Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Liza Kirwin, Lists

[Adolf Konrad (1915–2003), packing list, ca. 1962–63. Watercolor and ink. Click for a larger view.]

Liza Kirwin. Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Foreword by John W. Smith. New York. Princeton Architectural Press. 2010. $24.95.

There are, as they say, two kinds of people:

1. Those who have no interest in lists.

2. Those who are still writing or reading this review.
Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art, has assembled seventy-seven lists and list-like documents from nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists (and the occasional architect, gallery owner, and writer). The items catalogued in Lists expand and complicate the idea of the list by moving beyond the purely verbal: it’s wonderful to realize that a color chart or page of thumbnail sketches of paintings is indeed a list in visual form.

Some of the lists in Lists place the artist in the world of everyday to-dos: “Pay bills,” says a Janice Lowry list, even as that list appears on a journal page alongside fragments of commercial art, a photograph, a postage stamp, and the rubber-stamped word LONGEVITY. Leo Castelli’s and Franz Kline’s shopping lists speak to us of Anacin and tooth powder, cornflakes and milk. Some practical lists are of far greater complexity: Francis Alexander Durivage makes a handwritten chart of bodily proportions for a sculptor’s use; George Peter Alexander Healy writes out sizes and prices for his portraits (“children the same as ladies”). A century later, Elaine de Kooning types up income and expenses for a joint tax return with husband Willem (they lost money in 1953). Other lists result from the impulse to make art for lists’ sake: Philip Evergood’s mobile-like taped assemblage of business cards and contact information and Adolf Konrad’s visual packing list (reproduced above) are in glorious excess of all practical considerations.

Sometimes, perhaps most excitingly, a list becomes a way to think about art. Robert Morris types out a prose-poem of alternatives to the term “earthworks.” A sample: “Bogs. Geometric quagmires. Square swamps. Minimal muck. Suspicious spongy unsound sod.” Joan Snyder offers items in a series (in colored pencil? lipstick?) to answer the question “What is feminist art?”: “HOUSES, INTIMACY, DOORWAYS, BREASTS.” Ad Reinhardt writes out long columns of “undesirable” and “more adequate” words with which to think about art. Bad: “communication,” “document,” “social agent.” Better: “discovery,” “possibility,” “vision.” And Hans Hoffman lists seven propositions concerning “the relation of students and teachers.” Number seven: “Ignorance is the mother of arrogance.”

In what seems to be a gesture of hope in difficult times, Kirwin closes out Lists with a typed Depression-era page by Grant Wood. It looks like a piece of concrete poetry but is in fact an inscrutable mapping of economic downturns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A typical line:
6 ..   DO   DO   DO   DO   DO   DO 1873   DO 30  DO

And so too this one.

Lists is well designed and well made, with sturdy binding and thick non-glossy pages. Each listmaker is presented by means of a photograph, some biographical details, and a full-page reproduction of her or his document. There are full descriptions of all documents and blazingly accurate transcriptions of less readable (handwritten) documents. In other words, the book is a bargain, and would be a bargain at a higher price. Lists should be of interest to any reader interested in
1. Painting and drawing.

2. Handwriting and typing.

3. The list as a tool for thinking.
Thanks to the Princeton Architectural Press for a review copy of this book.

Posts with lists
Blue crayon (Supplies for an imaginary camping trip)
Whose list? (A found list)

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