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Oscar Bluemner 'To-Do' list: Not helpful

Oscar Bluemner's list of works of art appears to be useless as an organizational tool.
Oscar Bluemner's list of works of art appears to be useless as an organizational tool. (Archives Of American Art/smithsonian Institution)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

Oscar Bluemner's lists kind of leap out at you.

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One particularly disturbing example of the artist's failure to fully grasp the concept -- that lists should help rather than hinder understanding -- is an inventory of landscape paintings made by the artist in 1932. Thumbnails sketches of 39 works appear in a dense jumble on the left, along with subjects, media, dates, dimensions and other mysterious notations scrawled every which way. Two other lists in the show include detailed color suggestions for paintings the artist hadn't even made yet.

In the words of curator Liza Kirwin, Bluemner's lists "obscure, rather than clarify." Lists are all about control, she says, or the illusion of control. These feel like someone trying -- and failing -- to hang onto something that is slowly slipping through his fingers.

Looking at them, it comes as no surprise to learn that the artist -- depressed, penniless and in poor health -- committed suicide in 1938.

-- Michael O'Sullivan


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