Painting (and writing) by number

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“A black day to begin a blue journal…” -Tennessee Williams from his diary, 1950s

Paint by Number returns us once again to mid-twentieth century America following last week’s focus on actor and art collector Vincent Price and in connection with a current exhibition at New York City's Morgan Library, featuring the diaries of Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck and Charlotte Brontë.

In the 1950s paint by number became “an adult metaphor for the commercialization and mechanization of culture,”* a phrase that rings equally true today as text messaging replaces the complete sentence and recorded voices replace parents.

The Last Supper is the most popular image in the history of paint by number-
  • Wally Williams, 1981, from the collection of Douglas Shiell
  • The Last Supper is the most popular image in the history of paint by number-

The concept parallels today’s computerized books. The mechanized process of writing itself signals (sadly) the end of script, diaries, and the personal Christmas card. Yet the changes are here, and to ignore them means living in the past and losing one’s audience.

“Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which ‘friends’ post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.” — Edward Rothstein reviews ‘The Diary’ at the Morgan Library for The New York Times, 1/21/11

Paint by number decorated one's walls. It did not speak to emotion or inspiration. It did not break new ground in terms of personal expression. And yet the companies marketed their do-it-yourself art, images of country lanes, Paris street scenes, and (the most popular) re-creations of da Vinci’s Last Supper with slogans like,

“You don’t have to be an artist to produce a masterpiece.”

Perhaps blogging is the paint by number of today, making writers of us all.

Ironically, the computerized blogging process prompts for some (okay, for me), a return to handwriting. A bit old-fashioned in this regard, I never abandoned script completely, as that would mean the end of the proper thank-you note. Yet day-to-day writing by hand is archaic, lost like records and paperbacks to the more convenient and economical digital age.

Taking notes over artist Carl Andres typed and block-printed poems at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas; related post linked through the photograph
  • Taking notes over artist Carl Andre's typed and block-printed poems at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas; related post linked through the photograph

George Rodrigue first picked up a paintbrush in 1953 when his mother brought him the latest American craze, paint by number, to ease his boredom as he lie sick in bed with polio. By the early Fifties the masses saw paint by number as affordable, do-it-yourself art. But even as a young boy, George objected, turning the canvases over and painting his own designs on the back.

A Paint by Number mock-up inspired by this post, 2011

“There was an explosion of housing after World War II, and there was nothing to hang on the walls. Using paint by number, people painted the pictures themselves to decorate their homes, infuriating the art world.

“It was extremely popular, produced in factories similar to automobile plants. In addition to the canvas and paints, the companies provided instructions for framing, along with how to group the finished works on the wall.” —George Rodrigue

The Palmer Paint Company and art department at Woodward and Canfield in downtown Detroit, 1953
  • From 'Paint by Number' by William L. Bird, Jr.*
  • The Palmer Paint Company and art department at Woodward and Canfield in downtown Detroit, 1953

Paint by number is craft, not art, and its public embrace during the height of Abstract Expressionism horrified museums and critics. It defined the extremes of high art versus low art, further distancing the art world from the real world.

Furthermore, the phenomenon appeared immune to demographics. All incomes enjoyed this affordable medium, and those people that might otherwise purchase ‘real art’ took pride in their own work instead.

Although no longer the rage, 1950s paint by number remains collectible today as a faded slice of American culture. Artist Andy Warhol questioned its role as craft versus art in his “Do-it-Yourself” series from the 1960s. He appropriated (or copied) the designs directly from paint-by-number sets.

Pencil and colored pencil on paper by Andy Warhol, 1962
  • Andy Warhol, Collection of the Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel
  • Pencil and colored pencil on paper by Andy Warhol, 1962

“Warhol often complained that painting was ‘too hard.’ These examples of [his] most exquisite paintings began with the outline of a numbered picture. [He] projected the image…to canvas, tracing the outline with the flat of his pencil. [He] then painted the color blocks and applied Prestype numerals for a decorative effect.” - From Paint by Number* by William L. Bird, Jr.

Following the "Do-it-Yourself" series, Warhol abandoned painting for good, preferring silkscreen and other hands-off methods.

It seems incredulous to me that books and handwriting walk this path today. In another fifty years, how many young girls will read their grandmother’s diaries or recognize her script?

A page from her diary, on view at the Morgan Library, NYC
  • Charlotte Bronte«, 1836
  • A page from her diary, on view at the Morgan Library, NYC

Charlotte Brontë writes in her diary of her “still small voice alone,” 1836:

“It is that which wakes my spirit & engrosses all my living feelings, all my energies which are not merely mechanical, &, like Haworth & home, wakes sensations which lie dormant elsewhere.”

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*Paint by Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation, by William L. Bird, Jr., published by Princeton Architectural Press in association with the Smithsonian Institution for a corresponding exhibition in 2001

‘The Diary’ continues through May 22, 2011 at The Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY

For a related post see "A Passionless Style" from Musings of an Artist's Wife

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