The Eyes

The Eyes

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Intrigue of the Little Black Book

The "Little Black Books" of some American artists are currently on view at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. In this era of digital communication, contacts can be quickly updated, shared, and even deleted at the click of a button. Before smartphones and computers, traditional address books stored important, and sometimes confidential, contact information, and other details. 

The little black book has long been considered the secret space where the most intimate, mysterious details were once kept—a femme fatale’s list of lovers, a business magnate’s key clients, a detective’s code-named informants. These unadorned volumes, where a person would jot down contacts and other personal details, is less coherent than a diary, but its scattering of names, numbers, and appointments is in some ways more intriguing.

The show dives into the personal address books—complete with enigmatic notes, strikethroughs, and ink stains—of artists like Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell. The books offer a glimpse into the personal lives of these luminaries, and a portal into a time when important private information was scribbled into a modest volume, and carried around, unsecured, and dog-eared.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner's list of friends is a Who's Who of the day's top artists: Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and critic Clement Greenberg. Also, in their address book, Pollock's psychologist and the homeopathic doctor who tried to "cure" his alcoholism.

Just as an address book provides a vehicle through which to understand a person, it also served in one case as a pathway to a much larger world for its owner. Assemblage artist Joseph Cornell was a known recluse, who rarely left his home in Flushing, New York. But his address book is packed with names of avant-garde artists with whom he frequently exchanged letters and gifts, many of which he used in his collages. 

Although Cornell never really left New York, he did accumulate through all his friends and people listed in his address book, all these experiences from around the world.  People seemed to really enjoy corresponding with him. They brought the world to him. He didn’t leave much, but still had a really interesting life through those relationships.

"Little Black Books" runs through November 1, 2015 at the Archives of American Art Fischbach Gallery in the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

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