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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Business of Art

At the Archives of American Art, we do not collect works of art -- there are lots of great museums out there taking care of that. We collect all the other stuff that is accumulated by the makers, purveyors, scholars, critics, and collectors of American art. One example of what shows up in the boxes and boxes of "other stuff" is business cards. You may think of the humble business card as a fairly humdrum affair, but in the hands of an artist it can become quite entertaining. Don't believe me? Peruse the Top Five Business Cards from the Archives of American Art, in order of how great I think they are:

Number 5, Most Illustrated: John Haberle's business card, from the late 19th century. Haberle is best known for his trompe l'oeil still life paintings, but this card (which he most likely designed himself) shows that he was also proficient in printmaking and commercial illustration.

Number 4, Most Va-va-voom: Alberto Vargas' business card, after 1950. Alberto Vargas was a painter whose pin-up "Vargas girls" graced the pages of many an Esquire and Playboy magazine. So it is only natural that his business card should feature one of his signature leggy dames (the more practical information is on the flip side).

Number 3, Most Subversive: N. E. Thing Co. business card, circa 1968. N. E. Thing Co. was founded by conceptual artists Iain and Ingrid Baxter as a critique of the increasing commercialization of the art world. They even took the corporate parody so far as to sponsor a local youth hockey team.

Number 2, Most Bold: Louis Michel Eilshemius' business card, between 1919 and 1941. Eilshemius is known primarily as a painter, but the laundry list on his business card informs anyone who will listen that he was also a "Mesmerist-Prophet and Mystic," "Scientist supreme: all ologies," "Ex Fancy amateur Dancer," and "Globe Trotter" whose "middle name is 'Variety.'" I'll say.

Number 1, Most Direct: Edward Ruscha's business card, 1960s. Name, phonetic spelling and occupation. 'Nuff said.


For more business cards in Smithsonian collections, check out the Collections Search Center.

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

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