Lately I’ve been thinking about lists—to-do lists, membership lists, grocery lists, lists of paintings sold, lists of appointments made and met—and what they can tell us about the list maker and a moment in time.
Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen (1910–1961), who designed such structural icons as the TWA terminal (1962) at JFK International Airport in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (1965), was a great list maker.
Saarinen’s papers are peppered with lists of all kinds. In Roman numerals, I through IV, he set out the progress of his divorce, and from one to ten he listed the names of architects whom he considered to be his “subconscious board of directors,” that is, individuals with whom he may not agree, but nevertheless would like their approval.
Saarinen was also fond of enumerating his second wife’s good qualities—“generous, attractive, amusing, intelligent, talented, love-able, constructive, creative,” and the like, in multiple lists, often in red pencil.
His last to-do list (pictured), consisting of fifty-two separate items, is his most poignant. It was written on August 16, 1961, just five days before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and sixteen days before he died from complications of surgery. He was fifty-one and in the midst of major architectural projects, as well as his home renovation. His list of all that was left undone is evidence of a life cut short.
See our current exhibition Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Reynolds Center in Washington, D.C. and the Lists book published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Liza Kirwin is curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art. She will be giving a Gallery Tour of the Lists exhibition on Sunday, April 11 at 2:00 p.m.