The archive of an individual artist provides an in-depth look into the artistic process. By looking through the personal and professional documents, such as date books, early writings, even correspondence with a friend, we are able to piece together a narrative of the artist and track the creation of a work of art. Archives are also able to prove the authenticity of a work of art by confirming its provenance. The archival process can be tedious due to the artist’s original order of things, and many steps must be taken before the archive reaches its final destination, whether it be the estate, a foundation, or a museum.
Narratives have always been a central aspect to humanity. All mythology and religion were born from oral narratives passed down for generations (Alphen, 2014). The necessity of narratives also exists in the art world. There are certain iconic works of art, such as Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, and David by Michelangelo, whose reputation expands outside of the awareness of those involved in the art world. An image or a painting on a gallery wall is completely severed from its original context. The personal archive of the artist connects them to the work they created and provides a narrative that ground the artwork in reality, making the art world more accessible to the everyday person. With each painting or photograph on a wall there exists the complex stages it took to exist in that moment in that particular space. The archive of an artist holds evidence of every stage a work of art went though, from the initial sketches to the final piece. It is vital to keep the archive of a prolific artist together because it “reinforces the cultural indicators that are often only hinted at in the work” (Würtenberger & Trott, 2016). The archive of an artist helps to humanize them and make their work more relatable and accessible. The items in an archive build upon each other and give each other meaning, whether it be correspondence with a fellow artist about a project, an early sketch, or inspiration for a piece. The scope of my paper will cover the archive’s early stages of creation, the different paths or institutions an artist’s archive can inhabit, the process of organizing and preserving the archive on its way to the final destination, and the various challenges that may occur along the way.
Many artists hate the idea of archiving while they are still living. It is often seen as a dismissing of any current or future works, as are retrospective shows (Vaknin, Stuckey, Lane, Phillpot, & ARLIS/UK & Ireland, 2013). For this reason, proper archiving is rarely done while the artist is still living and working. The realization of the necessity of archiving does not present itself until the artist is near the end of their career, or sometimes not until after their passing. During the archiving process, archivists must primarily rely the organizational system the artist used during their career, if any (Vaknin et al., 2013). This often proves to be an issue because artists tend to be on the messy or disorganized side. Typically, in the early years of an artist’s life they are moving around a lot between rented properties and never really having a stable studio space, which further adds challenges to the archiving process (Vaknin et al., 2013). Many early writings, doodles, and personal papers are eventually tossed away because their significance is not yet apparent. The idea of saving early research and writing only ever occurs to the artist later in life once some sort of success or establishment is gained.
It is often that the archive contains very little about their actual life but rather various processes or transactions (Vaknin et al., 2013). Unfortunately, it is always the early sketches and writing that is the most valuable and most useful for research. There is also the case of items and personal memorabilia of sentimental value. These types of items are more difficult to organize or qualify, but they are still very significant to the archive as a whole. These items are more symbolic of the artist as a person, and provide a sense of identity to the individual (Cox, 2008). The early documents and sketches relating to their work are the foundations and touchstones of the archive, but the personal items of sentiment pull everything together to complete the narrative (Cox, 2008). The archive in its entirety not only includes the artist’s documents, sketches, and prints, but also the physical space as well. This could include their office or their studio space where they produced work, or their entire house or apartment. Naturally it is not as often that the physical space is saved, however certain artist foundations were able to buy and preserve the space in which the artist worked. Examples of this include minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, painter Keith Haring, architect Richard Meier, and Elvis’s home and studio, Graceland.
The archive of an artist can go to a myriad of different places once the artist passes. By default, the archive and all of its contents will go to their closest family members, the estate. They are then able to decide if they will retain internal administration, managing the archive individually or starting a foundation, or give it up to external administration, for example a gallery or a museum (Würtenberger & Trott, 2016). Museum collaboration is actually very important to an artist’s archive. Museums and galleries are helpful in keeping the artist and their work relevant by producing exhibitions and publications. If an archive is acquired by a museum, they are able to provide long term preservation and conservation as necessary, so long as funds are available. Another benefit of a museum operating the archive is the implementation of the archive into their digital database. Ideally, this database would be public which would promote access, research, and examination of the work (Vaknin et al., 2013). If the archive is not acquired, then it is largely up to the estate or foundation to push for these exhibitions (Würtenberger & Trott, 2016). The primary path an archive takes is retaining internal administration with an estate or a foundation. Naturally the archive falls to the artist’s estate, however another common trend is to set up a foundation while they are still living (Würtenberger & Trott, 2016). The main advantage of this is that the artist gets a say in how their legacy is to be carried on. They are able to state the mission and goals of the foundation, as well as set up the members and board of trustees. However, a lot must take place before the archive is able to take on a life of its own.
Between the archive leaving the studio and its arrival at the determined institution, it undergoes a total makeover. The contents of the artist’s studio must be packed up in their entirety and sent to the archivist (Vaknin et al., 2013). Because the person initially in charge of packing up the studio is not always an archivist, items are commonly damaged, mislabeled, or just thrown into the nearest container. It is up to the archivist to implement and preserve the original system that the artist used, organize the items according to that, and to rehouse everything into proper archival materials (Vaknin et al., 2013). The importance of the artist’s original order in paramount, however inconvenient it might be for the researcher. It shows how they used information, what their priorities were, and what information they used or referenced most (Vaknin et al., 2013). It is rarely done but is extremely helpful when the boxes from the studios are labelled with where the items were taken from, such as the top drawer of their desk or a box on top of a bookshelf. For example, the archive of photographer Eugene Atget organized his images by subject rather than the traditional chronological approach (Alphen, 2014). His process what similar to that of a library. This suggests that Atget saw his oeuvre as an archive from the beginning. Unfortunately, this process can be very difficult because artists tend to be quite messy and their files are often intertwined. It is rare that an artist is as organized as Eugene Atget. The archivist must have sufficient knowledge of the artist and their career, otherwise certain references within the items will be lost or not properly documented (Vaknin et al., 2013). For example, sketches by painter Mark Rothko might look like generic shaded blocks and somebody who is unfamiliar with his work may overlook these, despite them being extremely relevant to his work. It is also helpful to entirely go through the items before doing any sort of cataloging or classification because items discovered early on in the process may not make sense without context. The objects in an archive inevitably build upon each other and give each other significance, expanding the interconnectivity between the final work of art and everything leading up to it.
Every single step the archive takes is subject to a new set of challenges. Its creation lasts a lifetime and over the years the artist will have no doubt cleaned out their space at some point. Papers are so often casually thrown away, even those of potential significance later in life. This, unfortunately, is inevitable. Over those many years the objects are also sure to show signs of physical wear and tear simply because they aren’t seen as archival documents at the time. Immediately following the artist’s passing the archive can sometimes change hands quite frequently, which leaves it vulnerable to further physical degradation due to poor handling (Würtenberger & Trott, 2016). There is also rarely a clear filing structure. Personal and professional papers are often mixed together with no clear distinction (Vaknin et al., 2013). It is largely up to the archivist to know the difference, which is another reason why it is so important for the archivist to be very familiar with the artist’s work. Additionally, there is always a concern of falsification, which affects their works of art as well. The provenance of artistic works relies heavily on its archival support. It is the archival material that ground the work and helps to “trace out the complex history of transactions and movements across time and geography” (Carter, Rodney G.S., 2007). If the archival records are falsified, then the authenticity of the work may also come under question. The archive acts as a foundation for the authenticity of the artist’s works (Carter, Rodney G.S., 2007). It gives the work context and a concrete meaning in the real world.
The importance of preserving the artist’s archive cannot be understated, as it provides a foundation for their work and the artist as a person. It is a common theme in the art world to exalt certain pieces without thinking of the human that created them. Seeing the sketches, writings, and early drafts of an iconic work of art makes the piece more accessible and gives the artist a narrative. These archives also prove the provenance of the work of art therefore authenticating it. The archival process can be long and tedious at times due to many different reasons. There is rarely an organizational system in place while the artist is living and working, and it is largely up to the archivist to sort through everything and discover the interconnectivity between its contents all while keeping the artist’s original order. The continued management of the archive can be either internal, such as the estate or a foundation, or external, such as a museum or gallery. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Naturally there are drawbacks and challenges with each archive as well. Personal archives are amassed over an individual’s lifetime and the inevitability of the occasional cleaning out of a desk or studio space. Potentially valuable documents or sketches can easily be casually thrown away because their importance does not become apparent until much later. There is also unavoidable physical degradation over that great of a time period. Artist’s archives provide the roots to the great works of art known to those within and outside of the art community. They are a major cultural and symbolic institution that provide context to influential moments in history, as well as the complexity of individual minds.
Alphen, E. van. (2014). Staging the archive: art and photography in the age of new media. London: Reaktion Books.
Carter, Rodney G.S. (2007). "Tainted Archives: Art, Archives, and Authenticity. Archivaria, (63). Retrieved from https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/13128/14369
Cox, R. J. (2008). Personal archives and a new archival calling: readings, reflections and ruminations (Vols. 1–1 online resource (xviii, 418 pages)). Duluth, Minn.: Litwin Books.
Vaknin, J., Stuckey, K., Lane, V., Phillpot, C., & ARLIS/UK & Ireland (Eds.). (2013). All this stuff: archiving the artist. Faringdon, Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing.
Würtenberger, L., & Trott, K. von. (2016). The artist’s estate: a handbook for artists, executors, and heirs (English edition.). Berlin, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag.