Paint by numbers 

A '50s fad achieves status in the new millennium

Paint-by-number kits, invented in the early '50s and embraced as a certifiable fad, recently have re-entered the popular lexicon for their nostalgia value and corny überAmericana subject matter of fall foliage, cocoa-eyed spaniels and the genre's most popular subject, the Last Supper.

Paint-by-number's images of contemplation (Christ enjoying some downtime in a holy landscape) and cataclysm (a bullfighter in mid-olé!) have been collected by enthusiasts like Andy Warhol, singer Matthew Sweet and writer/producer ("Saturday Night Live") Michael O'Donoghue. Now they're on exhibit at Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution in a comprehensive popular history of the genre, Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s, and featured in a recently published book on the fill-in-the-blank phenomenon from Princeton Architec-tural Press.

But were those pictures of sad-eyed pets and religious celebrities merely harmless fun or bald-faced insults to the serious artist who prefers to color outside the lines? Along with TV dinners and cookie-cutter homes constructed overnight, paint-by-number kits were archetypal '50s fare, and like much of that decade's pop culture phenomena, seen as a harbinger of an America increasingly dedicated to "mindless" recreations.

The karaoke of its day, paint by number was a short cut to self-expression via someone else's lyrics or line-art.

And as metaphor, the paint by number was powerful stuff, its practitioners engaged in a communal effort in dens, living rooms and bedrooms across America to paint-in the vision of what an ideal world would look like.

In a contemporary world where "cooking" can be defined as transference of some pre-fried bacon to the microwave for a quick zap and culture is a day at the mall, it's hard to understand the outrage that greeted the paint-by-number phenomenon. A corny/quaint hobby for frustrated artists and bored executives, paint by number managed to send art critics and other sniffy sorts into a major lather over the veritable decline of civilization writ with a camelhair brush and a pre-mixed spectrum of cerulean acrylic.

"Before the close of the '50s, paint by number was made into a symbol of mass culture's corrosive influence upon taste," notes curator Larry Bird, who organized the Smithsonian show and authored the accom-panying book dedicated to the genre.

Bird found in his research that those images of deer, American Indians, sombreroed Mexicans and ballerinas were "a vessel for anxieties about mass culture's intrusion into the well-cultured world of taste and social class."

The watchdogs of culture were outraged not only by the ease and simplicity with which a businessman could be transformed into an ersatz painter of New England landscapes, but the audacity of such Norman Rockwell pretenders hanging their masterpiece on the wall as home decor. The phenomenon seemed to embody a fear that those things formerly seen as the province of the elite were being overtaken by social inferiors. According to Bird, critics of the 1950s attacked this innocent hobby with a viciousness that signaled larger cultural issues lurking beneath the critical tantrums.

"It wasn't until the hobby became wildly popular that it attracted the attention of critics -- who were upset about what," Bird queries, "a housewife painting a ballerina?"

Paint by number was not only a definitive symbolic battleground for debates of taste in the '50s but seemed to spring organically -- as if fated -- from the decade to function as a "metaphor for the commercialization and mechanization of culture," Bird observes.

Like the French Lumiere brothers and America's Thomas Edison inventing the cinema on two separate continents at the same point in time, paint by number seemed historically predestined. It was an idea dreamed up by two different men at the same point in time -- Royce Caron at Picture Craft, who saw it as a therapeutic pastime for recuperating soldiers, and Detroit's Dan Robbins at Palmer Paint, who created his first paint-by-number image of a Cubist semi-abstraction. (Nevertheless, it was ultimately the Painting School of puppies and seascapes that gave the form its greatest profits and popularity.)

"What has surprised me most is the emotional reaction to the exhibit -- or to the idea that there is such an exhibit -- from people for whom paint by number opened a world of creativity," says Bird.

"Before the show opened a colleague told me about a relative of his who grew up in the rural South, who bought a kit just to get the paints. The kits, as by-rote as they were, spread the easy availability of paint and art supplies."

Paint-by-number sets were charming and endearing in their simplicity, suggesting a desire to loll away one's free time in some enjoyably vacant, soothing pursuit like knitting or model-building. There is something basic and pleasurable in such reflex hobbies that suggest a pure, child-like antidote to the demands of the workday. For all the current disparagement of the perceived consumer goose-stepping of the '50s, there is also the sense of constrained questing that the postwar lure of the American highway or the paint by number phenomenon represented.

And the exhibition itself embraces a more populist vibe. Bird concedes that the Smithsonian exhibition may be part of a larger, more democratic outlook on art infecting museums, which are beginning to consider work by Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, self-taught artists or, in the case of paint by number, your Uncle Ed, that would have previous- ly been something of a goof in an art- world setting.

"The trend has been towards more inclusive treatments of social and technical subjects," he says. And in the case of the lowbrow pursuit of paint by number, "There is a certain striving," within current museum thinking, "for the drama of personal meaning conveyed through the collections and exhibits, whether they may be about politics, science and technology."

And for fans, paint by number remains a seductive jolt of retro ephemera. With their kitschy scenes of majestic schooners or Parisian streetscapes all rendered in the orderly form of the amateur paint-flinger, paint by number illustrates the chronic American marriage of innocence and incompetence and highbrow aspirations dashed on lowbrow's rocks. Goofy and wistful, stupid and poignant, paint by number are the 20th century's hieroglyphics. They tell us, in a single portrait of a sad clown, all we may need to know about our bizarre and lovable popular culture.

Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s runs through Dec. 31 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Paint by Number, Princeton Architectural Press. William L. Bird Jr. $18.95. 135 pages.

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