Artists’ Lists and Other Enumerations

Around 1970, artist Gordon Newton (b. 1938) listed his expenses: "rent $50, materials $70, food $15, bad habits $5.” (One wonders about the bad habits, possibly cigarettes at ‘70s prices).  Lists—whether written down, typed up, or scribbled on the back of an envelope— govern our lives. They set an agenda. They clarify and catalog.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art counts hundreds of thousands of lists among its collections—to-do lists, membership lists, lists of paintings sold, lists of appointments made and met, lists of supplies to get, and lists of people who are “in.” This led me to wonder, what can these seemingly incidental records tell us about the list maker and  the moment of list making.  To answer the question, I made a list of five types of lists from the Archives of American Art to consider:

  1. Biographical lists
  2. Name lists
  3. To-dos
  4. Inventories
  5. Word lists

1. Biographical lists

A good biographical list provides a compact personal narrative from the point of view of he compiler.  In 1927, journalist H. L. Mencken (1800–1956) wrote a letter about his personality traits entirely in the form of a list from 1 to 29.

Number 4 reads: “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”; and no. 10: “If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself.” He sent this list-letter to artist and writer Charles Green Shaw (1892–1974) for his book The Low Down, a collection of celebrity portraits.  Mencken was an acerbic critic of American life and long-time writer for the Baltimore Sun, and his lively list lays bare his opinionated prose style, but it also provides an intimate view of his follies and foibles. Shaw published it nearly verbatim.  

Every résumé is an autobiography in list form and almost every collection of artists’ papers contains multiple résumés.  At a glance, they show the development of a career through accrued accomplishments—education, teaching engagements, solo and group exhibitions, etc. 

Before the age of computers and easily updated electronic lists, artists such as Philip Evergood (1900–1973)  kept current by manually adding information to his typed “master” résumé.  When it was barely readable, a new “master” was typed.  He saved the earlier versions.  The density of the emendations was proof of his ability to survive and thrive as an artist. 

While individuals often pad their résumé, stretching their skills and experience, painter and theorist Ad Reinhart (1913–1967) elevated the expanded résumé to a fine art.   In the mid-1960s he set down in his elegant and distinctive calligraphy a detailed list of his life’s events.  Beginning with his birth in 1913, he inserts major art historical happenings, such as the 1913 Armory Show, the first international exhibition of modern art in the United States, into his life story.  The list, on 8 x 11”, onion-skin pages, cut and taped together, is four feet high.  In this tall tale, Reinhardt’s life story and the history of art become one in the same.

2. Name lists

There are perhaps more name lists in the Archives than any other kind of list.  These include membership lists, mailing lists, lists of models, lists of invited guests, and the like.  In 1830s, painter George Catlin (1796–1872), who recorded American Indian culture through portraits and scenes from daily life, kept a list of English translations of Indian names from the various tribes; for instance Ah'-sho-cole, from his list, means “Rotten Foot” in Pawnee. Catlin painted Ah'-sho-cole, a noted Pawnee warrior, in 1834.  The list represents Catlin’s efforts to accurately represent his subjects.

Painter Ludwig Sander (1906–1975) kept an early, if not the first membership list of The Club, a postwar group of New York artists legendary for its polemic discussions. The list reminds us that someone had to keep track of who was who, and where they were, for scheduling meetings.  Sander doodled in the margins, perhaps passing time while phoning members.

The Archives’ most notable name list is Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) recommendations for the 1913 Armory Show. Walt Kuhn, who played a major role in assembling the show, had limited knowledge of the European avant-garde. He relied on American artists then living abroad, as well as Europeans in the know, such as Picasso, for introductions to contemporary European artists and dealers. With phonetic spelling, Picasso names Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) would cause an uproar in the American press, Fernand Léger, and the Spaniard Juan Gris, among others. Curiously, he did not include his collaborator and fellow cubist Georges Braque, whose name was later added in Kuhn’s hand. In the end, the Europeans stole the show, overshadowing their American counterparts. The list reveals something of the process of organizing this transcontinental exhibition. Opinions were sought, lists were made, and selections were finalized to represent the best modern art at that moment.

One of the most visually impressive name lists is Ray Johnson’s (1927–1995) photocopied list of people who posed for his “silhouette portraits”.

Johnson is best known for his enigmatic collages and as the founder of the New York Correspondance [intentional misspelling] School, an international network of poets and artists who exchanged artwork through the postal system. Between 1976 and 1982, he made silhouette portraits and kept a list of the people who “kindly posed.”  It is unclear if he actually made silhouettes of everyone listed, or if the list sent through the mail was the art event.  The names are a who’s who of the famous and not-so-famous—an art-world jumble with Johnson as the only common denominator.  Johnson sent this list to another “Johnson,” art historian Ellen Johnson, as a thank you for participating in his project. (In a subsequent list of silhouette portraits dated 1979, Ellen Johnson’s name appears at number 207.)

3. To-dos

To-dos are often the most substantive lists.  They tell us what we have done or what we hope to do.  They help us organize our time.  They focus our attention forward, instilling confidence in our ability to complete tasks and move on.  When Adolph A. Weinman (1870–1952) established his own sculpture studio in New York in 1904, he practiced the Beaux-Arts style of his teachers—Olin Levi Warner, Charles Henry Niehaus and others—characterized by classical forms, symmetry, rich ornamentation, and grand scale. Weinman’s works conveyed weighty themes—duty, purity, love, liberty, repentance—through lightly veiled allegories. He made a to-do list of possible compositions such as, “make David either in the act of throwing stone or picking up stone,” and “make St. George on horseback pushing sword into scabbard.”  For Weinman, the moment of greatest emotional impact was the just before felling Goliath or just after slaying the dragon.  While he was a prolific architectural sculptor for such firms as McKim, Mead, and White, there is no evidence that he completed these projects.

On August 16, 1961, architect Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) made a to-do list of 53 tasks—from the exceptional, “discuss master plan of Chicago,” to the everyday, “fix light in living room”.  Saarinen, who designed such structural icons as the TWA terminal (1962) at JFK International Airport in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (1965), was a great list maker and a consummate multitasker. While most of his lists are to-dos, he was also fond of enumerating his second wife’s good qualities— “generous, attractive, amusing, intelligent, talented, love-able, constructive, creative” in red pencil, with hearts, or noting in Roman numerals best-to-worst-case scenarios (including the time-line for his divorce from is first wife).  Five days after he wrote his August 16th to-do, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Ten days later he was dead from complications of surgery.  Saarinen was 51 and busy with major architectural projects, as well as his home renovations. The list remains as evidence of tasks left forever undone.

Janice Lowry’s (1946–2009) to-do lists are among the most engaging in the Archives. An introspective assemblage artist, she kept a journal for nearly forty years that filled 126 bound volumes, many elaborately illustrated and all peppered with to-dos—“make plane res/car/hotel,” “mail announcements,” “get rain gutters”.

The recurrent tasks, such as “pay bills,” are interspersed with her dream recollections and random thoughts, each page thick with collaged images, paint, stamps and stickers—a vivid backdrop for her daily chores.  The lists propel her forward from one day to the next.  


Lowry also used lists as a kind of self-help therapy to articulate problems and sort out her feelings. Such to-do lists as “people I need to forgive,” which had some overlap with her list of “fifty angry grievances,” helped her examine personal issues and work toward a resolution.

4. Inventories

Art dealers, registrars, and executors of artists’ estates are in a constant state of tracking works of art—lists of works for sale, lists of works in the studio, lists of works in storage.  In the late 1940s, art dealer Germain Seligmann (1893–1978) made numerous lists of family treasures and gallery stock in Paris that had been seized and sold by order of the pro-Nazi Vichy government during World War II. His lists of tapestries, silver, porcelains, and drawings were part of his legal claim to retrieve stolen property.

While most inventories are fairly routine, in the hands of artists, an illustrated inventory can document the art-making process and even become a work of art in and of itself.  Perhaps only an artist would make a graphic list like Adolf Konrad’s (1915–2003), showing, in picture form, the contents of his suitcase on a trip to Cairo in December 1963.

In 1932, painter and color theorist Oscar Bluemner (1867–1938) made an illustrated list of his recently completed landscape paintings, including thumbnail sketches with information about the dimensions, date, media, and in some cases the subject of each work of art.

His list is a graphic catalogue, a snapshot of his current production, though one wonders about Bluemners’ state of mind.  The crowded page, as well as his habit of appending one list to another with shorthand marks and abbreviations, tends to obfuscate rather than clarify his inventory.

Ad Reinhardt (whose résumé is above) was known for his radical, achromatic black paintings. From the mid-1950s until his death, he painted almost exclusively with black. He made a graphic list of black paintings for a major retrospective of his work at The Jewish Museum in New York City in 1966.

In his thumbnail sketches, Reinhardt reveals their underlying geometry, the direction of the brush strokes that give minimal form to the black surface.


5. Word lists

Word lists, or a vocabulary piled up through free association, reveal the list maker’s thought process.  Painter and feminist Joan Snyder (b. 1940) made a list of words defining “female sensibility.” Her list, written in hot pink felt-tip pen, provides a layering of meaning and richness to a larger concept.

In 1951, Ad Reinhardt made a list of ―undesirable words‖ and ―more adequate words‖ for ―art,‖ as well as a list of ―dualisms.‖ He was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy, favoring words for art that were intellectually and emotionally expansive, for example, ―consciousness,‖ freedom,‖ and ―imagination.‖.

Unlike the binary oppositions fundamental to Western thought, Reinhardt understood duality as a philosophy of balance, where two opposites coexist in harmony and are able to transmute into each other—the yin and yang of all things.

Sculptor Robert Morris (b. 1931) avoided making formal statements about his work; instead, he raised provocative questions about the essence of art.  In a 1967 postcard to curator Samuel J. Wagstaff, Morris listed alternative language for the new term “earthworks,” a form of art created in nature that uses natural materials such as soil and stones.

With his invented word and phrases—“Dirt art. Dirty art. Bogs, Geometic quagmires.  Square swamps”—Morris neither criticizes nor endorses the movement, but plays with the nebulous border separating the untouched earth—“at her fatuous flat chested best”—from one that is manipulated by the artist.  Both Morris’s and Reinhardt’s lists underscore the limits of language to define something as elusive as art.


Lists, whether dashed off as a quick reminder or carefully constructed as a comprehensive inventory, give insight into the list maker’s personal habits and enrich our understanding of individual biographies. They reveal the process by which decisions are made, or show the winnowing down of an argument to its essential points.  In the hands of artists, lists can even be works of art in and of themselves.


Love the way the examples show list-makers mixing it up in terms of register and style: the fact that Eero Saarinen's  “discuss master plan of Chicago" can sit comfortably alongside “fix light in living room" says a lot about how versatile & idiosyncratic the genre is (what sorts of formal constraints govern list making anyway?)

The classificatory impulse behind the production of lists also makes me wonder about the archival finding aids and cataloging records used to identify and locate  lists.  How does the museum notate, inventory, describe, and store these documents--in short, how does it "list" them? 

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