Although perhaps not the most glamorous of archival records—don’t we all dread receiving W2 forms in the mail?—a tax document can communicate a lot about an artist.
During the Depression, Mitchell Siporin’s 1939 tax return form revealed that his sole source of income was his work for the Treasury Department and the Works Progress Administration. These federal commissions helped artists preserve their livelihoods and also enlivened public buildings across the nation with murals and sculpture. Browse other Depression-era documents in our exhibition Hard Times, 1929-1939.
Conversely, the success of painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning enabled them to support fellow artists and make modest donations to charities. Elaine made sure to itemize these contributions in this list of income and expenses for the de Kooning's 1953 joint tax return. They were able to claim a loss of $1,987.74, which likely made their tax day more palatable. This list is currently on display as part of the Archives’ Lists exhibition in Washington, D.C.
Even the most avant-garde ventures of the late 1960s heeded the call of the taxman. In 1968, dealer Paula Cooper hired an accountant to help her register the Paula Cooper Gallery as a small business. It was the first gallery in SoHo, then an industrial slum so foreign to the art trade that it was known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” The Paula Cooper Gallery forged ahead with original projects and influential exhibitions, all while balancing a ledger, maintaining sales journals and, of course, filing annual tax returns. Read more about Park Place and the beginning of the Paula Cooper Gallery.
Maybe if we treat filing taxes as a conceptual art project, April 15 would be more enjoyable. Just don’t let the IRS in on the fun!
*Special thanks to Liza Kirwin for her previous research on these documents.
Mary Savig is a curatorial assistant at the Archives of American Art.