Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution Announces Recent Acquisitions

By the Archives
March 12, 2021

The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, is pleased to announce several recent acquisitions, including collections from artists new to the Archives along with significant additions to existing papers and other materials that enrich the story of American art.  Highlights among them include the papers of the postmodernist painter and printmaker Emma Amos, abstract expressionist Nela Arias-Misson, jewelry artist Ken Cory, and woodworker Emil Milan.

This past year, the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges for the Archives’ national collecting program.  “While all travel ceased, in-person meetings were cancelled, and shipments were indefinitely postponed, our staff found many creative, meaningful ways to stay in touch with artists, our colleagues, and patrons while also continuing to expand, preserve, and make available our collections,” says Liza Kirwin, interim director, Archives of American Art, “These recent acquisitions are just a few examples of  our ongoing  efforts to document the impact and cultural legacy of American artists.” 

Recent additions to the Archives’ holdings include the first installment of the Nela Arias-Misson papers, Emil Milan’s research project records, the extensive personal papers of Emma Amos, and the papers of jewelry artist Ken Cory. Additional highlights include research materials from Charlotte Berney relating to California artists, Herb Bronstein correspondence with Amy Goldin, and Dee Shapiro’s research material relating to women artists, as well as additions to the James Britton papers, Ruth Duckworth papers, Alfred J. Frueh papers, and Toshiko Takaezu papers, among others.

Highlights of recent Archives of American Art acquisitions

Emma Amos Papers

The papers of African American painter and printmaker Emma Amos (1937–2020) measure 50 linear feet and provide comprehensive documentation of her life and illustrious career, including appointment books, address lists, business records, personal writings, family photographs, correspondence with artists, collectors and curators, and exhibition files. There are also audiovisual materials, sketches, swatches, work samples, and slides and photos of works of art, as well as family records particularly concerning her grandfather and his extended family, dating to the early nineteenth century. The Emma Amos papers were donated by the artist in 2020 as part of the Archives' African American Collecting Initiative funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. The collection joins two oral history interviews with Amos in the Archives’ holdings.

Nela Arias-Misson Papers

The first installment of the papers of Nela Arias-Misson (1915–2015) comprises a group of original documents meticulously organized by the donors, the Miami-based co-founders of the Doral Contemporary Art Museum Flor Mayoral and Marcelo Llobell. Through their efforts to place the Arias-Misson papers at the Archives, researchers will now be able to recover the life and work of this relatively unknown painter and revise prominent narratives of the history of American art and modernism in the western hemisphere; beyond her birthplace in Cuba, Arias-Misson spent significant chapters of her life in New York City, Provincetown, Spain, and Miami.

Though prolific, Arias-Misson had little interest in selling work and thus remained largely out of public view. She did however maintain friendships and professional connections with a number of modernism’s canonical creators. A photograph signed and inscribed for Arias-Misson by Pablo Picasso, a warm and writerly letter from Mark Rothko, and correspondence and other material related to her years-long teacher student relationship with Hans Hofmann are only a few of the documents that make clear her engagement with some of the most significant art movements and figures. Her own painting developed over time into a unique style distinguished by bright colors, hard edges, abstracted animal figures, and an innovative layering of paint in the form of repeating dots that take on near sculptural dimensions as they project from her canvases. Source material inspiring this work is also included in the papers, in the form of clippings and photographs.

The Nela Arias-Misson papers make it possible to revisit a formative period for American art through a hemispheric, trans-Atlantic lens and from the position of a Cuban-born woman painter who lived a remarkable and worldly life. This first linear foot, of high research value on its own, precedes the bulk of the collection set to arrive at the Archives by late 2021.

Ken Cory Papers

Ken Cory was among the most progressive jewelry artists working in the Pacific Northwest. His self-styled “funk” art combined irreverent humor and pop culture references, often incorporating found objects with fine craftsmanship and classic jewelry techniques. The Ken Cory papers, document the artist’s central place in the close-knit Northwest studio art community, including his artistic collaboration with fellow artist Leslie LePere. The bulk of the papers consist of roughly thirty sketchbooks dating from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Researchers will enjoy exploring Cory’s humorous notes, color drawings, and wry doodles and the fascinating access they offer to the artist’s personal reflections and artistic visions.

Emil Milan Research Project Records

Among the typical paper documents in Emil Milan Research Project records, researchers may be surprised to encounter a group of worn and pencil-marked particle board pieces cut into shapes suggesting the silhouettes of birds, fish, and similarly organic forms. According to a note from one of the donors—a member of the Emil Milan Research Project—these objects were the templates the influential woodcarver used to create his signature bowls, dishes, and sculptures for decades, and were, in fact, discovered after his death among the sawdust on his studio floor. This unique primary source complements the usual paper and audiovisual material included in this collection. Among the latter are what is thought to be the only extant example of Milan’s handwriting (a letter to friends including deliberation about the use of various woods and the pricing of his work), press clippings documenting landmark moments in Milan’s career (a notable institutional moment involves the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery), photographs from Milan’s time serving in World War II, rare catalogs and exhibition announcements, and documentation related to his long teaching career at Peters Valley School of Craft in New Jersey. On dozens of compact discs, researchers are provided with interviews with associates of Milan; this trove was organized and gathered as a complement to the materials created and kept by the artist himself, and provides a unique and rich history of American woodcarving in the twentieth century. 

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