The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Artist, The Collector, and Quality Correspondence in midst of the Digital Era
As a young artist entering the contemporary art world, the opportunity to speak with an art collector or museum director is few and far between. An art collector like Joseph H. Hirshhorn has always played a crucial role in the development of artist careers, bridging the gap between the maker and the public institution. I am currently a graduate Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art participating in a Smithsonian Institution Archives Summer Internship Program to further my thesis investigation into different multimedia based technologies, and the means in which the apparatus shapes the way we create systems of documentation.
While digitizing the correspondence between Joseph H. Hirshhorn and many coveted artists during the 1960s and 1970s, it is made evident through the preservation of these paper documents that bonding relationships formed. Artists including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Willem de Kooning share words with members of the Hirshhorn family that extend far beyond business relationships, and move towards a closeness to that of a friend or family member. These materials affirm a physical record over the years as both Hirshhorn and his disciples share all, from their daily dealings, to their most intimate and reflective thoughts, to their major life events. The ongoing conversations reveal Hirshhorn’s utmost reverence for artists and their lives.
During the digitization process there were numerous letters, postcards, and telegrams all filled with warm salutations, advice, and admiration for various art works. I came across a few unique letters and photographs to share with you. It seems Hirshhorn had a close bond specifically with Willem de Kooning as he notes in the letter on November 15, 1967 after an exhibition reception, “I guess it wasn’t enough for the reporter to hear me shout all over the place that you and Picasso are the greatest painters alive—.” Hirshhorn also shares correspondence with de Kooning’s only daughter Lisa de Kooning. Found above is a letter in child’s handwriting where Lisa thanks Hirshhorn for his gifts that encourage her love of animals. In the letter she draws a portrait, shown adjacent to a photograph of her pet horse Freddy. They later reunite their exchange as Lisa writes to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn on December 7, 1978 to include them in her organization of ASPCA Animals and Art benefit. Sifting through, I also came across a series of Kodak color still photographs from 1965 documenting the installation of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture Two Discs, which is amongst the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Calder exchanges multiple letters with Joseph and Olga about travel plans filled with invitations to his home in Saché, France. Lastly, included is a brief letter between Marc Chagall and Hirshhorn about his inquiry for artworks. Hirshhorn was also a frequent guest in the Chagall home, as this snapshot of Chagall and German shepherd was captured during a leisurely afternoon with the Hirshhorn's and friends.
After exploring these artifacts, I began to ask myself if these close affinities could exist today. In the midst of the current art market environment saturated by digital content, concrete communication is often abstract and fleeting. It can take weeks to get an answer to a telephone call, and for email sometimes never as mailboxes fill up with thousands of messages that can prove overwhelming to answer. Digital correspondence is so immediate that it can often lack the nuance that adds to the character or intent of a conversation. The current generation communicates primarily through digital outlets. Email, text messaging, and social media definitely have their place, however do these electronic versions have the same meaning and impact as the hardcopies they replace? Can these modes of communication suffice in establishing gallery or museum representation to prolong a future in a fine art field? It is a pleasure to go back and read the development of these special relationships, the impact Hirshhorn had on the lives of the artists he supported, and at the same time allow contemporary artists to consider the importance of the means in which relationships are built within the current art world.
- Willem de Kooning at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Alexander Calder at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Marc Chagall at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives