Jot In ‘Lists’ At the Top of Your ‘To Read’ List

The writer addresses his audience in the opening chapter, describes the path through the bookstore that led the reader to the novel being read right now: “[Y]ou have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you.”

In what must be one of fiction’s greatest lists, Italo Calvino enumerates the “barricade” of books and their appeal (or lack thereof). There are the “Books You Needn’t Read”, and “Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered”. As the whimsical catalogue that opens his classic 1979 novel If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler continues, we encounter “Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified”.

Within that puzzling category, it’s easy to place Liza Kirwin’s wonderful book, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Collecting work from close to 70 list-makers, including Joseph Cornell, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, H.L. Mencken, Pablo Picasso and N.C. Wyeth, Kirwin’s beautiful book uses an unusual medium to glimpse into the minds of artists.

“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 the understanding of individual biographies,” writes Kirwin in her introduction. “They reveal the process by which decisions are made or show the distillation of an argument to its essential points. In the hands of artists, lists can be works of art in and of themselves.”

Realist painter Adolf Konrad’s packing list from 1962-63 is a comic-like, “graphic list of all the things he needs to pack, as well as a drawing of himself wearing nothing but his underwear”. On one page, the left side displays a series of the clothes he plans to pack, plus signs between each item, while the other side of the page shows all of his art supplies: paints, brushes, pens, and a book titled, “Europe $5 a day”. It’s tempting to cut out the clothes and art-accessories and attach them to the paper doll-like figure of Konrad in his skivvies

As the curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Kirwin identified an untapped resource. When she first suggested putting together this book, the Archive director John W. Smith was “skeptical”. “But I was soon convinced that the ubiquity and variety of the material would provide a unique point of entry into the lives of artists and the world of American Art,” he writes in his foreword.

As an “entry point”, the book seems to presuppose a level of familiarity with the various artists. Fortunately for the unfamiliar (like me), each entry includes a brief bit of text from Kirwin that provides biographical information and analysis of each list. However, with its full-colour reproductions, the book seems more appealing as an unusual, mesmerizing, and intimate collection of outsider-like art.

A list of artwork by painter and colour theorist Oscar Bluemner features thumbnail sketches of his larger paintings, including the dimensions, dates, media, and subjects. It’s a dense and layered list that also appears to be written in code. “The crowded page, as well as Bluemner’s habit of appending one list to another with shorthand marks and abbreviations, tended to obfuscate rather than clarify his inventory,” writes Kirwin.

The book’s publication coincides with an exhibition of the lists in Washington, D.C. at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery. The combination of lists, book, and exhibit recalls a remarkably similar-sounding project by the great polymath Umberto Eco. His 2009 boo,k The Infinity of Lists, was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name that he organized for the Louvre.

In his book, Eco makes a distinction between lists that are “practical” or “pragmatic” and those that are “poetic”. A shopping list is practical, for example, where a poetic one is “any artistic end for which the list was proposed and whatever art form is used to express it”.

Practical lists “confer unity on a set of objects that, no matter how dissimilar among themselves, comply with a contextual pressure”, while in a poetic list, “what matters is being seized by the dizzying sound of the list”. In Eco’s view, people make lists “because we cannot manage to enumerate something that eludes our capacity for control and denomination”.

Her book includes examples of what Eco calls practical and poetic, but the emphasis often seems to be on what her items suggest about the lives and thoughts of the artists.

“My favorite list is by painter Philip Evergood,” she says in an interview with website The Morning News. “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 pinhole at the top. I imagine he tacked it up on his studio wall next to his phone.” (“Lists”, The Morning News 17 May 2010)

Her introduction also echoes Eco’s description of list-making as an act that happens in the face of chaos and uncertainty: “Lists are comforting,” she writes. “They set an agenda. They clarify and catalogue. People formulate lists to impose order, to bolster an argument, to express an opinion, or to take inventory.”

Not all the lists are visual. A voucher presented to curator Samual J. Wagstaff by Detroit artist Gordon Newton, possibly around 1968-71, documents his expenses for four items: rent ($50), materials ($30), food ($15) and “Bad Habits” ($5).

“Lists tell us what we have done or what we hope to do,” Kirwin writes in her introduction. “Even the most mundane lists can be intriguing specimens of cultural anthropology.”

RATING 8 / 10