Nothing is Certain, Except Art and Taxes

By Mary Savig
April 13, 2010
Detail of the 1953 joint tax return of Elaine and Willem de Kooning

Curatorial assistant Mary Savig investigates the inevitable: art and taxes.

de Kooning joint tax return
Elaine and Willem de Kooning's notes for their joint tax return for 1953. Elaine and Willem de Kooning financial records, 1951-1969. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
de Kooning joint tax return

Although perhaps not the most glamorous of archival records—don’t we all dread receiving W2 forms in the mail?—a tax document can communicate a lot about an artist.

During the Depression, Mitchell Siporin’s 1939 tax return form revealed that his sole source of income was his work for the Treasury Department and the Works Progress Administration. These federal commissions helped artists preserve their livelihoods and also enlivened public buildings across the nation with murals and sculpture. Browse other Depression-era documents in our exhibition Hard Times, 1929-1939.

Feltzin to Cooper, October 5, 1968
William Feltzin to Paula Cooper, October 5, 1968. Park Place Gallery Art Research records and the Paula Cooper Gallery records, 1965-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Conversely, the success of painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning enabled them to support fellow artists and make modest donations to charities. Elaine made sure to itemize these contributions in this list of income and expenses for the de Kooning's 1953 joint tax return. They were able to claim a loss of $1,987.74, which likely made their tax day more palatable. This list is currently on display as part of the Archives’ Lists exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Even the most avant-garde ventures of the late 1960s heeded the call of the taxman. In 1968, dealer Paula Cooper hired an accountant to help her register the Paula Cooper Gallery as a small business. It was the first gallery in SoHo, then an industrial slum so foreign to the art trade that it was known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” The Paula Cooper Gallery forged ahead with original projects and influential exhibitions, all while balancing a ledger, maintaining sales journals and, of course, filing annual tax returns. Read more about Park Place and the beginning of the Paula Cooper Gallery.

Maybe if we treat filing taxes as a conceptual art project, April 15 would be more enjoyable. Just don’t let the IRS in on the fun!

*Special thanks to Liza Kirwin for her previous research on these documents.

Mary Savig is a curatorial assistant at the Archives of American Art.


I don't believe it will ever be enjoyable to file taxes, it becomes more complicated to file every year. (Even after every "simplification" of the tax code that Congress passes, there are more and more pages of regulations.)
I'm guessing your comment about the "conceptual art project" is tongue-in-cheek' because the IRS has little in the way of a sense of humor.
I do find keeping accurate records to be the only thing that makes filing endurable, if I had to search for every scrap of paper recording income or expenses, I would likely lose my mind.

How interesting - I must admit though that I am more fascinated by the way the old tax returns looked as I'm an accountant myself. Also, in response to the previous persons comment about taxes not being enjoyable - RUBBISH! haha j/k

I agree with Anonymous. Look at those tax returns! Ah, the good old days when all you had was a typewriter and piece of paper.

Oh what a difference in looks of today's tax returns and those old tax returns, I hope government will make filing Taxes simple again