A dispatch from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution with Thomas Casilear Cole and Dorothy Paris.
The card is soft to touch.
Is this design or
The wear of time?
The barely-there ink-rub picks out the ghostly
Grains, softened and pulpy.
My fingers turn parchment sheets like a tillman
Feeding crops through his fingers.
Hard cardboard stalks. Soft tissue grasses.
Fragments of dusty soil.
The type and press, in places, are black and razor-sharp.
Sensible words, they cut trough the years,
Like small seeds needing planting.
Sometimes in the middle of research one has to take a moment to be present. And so it was I stopped sifting through a paper file to jot down the above words.
I was some weeks into my fellowship at the #Archives of American Art and, after two years of waiting to be there, I was consuming a dossier at speed, as though I had heard another pandemic was coming to shutter the files away again.
Anybody who loves libraries, archives or museums—and who relies on them for work and study—will know the fear I am talking about. Their temporary but prolonged closure during the pandemic (though in some instances permanent closure) stalled research, enjoyment, and education for millions.
And so, rushing through my #research, I had to pause for a moment [or, rather, the moment made me pause] to appreciate the privilege of being back in a research space again, and the joy [which is not to be underrated: joy makes the world go round] that one gets from gently rummaging through one-hundred-year-old papers. There is a distinct atmosphere in these spaces, of purpose, of focus, and a shared respect for past and present endeavours.
In this journal entry I want to share a little of what I do when I go into an archive. In addition to observing a number of rules (no drink, food, loud noises, pens etc.) I tenderly rootle through old paper items trying to dig into my memory for connections between prior knowledge and data and present research aims.
Currently, I research New York art dealers and, as a result, I study exhibition catalogs, #letters, invoices, telegrams, photographs, diaries, #books, ticket stubs, #artworks and more. In addition to focussed research, I have to be open to surprises, changes, challenges and downtime [to let the stimuli and findings percolate]. I also need to be able to champion myself and motivate myself because my feelings range from "inspired" to "despondent". There are days when I feel confident in, and motivated by, my subject, and there are days where I want to give up. The goodwill and expertise of colleagues and peers makes the process easier and more enjoyable, my goals more achievable. While archives emit their own kind of energy, it's always good to find a human to connect with to help keep one grounded and, more importantly, sane.
In a bid to leave no "stone" or page unturned, I recently accessed the papers for the Dorothy Paris Gallery. While Paris (1899–1986) and her gallery (1930–1936) are not an important focus for my research, I wanted to see what the archive contained because "you never know, right?". I write about this archive here because it is a revealing instance of how sometimes enjoyable and meaningful encounters occur when least expected. One of the best things about my job is that I get to look at art and learn about artists that I have not previously encountered before (and indeed, ones I am unlikely to encounter in canonical art history books). In this instance, the Dorothy Paris papers introduced me to Thomas Castilear Cole (1888–1976) a well-respected but not well-remembered portrait painter.
Although Cole's work is in a number of US museums and public collections, from a quick search on WorldCat I can see that no monograph exists on the artist. Like Dorothy Paris (also an artist) Cole is all but forgotten. There is a bittersweetness in being a researcher who makes reviving individuals and stories part of their remit. This was the case with my biography on Agnes Martin, as well as some of my other creative projects in the works. Paris and Cole, like many of the individuals I research, left behind traces of their lives arguably in the hope that someday somebody would come along and connect with them and the humans would exist again, if even in imagination.
Now, as someone who was born in 1983 (Cole died in 1976 and Paris in 1986) my lifetime and that of these subjects is not so far removed. And through their personal artefacts and records it is possible, I think, to form a connection and understanding of these subjects, particularly through personal objects, such as Cole's diaries (by example).
Oftentimes, researchers know very little about their subjects (particularly the further back in time one goes, where very little "original" sources survive) and so we quickly develop the skill of intuition, reading between the lines, using inductive and deductive reasoning with a goal to summarise and rationalise.
Using a handful of documents on Paris and Cole, I'm going to do this now, as an exercise, rather than as a definitive or academic production. In the below, Evidences and Thoughts are not specifically linked. I just think it is worth differentiating between Thoughts (me reading between the lines) and Evidences (thoughts that can derive from hard data or material files etc.).
Thought 1: Cole left his personal papers to Dorothy Paris or she acquired them. If the first, it suggests the safety that the artist felt in the confidence of his friend (and onetime art dealer) and if the latter suggests a willingness on Paris' part to prolong and protect Cole's posthumous reputation.
Evidence 1: A photograph of Cole, from 1929 (aged 40), on the verso (below) presumably in Paris's script is "My artist". Is the possessive informative?
The portrait is formal and for publicity purposes. Tell-tale signs include, Cole's neatly-trimmed moustache, hair slicked into place, unsmiling mouth (art is a serious business). He wears the protective bohemian garb of artist's smock [clean but with ghostly cloud-stains of oil] but retains the formality of a tie.
The portrait was perhaps taken at his studio (and/or) apartment, or in a photographer's studio, and made available (by return post: this is 1927) to newspapers at the time. Or, was it a gift from Cole? A memento for Paris? Did Paris cherish the photo? Was it on display at any time in her home?
We also learn that Cole lived in New York's Hotel Chelsea, an early example of an artist who lived there before it's later more famous residents).
Figure 1: Photograph of Thomas Cole from Dorothy Paris papers, 1917-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Thought 2: Cole painted Paris a number of times. In addition to the "My artist" (not merely "One of my artists") on the verso above, the verso here includes mention of the museum that now owns the work. Was the work gifted (I think it was) or purchased? Given that Paris was not a person of note (i.e. a museum is unlikely to put it on display because the figure of Paris would draw a crowd) it was most likely accepted because Cole's work was included in exhibitions and collections around the US, and served as an example of his oeuvre, which would help "complete" the collection of this institution.
Evidence 2: There are (at least) two styles of handwriting on the verso. The first, which is in both blue and black ink, is neat and specific (like an artist) but shaky, even forced (perhaps written in old age?]. The addition of "from life" as a marker of the calibre or seriousness of the work, and the "much faded photo" suggest an artist's pride is at play. Let's expand a little and flesh out the statements: A."I painted this portrait of Dorothy Paris in #NewYork, from life. She sat for me a number of times in my studio." B. "This photograph of my portrait is much faded. It doesn't capture the beauty and tonality of the original. I'm showing you this merely as an example, please don't form any judgement based on it."
Was this photograph in Cole's or Paris's possession? Was the original painting created as a gift, or for a competition, or a commission? I think the photograph was in Cole's possession until his death, whereupon it went to Paris who added in the location of the work. Given that the portrait probably went to Paris or someone else, Cole would have had the work photographed to show it to prospective clients. This is 1922. He is a young artist (34) and he is hungry for work. Likewise, Cole may have enjoyed the photograph as a personal memento, in the same way that Paris enjoyed her photograph of Cole, above?
Figure 2. Photograph of Portrait of Dorothy Paris (by Thomas Casilear Cole), from Dorothy Paris papers, 1917-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
I now want to turn to some photos taken of Cole's diary, to make some further deductions on his character or situation.
Evidence 3: Notice the "Days to Remember" Cole crosses out in 1940 (when he is 52). It is likely he is Christian (possibly Catholic): not Jewish, not Irish, not a parent etc. He cancels out Friendship Day, but not Valentine's Day, so perhaps he has, or would be open to, a beloved. Why are the maps removed from the diary? Perhaps, given that it is 1940 and #WWII is ongoing, travel is unlikely for Cole, who had previously served in the Navy during #WWI (see War Zone Pass, Figure 4.)
Figure 3. Photograph of Thomas Casilear Cole's Diary (1940) from Dorothy Paris papers, 1917-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Figure 4. Photograph of Thomas Casilear Cole's War Zone Pass (1918) from Dorothy Paris papers, 1917-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Evidence 4: New Year's Eve 1939 and Thomas Casilear Cole knows how to party. After visiting his mother he goes to a dancing party and an after party, walking Central Park the following day to clear his head. He walks Central Park and goes to the Movies frequently and sometimes I wonder if these are coded language? "Painted hard" repeats this first week of 1940 and throughout his diary, as does "Call on mamma" until later on, "Mamma died last night". I can identify with "Woke late and tired" and "did nothing", the kinds of diary entries I've often written for myself, wondering who I am writing them for in the end.
Figure 5. Photograph of Thomas Casilear Cole's Diary (1940) from Dorothy Paris papers, 1917-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Thought 4: Maybe someday I will revisit Dorothy Paris's papers and research Thomas Casilear Cole in more detail. I was moved reading the latter's diary (Figure 5) as well as the former's letters to her daughter, whom it is clear from the letters she did not raise, choosing instead a career as an artist and art dealer. Paris's letters to her daughter (or rather, her daughter's letters to Paris) reveal two people getting to know each other later in life (though there were some letters from the daughter as a child to her mother), without fully explaining how or why Paris left her daughter.
I have not covered in this post Paris's gallery, he career as an artist, her travels, her volunteer work, nor Cole's career in detail, and his struggles to make ends meet.
Just glancing through the material on Paris and Cole it is clear they were dedicated to their lives as artists, lives evidently full of sacrifice, but also some reward. I think anybody who has chosen a similar path to these people will strongly empathise with the determination and doubt both artists reveal in the ephemera that remains behind.