Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The art of list-making

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington DC

What can lists tells us about the personality of the list-maker? An exhibition in Washington reveals the obsessive and controlling sides of some of the world's greatest artists.

Eero Saarinen
Design genius Eero Saarinen's to-do list included changing light bulbs

There are several stages to writing a list.

First there is the gentle thrill of anticipation as I contemplate the pristine paper in front of me. I may not yet have a subject for my list, but just the thought of one gives me a sense of purpose.

Second there is the light-headed buzz that gradually develops into bliss, euphoria and an all-consuming calm.

Third comes the extraordinary sense of satisfaction from having created a rigid timetable of impossible tasks that has taken a disproportionate amount of time and thought.

It doesn't matter that I will never look at it again.

Psychologists say that obsessive compulsive list makers (I guess that includes me) are trying to create an illusion of control in otherwise chaotic lives.

I see nothing wrong with that. In the words of the American abstract artist, Charles Green Shaw: "Real happiness consists in not what we actually accomplish, but what we think we accomplish."

Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers
Adolf Konrad's packing list. (Archives Of American Art)

He is one of the artists featured in an exhibition currently running at the Archives of American Art in Washington.

It is a taxonomist's dream: hundreds of lists drawn up by some of the world's greatest modern artists. Some are scribbled on scraps of paper, while others are elaborately illustrated.

There are lists of ideas, lists of instructions, lists of ambitions, of biographical details, of paintings, of things to do, of colours.

One artist, Benson Bond Moore, has even made an illustrated list of duck poses. Here is inspiration indeed.

Liza Kirwin, the Archives' curator of manuscripts says lists can be very revealing:

"This very mundane and ubiquitous form of documentation can tell you a great deal about somebody's personal biography, where they've been and where they're going," she explains.

"People can relate to this form of documentation because so many people are list keepers and organise their lives this way," she says.

Ordering chaos

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Picasso's handwritten list of recommended artists for the historic 1913 Armory Show - the first international exhibition of modern art in the United States. He could not spell the name of one of his most famous contemporaries, Marcel Duchamp.
  • Adolf Konrad's packing list made up of illustrations of art materials and clothes he wanted to take to Rome and Egypt in 1962. He draws himself wearing nothing but his underwear.
  • A chaotic inventory of work by the colour theorist Oscar Bluemner that is almost illegible. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.
  • A collection of attributes the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen found most attractive in his wife. First on his list is the fact she was very clever.
  • A self-assessment chart by the sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia in which he rates his character traits. As a struggling Italian immigrant he gives himself an "excellent" for health, neatness and accuracy, but scores poorly for quickness of thought and courage.

Obsessive list makers

Washington-based psychoanalyst and expert on leadership Dr Michael Maccoby says list makers themselves fall into different categories:

"The extreme is the obsessive who has to make lists of everything. These are people who have an unconscious fear that everything is going to be out of control if they don't make a list," says Dr Maccoby.

Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) appears to have fallen into this category. Liza Kirwin says he was an adamant list maker, who even kept lists of lists.

Oscar Bluemner's list of works of art
You can see that there's a lot of chaotic emotion involved, probably repressed anger
Dr Michael Maccoby, psychoanalyst

"But in trying to give order to his life, he obscures the clarity of the inventory of his work. He's completely obsessed with this type of record keeping," she says.

The illustrated list of his landscape paintings is a condensed jumble of thumbnail sketches with overlapping notes on the right-hand side. Comments in pencil are overlaid with separate remarks in ink and underlined in different colours.

"The colours are mostly reds. Reds tend to show strong emotion and he's taking his red pen and putting it through lines and taking things out. You can see that there's a lot of chaotic emotion involved, probably repressed anger," explains Dr Maccoby.

But he says it would not have been possible to predict Bluemner's suicidal impulses just by looking at his list. His state of mind could only have been detected by comparing the list to other aspects of his behaviour and expression.

Most of the artists in the exhibition are from the Western Hemisphere which may highlight some cultural differences between list makers.

Dr Maccoby has studied European and Chinese business leaders and thinks a pre-occupation with detail is a broadly Western characteristic not shared by people in Asia.


"The Chinese try to understand the whole and how the parts serve the purpose of the whole project. Once they have that concept, then they look at each part in turn. Europeans immediately break everything down and stack up lists.

I. First I recocnized that you were very clever

II. That you were very handsome

III. That you were perceptive

IV. That you were enthusiastic

V. That you were generous

VI.That you were beautiful

"Then they try to resolve each one separately in an ideal way and hope that they all fit together in the future. It's really not as useful," Dr Maccoby says.

Eero Saarinen's list of his wife's attributes could be seen as an example of this tendency - or it could be could be read as a love letter:

"He's deciding exactly what his wife's qualities are," Dr Maccoby says. "He's putting her in a frame. It's a form of psychic control and great architects are in a special group when it comes to the desire to control and create everything.

Dr Maccoby sees parallels between Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect and designer of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania:

"Look at Frank Lloyd Wright who not only wanted to design the building, but also all the furniture in the building and the wife's clothes."

Saarinen is perhaps best known for designing airport terminals in Washington and New York and the exhibition contains another of his lists.

Dated 16 August 1961, it is a large but neatly itemised catalogue of things to do that range from changing light bulbs to presenting plans for a major design project in Oslo. Some of the items have been crossed off, while others remain undone.

The following week he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a few days later he was dead. It is a poignant reminder that none of us will ever complete all our lists.

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Archives of American Art runs until September 2010, at the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Send us your comments using the form below.


Your e-mail address

Town/city and country

Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

I am a compulsive list-maker. Everyday I make one, especially now that I'm writing a thesis and I have to keep track of what I need to read or what article or book I need to look for. One day, after hearing that my advisor did not like what I wrote, I came back and left my "to do list" of that day untouched for a few days. It made me so depressed to look at it everyday! Now if I don't finish what's on the list, I simply throw it out and start a new one; that way, I feel a lot more accomplished and hardworking.
I.N.D, Somewhere in New England, United States

When you're 77 you have to make lists to remember what you wanted to do 15 minutes from now.
Bonny Levine, Venetia, PA USA

I make lists all the time,

In fact

As follows:

Read BBC website

Comment on BBC Website

Search BBC website for my comments

Make tea

Drink tea

Read website

Search for my comments

type an email

send an email

twidlle thumbs

look at clock

go home

repeat for 5 days

Saturday- Sunday:

Abandon list making until Monday 9am.

Marj, Worthing, West Sussex

Let us not forget the greatest and most powerful computer language ever invented: LISP. The name stands for List Processor, and basically that's all it does. For all that it was an early candidate for use in Artificial Intelligence.
David Jones, Rochester NY USA

I also am addicted to list keeping, tho it drives my family crazy to find all my scraps of lists laying around, but I could'nt run my life without lists, it's the only way I can keep track of what I'm doing, needing,wanting, or where I'm going, Kudos to Ms.O'Brien!!
Ann Randolph, Apple Grove, WV U.S.A.

The importance of the humble shopping list should never be overstated. Througout the week it serves as a place to make a note of things you run out of, and comes into its own when the shopping has to be done. As someone on a budget I find the discipline of the list (if it's not on there you don't buy it) helps to prevent pointless purchasing and far outweighs the obvious problem of forgetting to buy something which has not been put on the list in error. I always make my food shopping list in the order of the wherabouts of the items in the shop, which also saves time.
Kate, Oxford, UK

I find the idea that Europeans have a different way of organising and ordering the world very interesting in light of the differences between Roman numerals and the Arabic numeric system. Although the Roman I, II, III, IV, V, etc proceeds in a nice logical and visual way (like a list), the system is impractical in terms of mathematics. It was only with the introduction of the Arabic-derived number system of 1, 2, 3, 4, with each number more closely integrated with each other in a decimal system, that complex mathematics was able to develop.
Kevin Lewis, Poole

Ironic that there is a list of lists within this article! I shall resist the urge to list what I like about making lists...
Louise, London, UK

I absolutely love writing lists. I find I can write a list, then forget to take the list with me but the act of writing a list has held the list in my head which is good enough for me. I collect abandoned shopping lists too. They make me laugh.
Kyleigh, Bournemouth, UK

Very interesting! I never realized it would reflect as a person's subconscious desires or inner traits.

Before I go on a trip, I try to list down the things to take along, and of course, make the usual to-do list like most people, before going shopping.

Indeed, when will we ever complete or accomplish the things we have listed?

Only fate knows...

Pearl, Toronto, Canada

I'm an avid list maker and can get extremely obsessed with it. Holidays are planned with military precision with list made of equiptment (when out camping), clothes to take, other items required plus budgets (I have a budget for everything)!

Work list are re-written every 2-3 days so as to ensure that those crossed out do not obscure the items that are not crossed out.

Sad and wierd maybe but I'm one of the most organised people I know!
Jennie F, Leeds, UK

Making written lists does not prove one is a genius. A genius should be able to make mental lists. I never make written lists.
San Ying, Montreal Canada

Print Sponsor

Artist Jeanne-Claude dies aged 74
20 Nov 09 |  Entertainment
Warhol story drawing set for sale
17 Nov 09 |  Arts & Culture
Art exhibition fuels US-Cuba thaw
29 Mar 09 |  Americas
US artist Andrew Wyeth dies at 91
16 Jan 09 |  Arts & Culture

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific