beautiful," sung (naturally) to "America the Beautiful." Another favorite is the obituary for Campbell Warhol, the beloved pet rabbit of a fellow "FANsie." If only every obsession could be this utterly charming.

Andeeeeee monthly (wee hope) gazette: The journal of the Andy Warhol Fan Club of New York City, ca. 1965. Leo Castelli Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For more information about any of the objects above, please visit the Archives of American Art website. The Archives current exhibition Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumeration is on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York through October 2, 2011.

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