An Interesting Look at “Lists” at Archives of American Art

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I am an obsessive list maker. Everyday I have a “to do” list. I usually mark the most important tasks with asterisks, or number them according to priority. When I’m contemplating my next move, I retrace the words until they are pressed into the paper. And when I’ve done a “do,” I cross it out, as opposed to checking it off. (It’s strangely more satisfying that way.)

Being a word person, my “to do” lists, naturally, are expressed in words, as I assume most are. But I was pleasantly surprised to see several illustrated lists in the new exhibition “Lists: To-Dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.” The exhibit, which opens tomorrow at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, includes 40 lists penned by some of the most celebrated artists in the Archives.

Realist painter Adolf Konrad, for example, once created a graphic list of all the items he needed to pack for a trip. The colorful inventory of striped socks, paint tubes and sunglasses is included in the show. Another by painter and printmaker Benson Bond Moore, known for his landscapes and animals, is an illustrated list of 26 ducks in various positions—swimming, taking to flight, and scratching its wing with its beak, among others. It’s thought that he might have used the list as a reference tool when painting ducks. (Moore lived in Washington, D.C. and actually frequented the National Zoo quite a bit.) Other artists created lists of their works, each loosely sketched rather than named. I guess I should have known that picture people might convey their lists in pictures.

The overall effect of the exhibition is that the lists, themselves, become works of art. Nothing states this more clearly than a list-turned-poem by Charles Green Shaw about “A Bohemian Dinner” and an ode to the good qualities of Aline Bernstein by her husband-to-be, Eero Saarinen, designer of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The lists become fascinating glimpses into the minds and habits of their creators. I found myself reading the lists as thought maps and felt the urge to create a key. What does it mean if something is underlined, as opposed to circled or boxed? Were the uncrossed or unchecked tasks ever completed? The pressure to do them was palpable.

“Lists tell us what we have done or what we hope to do,” says Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art, in the exhibition’s companion book. “Even the most mundane lists can be intriguing specimens of cultural anthropology.”

The exhibition opens tomorrow, February 5, and continues through June 1.

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