One of the most revealing letters in the Norton Museum of Art’s new exhibition “Pen to Paper,” a collection of handwritten messages by iconic American painters and sculptors, finds a young Jackson Pollock on the cusp of greatness. Writing to a friend, Louis Bunce, with a playful scribble, the New York painter describes his new marriage to artist Lee Krasner and moving to a 5-acre home in the East Hamptons, a “very swanky, wealthy summer place” with a barn where the “work is endless — and a little depressing at times.” “Have had fairly good responses from the public (interested in my kind of painting),” Pollock writes, sounding humble. Within months of writing that letter, dated June 2, 1946, Pollock would begin experimenting with his signature drip paintings in the barn, which he had converted into a studio.
“If you read the top of the second paragraph, where it starts, ‘We are about 100 miles out on Long Island three hours on the train,’ that sentence is so fluid to me it reminds me of his abstract drip paintings,” says J. Rachel Gustafson, the exhibit’s curator. “But this letter lets you see a man like Jackson Pollock, a towering name in the art world. It lets you see behind the curtain to their humanity.”
Subtitled “Artists’ Handwritten Letters From the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” the Norton show will open Tuesday, April 18, with 38 letters written by 32 American icons, including Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Motherwell, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edward Weston. The Norton marks the start of a national Smithsonian tour of the letters, which span the early 1800s through the 1980s and feature love letters, notes and elaborately illustrated missives.
For Gustafson, who worked with the Smithsonian’s curator of manuscripts, Mary Savig, on the show, the letters are a portal to each artist’s personality. The show, she says, also dovetails with current nostalgia over the lost art of handwriting.
“In text messages, there’s a cold, distant uniformity separated by all the ones and zeros that make up the interwebs,” Gustafson says. “But a thought-out piece of correspondence brings humanity, the individual sense of the artist. It also bridges a huge swath of time.”
One of the oldest and strangest letters on display, dated 1852 by neoclassical sculptor Harriet Hosmer, feels startlingly modern, Gustafson says. An expatriate who moved to Italy in her early 20s, Hosmer replies to a male suitor named “Sir James” with flirtatiousness, comparing her attraction to him to a “mental illness.”
Georgia O’Keeffe’s brusque note to an art collector named Cady Wells, dated the spring of 1939, is dripping with regret. In her letter, written with bold, squiggly lines and an indifference to proper punctuation, O’Keeffe tries to persuade the collector to accept another artwork instead of the “deers head,” because she isn’t convinced Wells would love it. “I feel you dont really like the painting so it is difficult to get myself to do something about it,” O’Keeffe writes.
Another letter — the most tragic in this collection — is a 1968 exchange from artist Joseph Cornell to Teeny Duchamp, the wife of French Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp. Unlike the other letters, Cornell’s letter, written weeks after Duchamp’s death, is a handwritten draft riddled with scribbled-out sentences and notes in margins, and filled with the sympathy of a close friend consoling a widow. “It will never sink in because he has never really left us,” Cornell writes. “I recall so easily my first meeting with Marcel, the piquant flavor of contact with a unique personality.”
“What the Smithsonian lent to us is mostly finished letters, but this one is Cornell working through his emotions in a draft,” Gustafson says. “It is a very intimate letter, and Cornell and Duchamp were very close friends, not just a mentor-mentee relationship. These letters truly help you understand who these artists are as people, not as superstars of the American art canon.”
An opening reception for “Pen to Paper” will take place 5-9 p.m. Thursday, April 20, during the Norton’s Art After Dark gathering, with a letter-writing workshop, talks on specific letters and a lecture by Liza Kirwin, the Smithsonian’s deputy director of the Archives of American Art. The exhibit will also include iPad stations, which will allow museumgoers to read transcriptions of each letter, and listen to audio excerpts recorded by museum staff.
“Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters From the Archives of American Art” will open Tuesday, April 18, at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org.