Past Exhibitions

Revisit almost twenty years of the Archives’ past exhibitions covering various topics, projects, and events in art history.

  • Join us on a road trip through the Archives of American Art. The photographs, sketches, diaries, correspondence, and video recordings on view reveal how artists have shaped and are shaped by their surroundings, from the 1830s to the 2000s. These materials lead us off the beaten track, offering unexpected insight into local and regional histories as well as personal stories of exploration, immigration, and migration. Together, documents from all 50 states and the District of Columbia represent the diversity and depth of art in the United States.
  • Alternatively expressive and aloof, the contradictory attitudes of cats make them compelling sources of inspiration. They are seen in numerous guises: playful subjects, humorous topics of conversation, independent studio companions, and beloved members of the family. 
  • In celebration of the 2016 Grand Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, the Archives of American Art presents selections from recently acquired collections, highlighting the cultural contributions and the personal stories of African Americans in the art world.
  • Artists find inspiration everywhere. Even the most ordinary circumstances can prompt new ways of thinking about and making art. The artists featured in this exhibition collected, organized, and transformed a wide variety of source materials as part of their creative process: comic strip panels, newspaper clippings, snapshots of mundane scenes. Yet the ways in which artists draw on them provides a glimpse into the twists and turns of their creative practices.
  • Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) helped forge a new vision of painting that established Abstract Expressionism at the vanguard of post-war painting and transformed New York into the epicenter of the art world in the second half of the twentieth century. 
  • n this era of digital communication, contacts can be quickly updated, shared, and even deleted at the click of a button. Before smartphones and computers, traditional address books stored important, and sometimes confidential, contact information and other details. The grimy, dog-eared pages of these pocket-sized books reveal webs of personal and professional connections. Often, the depth of each relationship remains a mystery—a name jotted down in tangled ink and pencil might be a close friend, a family member, a recent acquaintance, or a critic.
  • Included in this exhibition are letters, photographs, writings, and rare printed materials documenting Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s life and work. This exhibition was organized in conjunction with “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
  • Reading an artist's diary is the next best thing to being there. Direct and private, diaries provide firsthand accounts of appointments made and met, places seen, and work in progress — all laced with personal ruminations, name-dropping, and the occasional sketch or doodle. Whether recording historic events or simple day-to-day moments, these diary entries evoke the humanity of these artists and their moment in time.

  • The model has long been essential to the work of the artist. They often serve as artists’ muses—mortals who can sometimes be almost otherworldly in their ability to inspire creativity—yet a talent for holding still is often more important than beauty. Models are too often given short shrift in art history, their names and stories left unknown unless their fame came by way of scandal.

  • During World War II, an unlikely team of soldiers was charged with identifying and protecting European cultural sites, monuments, and buildings from Allied bombing. Officially named the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section, this U.S. Army unit included art curators, scholars, architects, librarians, and archivists from the U.S. and Britain. They quickly became known as The Monuments Men.

  • November 27, 2013 - January 5, 2014

    Handmade Holiday Cards from the Archives of American Art

    The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art holds in its collections hundreds of handmade holiday cards. The cards featured in this exhibition reveal how artists imagined the holidays through whimsical watercolors, quirky collages, and cheerful prints and drawings.
  • July 2 - November 6, 2013

    The Art of Handwriting

    Writing a letter in one’s own hand can be an artistic act. Handwriting animates paper. The bold flairs of calligraphic script shout for attention, while elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across the page. Free-spirited scribbled letters trip over each other, and distinctive dashes help direct traffic. Some crossed t’s and dotted i’s stand alert, and others slump or sway into their neighbors. Every message brims with the personality of the writer at the moment of interplay between hand, eye, mind, pen, and paper.

  • January 11 - June 2, 2013

    A Day at the Museum

    A day at a museum might involve a whirlwind tour through a maze of galleries or hours looking at a single work of art. The experience is as varied as the museum visitor. The sight of a Renaissance masterpiece, the sounds echoing off vaulted ceilings, or a carefully orchestrated exhibition can trigger our imaginations, foster ideas, or spur memories—often at the same time.

  • June 27 - November 24, 2012

    Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon

    Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone in the world is no more than six relationships away from any other person. The idea stretches back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and it was made famous in a 1967 Harvard study, but John Guare’s 1990 play of the same name pushed the expression into everyday use. Riffing and serious study of the idea continue. The trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” plotted celebrity connections. Last year, scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan determined that the degrees are now a mere 4.74.

  • Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) is an American icon. Creator of rhythmic and energetic "action painting," he is internationally hailed as a leading figure in Abstract Expressionism.

  • October 31 - December 31, 2011

    Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives


    It is perhaps the only certainty in life. For those experiencing the death of a friend, family member, loved one, or an admired figure, words are often inadequate to give voice to the intense emotions involved.

  • Snapshots—thousands of them—are tucked away among the letters, documents, and diaries of artists in the Archives of American Art. These little pictures give us a view into the intimate lives of “larger than life” people.

  • The Archives of American Art continues to enrich its broad research holdings through a systematic collecting program. On view in "From Homer to Graffiti: Recent Notable Acquisitions" are selections from a diverse range of collections acquired within the New York Region over the past 3 years.

  • What happens when one looks for what has been previously suppressed or overlooked: in this case the existence of lesbian and gay relationships and representations in the Archive?

  • June 1 - September 3, 2010

    Hard Times, 1929-1939

    A great economic depression was sweeping the United States and the American workers, and the artists too, had their own troubles to worry about. Wages were being slashed, strikes were taking place everywhere. Strong men were selling apples on street corners. The young artist who depended on his hands to eat was catapulted violently from the heights of his ivory tower into the whirlpool of suffering humanity. There was absolutely no private patronage.

    —Philip Evergood, 1945


  • Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery
    Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Washington, DC
    February 5 to September 27, 2010 

    The Morgan Library and Museum
    225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY
    June 3 to October 2, 2011 

    Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
    224 Benefit Street, Providence, RI
    March 15 to June 16, 2013