Beinecke exhibition illustrates how collaboration itself is an art form

Promotional artwork for The Art of Collaboration exhibition at Yale

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s latest building-wide exhibition, + The Art of Collaboration, explores the excitement and power of how separate elements combine to make things that are new, beautiful, strange, and memorable. On view from Jan. 19 through April 15, the show itself is a collaborative act by three curators — Melissa Barton, Elizabeth Frengel, and Nancy Kuhl — working together with colleagues across the library.

The exhibition considers exemplary works and the archival stories of their making, revealing the creative — and sometimes destructive — tensions that are parts of artistic collaboration. Items on view are drawn from the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, and the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL).

The works on view — including plays, children’s books, novels, performance artworks, films, photographs, and more — demonstrate that collaboration itself is an art form,” says Kuhl, curator of poetry in YCAL. “Collaboration is at the core of what a library like Beinecke is and does, so it was especially meaningful to Elizabeth, Melissa, and me to curate this exhibition together.”

+ The Art of Collaboration” comprises three discrete sections, each installed in a separate area of the library’s exhibition space. Cases on the ground floor consider the much-beloved work of a husband-and-wife team in “The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban.” A story of the complexity of collaborative adaptation is explored in the curved cases at the top of each staircase in “Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ on Stage and Screen.” The jewel-box vitrines on the mezzanine feature 18 instances of American literary and artistic collaboration spanning more than 100 years in “Studies in Creativity.”

The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban’

Russell and Lillian Hoban began their decade-long collaboration on books for children with ‘Herman the Loser’ (1961). Russell Hoban wrote the text, and Lillian Hoban produced the illustrations,” notes Frengel, head of research services at the Beinecke Library. “Their greatest success was a series of books about a strong-willed badger named Frances. Although Garth Williams illustrated the first book in the series, ‘Bedtime for Frances’ (1960), it was Lillian Hoban’s artwork for ‘Bread and Jam for Frances’ (1964), that won a devoted readership.”

Dummy cover art for “Bread and Jam for Francis” by Lillian Hoban.
Dummy cover art for “Bread and Jam for Francis” by Lillian Hoban, from the Beinecke collection.

Both Russell and Lillian Hoban were trained as artists, but Russell gave up illustration in the early 1960s. The husband-and-wife team settled in to their respective roles as writer and illustrator, and worked in easy partnership. The Hobans produced more than 26 children’s books during their married life, including “The Little Brute Family” (1966); “The Mouse and His Child” (1967); and “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (1971). This exhibition, drawn from the papers of Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban, explores the collaborative creative process of making children’s books. Featuring original artwork, typescripts, correspondence, artist’s dummies, and finished works that demonstrate, in material form, many layers of collaboration.

Frengel drew on the extensive Lillian Hoban Papers and Russell Hoban Papers in the Beinecke Library to select materials on view in this section of the exhibition.

Richard Wright’s “Native Son” on Stage and Screen’

Richard Wright’s classic novel, a bestseller when it was published in 1940, explores the conditions of the life of Bigger Thomas, a poor, black 19-year-old, and the aftermath of Bigger’s accidental murder of Mary Dalton, a wealthy, white college student, culminating in Bigger’s trial, where he is defended by a communist lawyer,” explains Barton, the curator of prose and drama in YCAL. “Wright wrote the novel to confront readers with the brutality of poverty and white supremacy in Chicago, where he, like Bigger, moved from Mississippi with his family as a boy. ‘Native Son’ encapsulates the warning that the structures of white supremacy entrap young black men like Bigger Thomas at the peril of all — wealthy families like the Daltons, and impoverished women like Bessie Mears, Bigger’s girlfriend and second victim.”

After the Book of the Month Club selected the novel for March 1940, Harper printed 170,000 copies, with the first 50,000 selling within two months. Collaborators quickly stepped forward to work with Wright in developing the story for both stage and screen. Both the stage adaptation, produced in 1941, and the screen adaptation, which premiered a decade later, struggled to capture the complexity of Wright’s original portrayal. With anti-communism on the rise and a public seldom eager to confront issues of inequality, Wright and his collaborators fought to find a place for Bigger’s story on Broadway and in Hollywood, notes Barton.

A black and white photo of Richard Wright and Orson Welles.
Richard Wright with Orson Welles, who staged an adaptation of “Native Son” on Broadway in 1941.

Barton selected materials for this section of the exhibition from the Richard Wright Papers, 143 boxes of archives that are frequently consulted by readers, including playwright Nambi Kelley, who engaged with Wright’s archives recently in the process of her new adaptation of “Native Son” for the stage, seen in the fall at the Yale Repertory Theatre. 

Among the special events in conjunction with the exhibition, the library will be screening “Native Son: The Restored Film,” a 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress, on Feb. 22, 7 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center, 55 Wall St.

Studies in Creativity’

The best creative collaborations call into question the mythologies of individual genius and invite us to consider the additive possibilities of thinking and working together,” Kuhl observes. “‘Studies in Creativity’ contemplates a diverse range of collective art-making models by exploring classic and cutting-edge works of art and literature devised or authored collaboratively. Artistic partnership, creative competition, the power of the muse, the influence of the impresario — these and other varieties of imaginative or inventive combination and exchange may be shaped by productive challenges or by destructive forces. Love and anger, pleasure and jealousy, conversation and argument — emotion and energy can seem to be multiplied in collaborations.”

Archives provide uncommon access to the ways works of art develop in a relational context,” Kuhl adds. “In documentary records we see several hands at work editing a text, many individuals authoring a stage performance, two lover-artists passing notes back and forth. A social and interpersonal mode of artistic practice comes into focus. ‘Studies in Creativity’ both explores and celebrates and the spectacular potential when minds come together to make something new.”

Handwritten manuscript page from the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
A handwritten manuscript page from “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by Gertrude Stein.

The authors and artists represented in the 18 exhibition vitrines in “Studies in Creativityinclude Bert Williams and George Walker; the Provincetown Players Theater Company; Pool Productions; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French; Delmore Schwartz and James Joyce; Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan; Langston Hughes and Helen H. Watts; Saul Steinberg and Pablo Picasso; Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett; Jane and Stan Brakhage; Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol; Pippa Anne Fleming and Lisbet Tellefsen; August Wilson and Lloyd Richards; Michael Kelleher; C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster; Mimi Khuc, Monica Ong, Monica Ramos, Simi Kang, and Camille Chew; and the Victory Garden Collective, among others. All of the materials on view come from collections in the Beinecke Library.

Beinecke Library exhibitions are free and open to the public daily. Visit the library’s website for detailed information on hours and special events.

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