During the summer of 2019, I interned at the Frances Mulhall Achilles Library at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For nine weeks, I worked full-time as the library intern and had the special opportunity to get to know the various library collections over the course of my internship. I worked with the artist files for two primary reasons: I performed MARC/RDA original cataloging for uncataloged artist files (roughly about 65 files) and I also used the artist files to augment my research on the library’s special collections.
At the Whitney, the contents of an artist file include: announcements, clippings, press releases, brochures, reviews, invitations, small exhibition catalogs, and other ephemeral material. There are around 11,000 artist files in the collection, which is consistently growing and being added to.
As I was cataloging the artist files, I went through the file and separated each material type. By categorizing the materials in the artist files, researchers can more easily find what they might be looking for. In the case of an artist with a large file, this is significant from a user perspective. This was my first time cataloging library materials that weren’t bibliographic and I am very glad to have gotten this valuable experience doing original cataloging of artist files.
My favorite type of ephemera from the artist files are exhibition announcements. It’s exciting to see the trajectory of an artist’s career by looking at these announcements. One can also track the mediums and themes that artists work with solely from gleaning various announcements throughout the span of an artist’s career (although published articles and catalogs are especially useful for this as well).
For instance, I have always really enjoyed Louise Nevelson’s wooden sculptures but never realized that earlier on in her career she created collages using materials such as cardboard and newsprint. After finding an announcement from 1975 for an exhibition titled Recent Collages at the Harcus Krakow Rosen Sonnabend Gallery, I began researching her earlier works and was delighted to learn about her work in collage.
Another exhibition announcement that I enjoyed from Louise Nevelson’s artist file was one from Galerie Claude Bernard. In this striking image, Nevelson sits in front of one of her large-scale wooden sculptures. I was captivated by her style and fashion sense in contrast with her work.
Ultimately, my time at the Whitney allowed me to recognize that artist files function as a research resource and also as a snapshot into the past. As an early career art librarian, I look forward to working with other library collections that include artist files!
Joey Vincennie is an MA Candidate, History of Art and Design, and an MS Candidate, Library and Information Science, at Pratt Institute.