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Pen to Paper | Book Review

Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art



Borne from an offhand observation between Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art colleagues about the instant recognizability of minimalist painter A.D. Reinhardt’s handwriting, Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters, inspires reverential curiosity. In this carefully considered book, Mary Savig regards letter-writing as an art, paying special attention to how each artist addresses formal properties of line and space, as well as what we can infer from these decisions about their creative processes and everyday lives.

Proceeding alphabetically from Bernice Abbott through Grant Wood and spanning the decades from the 1830s to the 1970s, this thoughtful compendium tells the history of art in America in the words of the artists who shaped it: through correspondences both professional and personal, from negotiations with art collectors and curators to revelations about their art and attendant aspirations.

For this project, Savig sought out curators, professors, historians, artists, and archivists alike to read not just between the lines, but to read into each line, inviting 56 different minds to investigate the interplay between language and art in short essays included alongside each letter. As she explained in an interview with us: the goal was to get the writers (many of whom had previously pored over these manuscripts for citations in art catalogs and dissertations) “to step back from the content and instead approach the letter as if it’s a painting or a sculpture. What might the curves, dashes, and density of line tell us about the artist?” She hoped that providing examples and interpretations of artists’ handwriting would offer new frameworks for understanding their work—and she was right. “What emerged from this project,” Savig summarized, “is that primary sources, and handwritten letters in particular, remain relevant and poised for interpretation.”

Designed by Princeton Architectural Press, the book operates much like a gallery exhibition, privileging the visual over the verbal so that we may take in the high quality images as art objects before reading the accompanying “wall text” that complements and situates them. While each entry deserves thoughtful consideration, their enigmatic, artistic value may be grasped in a glance, making the collection ripe for paging through at any pace and in any order. Full verbatim transcriptions are included in the back of the book so that readers may experience each letter’s gestalt before delving into character-based, historical, or cultural analysis.

In order to demonstrate just how closely intertwined the written word is with visual art, Savig selected a wide range of artists and traditions. Artists’ idiosyncrasies impress themselves on the page, leaving a tangible trace from which we may draw parallels between artist’s pen, personality, and practice. We see how, in a letter from Howard Finster, sketches of Mount Rushmore-ish busts of important figures punctuate the otherwise breathless string of blocky san serifs, recalling his emphatic speech as a Baptist preacher as well as what he termed his “sermons in paint.” Senior Curator at Smithsonian American Art Museum Eleanor Harvey notes how Frederic Edwin Church’s calligraphic pen strokes echo his brushwork, “in which the rapid back and forth of his brush delineates the contour of a landscape with lyrical flair.”

Seemingly trivial details such as the consistency of letterforms and their organization on the page, or the evident ease or burden with which each letter was composed communicate a surprising amount of personal information as well. As Savig notes in the book’s introduction: “Artists often code their feelings through handwriting.” We can learn a great deal about the level of affection and familiarity between the letter writer and recipient, the writer’s emotional or professional investment in the contents, and even their current mood. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s anger radiates in his 1914 letter to Eunice Tietjens that responds to an article presuming Tanner’s racial identity and relating it to his success. “Now am I a Negro?” Tanner demands in determined script after a paragraph of underlined phrases, crossouts, and emphasized quotations that undermine that claim. In drafts of a condolence letter written between October 8 and 9, 1968 to Teeny Duchamp just one week after Marcel Duchamp’s death, Joseph Cornell’s handwriting chokes up with ineffable grief. Entire paragraphs are violently slashed out with vertical ink bars, and his script stutters through the recounting of a dream that marks the last time Cornell “saw” Marcel.

Pen to Paper's letters run the gamut from personal chronicles and affectionate notes to philosophical treatises and meditations on the intersection between race, gender, and class in the art world. Some comments are profound, such as Marcel Duchamp’s first utterance of “readymade” to explain his transformation of everyday objects into art to his sister, and others are more banal—“sending this by carrier moose,” Ivan Albright teasingly signs off a letter to Earle Ludgin. In some cases, the letters bear ignorance of their future significance. When Grant Wood squiggled a frame around an ebullient, red-penciled “Hurray!” at the top of a letter to Zenobia Ness, he couldn’t have known he should be celebrating his imminent fame in addition to the fact that the Art Institute of Chicago decided to hang two of his paintings, including the iconic American Gothic. The parenthetical postscript “(How are you Jackson?)” in Lee Krasner’s aerogram to Jackson Pollock during their trial separation carries chillingly prophetic weight when considering it was likely their last communication before he died in a drunken car crash a few weeks later.

From the whimsical floral doodles surrounding the word “darling” in Rockwell Kent’s letter to his wife Sally to the Asian calligraphy-inspired characters of A.D. Reinhardt, these missives offer extensive proof of the expressive and aesthetic capabilities of handwriting, while engendering a unique familiarity with figures who previously loomed larger than life in our consciousnesses.

By preserving and presenting these ephemera, the book emphasizes process over product, with redactions and insertions of text betraying an artist working through ideas—evidence no longer available in a world dominated by digital modes of communication in which individuality is often obscured by the opacity of typed text. Additionally, the book’s smattering of penmanship styles reflect trends in handwriting, as the ornamental cursive of Thomas Eakins, son of a 19th century handwriting instructor, is replaced by the uniform efficiency of the Palmer Method, as seen in Andy Warhol’s comically curt biography offered to the managing editor of Harper’s

This quiet collection poses a direct challenge to anyone who associates archival materials with must, dust, and irrelevance. The unmistakably human element of handwritten letters elevates what today may be merely cursory communication—an email or text message—to a kind of art that evokes the presence of the person who penned them, and leaves behind a physical relic of the relationship between letter writer, recipient, and the world at large. Appropriately in the book’s introduction, Savig encourages us not to ring the death knell of handwriting. Instead she invites us to “celebrate how imaginative correspondence now exists in material and digital forms,” providing new access and ways of thinking. Pen to Paper is a distillation of that celebration. 


Interview with the author, Mary Savig


All images from Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Mary Savig, published by Princeton Architectural Press 2016. Images courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.