Particulars of Context

There’s art in the history at the Archives of American Art

Sculptor Alexander Calder's hand-drawn map to his home looks like one of his mobiles. Ben Shahn Papers, Archives of American Art, SI

A work of art is not absolute and autonomous; it’s human, made by an individual for presentation to a world that may embrace or dismiss it, or do neither exactly, or both in turn. To state the obvious: artists and their art exist within a network of circumstances, implicating families, lovers, patrons, pals, collectors, critics, hangers-on, dealers, scholars, institutions, governments. The particulars of the context are no substitute for the art itself, but we’re curious about them nonetheless—and for good reason. They situate the artist, complement the art and enlarge our understanding of both. As a repository of evidence of the circumstances in which artists have lived and created, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art is preeminent.

The archives began as a modest enterprise in Detroit in 1954 and became a research unit of the Smithsonian in 1970. Materials are carefully stored in its main office in Washington, and it has regional collecting and research centers in New York and San Marino, California. Banks of the archives’ microfilms are available to researchers at the Boston Public Library and the AmericanArtStudyCenter, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The holdings now number some 15 million items, the largest collection of original documents about the history of the visual arts—painting, sculpture, printmaking, crafts, architecture—in the United States from the 18th century to today. Here are letters, diaries, sketches, drawings, photographs, architectural plans, memoirs, oral histories, business records, catalogs, art scholars’ notes and more. About a third of the documents have been microfilmed, and they’re normally used in that format, though the originals are available to anyone whose inquiry depends on them.

It’s hardly surprising that a lengthy sequence of letters or a shoebox of leather-bound diaries will enhance what’s known of an epoch. The wonder is that seemingly insubstantial items—a shopping list, a bill of sale, a menu, a Christmas card—bear a burden of meaning too. The archives gathers and preserves this invaluable store, the predictable and the unlikely, for each generation to interpret as it sees fit, and it makes the holdings known both through traditional means, such as published guides, exhibitions and a journal, and, increasingly, through state-of-the-art on-line access.

The name of the archives is, in fact, unduly modest, for its mission embraces not just American art but art in America. So an artist from abroad who only visited this country but left some trace of the stay qualifies for inclusion. Thus, in November 1961, the great Spanish painter Joan Miró sent the American collector Dwight Ripley a drawing and a brief message on a piece of stationery from the Hotel Gladstone in New York City. Miró’s name beneath the playful scatter of lines means that art history has to make something of the page. But as with so many items in the archives, the stationery belongs to history too. The information at the top—the name, location, phone number and cable address of the hotel—sends a message from a different America, a pre-zip coded and only partially numeralized place, where the telephone prefix "PLaza 3" had not morphed into "753."

There’s no mystery to the great appeal of original documents. Set into type the contents of a half-dozen letters (or diary or journal entries) by different hands and they look the same, though their sentiments may differ wildly. Now look at the pages as they were actually written by O’Keeffe, Homer, Pollock, Tanner or any of the thousands of others whose legacy the archives tends. In every rushed or measured line, in the scrawl or precision of the script, in emendations and second-guesses, in sentences that sit gracefully on the page or loop about its edges, you can discern the character of an individual mind. And once you begin, you may be hooked. You’ve heard the archives’ siren song: "read on."

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