List of Lists: A book of artistic miscellany.

Ad Reinhardt’s list of desirable and undesirable words for describing art. Sadly, ‘ridiculosity’ did not make his list. (All images courtesy of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and Princeton Architectural Press.)

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I am partial to lists. One, because they’re handy. Two, because they can convey great meaning in just a few words. And, three, because they can reveal so much about the person that creates them. Which is why I’ve really enjoyed thumbing through Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations, by Liza Kirwin, who serves as curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

As part of her job, Kirwin combs through the files that she receives from artists’ estates or from the artists themselves, cataloguing important letters and diaries. Almost every single collection is accompanied, she says, by lots of lists. “Some have thousands,” she explains, from lists that chronicle artworks shown at a particular exhibit to lists that record day-to-day gallery business. Though often considered ephemera, these can often be invaluable. “One of our treasures in the archives is the list by Picasso of artists that he recommends for the 1913 Armory show.”

Her book, published last year by Princeton Architectural Press, contains a wide gamut of highly intriguing lists, by artists both well-known and forgotten. This includes Franz Kline’s liquor bill for a 1960 New Year’s Eve party. (He spent a sum total $274.51 for an extravagant quantity of booze — that’s more than $2,000 in 2011 dollars). There are Ad Reinhardt’s tidily organized lists of words on index cards, from 1951, in which he creates a schematic of art language. (Shown above, and after the jump.) And there are the lists of painter Adolf Konrad (1915-2003), who once created a pictorial packing list for a jaunt through Egypt and Rome in the ‘early ’60s (see below). “When this came in,” says Kirwin, of Konrad’s watercolor list, “I made a photocopy of it because I said to myself, ‘If I ever do a book, I want to include it in there.’ I just loved it. And now it’s the cover.”

One of the pieces Kirwin found particularly meaningful were the to-do lists of painter and collagist Janice Lowry (1946-2009. “She died of liver cancer,” says Kirwin. “She was working out a lot of issues with her family in her lists. She told me that she could look at the list and see which things she was really avoiding because she would migrate it to the next list. A lot of these had to do with going to the doctor and getting blood tests. She felt intuitively that something was wrong her.”

As technology changes, so does the nature of lists. More contemporary submissions to the archives, says Kirwin, often arrive on discs. These raise all manner of preservation questions: Do you preserve the list in its original formatting? Or strip it down to simple text? How do you store it? “It’s something we’re grappling with,” she explains. “But the lists, they’re not as much fun, for sure.”

See more sample lists below. Click on images to supersize. Want to see more? The Morgan Library in New York will display these, and many others, starting in June.

Ad Reinhardt’s postcards to Katherine Scrivener, continued. In this list, a variety of dualisms. Missing: sweet/spicy.

Reinhardt’s note to Scrivener explaining his word lists.

In the two images above, Adolf Konrad’s packing list — in visual format — from his travels through Rome and Egypt in 1962-63.

Ray Johnson’s Thank-You Note (c. 1979) and list of silhouette portraits, October 13, 1978.

A letter from Lee Krasner to journalist Susan Rowe, from 1981.

A list by Oscar Bluemner featuring his works and color combinations, from 1932.

Back to Reinhardt: The painter’s intensive list of his life’s biggest happenings, mixed in with various historical events, from circa 1966. This actually stretches on for several pages, all of which are bound together by yellowing cellophane tape.


  1. Paul Shortt

    I love this book. One of my favorite selections from the book is Louis Michel Eilshemius calling card which list “A few Inventions and Discoveries”. I love that this artist was passing out cards to elevate his status.

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