A mass culture obsessed with suburbia, leisure, and consumerism that sought access to high culture: that was 1950s America. Naturally, it was obsessed with paint by number, where all of these cross. A companion to an exhibition at the Smithsonian, Paint by Number follows the craze from its start to Andy Warhol's famous appropriation of the method in his "Do It Yourself" series. Paint by number pitted the creative against the mechanical, and deeply questioned art by giving everyone a paintbrush. This is a scholarly book and, at the same time, a comfortable read (as are most Princeton Architectural Press books), full of paintings, photographs, and ephemera such as advertisements and package designs, which alone stand as proof that one product can retell a critical part of the cultural history of America. It is a fantastic book for anyone interested in the intersection between art and culture in this fast-changing era. --Juliette Cezzar
From Publishers Weekly
In the early 1950s, paint-by-number kits became, for watchdogs of America's artistic ambition, a metaphor for the commercialization, mechanization and "dumbing-down" of American culture. But consumers paid little attention to such finger wagging; in 1954, more "number" paintings hung in American homes than did original works of art. Using 185 color and 15 b&w exemplars, William Bird (Better Living: Advertising, Media and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership) analyzes the phenomenon in Paint by Number: The How-To Craze that Swept the Nation, which accompanies an exhibition he curated for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (now hanging until December). Based on a Leonardo da Vinci technique for teaching painting, paint by number survives to this day, now collected, traded online and exhibited in galleries.
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