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Norman Bel Geddes: From the Nutshell Jockey Club to War Game to Futurama

By Jennifer Tisdale

Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.
Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.

From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.

Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.

Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.

Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.

“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”

“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”

Bugs, Mold, and Conservation

By Jennifer Tisdale

Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.

Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.

When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.

Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.

Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.

Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”

The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.

The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.

Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.

“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.

Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.

Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.

This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.

Donated Tom Lea drawings add depth to collection

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Harry Ransom Center recently received a generous gift of four Tom Lea drawings. Dating from 1931 to 1951, the drawings of dancers and an acrobat showcase another artistic focus of Lea’s (1907 – 2001) expansive career.

Donated by Sandra Snyder, the drawings were previously owned by her aunt, Martha Esquivel Hahn, of El Paso, Texas. Hahn, herself a dancer and wardrobe supervisor, was a friend of Lea. Hahn and Lea went to the same high school in El Paso together and were life-long friends. After living in Chicago, New York City, and Las Vegas, Hahn returned to El Paso, where she opened a ballet school. One of the drawings, Portrait of Martha, is of Hahn.

The four works will be added to the Ransom Center’s Sarah and Tom Lea art collection, which consists of the artist’s personal art works, including book illustrations, paintings, drawings, and lithographs. The Ransom Center also holds a large archive of manuscripts relating to Lea’s books, including The Brave Bulls (1949) and The Wonderful Country (1952), both of which were produced as films.

“It is a good day when someone contacts the Center about finding a proper home for their artwork, especially when the work is strongly associated with artists already in the collection,” said Ransom Center Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears. “Ms. Snyder’s thoughtful gift of Tom Lea drawings adds depth to the collection as well as new insight into this El Paso artist’s exceptional career.”

The Tom Lea collection is accessible for research in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. The Tom Lea Room (located on the Ransom Center’s third floor), which chronicles Lea’s life and career and includes period photographs and original works of art, is available by appointment.


Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.


New book explores origins of Watergate's Deep Throat

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover of Max Holland's "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat."
Cover of Max Holland's "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat."

Author and journalist Max Holland accessed the Ransom Center’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate Papers while researching his book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University Press of Kansas, 2012), which is now available. Holland describes his work at the Center:

The genesis of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat began when I read a news item in 2007 about the opening of materials relating to Mark Felt in the Woodward and Bernstein Papers at the Ransom Center. Having done research in archives for years, one thing I’ve learned is that newly opened papers invariably contain new insights into a historical event, no matter how much it has already been written about.

I wasn’t disappointed after perusing the collection.

The single-most important documents, of course, were Bob Woodward’s typewritten notes from his encounters with W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat. Other Woodward notes from contemporaneous interviews with L. Patrick Gray III and Donald Santarelli were useful too. Early drafts of All the President’s Men, particularly those portions about Deep Throat that were excised from the published book, illuminated the Woodward/Felt relationship. Finally, an interview that Carl Bernstein and Woodward conducted with the late Howard Simons was vital for my book, since he was the only Post editor I could not interview myself.

'Arnold Newman: Masterclass' Opens in Berlin

By Jennifer Tisdale

Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.
Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center, the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass explores the career of Arnold Newman, one of the finest portrait photographers of the twentieth century.

The exhibition opens March 3 in Germany at C|O Berlin, and the Ransom Center will host the exhibition’s first U.S. showing in February 2013.

This exhibition tour was created under the auspices of the American nonprofit organization FEP. The show highlights 200 framed vintage prints, covering Newman’s career, from the Arnold Newman Foundation archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman collection are featured in the exhibition.

A bold modernist with a superb sense of compositional geometry, Newman is known for a crisp, spare style that cleverly situates his subjects in context. Artists delighted in sitting for Newman, knowing that he would find a way to convey their sensibility in dramatic, but always appropriate, fashion. Though Newman is celebrated today for his great portraiture, his still lifes, architectural studies, and earliest portraits, often of anonymous people in the street, are far less known, though they can well compare with the best in these genres.

The exhibition takes stock of the entire range of Newman’s photographic art, showing many fine prints for the first time.

The company she keeps: Frida’s work among women surrealists at LACMA

By Jennifer Tisdale

Frida Kahlo’s 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940) on display in LACMA’s 'In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.'  ©2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.
Frida Kahlo’s 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940) on display in LACMA’s 'In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.' ©2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.

The Ransom Center recently loaned Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for the exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.

Co-organized by LACMA and the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City, In Wonderland is the first large-scale international survey of women surrealist artists in North America. On view at LACMA through May 6, In Wonderland features about 175 works by 47 artists, including Kahlo, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Louise Bourgeois, and more.

Vogue highlights some of the works of the “beautiful dreamers” that can be seen in the exhibition.

Co-curated by Dr. Ilene Susan Fort, LACMA’s Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, and Tere Arcq, MAM’s Adjunct Curator, the exhibition will also travel to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, from June 7 to September 3; and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, from September 27 through January 13, 2013.

Kahlo (1907 – 1954) taught herself how to paint after she was severely injured in an accident at the age of 18. For Kahlo, painting became an act of cathartic ritual, and her symbolic images portray a cycle of pain, death, and rebirth.

Kahlo’s affair in New York City with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (1892 – 1965), which ended in 1939, and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera at the end of the year, left her heartbroken and lonely. She produced some of her most powerful and compelling paintings and self-portraits during this time.

Muray purchased Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird from Kahlo to help her during a difficult financial period. It is part of the Ransom Center’s Nickolas Muray collection of more than 100 works of modern Mexican art, which was acquired by the Center in 1966. The collection also includes Still Life with Parrott and Fruit (1951) and the drawing Diego y Yo (1930) by Kahlo.

Kahlo scholar and biographer Hayden Herrera spoke about “Frida Kahlo: Her Life and Art” at the Ransom Center in June 2009, referencing sources of inspiration for Kahlo’s art.

Special offer celebrates recognition of "The Gernsheim Collection"

By Jennifer Tisdale

Just last week, The Gernsheim Collection, co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press, received an Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award, which honors a distinguished catalog in the history of art published during the past year.

To celebrate this recognition, the Ransom Center is offering editor-signed copies of The Gernsheim Collection at a reduced price of $60 through March 15. Orders placed by this date will also include a set of five notecards featuring images from the Gernsheim collection.

Edited by Ransom Center Senior Research Curator Roy Flukinger, The Gernsheim Collection coincided with the Ransom Center’s 2010 exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, which explored the history of photography through the Center’s foundational photography collection. The Gernsheim collection is widely considered one of the most important collections of photography in the world. Amassed by the renowned husband-and-wife team of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963, it contains an unparalleled range of images, beginning with the world’s earliest-known photograph from nature, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826.

The book includes more than 125 full-page plates of images from the collection accompanied by descriptions of each image’s place in the evolution of photography and within the collection.

The Wall Street Journal included the publication in “Timeless Snapshots of Past and Present.”

The offer is available online and in person at the visitor’s desk in the Ransom Center’s lobby through Thursday, March 15.

The publication of The Gernsheim Collection was made possible by the generous support of Janet and Jack Roberts, Jeanne and Van Hoisington, Margaret Hight, William Russell Young III, and the Hite Foundation in memory of Sybil E. Hite.

Choose your favorite Elliott Erwitt photograph for the chance to win a copy of "Sequentially Yours"

By Jennifer Tisdale

While visiting the Harry Ransom Center in September 2011, Elliott Erwitt noted that “a good photograph is pretty obvious. It tells you a story very quickly. When it works, that is a good photograph.”

The more than 280 photos of 90 sequences in Erwitt’s new book Sequentially Yours (teNeues, 2011) certainly meet that qualification.

Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to pick your favorite Elliott Erwitt photo for the chance to win a copy of Sequentially Yours.

Publisher teNeues describes Sequentially Yours as Erwitt presenting “a sense of vignettes, each showing a sequence of photographs shot just moments apart. Gifted storyteller that he is, Erwitt gives you a sense of what happens next, the end point being sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, and often with a wink.”

In his more than 60 years as a working photographer, Erwitt has shot iconic images of historical figures and celebrities as well as photographs of ordinary people and everyday occurrences. Sequences in the book reveal a couple’s unsuccessful efforts to close their beach umbrella in windy weather, the interactions of the cast on the film set of The Misfits (1961), and other actions and events.

“In Sequentially Yours, Elliott has created a new form, somewhere between single exposures and film,” writes Marshall Brickman in the foreword. He describes Erwitt as having “… an affection for empty spaces, places where his subjects have been or will be in a moment, or for things or people who just disappear.”

Erwitt has remarked that taking good pictures requires visual sense, including a sense of composition and design. Erwitt’s other essential is curiosity, which is evident in these sequences.

Erwitt is the author of more than 20 photography books, including Photographs and Anti-photographs (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1972), Personal Exposures (WW Norton & Company, 1989), Personal Best (teNeues, 2006), and Elliott Erwitt’s Paris (teNeues, 2010).

The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt, which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, is housed at the Ransom Center. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett

By Jennifer Tisdale

'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'
'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'

Last fall, Cambridge University Press published The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 2: 1941–1956. Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, the volume is the second in a four-part series offering a comprehensive range of Samuel Beckett’s letters.

In compiling this edition, the editors consulted the Samuel Beckett papers at the Ransom Center, from which more than 15 percent of the letters in this volume were drawn.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett,” a project of the Emory Laney Graduate School, will result in the publication of two additional volumes that feature Beckett materials from around the world.

The Modern Language Association of America recently announced that the first book in the series, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940, will receive the eleventh Morton N. Cohen Award for a Distinguished Edition of Letters.

The Ransom Center acquired its first substantial group of Beckett books and manuscripts in 1958 and continues to add to its holdings.

Handwritten manuscripts and typescripts make up the bulk of the collection, supplemented by Beckett’s correspondence and a wide range of his writing, including poems, stories, and plays spanning most of his career.

Drafts of both the French En attendant Godot and the English Waiting for Godot are present, as are versions of All That Fall, Comment c’est, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Watt. A handwritten manuscript of Whoroscope, Beckett’s first published poem, is also in the collection.

The Ransom Center’s web exhibition “Fathoms from Anywhere” traces Beckett’s (1906–1989) career, drawing materials from the Ransom Center’s collection.

Video encourages discovery at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

What’s the result of 565 minutes of interview recordings with 12 people, 480 minutes of b-roll footage, and nine separate music tracks? The answer is a ten-minute video that provides a broad overview of the Ransom Center’s collections, scholarship, conservation, exhibitions, and programs.

Watch the video to hear curators, students, members, and conservators discuss their work and learn how the Center shares and celebrates the creative process. From a Houdini movie poster to letters by Edgar Allan Poe, from Jack Kerouac’s notebook to Robert De Niro’s make-up stills, the video showcases the range of materials that are housed at the Center.