Peek Inside The 'Little Black Books' Of Some Famous American Artists Mary Savig, curator at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., says the contact lists reveal a lot about the artists' personal and professional networks.

Peek Inside The 'Little Black Books' Of Some Famous American Artists

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Now let's review an exhibition of a relic of the not-so-distant past. Until just a decade or two ago, people needed address books. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has been looking at a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Do you know what this is?


STAMBERG: Take a look.

Erstwhile NPR intern Laura Wagner examines my small, scruffy red address book. Tabbed, alphabetized handwritten pages contain the sum total of information about my world. Friends' addresses and phone numbers, my son's shoe size, my license plate number, the name of a favorite lipstick, under L for lawn, the guy who mows the grass. If I ever lose this little book, I'll be toast.

WAGNER: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: You've never seen...

WAGNER: How old is this? (Laughter).

STAMBERG: Address books are relics now. But the American Art Archives discovered a few among the papers of some major and minor American artists and put them on view in a show called "Little Black Books." Archives intern Leah Humenuck says the concept sounds familiar.

LEAH HUMENUCK: I've heard of little black books, like, you know, artists or famous people having, you know, mistresses or something like that - like, a way to keep track of, like, their affairs.

STAMBERG: My husband's law school roommate Steve - and if I'd kept that address book, I'd know his last name - had a little black book with names and numbers of girls he met. Next to each he would scroll a comment - lively, nice eyes, easy, dumb. Archives curator Mary Savig shows a pocket-sized book American painter Palmer C. Hayden kept in Paris in the 1930s that's a bit more romantic.

MARY SAVIG: He has French phrases that he jotted down as he went along.

STAMBERG: What were his French phrases that he needed to know how to say in French?

SAVIG: He wrote, I bet in one and even, I love you.

STAMBERG: From circa 1952, Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner's list of friends is a who's who of the day's top artists.

SAVIG: Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and the influential critic Clement Greenberg.

STAMBERG: Also Pollack's psychologist and homeopathic doctor.

Did you try any of these phone numbers, by the way?

SAVIG: (Laughter) No.

STAMBERG: Address books get messier and messier as friends' first tidily written specs change.

SAVIG: And then when they move, you kind of make room for it. And if they move again, it kind of goes to the corner.

STAMBERG: The little leather-covered books get splotched, frayed, dog-eared. The Smithsonian show cheats a bit with one solution to splotch.

Now, this is by no means a little black book.

SAVIG: No, this is a hulking Rolodex that contains more than 2,000 cards.

STAMBERG: Owned by New York art dealer Holly Solomon. It is jammed with artists she represented, Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik, William Wegman. He's the guy who dresses up his Weimaraner dogs. Mid-century textile designer Dorothy Liebes arranged her contacts like the Yellow Pages, in categories, restaurants, airlines, masseuses, boys.

SAVIG: And also then there's another category that's called, extra girls.

STAMBERG: Maybe for dinner parties.

Don't you think it's really basically very nosy though, to be going through somebody else's lists of friends with addresses and phone numbers?

SAVIG: It is very nosy. And that's why I really enjoy doing it. And we can...

STAMBERG: You're smiling (laughter).

SAVIG: We can read - we can read correspondence and read diaries. And we can find out so much more about their process as artists, their everyday lives, the importance of their social networks and how they would learn from each other and push each other to experiment in new ways. And all of that comes, you know, from being a nosy person. It's helpful.

STAMBERG: Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Their show of artists' little black books runs through November 1. In Washington, clutching my invaluable little red book, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Do you know what this is? This is NPR producer Chris Benderev.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: It's an address book.

STAMBERG: Ever seen one before?

BENDEREV: Yeah, there's, like, a picture of it on the iPhone icon I think, like a historical - (laughter)...

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