Meyer Schapiro and Naive Art

While primarily known as a scholar of medieval and modern art, Meyer Schapiro was also interested in artists and art movements outside of these two genres. In this regard, Meyer Schapiro wrote about "naive painting" in the unpublished outline titled "Significance of modern naive painting" and his writing on this genre is as topical as it is intriguing.

The term "naive" art has etymological roots with "outsider" and "self-taught" art, and, indeed, these terms have been conflated with each other. While each term has its set of socio-cultural issues (whether they be art historical, museological, sociological, economical, or racial), naive, outsider, and self-taught art have deep roots in the art historical canon, even while the genre itself spirals in and out of the canonical orbit constructed from an Anglo-European art historical framework.

The conflation of these terms stems from their mutual affinity in describing  artists who were not formally trained, but relied on their own social, cultural, psychological, and ethnic resources to execute their art practices.

That Schapiro was writing on naive art in the 1940s and 1950s is quite a revelation. For it was in those years when this genre of art was waning in popularity due to the rise of another nascent and emerging genre, Abstract Expressionism.

The history of self-taught art in the United States is rife with compellingly contradictory trajectories.  Self-taught art can be art historically traced to artisanal folk traditions in the United States (primarily from New England), to European art historical scholarship on art and psychiatry (from the likes of Hans Prinzhorn whom Schapiro was in correspondence with in the 1930s), and, finally, to self taught "primitive" artists as articulated by the author Sidney Janis in the publication They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century.

Janis’s publication also had an accompanying exhibition of the same name that was mounted at the Marie Harriman Gallery in Manhattan from February9 through March 7, 1942. Schapiro may have attended this exhibition, as his archive includes a copy of the Harriman Gallery brochure which is pictured above at right.

The history of "naive art" highlights a portrait of American identity between the World Wars: one that eschewed the tastes of the upper class for a populist (and popular) narrative that was thought to resound with the public, especially in times of economic distress due to the Depression and to social unrest because of World War I and world tensions leading to World War II.

For a compelling look into this genre during the wars, see Galerie St. Etienne’s essay for the exhibition "They Taught Themselves : American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars."  (Notice the shift in terms from "naive" to "self-taught" in the exhibition title compared to Janis’s original publication.)

As Abstract Expressionism became the leading cultural identity for a victorious America after World War II, the self-taught genre became marginalized. It wasn’t until the 1960s onward that the genre became to be appreciated again by the likes of collector Herbert Hemphill for its strong aesthetic and cultural significance.

Schapiro’s writing on naive art is astonishing for celebrating its highly visionary and personal quality beholden to the artist, an emphasis that would become the genres leading theoretical axis in the 1970s to the present. Schapiro would write:

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not through contact with artists, but through the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy of perception is more direct than in literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method, the painter who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

While Schapiro’s writing on naive art went unpublished, it is uncanny in that it reveals how scholars and gatekeepers would reconceptualize the genre thirty years later.  Schapiro positions these artists, whom he terms "domestic painters" as visionaries.

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not thru contact with artists, but thru the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy or perception is more direct than literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method; the paitner who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

In this regard, for Schapiro, "naive painting" is "image painting" and "not abstraction or automatism or collage or expressionist formalism. "

Schapiro also touches on another controversial topic for scholars of the genre: its position and relation to modern and contemporary art.

As Schapiro writes:

Why are there no important naive artists before Rousseau? Have they been lost because of lack of interest in their work? Are the American domestic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries comparable to the modern naive artists? One must be cautious in answering these questions, since the material has never been collected properly; and what has been exhibited is judged mainly from the viewpoint of modern art.

That the works by naive artists are to be viewed from outside the viewpoint of modern art, or seen under a different lens altogether as Schapiro highlights, is one that underlines these works as created outside the modernist canon.

In retrospect, however, and as the etymology of the terms "naive," "primitive," "self-taught," and "outsider" art have demonstrated, these genres have a lineage that was part of the "modernist" canon itself in that, as definitions, they were constructed to clarify each other as descriptive terms to understand the practices of artists during a given historical time.

By bringing into relief the process of looking at these works, one can sense Schapiro’s keen call to perceive and look closely, differently, and with pleasurable scrutiny at this genre, all ideas that he sought to bring to the art historical discipline.

In this vein, Schapiro would move the chronological axis of self-taught art further back in time when he writes:

Is there any other period in which painters are self-taught? Perhaps in the middle ages, in the monasteries or scriptoria, which produced much home-made painting and ornament and perhaps stone-work. Then, as today, painting was cultivated as a private or personal evocation, as a marginal activity.

A compelling idea from a consummate medievalist.

 

The Americans, Robert Frank, and Meyer Schapiro

In anticipation of this weeks exhibition opening of “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I thought it a good moment to shed light on Meyer Schapiro’s role in helping Robert Frank with that particular photographic project, “The Americans.”

In the mid-1950s, Frank would travel throughout the United States to document the everyday life of Americans and would later publish those images as a publication: first in France in 1958 and then in the United States in 1959. The publication first premiered in France due to its raw and unflinching portrayal of an America that was a ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. It was as visually stunning as it was sociologically revealing, a combination that made The Americans an unrivaled artistic phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, then in his prime as a contemporary writer, wrote the introduction to the book and further cemented the publication as cutting edge.

For the publication’s 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. organized the exhibit that will premiere at the Metropolitan this week. It later traveled to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. I viewed the exhibit in D.C. and was stunned by Frank’s project as a whole and the process involved in getting it published. At that time, I wasn’t aware of Schapiro’s role in Frank’s project, as the exhibition didn’t mention his name directly (although the exhibition’s publication certainly does).

In 1955, Frank applied for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship to “photograph freely throughout the United States” and “make a broad voluminous picture record of things American.”

For the application, Frank asked photographers Walker Evans and Edward Steichen to write a recommendation. He also turned to Meyer Schapiro, albeit in a hasty manner.

In a letter from October 24, 1954, Frank would write to Schapiro: “A few days ago I have sent in an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have given your name as a reference. I have meant to call you and ask your permission. I am sorry that I have not done that and I only hope that I am not too optimistic when I ask for permission of a ‘fait accompli.'”

Two years later, Frank’s fellowship was renewed by the Guggenheim to continue his work on what would become The Americans and he would write Schapiro an appreciative letter: “I am very happy to write to you that I have been given a renewal of my Guggenheim Fellowship. This will permit me to conclude my project. Upon my return to New York I will be pleased to show you the results.”

Meyer Schapiro would show up in Frank’s oeuvre under the title “New York Photographs.” The picture, to your left, was taken in 1954, the same year as Frank’s application to the Guggenheim Fellowship, and was exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City in 1979 alongside “The Americans.”

For a nice overview of Frank’s journey in publishing The Americans, visit this site created by the National Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition “Looking In.”

Archival transfers and the resonance of ephemera

Archivists are very familiar with the transfer of archival material: from filing cabinet to box; box to truck; truck to repository; repository to archivist; archivist to process; process to description; and, finally, description to access. Electronic records follow the same general transfer, but, instead of a physical “filing cabinet,” there is the “file structure” of electronic files on a desktop, server, or hard drive whose final user access is most likely mitigated via a digital repository.

This project has certainly had its share of transferring archival material. Initially, the manuscript portion of the collection was housed in their original filing cabinets as seen to your right. (Those boxes stacked above the cabinets are Meyer Schapiro’s art works which have been described to the individual item and rehoused).

As seen on your left, each individual file drawer included material that encompassed a broad range of Schapiro’s professional life, such as course outlines, lecture notes, research files, and correspondence.

All these files were transferred to record carton boxes to facilitate the processing of the material and to aid in the process of creating a records arrangement that would intellectually describe the contents of the archival material.

This image to the right shows boxed material of exhibition announcements that were transferred from the Visual Resources Center housed at Columbia University’s Art History and Archeology department. These exhibition announcements span from the 1920s to the 2000s and were collected by Schapiro and his wife Lillian Miligram Schapiro. They were systematically filed and organized chronologically by artist’s last name.

This portion of the archive, or “series” in archival parlance, is a phenomenal example of how collected ephemeral material can gain historical resonance. All these exhibition announcements and invitations give a micro-history of New York City through the lens of the art gallery. It shows who owned galleries, where their spaces were located, which artists were exhibited across time, and what art works were shown. Many research avenues can come through this: provenance research on individual works of art; a history of the art establishment in New York City; and the rise of certain artists and art genres.

Ultimately, and most importantly, they give a sense of what Meyer Schapiro might have seen and give a sense of how active he was as an art historian.

In the future, I’ll share a few exhibition announcements on this blog. Keep posted.

On "records," papers," and "collection": a DACS case in point

As the project keeps progressing, one thing has become abundantly clear: the Meyer Schapiro archive encompasses much more than a traditional manuscript collection. While a significant potion of the archive is indeed Schapiro’s “papers,” it also houses other material such as audio-visual documents and a major collection of his own drawings, paintings, and sculptures. These components were given to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at different times and, as a whole, form an aggregate that is best described as a “collection.”

This is so for several reasons and let me unravel the thread a little to explain why.

As always, definitions are helpful and can be used to provide clarity to the prospect of titling this particular “archival unit.”

Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), is a Society of American Archivists approved descriptive standard for the archival community that “guides archivists and catalogers in creating robust descriptive systems and descriptive records.”

According to rule 2.3.18 in DACS, there are three predominant terms that can be used to signify the nature of an “archival unit” within a title. (These are examples from the DACS manual: “Coalition to Stop Trident Records,” “Mortimer Jerome Adler papers,” and “Semans family papers”).

They are as follows:

1) Records–where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a government agency or private organization such as a business or club;

2) Papers–where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a person or family;

3) Collection–when describing an intentionally assembled collection.

DACS rule 2.3.18 is applied to the highest level of the archival unit and each of the above terms include materials across media. In other words, regardless if the entire unit contains diverse mediums (traditional papers, electronic records, audio records, art works, etc.), these three terms should be used to describe an entire unit.

When the project began, the archival unit was known as the “Meyer Schapiro papers,” which would have been sufficient, but not entirely accurate.

This is because the different units of the archive were not all part and parcel of the unit itself.

Diverse components have been unified to form what is now the “Meyer Schapiro collection” housed at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. This includes art works (nearly 3,000 individual items) given at a separate time from the bulk of the manuscript collection. There is also archival material housed at the Art History & Archeology Department that is now part of the “collection” itself.

Because these various units have become “intentionally assembled” into an aggregate to be housed in one repository, the term “collection” is better suited than “papers” as outlined in DACS. While the creator is Meyer Schapiro himself, these different units, each with unique custodial histories, form a broader whole that have now been drawn together as the “Meyer Schapiro collection.”

Thanks to DACS, the archival community now has a standard for making questions such as these easier to navigate and give these broad terms sharper focus. Now, the next step is creating a detailed description of the collection’s components and also providing contextual information on Schapiro to buttress the finding aid using Encoded Archival Description (EAD).

In this respect, my work is just beginning…

Technological advances and Stuart Davis’s postcards

Artist Stuart Davis used color and form to wise effect, forcing upon the canvas a vibrancy that at times jumps a painting’s support.

Davis was a painter influenced by the burgeoning jazz scene, and he sought to portray the canvas as a field of forms that mirrored the syncopation of jazz rhythm while also reflecting on the urban environment from which the musical genre sprang in New York City.

Davis’s artistic career began early (he was the youngest artist to be represented in the infamous Armory Show of 1913) and changed as it reflected his growing maturation.

He began working under the artist Robert Henri and was influenced by the Ashcan painter’s use of realism. As the times began to roll and as history began to play itself out, Davis would abandon such realism in favor of abstraction to evoke the sociological and technological changes around the world.

Davis’s fascination with technology is evident in two postcards he sent to Meyer Schapiro.

One fashions the Empire State Building as a beacon of industrial life in a metropolitan city. To the left shines the mascot of human ingenuity, a skyscraper of steel. While, to the right, the city dweller’s life is compartmentalized to illustrate the sender’s emotion, feelings, and daily activities. Life, in this instance, is as ready-made as an assembly line.

The other postcard, a TWA “Constellation” carrier in flight, can be seen as a skyscraper in the skies: a feat of human innovation aided by technological advances.

But Davis, in all his admiration for technology, was also aware of the individual living in it. As Davis writes to Schapiro in 1952 about the latter’s work on the middle ages: “I [received] new information [regarding] the existence of the human individual in what had been an historical abstraction of monolithic sanctity, that is, the middle ages.” One can also argue that this is true of post-war America, where the individual became subsumed in an ever increasing world of mass production.

Davis and Schapiro were friends who worked together in the group American Artists’ Congress that was founded in 1936 to “organize artists against war and fascism and to defend the economic and social interests of artists.”

Davis would later abandon the Congress because of the organizations silence on the rise of totalitarian regimes in the late 1930s. Davis would write: “The American Artists’ Congress has done much in the past to give a backbone to progressive sentiments among American artists, and I was most reluctant to resign from it, and did not do so until I felt sure that the centrifugal motion of its original policy had become unalterably centripetal, with a constant loss of influence in the environment.”

Davis’s insistence on understanding the local environment is as evident in his politics as it is in his aesthetics: it is the inspiration and understanding that the local gives to the global.

Meyer Schapiro Portraits by Alice Neel

Artist Alice Neel painted portraits of Meyer Schapiro twice in his life, once in 1947 and the other in 1983. Known for her expressionistic renderings of her subjects, Neel’s portraits sustain a deep gravitas towards the subject depicted. The portraits can be viewed on Alice Neel’s website.

Neel’s 1983 portrait of Schapiro is part of The Jewish Museum collection in New York City. More information on that portrait can be found here.

Schapiro was an adviser and trustee of The Jewish Museum for 50 years, and, according to their website, “Schapiro encouraged the museum to present cuffing-edge contemporary art. To expose the reciprocal relationship of old and new, to recognize in ancient ceremonial art the dynamic force of spiritual expressionism, and to read in the avant-garde new utterances of traditional values and ideas: this was the gauntlet that Schapiro threw down in the late 1940s. In its collections and programs, The Jewish Museum continues to embrace the challenge of Meyer Schapiro’s dynamic dialectical approach.”

Incidentally, the Schapiro Collection includes a treasure trove of art works by Meyer Schapiro, including many self-portraits created while he was a student. Schapiro was a practicing artist his whole life. A publication, Meyer Schapiro: His Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture, chronicles his artistic output. This image from the archive is a self-portrait Meyer created in the 1920s.

Preserving lipstick (and its traces)

I recently wrote about a note in the archive from Frida Kahlo to Meyer Schapiro that includes traces of Kahlo’s lipstick. As an archivist, this naturally brought me to think about the preservation of the medium itself.

I turned to Elizabeth Homberger, Assistant Conservator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles and Carl Patterson, Director of Conservation, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, for some sage advice on the stability of lipstick and what I should do to preserve this piece of history.

Homberger and Patterson presented Kiss and Tell: The Conservation of Lipstick-Coated Art by Rachel Lachowicz at this years American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) session for the Objects Specialty Group.

While Lachowicz uses lipstick and make-up on large scale sculptural pieces that, by comparison, dwarf the note from Kahlo in the archive, Homberger was kind enough to share with me several important and not widely known facts on lipstick’s long term preservation.

In their research, Homberger and Patterson found that when lipstick was applied directly from the tube and in thin layers, lipstick would remain quite stable. “Condition issues,” Homberger elaborates, ” such as sweating (the migration of soluble oily components), softening, handling marks, cracking, etc. – observed in the Lachowicz works were likely the result of manipulation of the medium by the artist, including reheating of the lipstick and the addition of waxes.”

Given their findings, the team reports that lipstick is a stable medium but “sweating” may occur over time and that environmental conditions will inhibit this effect. Homberger reiterates: “Lipstick is predominately an oil and wax mixture, so assuming the selected waxes and oils are compatible and the object is kept in a cool, stable environment, lipstick is generally quite stable. Recommendations for storing lipstick-based work are: a cool, stable environment with temperatures below 68°F and RH at 50%.”

Another important issue is the dye used in lipstick. Much like pastels, overexposure to light can be harmful to works that include lipstick. Homberger explains that “many of the dyes commonly used in lipsticks are very light sensitive, so limited light exposure, low light levels when exhibited, and the exclusion of UV radiation are imperative.”

Knowing all these helpful preservation tips will assure that Kahlo’s lipstick traces are well taken care. Perhaps these tips will also be of use to any lipstick treasures you might have.

The Schapiro Wing, the Brooklyn Museum, and the clandestine facade

I recently made my monthly trip to the fantastic and inspiring Brooklyn Museum. (Their first free Saturdays are packed with great live performances, music, and other special events.)

I’ve walked the galleries frequently before, but did not really catch on to the fact that there is a Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing. Needless to say, it is the Meyer Schapiro.

The wing was dedicated in 1993 and was part of the museum’s Master Plan designed by the team Arata Isozaki & Associates and James Stewart Polshek. The wing was endowed by Meyer’s brother, the banker and financier Morris Schapiro. The brothers grew up in the Brownsville and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn where their father worked as a paper and cordage wholesaler.

The history of the Brooklyn Museum’s building is extraordinary and well detailed on their website. It was designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White and the museum’s archive has a suite of photographs available for view on-line.

I have always been a bit surprised by the bizarre entrance to the museum and their website gives a tantalizing gloss about it.

There was also growing interest in the 1930s in creating a more direct and “democratic” entrance into the Museum. In April 1934, while principals of McKim, Mead & White were out of the country, the Municipal Art Commission quickly approved the demolition of the monumental front staircase, greatly altering the architectural character of the Museum’s main facade.

Sounds clandestine to be sure.

Mckim, Mead & White were exponents of the Beaux-Arts architectural style so popular during that time. They also connect the Brooklyn Museum with Columbia University: Mckim, Mead & White also designed Columbia’s Morningside campus and individual buildings such as Low Memorial Library, Philosophy Hall, John Jay Hall, and Hamilton Hall on Columbia’s campus.

A portrait of Sam

The Watts Towers exemplify how the vision of an artist can transform the built environment while creating a world of its own. The art environment was created by the Italian Sabato (Simon / “Sam”) Rodia at his home in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and includes the iconic two towers, a gazebo, walkways, and fountains. The structures were built using steel and mortar and decorated with discarded glass bottles, pottery shards, and other found material Rodia collected.

The entire site was built by Rodia himself (which, incidentally, he liked to call “Nuestro Pueblo”) without the aid or help of others. Guggenheim curator James Johnson Sweeney once called Rodia a “born construction genius.” Rodia worked on the environment for 33 years, making it a truly visionary creation and a surreal architectural image in the ever changing urban landscape of Los Angeles.

Because of his endeavors and the environment’s grandeur, Rodia became a well known figure but would abandon his creation in 1954 to live the rest of his life in Martinez, California. The environment was nonetheless loved by many and through the perseverance of admirers, the entire site is still preserved in its original location.

One such admirer was Kate Steinitz who took a photograph of Rodia and sent it to Meyer Schapiro. Steinitz was also an artist in her own right, she began her artistic endeavors in Hanover, Germany working with the likes of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Steinitz is more famously known as the world renowned Leonardo Da Vinci scholar who worked at the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana located at UCLA.

Given her background in the Dada and Surrealist art movements, Steinitz may have felt an affinity with Rodia’s art environment. She was, in fact, the archivist of the Watts Towers Committee.

She would write two articles specifically on Rodia in the then new magazine Artforum— “Fantastic Architecture” in 1962 and “A Visit With Sam Rodia” in 1963. In the latter, Steinitz recounts her 1961 visit with Rodia in Martinez, California. Judging from the portrait published in that article, this photograph comes from that very same visit.

Steinitz wrote, “Sam, though opposed to machines, tolerates the camera, but he does not pay much attention to it. Anytime I step back to get at least a distance of 3 feet, Sam follows me, apparently concerned to not lose a listener.”

Steinitz was also friends with another Rodia admirer and photographer, Seymour Rosen, who actively documented the environment and championed for its preservation.

Steinitz corresponded with Schapiro quite regularly and also had mutual acquaintances such as Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s Founding Director. In fact, Steinitz worked with Alfred’s wife Margaret to aid Schwitters in receiving an emergency visa to flee Europe during World War Two. The incisive essay “Kurt Schwitters and the Museum of Modern Art in New York” by Adrian Sudhalter gives a nice overview of this history.

Barr, who visited the towers, wrote: “Would it be too far-fetched to compare Simon Rodia’s account of his lonely ordeal with the final testament of another idealistic Italian immigrant, Bartolomeo Vanzetti? Both great-hearted men, a poor tile-setter and a poor-fish peddler, wrote with simplicity and noble passion. Their agony was their triumph, the one in death, the other in his Towers, his marvelous evidence of things unseen.”

On the verso of this photograph, Steinitz would write to Schapiro:

“Sam Rodia says: Why did Meyer Schapiro avoid Los Angeles? The towers are waiting.”

It remains to be seen if Schapiro did visit the Towers, although, as of yet, I can’t find evidence of that.

However, Schapiro wrote on “naive painting,” a term that has origins in what is now known as “self-taught art” (of which Rodia is identified with). I’ll save those musings for another entry.

In the meantime, the Watts towers are still waiting and can be viewed in person.

For those of you who can’t make it, this documentary created in the 1950s shows the neighborhood as it was back then and includes Rodia working on his creation.

Update:
The Los Angeles Times reported that a two hour town hall meeting took place on July 16, 2009 and included spokespersons from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission and the Cultural Heritage Commission addressing the conservation and preservation needs of the Watts Towers. According to the Times, both entities “voted unanimously to send a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asking him to help recruit donors and activists for a private, nonprofit support group akin to ones that help fund the Los Angeles Zoo and Griffith Park Observatory.”

Conservation advocates have been at odds with the financial and conservation support the the City of Los Angeles is giving to the site. This came to a head in April 2009, at a conference in Genoa, Italy titled “Art and Immigration: Sabato (Simon) Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles.” Reports from Virginia Kazor, historic site curator for L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts represented conflicting reports. Kazor’s report “Triage: the Challenge of Conserving the Watts Towers” underlined the financial shortage while the Committee’s report “Damage in Process” highlighted the lack of ethical conservation methods employed in the environment’s upkeep.

Frida Kahlo: Lipstick Traces

Frida Kahlo‘s imagery is as mythic as her life and, without question, she remains a haunting figure in the art historical canon. Kahlo’s personal relationship with the artist Diego Rivera and the turmoil she experienced with physical and medical issues all compound to make her life story a truly evocative one.

In all her posthumous fame and glory, we tend to forget that Kahlo was also a working artist. Even though Kahlo gained prominent and international recognition during her life, she, like most working artists, also relied on grants and fellowships for her artistic career.

Because Kahlo sustains a storied aura, it comes as hard to believe that she did apply to the Inter-American Competition awarded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1940. (The award is now known as “The Latin American & Caribbean Competition.”)

In order to complete her application, letters of recommendation were in order and Kahlo turned to Meyer Schapiro just for that reason.

Schapiro recommended Kahlo fervently and wrote how important her work was in relation to other Mexican traditions and artists:

She is an excellent painter, of real originality, one of the most interesting Mexican artists I know. Her work looks well beside the best pictures of [José Clemente] Orozco and Rivera; in some ways it is more natively Mexican then theirs. If she hasn’t their heroic and tragic sentiment she is nearer to common Mexican tradition and feeling for decorative forms.

While the note pictured above sent to Schapiro by Kahlo bears the trace of a kiss and comes from the same year as his recommendation, I can’t determine if this is a thank you note for that very purpose. However, it does demonstrate Schapiro’s commitment to fostering the work of artists. This stems from his own practice of the arts. Alongside his art historical work, Schapiro was also a prolific artist and the collection houses more than 4,000 of his prints, drawings, and paintings.

But while Kahlo and Schapiro were friends, there’s one thing Frida got wrong: Schapiro’s first name is spelled with an “e” not an “a.”