What in the World Would a Typewriter Have To Do with a Painting?
One of my oldest friends, also an artist, began (in 1985) writing letters to me on a manual typewriter. His name is Dan Schmidt. Dan is an excellent typist, and his letters, numbering upwards of 200, are all stored together in a box in my studio. I have to admit that I write less consistently, but while he was away from New York for about ten of the past twenty-five years, we kept up a good correspondence. Now he’s back in the city, and sadly we have settled for e-mail most of the time, with the occasional (meaning: real typewritten) letter reacting to a work or an exhibition we’ve seen, or had, reminding us what real correspondence should be.
Letter writing is a dying art, even with e-mail keeping the candle burning. I still love the thrill of seeing a letter from Dan in my mailbox—it’s only he, or my Uncle Bob from Reno, who writes to me that way anymore. I remember Uncle Bob asking me if I’d mind sending him a letter sometime telling him some stories and anecdotes about my late parents, who both died too young: my mother at forty-three, my father at fifty-five. I had just purchased a Royal Electric machine with a 27-inch carriage (used for typing spreadsheets), in fantastic working order. A machine like this isn’t like a Selectric, with the famous rotating golf ball element, nor is it a daisy wheel machine. It’s basically a manual with something called a Power Roller, a cylinder that spins, and when a key is depressed it picks up a knurled part that throws the typebar against the platen with consistent, lovely force, allowing the typist to pound a little less. I sat down and typed––for almost an entire day—page after single-spaced page. And sent it off to Reno. No file saving, no scanning, no carbon copies. I miss that letter, but I realize it was for Uncle Bob, not for me. And using the machine, not the computer, made my mind focus in a way that computer keyboards don’t. We hit backspace or delete every few seconds, it seems; we don’t always think of complete sentences before we set them down (by the way, I’m typing this on a laptop). I love the slow labor of typing and what it does to my mind. And I have Dan Schmidt to thank for that.
Twelve years ago, enclosed in one of his letters, I found a copy of an article from The Atlantic Monthly about a man who still repaired and sold typewriters in New York. His name was Martin Tytell (he died in 2008). He was so well known for his expertise that letters addressed only to “Mr. Typewriter, New York” found their way to his shop. So I went to see him, and eventually had a couple of machines repaired there, and, after he retired, befriended his son Peter, who took over the space for his forensic document examination business. It was there that Peter sold me the wide-carriage Royal Electric and quite a few other machines, along with some wonderful old boxes of paper and some juicy silk ribbons made exactly to fit some of my machines.
I now have a collection of typewriters that numbers around a hundred. For a few years I got involved with a group of collectors (many of whom are retired typewriter repair and office supply people) and learned about the early years of the typewriter. I learned of the Sholes and Glidden, the Malling Hansen, the Postal, the Yost, the Fitch, the Oliver, the Williams, the Hammond, the Mignon, and the Blickensderfer, to name only a few. These were machines produced by what we’d now call startups, small companies that saw the opportunity to get a piece of this new market. And the mechanisms designed in those early years, between 1874 and 1900 or so, were astonishingly complex, and at times almost comically bizarre. Many of these machines worked in such a way that the operator could not see the letters on the page as they were being typed! Imagine a typist trained to work with almost no mistakes, unable to see his/her work—that was typical of the early period. On some machines, though, there was a way to check on one’s work by lifting the platen assembly for a moment, then returning it to working position. I fell in love with these early machines, and actually bought some of them, though they can fetch very high prices these days.
Apart from the intricacy of the mechanisms themselves, another element that appeals to me is their ingenious external design and the elegant and strange cases made specifically for them. Oddly shaped and bent-wood boxes with curious latches, sheet metal covers with wooden bases and wire or leather handles and strange lettering––all are features of early typewriter design. Difference and sameness, two elements of my artmaking, are essential attributes of typewriter design; the early period is rife with glorious “failures” that are amazing to behold. But my interest extends to the modern era as well. I love Olivetti machines and IBM machines, for very different reasons, of course—Olivettis being beautiful and IBMs being functional––but each company produced models that were wildly successful and important to the overall history. I keep an IBM Selectric II plugged in and ready in my studio for occasional notes and for addressing envelopes. It never lets me down.
It’s been surprisingly difficult, though, to get my head around the typed art object. I have yet to attempt a work made on the typewriter, though it’s likely one will emerge from my fingers someday. Perhaps I’m intimidated by some of the works I’ve seen: the grids and patterns made by Carl Andre in the early Sixties are among my favorite works of the period. He brings visuality, poetry, history, and meaning together in a remarkably modest way, though his range is ambitious and wide. Andre literalizes the space between
thought and the grid. Here are his words from 1973–75:
A mechanical typewriter is essentially a grid and you cannot evade that. And so it really came from thetypewriter that I used the grid, rather than from the grid to the typewriter…I have used the typewriteras a machine or lathe or saw, to apply letters on the page. I really do feel very tactile using a typewriter.I can still only type with one finger but that made each operation of typing a very machine-like act. It was like actually embossing or applying physical impressions onto a page, almost as if I had a chisel and was making a cut or a die and making a mark on metal.
Typewriters aren’t alive, but they come to life in the hands of the typist. Paintings, and all other art objects, aren’t living things either, but they require a viewer to “activate” them. My own work is generally quite intricate and can be regarded as a sort of visual machine, one that quite literally is brought into action by the one who looks at it, and, in thinking about what he/she sees, finds a way into its making and its purpose. I’m dedicated to making complex, wide-ranging visual art objects that, while made by hand, evidence a consistent and complete working structure: a two-dimensional machine. In thinking about typewriters, I’m reminded of the value of innovation and invention, of revision and refinement. It’s ironic, I suppose, that a machine can inspire such flights of fancy, but in these days of ever-present technology and the Web, the distinction between us and our tools is in a state of flux. We are becoming part of what we create, and in so doing we re-create ourselves. That’s the typewriter’s legacy.
James Siena’s work is held in numerous important public and private collections across the United States, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He lives and works in New York City and western Massachusetts.