True confession: if I wasn’t an artist and designer, I’d probably be an archivist (and a kick-ass one, at that). The recent book Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art resonated with me because it dovetails those two personal loves – art and archiving – so well. Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Archives, selected 55 standout examples of artists’ letters from the museum’s files to be reproduced in these pages. Each letter gets printed on a full page (or more), alongside context-setting descriptions of what happening in each artist’s life written by an art historian.
Once one gets through Savig’s scholarly, too-analytical introduction, these letters offer a lot of enjoyment and surprises. More often than not, they afford glimpses of the casual, candid sides of otherwise dusty names. Several letters are simple, lovely salutations to family and friends, while others delve into weightier matters.
The correspondence in Pen to Paper came from the desks and workspaces of many big names, including Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Cornell, Mary Cassatt, Isamu Noguchi and Eero Saarninen (gee, but Mr. Saarinen’s writing sure was precise). Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, the letters range in age from the early 19th century up through 2004, when handwritten letters had been replaced by e-mail. Superficially, it’s a cool book to page through and drink in all the different handwriting and paper styles on display. Many of the mid-20th century letters’ descriptions make reference to the Palmer Method, the classic “cursive” penmanship style commonly taught in U.S. schools. Although the writing is often hard to decipher (on purpose, in the case of The New Yorker‘s Saul Steinberg), the full contents of the letters thankfully get neatly typeset in the back. Which were my favorites? Content-wise, the one that resonated deepest came from earth artist Robert Smithson, who lamented in 1971 (rather presciently) about art being prized for its material, investment value over its life-enriching properties. There’s also an excellent letter from the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (an artist I’d never heard of) that delves into racial identity in a way that seems strikingly contemporary.