Cocktail Parties and Archives: Historicizing Artists and Collective Experience

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Ann Reynolds, Associate Professor of Art History, led the February 7th meeting of the Spring 2019 Faculty Fellows Seminar. Reynolds shared part of her current book project, In Our Time, and presented several of her primary sources from the Harry Ransom Center’s archives to the seminar for discussion. According to Reynolds, In Our Time “will provide a history of intergenerational relationships among New York artists circa 1940–1970 that were shaped by shared, if heterogeneous, commitments to Surrealism and its legacy, primarily through a love of film.” As in her first book, Robert Smithson: Learning From New Jersey and Elsewhere, Reynolds is conducting archival research to reveal the nuanced historical and social context for the work and lives of mid-20th century American artists in In Our Time. Reynolds’s discussion focused on a part of the book that explores the ways that cocktail parties provided a unique environment for New York artists and other socialites to develop and reflect on those relationships.

For Reynolds, the “cocktail party’s collectively recognized social etiquette allowed somewhat heterogeneous groups of individuals to know how to be together” and therefore “could provide the context for personal confirmations of or epiphanies about the constitution and character of different New York circles and an individual’s ever shifting position within them relative to others.” Because the cocktail party’s buzzing conversational and alcohol-loosened social space played a significant role in bringing artists and critics like Robert Duncan and Clement Greenberg into a fluctuating but ubiquitous (at least within the New York social scene in the 1940s) collective social experience, Reynolds examined descriptions and representations of cocktail parties in personal accounts, fiction, and film to generate a composite description of the cocktail party experience and its ability to provide people loosely structured and influential contact with each other. She explained that considering how narratives of prominent and common social events like cocktail parties can provide “indirect images of ‘forgotten’ relationships among individuals” and a “deeper sense of how collectivity and sociality were experienced” that may allow us “to imagine historical narratives differently.”

Reynolds provided additional perspective on the research methodology by putting the seminar face to face with the journals and scrapbooks of Parker Tyler, an American poet and critic during the 1920s and through the early 1970s. Though Tyler is relatively obscure now, he was a well-known film critic in his time. Reynolds emphasized the indispensability of archives to constructing historical narratives by noting that attending to information revealed by marginalia, personal letters, etc. often supports narratives significantly different from those crafted based on widespread assumptions. She also identified the challenges of constructing a historical narrative about Tyler, a central figure within the collection of artists on which In Our Time focuses, from photographs and journal entries in the Harry Ransom Center archives. In examining these documents the seminar saw how fragments of Tyler’s life such as the intentional arrangement of uncaptioned pictures of friends and Roman art works raise as many questions as they answer for someone attempting to piece together the story of an artist’s relationships with his craft and his companions.

In addition to expressing interest in aspects of the cocktail party such as when and how it enabled people of various racial and sexual identities to mingle and attendees’ awareness of and responses to parties’ social hierarchies, Faculty Fellows engaged Reynolds in a discussion of how and why documents like those in the Parker Tyler collection enter archives. The seminar’s discussion suggested that understanding why an artist, family member, or collector came to sell a collection to an archive—whether it was to support themselves, have their work archived next to that of an inspirational figure, or make their personal documents available to the public, for example—influences how we use and interpret archival documents to construct historical narratives about those who created them.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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