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Tag Archives: Princeton Architectural Press

Sincerely Yours

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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by artist’s name, the letters range in age from the early 19th century up through 2004, when handwritten letters had been replaced by e-mail.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.

Pen to Paper is available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Maxfielf Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Maxfield Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Scrap Happy PAP-py

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Consider this post a shout-out to publishers who still make gorgeous, paper-bound books to hold in your hands and cherish. With that in mind, let’s salute the folks at Princeton Architectural Press, who have passed along a few of their products that bear mentioning here. PAP is primarily known for its architecture-oriented titles, of course, but in recent years they’ve branched out into a dizzying array of other subjects (The Ghost Army of World War II, coming out later this month, is one such intriguing project). In the interest of full disclosure, all of these items were sent to Scrubbles.net headquarters through PAP’s generosity – I’m happy to cover them here, however, since they fit my particular tastes so well.

With the imposing, primary-colored Inside the Rainbow, editors Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya have done a comprehensive, fun survey on an overlooked side of Russia’s history – its kiddie books. In focusing on the visually dazzling work put out in turbulent post-Communist Revolution years of 1920-35, the volume earns its subtitle Beautiful Books, Terrible Times. Divided into thematic chapters such as “How the World Works” and “Let’s Study, Study and Study,” insightful essays and page spreads from dozens of different books demonstrate how the Communist message was distilled for its youngest members. Obviously, you get a lot of striking, modern Russian Constructivist design from El Lizzitsky and the like here, but what struck me was the variety of illustration styles throughout these pages. Lots of images have a uniquely Russian folklorist feel, yet they could also fit in the pages of American kids’ books of the era (my favorite section, in terms of purely gorgeous imagery, is the chapter on animals). Accented with poetry and text excerpts, this book accurately reflects the “cheery-on-the-outside, oppressed-on-the-inside” outlook of the time.

Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press, 2013) front cover.

Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press, 2013) front cover.

Spread of illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin for the book Babies of the Zoo, c. 1935.

Spread of illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin for the book Babies of the Zoo, c. 1935.

Spread from Where Does Crockery Come From? by Nikolai Smirnov, 1924.

Spread from Where Does Crockery Come From? by Nikolai Smirnov, 1924.

Vladimir Gryuntal and G. Yablonksy designs and photographs from What Is This? by Mikhail Gershenzon, 1932.

Vladimir Gryuntal and G. Yablonksy designs and photographs from What Is This? by Mikhail Gershenzon, 1932.

Another arrival from PAP was Myopia, the career-spanning retrospective for DEVO co-founder and all-around Renaissance Man Mark Mothersbaugh. For those who only know Mothersbaugh from DEVO and his scores for video games and films like The Lego Movie, the sheer amount of info in this 256-page survey will come as an eye-opener. Like fellow intellectual rocker David Byrne, Mothersbaugh is a talented visual artist in his own right, and it’s proven in this book with colorful, absurdist imagery from a period of more than 40 years. I always found it amazing that something as subversive and weird as DEVO emerged from mid-’70s Ohio – this book helps put that into context and shows Mothersbaugh’s (considerable) role in the emergence of punk and alt-culture. Roughly the first third is long-form essays and an interview, well-illustrated with photos, collages, sketches and other mementos. The rest showcases Mothersbaugh’s art projects such as Beautiful Mutants (mirror-image transmogrifications of stagy old photos of children) and Rugs (creepy-crawly pen and ink drawings rendered in latch-hook rugs). A final section displays (along with an appreciative write-up) a bewildering array of hand-drawn postcards – hundreds of illustrated missives from one twisted mind.

Mark Mothersbaugh Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Mark Mothersbaugh Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Selections from Mothersbaugh's "Beautiful Mutants" series in Myopia.

Selections from Mothersbaugh’s “Beautiful Mutants” series in Myopia.

Mark Mothersbaugh - La Psiocologia del Dessio, 2003 poster.

Mark Mothersbaugh – La Psiocologia del Dessio, 2003 poster.

Selections from Mothersbaugh's "Rugs" series, 2004.

Selections from Mothersbaugh’s “Rugs” series, 2004.

Our last item is just for fun – a deck of colorful playing cards from Fredericks & Mae. I’ve never heard of the Brooklyn-based designing duo before, but prior to this card deck Fredericks & Mae were renowned for whimsically designed darts, bocce balls, arrows and exquisitely decorated kites. Knowing my attraction for ephemeral items in all the colors of the rainbow, this hit the spot. The cards come arranged in suit/number order, each one a different solid hue. While the numbered cards were done with a variant on the standard design we all know well, the face cards forgo images of kings, queens and jacks in favor of abstract designs involving stars, laurel wreaths and targets (a recurring motif in their work, apparently). A small booklet included with the cards contains instructions for other, less traditional games.

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