One holiday season in the 1960s, Claes Oldenburg gave a card to curator Samuel Wagstaff. On it was a simple drawing of a pig saying “Macky Exmouse” and “Jappy Goo Yar.”
“Artists’ holiday cards fascinate me,” says Mary Savig of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “They are small-scale artworks or private little gifts that illuminate the more intimate side of an artist.” For Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists, published by Smithsonian Books, Savig scoured the museum’s collection and assembled a compendium of one-of-a-kind season’s greetings produced by artists for friends, collectors, curators, gallerists, and other artists.
Cards by Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Josef Albers, and Robert Indiana would be recognizable to anyone familiar with their work. But, as Savig points out, “most of the cards articulate the personality of the artist more than their actual art.” A particularly funny example is by Land Art pioneer Robert Smithson, a fan of scary movies. On an unsent card from 1964, Smithson collaged the heads of the otherworldly kids from Village of the Damned above the text “CHRISTMAS IS FOR CHILDREN.”
The decades’ worth of exchanges between Carolee Schneemann and Joseph Cornell were more personal and began while Schneemann was still in college. “Joseph always hoped that he would meet a muse-like girl who would connect with his creative vision,” she says. Indeed, Schneemann’s 1965 solstice greeting to Cornell is a glittery collage featuring her own muse—her cat, Kitch, surveying the artist’s studio.
“Joseph’s seasonal greetings to me often included a tiny, beribboned sachet,” she adds.
Similarly, since 1988, Maryland-based painter and sculptor Ed Bisese has depicted “the state of my house” on colorful screenprinted cards. His 1992 edition commemorated his wife’s pregnancy with a cutaway view of their daughter in the womb. “Then came the new-baby, learning-to-walk, and year-of-the-guinea-pigs cards,” Bisese says. “But I don’t think of them as having a life past the holiday season. I think of them as holiday greetings and have been surprised to see them framed and appreciated year to year.”