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Book Review: Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum by Liza Kirwin

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If you’re like most of us, you can’t resist peering at a handwritten list on a nearby café table, or glancing at a list your seatmate in 23B is writing. Now imagine this: You’re an author, who happens to work as the curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, and you get to play among the work of artists, reading their many lists. The result is a lovely project from Princeton Architectural Press.

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum is bursting with full-color reproductions, still highly legible despite the paper and pencil materials of the day, and transcripts are provided in the back of the book for some of the longer written pieces.

The diary entries and lists of painters are, as expected, the most exciting visually, yet all the chosen pieces, handwritten or typed, have their charm and hold our interest. Among the 60-plus lists, you’ll see many that reflect the hard-working life of independent artists, as they record prices for their work and list people to thank. Others use a list to help them think: of desirable qualities in a mate, or a drawing of how to pack a suitcase, or a list of instructions in case their plane crashes.

This fully illustrated book moves mundane list-making into high art. The unintentional benefit of artists organizing their time, their work and their lives, is this delightful look back at cultural history in America and Europe.

These lists reveal much about their makers, as they organized, worried, wrote and planned. Most are done by hand and many are drawings, diagrams and revealing doodles. We benefit from the fact that this was done in another time, when jpegs and pixels didn’t interfere with our thoughts or creativity. Looking at the handwritten and sometimes sketched lists by Picasso and Grant Wood, think of what have we lost with today’s touch-screens, keypads, and flickering tweets.

A recent Brooklyn Art Library exhibit, The Sketchbook Project, is traveling the country this year. So maybe the art of thinking on paper, drawing, collage, making lists and creative doodling is not a lost art. Let’s hope so, because today’s digital lists, lacking the permanence of paper, pen and personality will never match the stunning collection in Kirwin’s book: Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum.

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About Helen Gallagher

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/nukapai/ Nukapai

    This sounds right up my street! :)