The Unfinished Work of Paint by Number, 1960-2001
By the end of the 1950s, paint by number was taking on a new life
as a metaphor. It became a symbol of mechanical performance and
mass culture. It was invoked to describe the kind of politics
and merchandising ruled by opinion polls and market surveys. Pop
art adopted paint by number in the early 1960s as part of its
commentary on popular culture. By the early 1990s the paint-by-number
phenomenon had come full circle, as the paintings themselves again
became collectible. Today, paint by number continues to be decorative,
ironic-and even artistic.
Richard Hess's portrait of President Lyndon Johnson as an incomplete
paint-by-number work was created for the June 1967 issue of Esquire
magazine. Although it was bumped from the cover at the last minute, the
layout later won numerous graphics awards for Hess and Esquire art
director Samuel N. Antupit, and was even exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.
In 1978 artist Paul Bridgewater created five abstract paint-by-number
kits, which could be displayed in their unfinished form as sculptures
or completed for display as paintings. Each kit came rolled in
a plastic tube with an instruction sheet, premixed paints, and
two brushes made from the artist's own hair. Bridgewater's kits
evoked the do-it-yourself appeal of their predecessors. This kit
was purchased by Andy Warhol.
The idea came to Bridgewater during a tour of the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art, during which a docent dismissed the museum's contemporary
art collection as "simplistic." Drawing on childhood memory, Bridgewater
set out to make "a great work of art that even a seven-year-old could do.
"He had been given paint-by-number kits by his mother, who favored
landscapes, especially covered bridges.
In 1992 Paul Bridgewater's Bridgewater/Lustberg Gallery in New
York City exhibited the paint-by-number collection of screenwriter
Michael O'Donoghue, whose enthusiasm for the hobby inspired a
new interest in collecting and exhibiting the paintings.
Paint by number has been used as a metaphor for decision-making
based on opinion polls. Russian émigré artists
Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid adapted that idea to devise
a new way of painting "by numbers." Beginning in 1993 they conducted
telephone surveys to discover Americans' taste in art. They then
used the survey data as the basis for two paintings: America's
Most Wanted and America's Most Unwanted. These embodiments of
popular taste have a standardized look familiar to anyone who
has contemplated paint by number.
According to Komar and Melamid's survey, Americans prefer representational
art, landscapes with lakes, portraits of historical figures, wild
animals, children, and the color blue. The artists obligingly
packed all of that into one canvas. The companion piece, America's
Most Unwanted, is a small geometric abstract composition.