H.L. Mencken was proud to have coined the term word “smuthound.” He avoided shampoo and lied to women. He felt hangovers not as headaches but as “pains in the legs” and preferred beer to scotch, which made him “vaguely uneasy.”
“I drink exactly as much as I want,” he wrote, “and one drink more.”
He delivered all of this information in the form of a list with 29 bullet points that was meant to serve as biographical information for a profile. This week, Mencken’s list and many others go on view at the Morgan Library, in an exhibition on loan from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Besides shining light on odd nooks of American art history, the cleverly organized collection is a reminder that, despite the prevalence of so-called “productivity software,” the hand-written list has life yet.
Smithsonian curator Liza Kirwin described the lists as “the kinds of documentation that end up in the folder marked miscellany.” Her show premiered last year in Washington, D.C., where lack of space forced it to be shown in halves over the course of the summer. The Morgan’s recently expanded gallery space—and “great sympathy for archival material,” as she put it—compelled her to transplant “Lists” to New York; she has found a kindred spirit in Christine Nelson, the Morgan curator who last week saw to the exhibition’s installation. On Friday morning they inspected the gallery space, compared freight elevators—the Smithsonian’s is bigger; the Morgan’s is nicer—and gabbed about their respective collections.
“Christine has a lot of lists here, I’m learning,” said Ms. Kirwin, and Ms. Nelson returned the compliment. “Liza, even more than I do, works with millions of paper documents,” she said. “It took a wonderful creative effort on her part just to pare this down to 80 items.”
These lists tell the story a long-lost New York art world, beginning with early-20th-century modernism and running through to the feminist upheavals of the 1970’s. The germ of the exhibition was a scrap of paper scribbled on by Picasso, suggesting artists who might be worth a look for the 1913 Armory Show. “Braque,” he threw in at the bottom, changing the course of American art history with what looks like an afterthought.
These are the sorts of surprises that, according to Ms. Kirwin, don’t happen on iPhone to-do apps, which she has tried and calls “annoying.”
A survey of some of New York’s busiest people suggested that, despite the appeal of such software, the simplicity of the notepad is irresistible. Ed Koch is never without one. “It’s about four inches long and two inches wide,” he said of his pad. As mayor he required his commissioners to submit monthly lists of success and failure—a kind of never-ending performance review—and now he uses lists to keep track of the various issues he pursues as a pundit, columnist and film critic. As of last week, he said, “the top of my list is Medicare.”
When evening comes, he tears out the day’s list and starts anew; the daily musings of Ed Koch will, in other words, never appear in a show like this one. Franklin D. Vagnone’s lists, on the other hand, would fit in well at the Morgan. Like Proust’s bedroom, the offices of the executive director of the city’s Historic House Trust are covered with cork board—not as a last line of defense against asthma, but to allow Mr. Vagnone to surround himself with his lists. An artist by trade, he covers magazine pages with red felt pen, goes over them in watercolors, and turns them into an ever-changing wallpaper. This is his attempt to maintain creativity in the face of bureaucratic malaise. “There’s always a play between your notebook of lists and your vision wall,” he said. “I have to keep both of them alive or it really becomes dead for me.”
Were his visually arresting lists to be entered into a future exhibition at the Morgan, however, that red pen would give a curator trouble. “Red felt ink is very fugitive,” said Ms. Kirwin, pointing to a list written by painter Joan Snyder that couldn’t make the trip north, lest its fragile ink be damaged. Happily, she located another copy of the same list, which Ms. Snyder had written in answer to the question, “What is feminist art?”
Ms. Kirwin read part of the response aloud: “Repetition, bodies, wet, opening, closing, repetition, lists.”
Some of the Smithsonian’s most surprising lists come from the desks of curators and gallery owners, itemizing expenses and planning exhibitions. There is a list of titles to be displayed at painter Andrew Wyeth’s debut show, written in the hand of his artist father, N.C., and a detailed plan for renowned art dealer Paula Cooper’s first gallery.
In the art world of today, such tasks are likely to be done not by hand but in a comparatively un-lovely Google doc; to-do lists may well be handwriting’s last redoubt.
“Every list I write by hand,” said Martin Brauen, the chief curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, who uses a pocket notebook for its convenience. Like Mr. Koch, he does not preserve his lists for posterity, explaining that “it’s quite joyful when I throw them away.”
Bill Powers is an exception, or perhaps a sign of a new breed. An art collector, judge on the Bravo reality show Work of Art and owner of the Lower East Side’s Half Gallery, Mr. Powers keeps lists on his iPhone. “My wife”—fashion designer Cynthia Rowley—“writes things down on her hand,” he said. Permanently displayed on his iPhone is a list of things he’s heard said about art dealing, including a reminder that the occupation is merely “the business of selling very expensive lottery tickets.”
The Reverend Billy Talen, meanwhile, is not a listmaker at all. “I get a lot done,” said the activist, performance artist and frequent mayoral candidate. “I go onto the sidewalks and preach and get arrested. I’m generally so busy that I’m confronted by the next thing I must do immediately.”
Ms. Kirwin’s great thinkers did not, like Mr. Talen, keep their to-do lists “in the air.” But when they wrote these lists, many of them were in the very early stages of their careers—“not yet sure how their story would turn out,” as Ms. Nelson put it. That their commonplace musings are now on display is a testament to the unlikely elegance of the scrap heap.