By Myles Ludwig
Handwritten letters are like fossils of an earlier age, docubones from a world B.M. (before Microsoft), and Pen to Paper at the Norton is an exhibition of more than 30 letters from well-known artists dating from the late 18th century to the early 1980s. They are addressed to each other, friends, family, dealers and critics.
A midden of text.
Few people actually write letters by hand anymore, though I have begun to do so, especially to my close, but distant friends. Despite the fact that I failed penmanship in grammar school and need a magnifying glass to read their responses. Email is passé, texting is a driving hazard and we are largely reduced to a kind of electronic hieroglyphics called emojis. We have Snapchat and Instagram as modern versions of Etch-a-Sketch and Elon Musk is rumored to be developing a mind meld. What’s next? iLetter in disappearing ink?
The exhibit at the Norton is drawn from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian and, though it suggests you might deduce the style of the artists’ work from a deep dive into graphology, and some do include idiosyncratic flourishes like Eero Saarinen’s careful, near-blueprint quality architectural drawing, Philip Guston’s sketches, Hanne Darboven’s multicolored squiggles, Howard Finster’s punctuating faces peering out from the sentences and Louis Lozowick’s black bat, I’m a bit suspect of reading too much into them.
Aside from the numerous postcards I received from Ray Johnson’s multiyear epistolary art project, the only letter I ever received from a painter came to me neatly typed from Norman Rockwell. But then again, he was a very neat painter, even prim, which I observed when I photographed him in his Stockbridge, Mass., studio.
The exhibition runs through June 25.
It is intriguing to read Alexander Calder’s thoughts about his kinetic “abstract sculptures” we now know as mobiles, one of which, his 1947 Grasshopper, is on display in the Norton’s Melvin and Barbara Nessel Gallery. Angry Arthur Dove asks Duncan Phillips not to cut his picture in half. Marcel Duchamp makes virtual “readymades.”
Jokey Claes Oldenberg drums up detailed explanations of some of his work. Poetic painter Maxfield Parrish “wishes people wouldn’t ask for blue” because he’s sick of it and Mary Cassatt’s note to the director of the Carnegie Institute’s Homer Saint-Gaudens “shows the artists’ concern with historical dialogue surrounding the progress of women artists,” according to exhibit curatorial assistant J. Rachel Gustafson.
Cassatt also quotes Degas’ paradoxically pointed remark that “no woman has a right to draw like that” after he viewed her 1891 Young Woman Painting, which she made for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition to “show the present generation that we worked & learnt our profession, & which isn’t a bad thing.”
Cassatt is taking “refuge from the gloom of Paris.” Moody photographer Bernice Abbot is in Berlin, feeling “quite folle,” optimistic and jaunty after a period of despair in Paris. Rollicking Jackson Pollack is making his pictures in the potato fields of the Springs outside chic Easthampton where I once summered.
Joseph Cornell, shadowbox-maker extraordinaire, dreams of Delacroix, Willem de Kooning senses his own mortality and Grandma Moses “picked a dandelion yesterday.”
I am surprised at how few discuss more than the daily struggles of an artist like how to make a living, and pay the rent. But then, Artists R Us, so to speak.
Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters From the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art runs through June 25 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Admission is free through 2018 while the museum undergoes extensive renovation. For more information, call 561-832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.