Liza Kirwin’s 10 Favorite Lists from the Smithsonian’s Archives


Liza Kirwin is the curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, the world’s largest and most widely used resource on the history of the visual arts in America. She’s also the author of Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists

, a new book that gives us an intimate glimpse inside the minds of well-known artists like Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Andrew Wyeth through random lists that they made. Shopping lists, reading lists, to-do lists, supply lists, membership lists — you get the gist. Here, Kirwin walks us through her top-ten lists from the fascinating book.

Adolf Konrad, packing list, ca. 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

10. Adolf Konrad (1915–2003) Perhaps only an artist would make a graphic list like Konrad’s showing, in picture form, the contents of his suitcase on a trip to Cairo in December 1963.

Charles Green Shaw, “The Bohemian Dinner” poem, undated. Charles Green Shaw papers, 1874–1979. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

9. Charles Green Shaw (1892–1974) Born into wealth, painter Charles Green Shaw reveled in a glamorous 1920s New York social scene. A satirical journalist, painter, defender of avant-garde art, children’s book author, illustrator, playwright, and a master of the bon mot, Shaw explored his passions through multiple means. His poems often consisted of short declarative phrases. One of my favorites is “The Bohemian Dinner,” in which Shaw creates a literary abstraction of an experience in list form — from “The ride downtown” to “The limping home” and then to “The bed.”

Ludwig Sander, list of members of The Club, ca. 1949. Ludwig Sander papers, 1910–75. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

8. Ludwig Sander (1906–1975) Sander’s list of members of The Club makes the top ten because it is an unresolved research problem. The Club, founded in New York City in 1949 by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Pavia, and others, sponsored weekly discussions, parties, and panels that helped define the avant-garde community. I wanted to say that this was the first membership list, but could not pin down the date, even after checking the addresses through New York City directories. If not the first membership list, it is very early!

Janice Lowry, to-do list, August 9, 2003, journal no. 101, 2003. Janice Lowry papers, 1957–2008. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

7. Janice Lowry (1946–2009) Lowry’s elaborately illustrated journals include my favorite “to-do” lists. The recurrent tasks (pay bills, make doctor’s appointment) are interspersed with her dream recollections and random thought, each page thick with collage images, stamps and stickers, providing a vivid backdrop for her daily chores.

Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, 1859–1978. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian

6. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) In 1912, American painter Walt Kuhn asked Picasso to recommend European artists for the 1913 Armory Show, the first international exhibition of Modern art in the United States. Picasso made a list of recommendations, including Marcel Duchamp — name spelled out phonetically — whose Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) caused an uproar at the exhibition, Fernand Léger, and Juan Gris, among others. The Europeans stole the show, overshadowing their American counterparts.

Gordon Newton to Samuel J. Wagstaff, voucher, undated. Samuel J. Wagstaff papers, 1932–85. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

5. Gordon Newton (b. 1948) Sometimes lists provide unique personal insights. Take for instance artist Gordon Newton’s list of expenses: “rent $50, materials $70, food $15, bad habits $5.” One wonders about the bad habits, possibly cigarettes (at 1970 prices).

James Penney, to-do lists, July 1932. James Penney papers, 1913–84. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

4. James Penney (1910–1982) Penney came from the University of Kansas to New York City in 1931 to study at the Art Students League of New York. In his 1932 sketchbook he made a list of survival tips, including “spend what you have on materials” and “don’t go back to Kansas.” On the opposite page he sketched the steel joints, lifting hooks, and pulleys in the construction of Radio City Music Hall. Penney remained in New York, won numerous mural commissions, and became a notable teacher, who, no doubt, imparted his survival skills to generations of art students.

Benson Bond Moore, studies of ducks, undated. Benson Bond Moore papers, 1895–1995. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

3. Benson Bond Moore (1882–1974) Painter and printmaker Benson Bond Moore specialized in landscapes and animals. A native and resident of Washington, D.C., he often sketched at the National Zoo. Ducks were a favorite subject. Here he makes a graphic list of ducks in various poses, numbered one to twenty-six, perhaps serving as a handy how-to-draw-a-duck reference for his paintings and prints.

Eero Saarinen, list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1857–1972. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

2. Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) Finish-born architect Eero Saarinen, the designer of such structural icons as the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport (1962) in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (1965), met his second wife, Aline, on January 28, 1953. Aline, then an art editor and critic at the New York Times, was writing an article on Saarinen’s new General Motors Technical Center (1955) in Warren, Michigan. They fell in love instantly. Saarinen, a great list maker, enumerated her positive traits.

Philip Evergood, list of contacts, ca. 1947. Philip Evergood papers, 1910–70. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

1. Philip Evergood (1901–1973) My favorite list is by painter Philip Evergood. He glued and taped together scraps of paper and business cards to create a list of services available near his studio for framing, supplies, galleries, etc. It grew organically. I like the look of it. There’s a small pin hole at the top. I imagine he tacked it up on his studio wall next to his phone.