'Lists: To-Dos': Little pieces of insight on artists

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

The single most significant artifact in "Lists: To-Dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations" is probably the least flashy object of all, in a room full of unflashy objects. Like nearly everything in this tiny but beguiling showcase organized by the Archives of American Art, it's nothing but a scrap of paper.

From a distance, it could be any old shopping list, scribbled in pencil and later discarded. Except that the handwriting is Pablo Picasso's. And instead of groceries, it contains the painter's recommendations of artists to be included in the 1913 Armory Show, a landmark exhibition notable for introducing modern art -- including such then-scandalous pictures as Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" -- to a provincial America.

Duchamp's name is on that list, misspelled.

The Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery of the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture is filled with such charmingly relatable details. After all, which of us has never made, saved, cared about -- or botched -- a list? Whether it's our résumés, agendas, receipts, address books or tax returns, we are a race of list-makers. In 1927, 82 years before that "25 Things About Me" meme that caught up Facebook users last year, H.L. Mencken typed up his own litany of 29 random facts about himself, including:

"4. Curiously enough, I greatly dislike the common American dirty stories, and avoid the men who tell them habitually. They seem dull to me. I love the obscene, but it must have wit in it."

Our lists, you could argue, are our lives. They track our triumphs, our tragedies and our tedium.

One artist's list is entirely, almost obsessive-compulsively, visual. Drawn up by Adolf Konrad in the early 1960s, it's a pictorial packing list, itemizing the contents of the painter's suitcase, down to paintbrushes, socks and toothbrush. It's accompanied by a sketch of the artist in his skivvies.

There's also a liquor-store receipt for $274.51 from painter Franz Kline's 1960 New Year's Eve party. Just another historical oddity? Perhaps, but it also gives us insight, according to curator Liza Kirwin, into the role booze played in fueling the abstract expressionist culture of the time.

"Lists" is by turns funny, telling and mundane. There are plenty of price lists, invoices and other pieces of financial arcana that demystify art-making. At times, the creative process doesn't seem any different or more magical than, say, plumbing.

But what's most remarkable about the show is its ability to stir emotion, through something as prosaic as a list.

Perhaps the most poignant example is a to-do list by architect Eero Saarinen, whose best-known designs include the terminal for Dulles International Airport. Dated Aug. 16, 1961, Saarinen's contribution to the show is a neatly organized itemization of things large and small, urgent and not so urgent. A reminder to change a light bulb, for instance, is given no greater priority than pressing plans for buildings in Oslo, London and Chicago. The progress of each project is identified with a marginal notation: "done" or "half done."

Five days after drawing up that list, however, Saarinen was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The day before, he had celebrated his 51st birthday. A week and a half later, he was dead.

To-Dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations From the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art Through Sept. 27 at the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture's Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery (first floor), Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.aaa.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free On June 2, an entirely new selection of lists, drawn from the Archives of American Art's collection of hundreds of thousands of lists, will be installed in the gallery. In March, a companion book with the same title will be available from Princeton Architectural Press and in the Reynolds Center museum shop.

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