American Artists’ Fascinating and Famous Letters

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In the Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution keeps a marvellous collection of correspondence written by American artists. Many of the famous letters by American artists are handwritten. Some give an intimate look into an artist’s private life, reflecting on a deeply-personal moment.

Curated Famous Letters Published in a Book

Mary Savig curated a book called Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters, published in 2016. The idea for the book started with the letters and postcards of Ad Reinhardt.

Reinhardt is an American abstract artist with very distinct handwriting. Reinhardt is known for his minimalist black paintings. To an untrained eye, they look like a solid black canvas. However, the artist used various shades of near-back.

Savig says, “Handwritten letters are performances on paper.” Certainly, famous artists make famous letters by constructing them like artwork.

Artistic Embellishment

In the Savig book, an example of the artist as an illustrator is a 1942 handwritten letter sent by Rockwell Kent to his wife, Sally. He starts the letter with “My Darling.”

The word DARLING is capitalized and takes up the width of the stationery page. There is the embellishment of flowers surrounding each letter. In the lower right corner of the page, he draws four characters with the phrase, “They all speak well of it.” This letter appears right before the introduction of the Savig book.

It is common for letters by artists to contain a drawing.

Another example is the drawing of a framed piece of artwork balanced on one frame corner on the ground in front of the horizon. This drawing is found in the 1975 letter by Llyn Foulkes to Darthea Speyer. Speyer organized the artist’s New York exhibitions.

The artist complains that she has not received money for some smaller paintings sold in Speyer’s New York gallery. She points out that she knows they sold because she ran into someone who bought one from Speyer at the opening in New York City.

Death Comes Too Soon

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) was married to Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956). Krasner was an abstract expressionistic painter who specialized in collage. She sent an aerogram letter from Paris in 1956 to her lover.

She knew he was having emotional problems and severe challenges with alcohol. She tried to cheer him up by saying the artwork she saw in Paris was especially bad. She added a poignant note at the end of her letter asking, “How are you, Jackson?” in out-sized parenthesis.

Jackson would never respond. A short time after the letter arrived, Pollack died in a car crash at age 44.

Letter Ripe with Grief

An American visual artist Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972), idolized his mentor, a French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968). In the Smithsonian collection is a draft of a letter Cornell wrote to Duchamp’s widow, Teeny. It is full of ugly cross-outs and corrections from Cornell that show how traumatized he was in October 1968. He says, “It will never sink in because he never left us; the memories are so enduring.”

Cornell’s grief was so great he did not leave his house for a week and only went out to post the final draft of his condolences letter.

Hurray Moment

On a happier subject, Grant Wood writes in his celebratory 1930 letter, “Hurray!” is at the top, written in big cursive letters surrounded by a curly caption bubble. He was ecstatic that the art jury accepted two of his paintings for inclusion in the prominent Chicago Art Institution Exhibition.

Having one painting chosen for this prestigious show is a rarity, but having two (the maximum allowed) selected is unheard of for most artists, especially the unassuming Wood from middle-American Iowa.

The jury could not decide between Stone City and American Gothic, both of which went on to gain recognition as quintessential American classical paintings. The American Gothic portrait of an elderly farm couple is so well known and is the subject of parody so often. The comedic attention it gets is proof of its universal appeal. Some call it “The American Mona Lisa.”

Letters from famous American painters are fascinating because they offer an insider’s peak into what the artists might have been thinking at important moments in their lives.

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