Postcards at the Met

Though I have always been a reader, I did not become a serious collector of books until I was in my mid-30s. I have always loved “things,” however, and it was not without reason that my mother called me a magpie for all the junk I hoarded as a kid. My earliest pursuits as a child were rocks, an interest I have retained to this day, especially while walking on beaches, and postcards, which I kept under my bed in a tattered old valise I had rescued from the trash. I began to gather these fabulous little curiosities around the age of seven or eight, and kept at it well into my teens, when other interests began to kick in.

I undoubtedly had this childhood fascination for postcards in mind back in 1984 when I bought, at a small auction put on by the Friends of the Goddard Library at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., 4,800 of them filed judiciously in eight boxes, all gathered over many years by the late Francis Henry Taylor, who from 1931 to 1940 was director of the Worcester Art Museum, followed by fifteen years at the helm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then back again to Worcester, until his death in 1957. Taylor had gathered most of these pieces of graphic ephemera while traveling the world to build the collections of the two museums, and used them, from what I have been able to determine, as a kind of pre-Internet form of search engine to gather information, not only for his art quests, but also as background for his writing; he was the author, in 1948, of “The Taste of Angels,” a best-selling history of art collecting.

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What has prompted me to recall my interest in postcards, and to mention my sub-collection of Francis Henry Taylor (which I wrote about, by the way, in “Among the Gently Mad,” pp.32-36), is a fabulous exhibition showing now through May 25 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the publication of a splendid catalog to accompany it, “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard,” by Jeff L. Rosenheim (Steidl/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 408 pages, $65.

Walker Evans (1903-1975), of course, was one of the great photographers of his time, acclaimed by some as the poet laureate of the medium in America. A master of the documentary approach, Evans is best known for the 1938 monograph of his work, “American Photographs,” and for his collaboration with the writer James Agee in 1941 on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” a powerful commentary on life among tenant farmers in the rural South during the Great Depression.

The exhibition at the Met includes a number of Evans’ photographs, but the principal thrust is on showcasing several hundred examples of a collection that consumed him for more than fifty years--the gathering of some nine thousand postcards--and the way they informed his vision as an artist. “A surprising number of highly accomplished writers, picture makers, and performers are obsessive collections,” Rosenheim, a curator of photography at the museum, writes in the monograph, noting the butterflies of Vladimir Nabokov, the bakelite bracelets of Andy Warhol, the vast collection of paintings by other artists coveted by Edgar Degas as just three examples.

In the instance of Evans, the postcards--most of them dating from the early decades of the twentieth century--are in the permanent collection of the museum, part of the Evans archive which it acquired from the artist’s estate. “He collected postcards when they were new and he was young, and when he was old and they had become classics,” Rosenheim notes. Evans also collected such things as printed ephemera, driftwood, tin-can pull tabs and metal and tin wood signs that he photographed in situ, and then removed from their moorings. Altogether my kind of guy.

Not content to merely collect postcards--which covered a vast range of subjects, from the purely pictorial to the nutty and the whimsical--Evans researched their history, and wrote about them as a cultural phenomenon distinctive of their time. In 1963, he gave a lecture at Yale University on them that he titled “Lyric Documentary,” a phrase he coined to describe their function as a window into American cultural life.

The book includes color reproductions of 400 examples from the collection; Rosenheim’s text is richly informed, and represents an important contribution to the study of this largely unappreciated form of popular art, and makes a very strong case for the premise that his photography was greatly influenced by it. A terrific book--and a terrific exhibition; by all means take it in if you find yourself in New York over the next couple of weeks.
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