Paint by Number

The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation
by William L. Bird, Jr.
ISBN: 1568982828

…hobby kits, like paint by number, functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the responsibilities of homemaking and earning a living. The real art began the moment the the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend adjacent colors, added or dropped a detail, or elaborated upon a theme by extending the composition on to the frame. By doing what art was not supposed to be, one could learn what it was.

I had no idea how huge a phenomena paint by number was in the fifties.

This book — incredibly well put-together with many photographs, advertisements and other ephemera, and of course, paintings — is an exhibition catalog. The exhibition Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s was on view National Museum of American History for most of 2001. Though it would have been interesting to see the exhibition in person, reading the book I did not feel like I was missing out. I suspect this may have been one of those rare gallery experiences where reading all of the wall text was as interesting, if not more so, than viewing the “art” without curatorial context-setting.

That’s because it’s a great story. It has arguments about what is art, reflections on suburbia and class, digging into the “appropriate” use of leisure time, and the copious illustrations range from kitschy to creepy, and sentimental to odd. Bird’s narrative considers everyone from the business people behind the sale of the kits, to the artists who created them, to the consumers that bought them and used them, to a later generation of artists inspired by them.

The paint by number kit might was “a transition item that add[ed] new scope to the hobby business” because it appealed to both genders and a very wide age range. In that way, I suppose the paint by numbers kits of the 1950s were not so different than MySpace pages or blogs today. Both were called fads, yet generated tens of millions of dollars a year in business. Both have caused something of an uproar among elites concerned about the fate of art and culture.

So if you are interested in kitsch, in the 1950s, or even in exploring the parallels of paint by number and cookie cutter web publishing templates, you’ll probably enjoy this book. I should just admit to having a crush on Princeton Architectural Press, because they publish wonderful things, and this is no exception: the heavy, cover-sized front and back flaps are paint by number pieces. Recommended.

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