‘The Art of Handwriting’ at the Reynolds Center

Schools across the country have slowly been phasing out the traditional requirement that students learn cursive, leaving some wondering what will happen to handwriting.

Does anyone still pine for the haughty art of penmanship? Did e-mail kill letter-writing, and did the text message close the coffin?

GoingOut Guide
Looking for things to do?
Select one or more criteria to search
Get ideas

“The Art of Handwriting,” a new exhibition mounted by the Archives of American Art, may not answer those questions, but it does make one nostalgic for letters and the way a script can belong only to its writer, much like a fingerprint.

The small show, which opened last week in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, unearths a trove of more than 40 letters between legendary artists and their loved ones and patrons. The exhibit looks not at what they wrote but how they wrote it.

For “The Art of Handwriting,” the museum asked scholars to view the letters and search for meaning in the artists’ chicken scratch, doodles and perfectly curved John Hancocks. Frequently, their work seems to echo in the graceful swoops (or erratic scratch) of their penmanship; sometimes it doesn’t at all.

The late light artist Dan Flavin, a master of spartan installations, had a surprisingly florid hand. Painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s strengths, it turns out, did not include spelling or grammar. And it’s almost impossible not to choke up at the subtly pining parenthetical in a letter from painter Lee Krasner to her estranged husband, Jackson Pollock, days before his death in a car accident in 1956.

Below are a few of the letters from the exhibit, alongside some of the artists’ works, all of which are on view in the area.

Mary Cassatt

By 1922, when this letter was penned, the famed impressionist painter’s eyesight had long since abandoned her. In her letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens, the newly installed director of the art museum of the Carnegie Institute, the artist barely seems able to write in a straight line, and her sentences are littered with letters that don’t seem to quite close, but scholars have determined that Cassatt’s letter was to inform Saint-Gaudens about her piece “Young Women Picking Fruit,” which the museum had just purchased.

See Cassatt’s work: “The Boating Party,” painted in 1893-94 while the artist was in a period of post-impressionist experimentation, is on view at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.

James McNeill Whistler

The American painter who decamped to London wrote this 1892-93 letter to Frederick H. Allen to decry an associate who had put out some of Whistler’s art criticism without his permission, calling him a “shocking scoundrel.” Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art for the Freer and Sackler galleries, writes in the exhibition guide that the inky, squat letters are “light, fresh, and dashing,” reflecting Whistler’s artistic output to a T.

See Whistler’s work: The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art was painted by Whistler, who in 1876 and 1877 adorned it in rich tones of teal blue and metallic gold in a design inspired by the delicate Asian pottery the room was to display. Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW. 202-633-1000. www.asia.
si.edu
.

Jackson Pollock

Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock’s 1946 letter to Louis Bunce, an Art Students League classmate he refers to as “Lou,” is full of the sort of mundane details you might relay to a longtime friend. In ink-blotted cursive heavy with dashes and incomplete sentences, Pollock, who at the time was one of the foremost contemporary American artists, tells his friend that housing in New York is short, possibly with the exception of a few cold-water flats on the seedy Lower East Side. He goes on to describe his own move, to a town five miles from East Hampton, where, he writes, “the work is endless — and a little depressing at times — but I’m glad to get away from 57th Street for a while.”

Helen A. Harrison, the director of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center (housed in the Long Island estate Pollock describes) writes that the blur of letters may reflect not only the artist’s expressionistic artistic tendencies but also that Pollock frequently moved as a child and may not have learned penmanship.

See Pollock’s work: “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),” at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, is a prime example of the artist’s most famous innovation, so-called drip painting. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.

Eero Saarinen

The Finnish-born architect and industrial designer flits from humorous asides to sketches of his projects in this blueprint-like, seven-page 1953 letter to his paramour, art critic and journalist Aline Bernstein. He writes in clear, capital letters, offset by frequent dashes and splashes of red, which he seems to use for emphasis. On the fifth page, he waxes poetic over their blossoming relationship: “If I broke it up in its component parts I would say — I like her spirit & enthusiasm. I like that combined with the clear sharp brain. I like her looks — eyes — smile — figure.”

He closes his letter, in childlike bubble letters, “Love Eero.” The pair married the next year.

See Saarinen’s work: The most imposing example of the industrial designer’s industriousness? Dulles International Airport, whose moody, swooping roof is pure Saarinen.

The Art of Handwriting

Through Oct. 27 at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown). 202-633-1000. www.aaa.si.edu. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Free.

 
Read what others are saying