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Artists’ Lists Become Art Themselves

What are lists for?

1. They help us remember things.

2. They keep us organized.

3. They group and classify objects.

4. They are works of art.

The last entry on this list is courtesy of a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled “Lists: To-Dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations From the Archives of American Art.” The exhibit is a collection of lists, which transcend their generally humdrum purpose to become original works of art.

On display at the National Portrait Gallery are the crème de la crème of hundreds of thousands of lists that the archives holds in its collection, compiled by Curator of Manuscripts Liza Kirwin.

Many of the lists in the exhibition provide unique insight into how decisions about a piece of art were reached and how certain actions came together, allowing viewers to gain important insight into the list-makers themselves, Kirwin said in an interview. They reveal task-makers, doodlers and more.

“They’re historical evidence,” she said. “They help you construct a life, whether it’s the life of a piece of art, the artist or both.”

Kirwin said one of her favorite lists in the exhibition is an inventory made by Benson Bond Moore, a Washington, D.C., native who maintained a meticulous record of people who purchased his prints. The list is penned on a broadsheet page, and its size and the density of its lettering make it clear that Moore added to it over many years.

“It wasn’t like he had a computer with an Excel sheet where he could go in and add another row or column,” Kirwin said. Instead, the jotted-down names gradually spread across the entire sheet of paper over time.

Another notable list is a catalog made of hundreds of paintings figurative impressionist Bob Thompson lost in a fire. It’s unclear whether the list was made for insurance purposes, but its austere appearance belies — and therefore, emphasizes ­— the emotional toll losing hundreds of works of art can take on an artist.

“What’s left when hundreds of paintings and drawings are destroyed in a fire?” Kirwin asked. “If you don’t have any other documentation, all you have is a list.”

Although the exhibit encompasses a wide range of lists, from illustrated inventories to “what to pack” lists, Kirwin said she was surprised and slightly disappointed not to have found at least one list of New Year’s resolutions or a summer reading list among the 16 million items in the archives’ collection.

Still, the exhibit does feature a number of humorous lists that hint at the list-makers’ eccentric personalities.

Ad Reinhardt, an abstract painter who was active in the New York social scene during the 1930s, apparently kept a detailed list of every party he hadn’t been invited to.

“He had just the sort of personality who would keep that kind of list,” Kirwin said.

And Moore, who was also widely recognized as a masterful duck-painter, sketched a list of 28 mallards — each ostensibly in a different mood, although it’s hard to differentiate the ducks’ expressions in a number of cases.

Overall, the exhibit is likely to cause visitors to think twice the next time they make a grocery list. Will it someday hang in a gallery? Is it one of my finer lists? What would it tell a viewer about the list-maker?

“I became so fascinated by something so incidental and inconsequential,” Kirwin said about researching and creating the exhibit.

Some of that sentiment is sure to rub off on those who go to see it as well.

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