RISD presents the art of list-making

Adolf Konrad, packing list, circa 1962-'63.
Adolf Konrad, packing list, circa 1962-'63. Submitted photo

Ten things you need to know about "Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art," an exhibition at the RISD Museum of Art in Providence.

1. The most creative people, when confronted with a piece of paper, will either make it into a work of art or fill it with the mundane.

That is how you can have, in the same exhibit, Eero Saarinen's list of calls and meetings juxtaposed with his Roman numeral love letter to his second-wife-to-be, Aline Bernstein, enumerating her good qualities. These included being "perceptive," "enthusiastic," "generous," and "very hansome [sic]," as well as this list-capper: "That the more one digs the foundations the more one finds solidest granit [sic] for you and I to build a life together upon." Next to this is an arrow and the notation, "I know this is not a good sentence." Who could resist?

2. In the days before word processing, list-making was arduous business. Painter Philip Evergood's 1959 resume is cobbled together from magazine clippings, handwritten annotations and typescript, cut out and then pasted together, one after another, forming a sort of collage. Although today it would be so much easier to maintain, this sort of list is a remarkable history of typefaces and betrays something about the man who kept it - in a way no computerized record could.

3. When commerce meets art, it is less interesting than you might think. I don't care about a glassmaker's price list, artworks entered into shows, or to-do lists.

4. But when art transcends commerce, it is fascinating. See Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8.

5. William E.L. Bunn (1910-2009) painted a mural in a post office in Minden, Neb., during the Depression. His "grief list," what we might call a punch list today, marks as completed "telephone poles" and "glaze distance lights," but "outhouses and wells" remains mysteriously unchecked, the reason lost to history.

6. The best lists of the bunch are Janice Lowry's. Her notebooks are packed with a mixture of the quotidian (phone numbers, repairs that need to be done) and poignant observations ("Once again I remain alone"). There's a clipping from Dear Abby of the signs of depression, which is a list within a list. There's a "list of people to forgive." On a lighter note are her "50 angry grievances," including No. 24, "Angels losing," and No. 36, "not able to lose weight," which is circled, and could be on just about anyone's list, come to think of it. (Lowry, who died of liver cancer in 2009, left behind 126 journals that are in the Smithsonian's permanent collection.)

7. Among Ad Reinhardt's List of Undesirable Words: hubby, product, profession, therapy and self-expression.

8. It's hard to compete with H.L. Mencken, compiling a list of biographical tidbits for Charles Green Shaw for a book on celebrities he was writing called "The Low Down." I won't give away too much, but among the satirist's revelations: "If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself" and "I drink exactly as much as I want, and one drink more."

9. When you're reading other people's lists, the last thing you want to hear is the RISD guard having a loud cell phone conversation while she sits in a chair a few feet away.

10. After you've gotten your fill of jottings, notes and ephemera, you can walk downstairs to view the gallery's other exhibits. Among them: "Subject to Change: Art and Design in the Twentieth Century," a fascinating collection of couture, jewelry, furniture and other objects, including Saarinen's famed tulip chair.

Betty J. Cotter teaches at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I. She will read from her second novel, "The Winters," at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London.

Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912.
Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912. Submitted photo
Philip Evergood, list of contacts, circa 1947.
Philip Evergood, list of contacts, circa 1947. Submitted photo

IF YOU GO

What: “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art”

Where: RISD Museum of Art, 224 Benefit St., Providence, R.I.

When: Through June 16

Admission: $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens age 62 and older. Admission is free on Sundays, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on the third Thursday of the month, open from 5 to 9 p.m.

Info: www.risdmuseum.org

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