Friday, 5 March 2010

The art of list-making By Jane O'Brien

The art of list-making

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington DC

What can lists tells us about the personality of the list-maker? An exhibition in Washington reveals the obsessive and controlling sides of some of the world's greatest artists.

Eero Saarinen
Design genius Eero Saarinen's to-do list included changing light bulbs

There are several stages to writing a list.

First there is the gentle thrill of anticipation as I contemplate the pristine paper in front of me. I may not yet have a subject for my list, but just the thought of one gives me a sense of purpose.

Second there is the light-headed buzz that gradually develops into bliss, euphoria and an all-consuming calm.

Third comes the extraordinary sense of satisfaction from having created a rigid timetable of impossible tasks that has taken a disproportionate amount of time and thought.

It doesn't matter that I will never look at it again.

Psychologists say that obsessive compulsive list makers (I guess that includes me) are trying to create an illusion of control in otherwise chaotic lives.

I see nothing wrong with that. In the words of the American abstract artist, Charles Green Shaw: "Real happiness consists in not what we actually accomplish, but what we think we accomplish."


Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers
Adolf Konrad's packing list. (Archives Of American Art)

To Do: See lists by Picasso, Bluemner and Saarinen

He is one of the artists featured in an exhibition currently running at the Archives of American Art in Washington.

It is a taxonomist's dream: hundreds of lists drawn up by some of the world's greatest modern artists. Some are scribbled on scraps of paper, while others are elaborately illustrated.

There are lists of ideas, lists of instructions, lists of ambitions, of biographical details, of paintings, of things to do, of colours.

One artist, Benson Bond Moore, has even made an illustrated list of duck poses. Here is inspiration indeed.

Liza Kirwin, the Archives' curator of manuscripts says lists can be very revealing:

"This very mundane and ubiquitous form of documentation can tell you a great deal about somebody's personal biography, where they've been and where they're going," she explains.

"People can relate to this form of documentation because so many people are list keepers and organise their lives this way," she says.

Ordering chaos

Highlights of the exhibition include:

* Picasso's handwritten list of recommended artists for the historic 1913 Armory Show - the first international exhibition of modern art in the United States. He could not spell the name of one of his most famous contemporaries, Marcel Duchamp.
* Adolf Konrad's packing list made up of illustrations of art materials and clothes he wanted to take to Rome and Egypt in 1962. He draws himself wearing nothing but his underwear.
* A chaotic inventory of work by the colour theorist Oscar Bluemner that is almost illegible. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.
* A collection of attributes the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen found most attractive in his wife. First on his list is the fact she was very clever.
* A self-assessment chart by the sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia in which he rates his character traits. As a struggling Italian immigrant he gives himself an "excellent" for health, neatness and accuracy, but scores poorly for quickness of thought and courage.


Obsessive list makers

Washington-based psychoanalyst and expert on leadership Dr Michael Maccoby says list makers themselves fall into different categories:

"The extreme is the obsessive who has to make lists of everything. These are people who have an unconscious fear that everything is going to be out of control if they don't make a list," says Dr Maccoby.

Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) appears to have fallen into this category. Liza Kirwin says he was an adamant list maker, who even kept lists of lists.


Oscar Bluemner's list of works of art
You can see that there's a lot of chaotic emotion involved, probably repressed anger
Dr Michael Maccoby, psychoanalyst

"But in trying to give order to his life, he obscures the clarity of the inventory of his work. He's completely obsessed with this type of record keeping," she says.

The illustrated list of his landscape paintings is a condensed jumble of thumbnail sketches with overlapping notes on the right-hand side. Comments in pencil are overlaid with separate remarks in ink and underlined in different colours.

"The colours are mostly reds. Reds tend to show strong emotion and he's taking his red pen and putting it through lines and taking things out. You can see that there's a lot of chaotic emotion involved, probably repressed anger," explains Dr Maccoby.

But he says it would not have been possible to predict Bluemner's suicidal impulses just by looking at his list. His state of mind could only have been detected by comparing the list to other aspects of his behaviour and expression.

Most of the artists in the exhibition are from the Western Hemisphere which may highlight some cultural differences between list makers.

Dr Maccoby has studied European and Chinese business leaders and thinks a pre-occupation with detail is a broadly Western characteristic not shared by people in Asia.

Control

"The Chinese try to understand the whole and how the parts serve the purpose of the whole project. Once they have that concept, then they look at each part in turn. Europeans immediately break everything down and stack up lists.


MRS SAARINEN'S ATTRIBUTES
I. First I recocnized that you were very clever

II. That you were very handsome

III. That you were perceptive

IV. That you were enthusiastic

V. That you were generous

VI.That you were beautiful

"Then they try to resolve each one separately in an ideal way and hope that they all fit together in the future. It's really not as useful," Dr Maccoby says.

Eero Saarinen's list of his wife's attributes could be seen as an example of this tendency - or it could be could be read as a love letter:

"He's deciding exactly what his wife's qualities are," Dr Maccoby says. "He's putting her in a frame. It's a form of psychic control and great architects are in a special group when it comes to the desire to control and create everything.

Dr Maccoby sees parallels between Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect and designer of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania:

"Look at Frank Lloyd Wright who not only wanted to design the building, but also all the furniture in the building and the wife's clothes."

Saarinen is perhaps best known for designing airport terminals in Washington and New York and the exhibition contains another of his lists.

Dated 16 August 1961, it is a large but neatly itemised catalogue of things to do that range from changing light bulbs to presenting plans for a major design project in Oslo. Some of the items have been crossed off, while others remain undone.

The following week he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a few days later he was dead. It is a poignant reminder that none of us will ever complete all our lists.

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Archives of American Art runs until September 2010, at the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

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