Book review: From ‘Pen to Paper’


Book review: From ‘Pen to Paper’

Octavio Paz quotes a Mexican proverb about the maker of universe: ‘Giver of life writes with flowers’. To a lesser extent, makers of images – do not a

Microcosm II
Letter from the Editor

Octavio Paz quotes a Mexican proverb about the maker of universe: ‘Giver of life writes with flowers’. To a lesser extent, makers of images – do not always communicate with pictures, but they also rely on words, vocabulary shared by most in a community. There have been numerous collections of artists’ writings, some wrote essays, newspaper columns, books and dairies. Going through these volumes one is able to gauge the mind of a creative personality, an individual who unlike authors of literature pursues other creative areas: visual arts, music, dance, theatre, cinema etc. But in comparison to these works, which are produced for public consumption, artists (as well as literary writers) also wrote letters, meant for a particular person’s attention. But being a figure of importance, almost a celebrity, these letters now enter public domain, as several books of artists’ letters are available; of Eugene Delacroix, Camille Pissarro, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Kathe Kollwitz and many more.


But when we read these letters, they are in type set, and printed like any other publication. The original manuscript of an artist’s letter is of another interest, since it may include examples of his/her art works, or text may be transformed into a visual delight. Like letters of Roberto Matta (to Joseph Cornell, May6, 1947), Andy Warhol (to Russell Lyness, 1949), Philip Guston (to Elise Asher, August 17, 1964), Howard Finster (to Barbara Shissler, 1981) and Winslow Homer (to Thomas B. Clarke, January 4, 1901), which include a few drawings along with words.


These letters are part of a recently published book Pen to Paper that offers artists’ handwritten letters. Published in 2016 by Princeton Archival Press, New York, the book suffices facsimiles of letters by 56 artists, including names such as Mary Cassatt, Joseph Cornell, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, Ad Reinhardt, William de Kooning, CY Twombly, Robert Smithson and others.


The Editor of the book, Mary Savig, writes in her introduction: “Handwritten letters are performances on paper. Elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across a page, while bold strokes of calligraphy shout for attention”. Going through the letters of Alfred Stieglitz, Jackson Pollock, Saul Steinburg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Motherwell, Thomas Eakins, and Oscar Bluemner, one locates the power of ink-laden pen, when it travels on the terrain of a paper. Beautiful letters composed on a blank sheet in a sense become an art work, reminding of Chinese calligraphy, Arabic manuscripts, Indian scripts, sacred or secular, but revered for the force, sophistication of mark, and pictorial pleasure besides of their meaning.


An artist’s writing is an extension of his/her art making, as Philip Guston informed Elise Asher “I was in the middle of drawing when your card came!” Corresponding to it, but in a different direction, one examines the letter of Ad Reinhardt. Postcards sent to Samuel J. Wagstaff (July 23, 1964, August 12, 1965) which echo the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionist painter due to neatly inscribed words, precisely arranged lines and perfectly composed space.


However, if a reader moves from the visual aspect of these letters, he will find insightful references to decode an artist’s work, and words. For instance, Charles Burchfield writing to Lawrence A. Fleischman (March 17, 1956) expresses “Let the mind rule the writing not the eye”, or Lenore Tawney writing to Maryette Charlton (February 15, 1969) reflects: “Words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length…They could be plaited [or] twisted”.


Apart from the visual qualities of these letters, the book reminds of the importance of an artist’s writings, because in many phases of art history, words jotted down by a painter paved the way for a new phase and movement in art. For example, Paul Cezanne’s letter to Emile Bernard (April 15, 1904) “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point”, contributed towards a new movement baptised as Cubism.


There are a number of other examples, in which artists wrote about their creative concerns, often taking analogies in the act of writing. Vincent Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo, about his passion for painting: “the emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without being aware of working…. and the strokes come with a sequence and coherence like words in a speech or a letter”.


One can identify his brush strokes like his handwriting, and when you leaf through Pen to Paper you start relating an artist’s image making and act of writing, a situation that may change in the age of digital messages. Mary Savig comments on that possibility: “Let’s celebrate how imaginative correspondence now exists in material and digital forms, posing new ways of thinking about art, history, and culture.”