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Tag Archives: Saul Steinberg

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by artist’s name, the letters range in age from the early 19th century up through 2004, when handwritten letters had been replaced by e-mail.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

Look What I Found: 2015 Catch-Up

Spread from Marc Davis: Walt Disney's Renaissance Man showing his 1940s bullfighting art.

Spread from Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man showing his 1940s bullfighting art.

The theme of this post is “More,” as in – More books! More visual inspiration! More occupied shelf space! In my last post from a month ago, I wrote about my plans to spend each month of 2015 buying a different beautiful, visually-oriented book at a budget price. With a couple of exceptions, I’ve kept true to the plan. I’ve already shared the May book – Sing for America, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The June book has also been enjoyed, and will become the subject of its own post later on. In the meantime, I’m taking this space to write a few bits about the books from January through April. Let’s begin!

In January, something that had been on my want-list for some time. Published in 1959,The Golden Book of Myths and Legends was illustrated in striking primitive-modern style by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Provensens lent their talents to many different projects over a long, long period of time. Myths and Legends comes from a particularly excellent, creative time when they applied vibrant textures and stylization to traditional subjects like The First Noel (1959) and The Iliad and the Odyssey (1956). More recently, I picked up the Provensens’ 1978 children’s book A Year at Maple Farm at a thrift store, a sweet look at the seasons changing at their farm.

The Golden Book of Myths and Legends (1959).

The Golden Book of Myths and Legends (1959).

Echo and Narcissus, from The Golden Book of Myths and Legends.

Echo and Narcissus, from The Golden Book of Myths and Legends.

Heracles: The Twelve Labors, from The Golden Book of Myths and Legends.

Heracles: The Twelve Labors, from The Golden Book of Myths and Legends.

February signaled the annual arrival of the huge VSNA Used Book Sale, held mere steps from our house. This year, I splurged a bit on a beaten-up yet nice ’50s-era copy of The Passport, an illustrated volume of doodles, cartoons and observations from the famous New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg. One of my fondest childhood memories was checking out a reprint of this book from the local library – it was literally one of the main things that influenced me in becoming an artist. Steinberg’s images of exotic locales, skyscrapers, mismatched couples and exaggerated Americana remain as delightful as ever. What a treasure!

Saul Steinberg - The Passport (1954).

Saul Steinberg – The Passport (1954).

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In March, I caught wind of this stupendous auction at Van Eaton Galleries of vintage Disneyland stuff – posters, props, costumes, souvenirs. Although the items were listed at well above my price range, I ended up blind-buying the auction catalog in luxurious hardback. It turned out to be well worth the money, since the book’s colorful photography and detailed descriptions serve as a wonderful general-purpose guide to vintage Disney theme park items. Organized by land, the book is full of fantastic stuff that even my Disneyland-saturated eyes had never seen before. The top sale from this two-day auction was lot #357, a green animatronic bird from The Enchanted Tiki Room, which fetched $153,400.

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Van Eaton spread of Main Street, USA items.

Van Eaton spread of Main Street, USA items.

Chapter headers with map diagram and vintage snapshots - nifty!

Chapter headers with map diagram and vintage snapshots – nifty!

Van Eaton catalog spread of Matterhorn/Fantasyland items.

Van Eaton catalog spread of Matterhorn/Fantasyland items.

Continuing along the same lines, April‘s selection came from our long-awaited tour of the Disney Studios in Burbank, California. At the studio’s Disney Store (yeah, they have a complete Disney Store location right there on the backlot!), I picked up a lovely tribute to one of the studio’s icons – animator and imagineer Marc Davis. This gorgeous looking large-format volume is divided into ten chapters, each headed by a sincere testimony from a Davis friend or admirer on a specific aspect of his life. The topics include not only the expected animation and theme park attractions, but non-Disney things like Davis’ illustrated trips to Papua New Guinea, personal art, and instruction. Although the book omits a few projects (there’s nothing at all on the Country Bear Jamboree attraction, for instance), I appreciated the space given important areas like the never-produced 1960 film Chanticleer and Davis’ biggest supporter – his widow, Alice (a talented artist in her own right).

Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man was published by Disney Editions in 2014. Buy at Amazon.com here.

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Marc Davis concept art from Chanticleer.

Marc Davis concept art from Chanticleer.

Marc Davis concept art for America Sings Disneyland attraction, 1970s.

Marc Davis concept art for America Sings Disneyland attraction, 1970s.