ART BY TECHNIQUE: Paint By Number

PAINT BY NUMBER: A video from the 2007 Pine Street Art Works Exhibit

Liza Cowan et al, Paint By Number, at Pine Street Art Works on Art Express, PBS

I've just found this video by Paul Larsen, host of Mountain Lake PBS' popular show Art Express.  The show segment is about Paint By NumberAnonymous Works from Mid 20th Century America, one of the most successful, and one of my favorite, of all the exhibits I curated during my five year tenure as Director and owner of the Burlington,Vermont art gallery, Pine Street Art Works. 

The video features Harry Bliss, Mark Waskow, Christie Mitchell and Liza Cowan.

 

Mad Magazine no 41 Sept 1958 Paint By Number Liza Cowan Ephemera Collections
Mad Magazine, September 1958. Liza Cowan Ephemera Collections

Here's what I wrote in 2007 about the exhibit on the Pine Street Art Works Website:

Paint by number. The craze of the 1950's - paint by number swept the nation in the era of Eisenhower, Levittown, post war prosperity, and a post war concept of leisure time - which probably had more to do with women being squeezed out of the workforce and back into the home than with any real decrease in the need for labor. It doesn't seem surprising that paint by number was marketed to women, although plenty of men did enjoy making the paintings.

Is Paint By Number art now? Was it art then? Do time, distance and a changing art market alter our perceptions and judgements? 

At Pine Street Art Works we love them, or we wouldn't be showing them. We are fascinated by their subversive allure - the tension created between the pleasure of viewing and the original - and ongoing - horrified responses by the gate keepers of high culture. 

Although now PBN has been the subject of a show at the Smithsonian, and of many academic and popular essays, and regularly show up in design magazines and blogs, there is still the vacillating response - are we allowed the pleasure we get from looking at (or making) these paintings? 

Most of the paint by number sets of the fifties and early sixties depicted nostolgic scenes: historic and pastoral landscapes, christian religious images, adorable or noble animals, sentimental glimpes of far distant cultures as well as copies from the canon of romanticized European figurative art. Critics at the time were disgusted with the mechanized mass produced nostalgia.

But now, with our vantage point from the 21st century, these paintings have aquired the patina of age and distance. Have they aquired the "aura" that Walter Benjamin wrote about? Or are we nostalgic for the more innocent nostalgia of the 50's? Are we caught up in second order - or even third order -nostalgia?

The August Paint By Number show doesn't answer these questions but provides some gorgeous evidence for future theories.

The website I refer to in the video, where I saw the post about the room-sized Paint By Number that inspired me to curate the show, was Apartmenttherapy.com and the painting was by Curtis Robinson. You can see it HERE. I was very pleased that Curtis actually came to Burlington to see the show.

For more images from the exhibit see Pine Street Art Works website and an earlier post on SeeSaw

Paint by number exhibition pine street art works norman rockwell clown design liza cowan 2007
Postcard for Paint By Number exhibit Pine Street Art Works, design by Liza Cowan 2007


Paint by number: anonymous work from mid-20th century America

Paint By Number, the craze of the 1950's, swept the nation in the era of Eisenhower, Levittown, post war prosperity and a post war concept of leisure time.

 

 Paint by number, paris in the rain
Paint By Number, Paris In The Rain

Most of the Paint By Number sets of the fifties and early sixties depicted nostalgic scenes, historic and pastoral landscapes, adorable or noble animals, sentimental glimpses of "exotic" cultures as well as copies from the canon of romanticized European figurative art. Critics at the time were disgusted with the mechanized mass produced nostalgia.

 Paint by number mona lisa
Paint By Number, Mona Lisa

But now, with our vantage point from the 21st Century, these vernacular, anonymous painting have acquired the patina of age and distance. Have they have acquired the aura that Walter Benjamin wrote about in his famous  1935 essay  "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Or are we just  nostalgic for the more innocent nostalgia of the 50's. Are we caught up in second or third order nostalgia. Probably both.

 Paint by number craftint color set original box
Paint By Number, original box, Craftint color set. Photo Liza Cowan

 

In August 2007, Pine Street Art Works held an exhibition of over 100 Paint By Number paintings. It took months to acquire them, mostly on eBay. In addition to enjoying the paintings, I was fascinated by the subversive allure - the tension created between the pleasure of viewing the work, and the original and ongoing horrified responses by the gatekeepers of High Culture.

 Paint by number, exhibition postcard, norman rockwell clown, design by liza cowan
Paint By Number, Exhibition at Pine Street Art Works. Postcard design Liza Cowan. Paint by Number set based on a painting  by Norman Rockwell.

Although Paint By Number has been the subject of a show at the Smithsonian (as well as here at PSAW) and show up regularly in design magazines and blogs, there is still the vacillating response: are we allowed the pleasure we get from looking at, or making, these paintings?

 Paint by number mad magazine sept 1958
Mad Magazine, September 1958, spoofed the craze with a PBN of Alfred E. Newman. PSAW ephemera collections.

 

 Paint by number farm by river
Paint By Number, Farm By The River.

 

 Paint by number, bull fight, torreador, red cape
Paint By Number, Bullfighter

 

 Paint by number exhibit pine street art works
Paint By Number exhibition at Pine Street Art Works. August 2007

All the paintings in this post were in the 2007 exhibit. All are sold.

Paint by number as seen on seesaw