I love this blog, and this is an interesting perspective on all kinds of things we've been talking about this semester.
Something I have been involved with for a long time is mail art. I exchange with artists, writers, and have participated in groups who send and exchange print and text pieces. I love the idea of random art coming in the mail, and the freedom to create anything and just send it off. Unlike an online "send", it is a real, tangible object that you are putting out there to travel, and receiving such yourself is amazing. Here is an online submission link, though its nothing like the real thing.
For those interested in mail art check out the following web site (I just discovered it):
Seems to have lost of good images of mail art works sent to the blog.
|TITLE:||YOU'VE GOT ART MAIL|
|SOURCE:||Arts & Activities 127 no3 64, 70-1 Ap 2000|
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
Are you a Jelly Belly club member? Then you received your special package in today's mail. We celebrated the arrival of Mr. Jelly Belly's package, addressed to Ana. The Jelly Belly face on the label prompted a playful shake of the package. It had all the sounds of fun!
A smell-test preceded the taste-test of the new jelly bean flavors: root beer and apple cheesecake--only sent to members, of course. On the handsome wall poster enclosed in the box, we found the entire jelly bean family of colors and new flavors. In the package was a rotating candy dispenser, a game board for jelly bean pieces and, of course, the secret club lapel pin and membership card. It was exciting!
Children receive the most interesting mail in the house. Kids send away for fun stuff, anticipating great mail finds. For a child, receiving mail is a special event, a spontaneous party. As a child, I used to wait for the ice-cream truck, listening for its merry bells. The mail truck moves more discreetly down our street, yet somehow the kids have a "mail sense" and run to the front door before the mail slot is even opened. Mail carriers are greeted specially by children, who cannot wait to take charge of the sorting act. All mail is exciting to children. "Can I sort it? Can I open it?"
The mail sent by kids to one another is often beautiful art. Children love everything about the mail; it is fun to prepare it, decorate it, place it into a mailbox and envision its voyage. The post office is a fun place where young pockets are quickly filled with souvenirs, forms, unusual envelopes, labels and stamps. Children observe the postal clerk with some envy. They would love to adopt the clerk's cubbies of great stuff and the carousel of stampers.
Children love to receive mail, even in class. I often wear my antique mailman's cap and bag to deliver the latest innovative designs in well-dressed packages, for special student-assisted openings. The latest mailings in ice-cream colors, new nail polish color samples and, of course, jelly beans, are mailed to the art class. Beyond adult color theories, we take children's color interests seriously.
With a knock on the door, the Mr. Jelly Belly package arrives via special delivery to class. The treasures found within prompt us to contemplate how, one day, museums might recognize what child collectors already know: contemporary candy dispensers are works of art. Besides the newly arrived Jelly Belly dispenser, our class displays include pocket-sized key-chain dispensers, as well as mechanical belt-worn and wrist-mounted dispensers. Candy dispensers masquerade as tiny in-line skates, electric guitars and revolving CDs, and, as with many new things, they were unveiled first from art-class packages.
From personal candy dispensers, our "art-history" survey moves on to the candy store dispenser. A study of its history and evolution is interesting to children who are drawn to them when helping with the family shopping.
The game board contained in the Jelly Belly package inspires another important survey of art history: game boards. These can serve as an introduction to major developments in contemporary games, from classic board games to electronic games and designs by children.
Paying attention to the mail children receive, the items contained in the packages, and how children prepare and send mail, is an excellent lesson for teachers interested in preserving and advancing this authentic child's art.
MAIL ARTS To write a letter, Ana searches through her well-organized stationery trunk to find the paper that best expresses her message and mood. Stationery is the art paper of children. They look for opportunities to sift through stationery stores and catalogs, to find the latest colors, patterns, textures and scents. Children tend to own the largest collection of writing papers in any home because, as artists, they care about the surface on which they place their marks.
Children admire their friends' stationery and often save the most beautiful stationery they receive. Children audition writing tools after the difficult decision of choosing paper. Frequently, mail artists use more than one tool, and more than one color on a letter. "Milky Pens" are Ana's current favorites, one of scores of writing tools with special tips she has collected. Each letter affords the opportunity to match the most exciting papers and tools.
Decorating follows, after the letter is "sketched" out. The decorative theme often spills over to all parts of the envelope. A mail artist's palette consists of a rich assortment of stickers, photos, personal cutouts (clip art) and stampers. Children are natural surface decorators, beautifying every object in their possession. Artists don't do anything in ordinary ways, and so the appearance of a letter is a major consideration for children.
The envelope is an important canvas of the young mail artists. Our postmaster will tell you it is often hard to decipher information on envelopes that come to or leave our house. But children's mail is never dull. Through webs of drawings, unusual foil wraps and metallic pen poetry, children try to outdo each other's envelope decorations. We share envelopes in class shows, and kids have taught me that 4-foot manila envelopes, envelopes sewn from fabric, and envelopes constructed from hard, see-through plastic exist. Individual collectors are encouraged by our community-sharing of the latest in mailing supplies.
"What stamps do you have today?" Conversations between Ana and our town postmaster are not small talk, but expressions of an artist in an art-supply store. The choice of stamps is an important part of the mail's appearance. Children are avid sticker and stamp collectors, and their expertise is happily practiced in mail art.
Stamps purchased are often saved in collections to go along with future works. Unusual stamp placements made by kids may not conform to postal codes, but they express the artist's vision for their envelope design. Hand-stamping tends to be preferred, not only for the fun of an extra post-office visit, but to supervise the stamper's placement, the final visual element of the art.
MAIL FROM OUR CLASS Wherever we fly on art-room magic carpets or on hot air balloons tied to chairs, we send a picture postcard of all sightings. Some cards will be sent through the art class post office where we are in charge of all stampers, and we may use our own stamps (drawings over blank stickers). There is a special postage discount for the most unusual pieces of mail. Samples from our International Stamp Show of student designs are exhibited in homemade albums and showcased in our favorite gallery, our branch post office. If you would like one of our illustrated philatelic catalogs, just write to us.
FINAL OBSERVATIONS A letter from a child is not just a letter, it is a special gift prepared with loving thoughts and artistic care. Children's art is not made for sale and passed on to a faceless public. Like mail art, it is a special gift, created with love for someone special. A child's mail design is a unique traveling canvas, covered with multiple art forms: personal photos, objects, cut-outs, poems and messages.
In an age of computer communication, one would think that children's interest in the mail arts would diminish. Children, however, treat e-mail and postal mail differently. Mail art gets filed away in a special box or basket, treasured and attended to with care. Since the advent of e-mail, postal mail has become even more special, more personal, and more appealing as an art form to children.
Professor George Székely is Area Head of Art Education and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.
Paying attention to children's mail--in all of its forms--is an excellent lesson for teachers interested in preserving and advancing this authentic child's art.
|TITLE:||Mail Art: Stamp of Approval|
|SOURCE:||Art Monthly no247 53 Je 2001|
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna was recently published in the US and makes fascinating reading (see www.badpressbooks.com). The authors are mail artists, who teamed up in 1994 to pursue their joint practice; it usually took the form of appropriating readymade images, reproducing them on a colour printer and stamp perforator, sticking the stamps on self-addressed envelopes, and getting a friend to post the envelope back to them from a foreign country. The artwork was completed when the envelope was received by the artists by post, duly franked by the foreign country's postal service.
The artists exhibited their artworks -- the franked envelopes, together with sheets of the stamps they had made and used -- and sold sets for around US0. The artists practised in the US, from a studio located in the Chinatown district of Chicago, Illinois. Readers may recall the case of JS Boggs, the US artist based in London in the mid 1980s, who practised 'moneyart': he drew and coloured by hand reproductions of paper money, including Bank of England Treasury Notes, and was prosecuted at the Old Bailey for offences contrary to the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. After a three-day trial before a judge and jury, Boggs was acquitted and continued to thrive as a money artist, exhibiting and selling his hand-crafted artwork for the face value of the note -- and often higher. In Boggs's successful defence, led by Geoffrey Robertson QC and solicitor Mark Stephens, the jury was convinced by an array of expert witnesses from the London art world who gave earnest (and entertaining) seminars from the witness box about the historical lineage of art as currency, bartering traditions, the economic value of art, the art marketplace, Dadaism, readymades and the Duchampian approach to appropriation of found objects by artists throughout the 20th Century. Sandy Nairne (now at Tate), Micael Compton (formerly of the Tate Gallery), and René Gimpel (Gimpel Fils Gallery) were among the key persuaders.
Three years ago Thompson and Hernandez de Luna were visited by US postal inspectors who had been requested by the Norwegian postal authorities to investigate the artists' stamp which had been put on a letter posted in Oslo. The artists had reproduced on their stamp a copy of Gustav Courbet's painting The Origin of the World, 1866, which depicted a frank image of female genitalia. The inspectors asked to see the original artwork and were shown the artists' studio 'stamp collection', many copies of which the inspectors confirmed that they had already seen and seized. Moreover, the inspectors also confirmed that they had attended all the artists' mail art exhibitions and were 'on to them'. They were asked to sign a statement of 'voluntary discontinuance', under the (somewhat hollow) threat of being arrested and having their artworks confiscated if they refused to cease their mail art practice.
The artists steadfastly refused to do so and continued their practice -- save that they no longer had their 'stamps' mailed to themselves, but to co-operative friends and associates instead. Countries used for franking included Japan, Turkey, India, China, South Africa, Jamaica and Cuba.
The subject matter of the artworks was diverse -- deliberately intended to draw the viewer's attention to the image -- ranging from images of Bugs Bunny, Viagra, the Spanish Inquisition, and 'disgruntled' postal employees. A most obvious send-up was an image of Monica Lewinsky's celebrated blue dress which had a label printed on it saying 'Property of Monica Lewinsky'; another was posted and franked in Cuba, with an image of the late US President J F Kennedy smoking a cigar. The 'project', as the artists call their work, received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and later began to receive further official recognition -- the US Post Office issued an 'official' Bugs Bunny stamp. Moreover, the resale value of their works steadily increased, in many cases trebling in value after the artists had reduced their output, which has now all but ceased. However, letters they had asked to be posted to them in the past continue to arrive to surprise and please them.
It would seem that this form of mail art sagely sidestepped the law and its enforcement agencies; by not forging official stamps, but creating their own stamps which had the appearance of official stamps of the country from which they were posted. Such activity might have been illegal in the country of posting, but was certainly not an offence for which extradition would have been possible. Hence the difficulty of the US postal authorities in preventing the artists from operating in this way. There was also the question of disproportionate expense, which the authorities would have had to incur in terms of both staff time and money, in pursuing the artists for what in each posting would have amounted to a few dollars' worth of lost revenue in the posting country.
The Dadaists of the early 20th Century made work which repudiated contemporary conventions and was intended to shock, and these mail artists certainly achieved those results. At this stage in the development of 21st-century art, it remains to be seen whether mail art will be viewed as having opened up new possibilities for visual work and contexts, or be disregarded as a whimsical footnote in the recorded history of Dada. Come what may in art historical terms, the use (or abuse) of the law as an intrinsic element in the artwork deserves some consideration and appraisal. Letters of enquiry (properly stamped) are welcomed!
Confidential letters of enquiry sent to Art Monthly will be forwarded.
|TITLE:||Fiber Art in the Mailbox|
|SOURCE:||Fiberarts 32 no5 26-7 Ap/My 2006|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.|
MAILABLE FIBER POSTCARDS have become popular among art quilters and other fiber artists, who mail them to each other as a way of sharing their creativity These 4" × 6" artworks must be crisp and thin enough to meet the requirements of the U.S. Postal Service, but otherwise they are quite varied. In style, subject matter, and tone, they reflect whatever message their makers want to convey.
Fiber postcards are typically made of cotton, silk, linen, or other fabric. They sometimes include a layer of thin batting and may be embellished with embroidery machine quilting, or textile paints. When finished, they resemble miniature modern artworks on one side and traditional postcards on the other. The message and address may be written with fabric ink on a light-colored fabric or with a traditional pen on a piece of paper stitched to the postcard. A self-adhesive postage stamp adheres neatly to ensure delivery.
Interest in this miniature medium was created by Judi Warren's 1994 book Fabric Postcards [Collector Books, out of print]. More recently, publicity generated by fiber-postcard fund-raising projects, magazine articles, and a postcard-making lesson by Patricia Bolton on the HGTV program Simply Quilts have inspired a new group of postcard designers. Many quilters and other fiber artists have joined groups founded specifically for the purpose of exchanging postcards. Enthusiasts amass collections that they sew or frame together to form a large art piece for the wall, or store in specially designed file boxes for table exhibit.
Some fiber postcards serve a dual purpose. Fiberart For A Cause supports the American Cancer Society and has raised tens of thousands of dollars by the sale and auction of postcards. The next sale will be April 7-9 at the International Quilt Festival in Chicago. Art2mail, a pioneering fabric-postcard group, is selling postcards donated by its members to raise funds for hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast region. Interested purchasers may make a selection from the organization's ever-changing online inventory of postcards. The Museum of the American Quilter's Society in Paducah, Kentucky, has invited quilters to create "Artcards for Acquisitions" for a museum fundraiser at the AQS Quilt Show and Contest April 26-29.
To find out more about these causes, visit www.VirginiaSpiegel.com/NewFiles/ACSHowToDonate.html, www.relief.art2mail.com, and www.amenicanquilter.com. Two postcard-exchange groups that welcome new members are International Friendship Quilters, at www.friendshipquilters.com/FAB/fabIndex.php, and Fiber Art Traders, at www.groups.yahoo.com/group/fiberarttraders. A new book, Fast, Fun and Easy Fabric Postcards: Keepsakes You Can Make and Mail by Franki Kohler, will be published by C&T Publishing in May.
Maureen Egan is a professor of philosophy and a fiber artist who lives in Westfield, Massachusetts.
Natalya Sumner, Vortex #1, 2005; fabric, variegated rayon thread; hand dyed, quilted. This postcard will be sold for Fiberart For A Cause at the International Quilt Festival in Chicago in April.
Leslie Collins, Purple Bud, 2005; cotton batik fabrics, rayon thread, machine appliqué. This postcard will also be sold for Fiberart For A Cause at the International Quilt Festival.
Franki Kohler, Tallinn Door 9, 2005; digital photo (by David Kohler) printed on cotton fabric, fusible web. Bubble Jet Set 2000 ink-bonding agent, polyester monofilament thread, free-motion stitching, stitch-and-fuse binding technique. Kohler is a member of the postcard-exchange group art2mail; she also started the group Postmark'd Art (www.postmarkdart.com).
Sue Reno, Hackberry, 2004; hello-graphic print on cotton, vintage fabric, rayon thread; stitching. Reno is a member of the postcard-exchange group art2mail (wwwart2mail.com).
Virginia Spiegel, Sunrise, 2005; cotton fabric, acrylic felt, thread; dyed, burned, stitched. This postcard will be sold for Fiberart For A Cause at the International Quilt Festival in Chicago in April. Spiegel has made more than ninety postcards for the project, which she started to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
Warning stickers for the Daily Mail
England's Daily Mail isn't just a source of funny Internet posts, it's also a veritable font of hysterical, nutso reporting about "epidemics" of child abuse, immigration, welfare cheats, violent crime, etc and so forth. They're not solely responsible for the rise of authoritarianism and surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties here, but they're sure in the vanguard. Here's some sticker template for decorating the free copies of the Wail that you encounter in your life.
I wish these were a) funnier and b) better designed. I have a feeling that, like the cigarette-pack ads they're meant to ape, they're just going to come across as finger-wagging. Got ideas for improving them? Hit the comments.
found here: www.boingboing.net/art-and-design/
The doctrine of divine revelation could perhaps be nominated as the first instance of correspondence art – air mail and on a cosmological scale. If one is not religiously inclined, wait for the first faint scratchings of the famous featherless biped, man, for examples of this art. While it is likely that at least some of the Paleolithic cave paintings included messages of this-kind-of-mastodon-went-thataway variety one must however admit that a loose definition of the role of the postal service is intrinsic to these examples. In the case of the cave painting, for example, the message was only received if the receiver traveled to the site of the correspondence. This as efficient, considering the status of the postal service in that period, and perhaps catalyzed the socializing impulses as well.
Other examples of “correspondence art” also occur in the Paleolithic period. Anthropologists are generally fond of explaining real systems by referring to unreal or past ones. This practice can be peculiarly enlightening. Paleolithic man, the Great Hunter par excellence, was fond of recording messages on bits of bone and stone lying about the cave. Contemporary research utilizing careful microscopic analyses reveals that what appeared at the casual glance to be mere scratches, are in fact careful notational systems. These analyses validate a longstanding anthropological precept that human cognition and perception evolved concomitantly with the need to communicate. The structural patterns of early human cognition are revealed through the messages, computations and symbols employed by Paleolithic man. These notations were at the same time are and codified computation – portable packages recording information based on the myriad inductive insights that a small but brainy creature needed to survive in a world that was cold, bizarre, and full of huge animals.
Artful delineations have thus been a medium of message exchange for at least 35,000 years. The delicate tracery of Paleolithic circles and scratches has been analyzed to show that it represents not idles doodles, but calendrical and notational systems of a ritual and practical nature!
By the time of the Mesolithic period and later, the world population of hunters and gatherers had begun to increase. Group interrelationships evolved as the concept of meaningful territoriality gained economic credence. The “us” and “them” ideology contributed enormously to the increased use of correspondence. The natural physical environment had become imbued with extractive, practical, and symbolic significance. The need for artful communication and exchange among groups stationed through space and time grew with the new uses of territory.
As all of these early populations were still hunters and gatherers, much of the same imagery in messages was perhaps understood across communities and groups. Man’s exploratory nature, itself a product of human evolution, manifested itself then as now through a search and appreciation of new media and cleaver ways to package messages. Special materials like shell, pigments, or bits of flavored obsidian came only from outside one’s present territory. Journeys of trade and exchange were made to negotiate for these scarce items. In those days, god, economics, and the need to create a better tool were still integrated in cognitive orientation. The exchange of economic and symbolic messages was ritualized and protected by sanction.
The reason for bothering to consider all this is simply because such examples illustrate that the essence of social recognition itself is tied to the sending of messages. The need to send a message or code a memory for one’s group is intimately tied to the experience of Self and Other, of Mine and Yours. Communication is a prerequisite for the creation of harmony and order in the real or symbolic manipulation and management of space, exchange, or resources. The ultimate in correspondence art -which becomes a kind of lifelong Project Piece – is the exchange of individuals between groups, often through exogamous marriage. Undoubtedly aesthetics played some role in this type of econosymbolic exchange as well. While it is not actually know whether gentlemen preferred blondes then (if ever), it is probable that a good strong pair of arms and legs were much admired. Art and life were inseparable, because a well-turned message or limb was more apt to be remembered and readily accepted.
Economic exchanges were realized as basic to survival and safety. The flourish of ritual often made this process sacred and helped to maintain an equilibrium during the dangerous aspects of exchange. Art historians, psychologists, and anthropologists have written reams intimating that the artist and the shaman were once the same individual and role, oftentimes with only a kind of dim recognition ritualized manipulations of messages were and are integers of the whole communication spectrum as it structures communitas.
Modern History and Correspondence Art
Myriad examples could be included in an extended history of mail art, but for the sake of brevity let us move on to the modern period. For some time now we have been living in what has noxiously been referred to as “complex societies” and in “urban conglomerates.” The postal service has advanced apace. Now it depends infrequently on domesticated animals, and encompasses the latest in aeronautical engineering and radio technology. Has this meant the death of correspondence art? On the contrary, even more imaginative efforts have recently been expended in that direction, since the need to communicate is still universal. This small review will not document examples of modern correspondence art, since the reader is probably aware of their amazing variety. Rather we shall turn to another anthropological number, the structural-functional analysis of the phenomena under investigation. In other words, the who, how, when, where, and why of mail art. In good contemporary scholastic style, we shall wander about unabashedly through the interdisciplinary fields of psychology, anthropology, and, briefly, neurophysiological dynamics. There is something here for everyone.
Who is Involved with Correspondence Art?
A definitive cross-cultural survey of this phenomenon would properly have to include a wide selection of practitioners ranging from the Kula Ring in Northern Melanesia to Sears, Roebuck & Company in America. In the former instance, the practitioners have already been subjected to a searching ethnographic study which revealed their vast complex of trade, magic, and pleasurable overseas travel with ceremonial exchange. The framework in which the message is expressed is the ritual exchange of handsome white shell armbands (mwali) and long red shell necklaces (soulava). Exchange is intertribal and interisland, and the rules of the correspondence game are rigid. Soulava move clockwise, and mwali are sent counterclockwise. No exceptions are permitted, because along with these much admired items, prized for their beauty and power, goes the exchange of economically scarce items and utilities (Malinowski, 1922).
In the second instance it must be at least considered that Sears, Roebuck & Company has consistently produced a good deal of Early American mail art, especially if one takes into consideration the sheer scope and frequency of aesthetic longings they incited in the hearts and minds of the pre-Skira, Abrams, and Braziller population.
Children have often sent mail art. Alone or in groups they send sidewalk messages in chalk, hand decorated May baskets, and spray paint communications (an art form especially highly developed among certain adolescent urban populations) to whomever and without the benefit of stamps. Children do make a calendric ritual use of the postal service when they send letters decorated with plaintive texts and Dubuffet-like depictions of toys which they hope the recipients, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, will shower upon them in a return exchange.
An international network of adults has recently inititated an unusual use of the postal system, which is to communicate messages of a non-utilitarian nature for the delight, intellectual stimulation, and appreciation of a select audience of recipients. This observations leads us to our next consideration.
What is Mail/Correspondence Art?
The slash (/) is a wonderful symbol created to cover contingencies implicating ambivalences, ambiguous inclusion, and/or sloppy thinking. In this case it pertains perhaps to all these. Yet, there is an intrinsic confusion as to whether or not correspondence art and mail art are the same phenomemon. As an anthropologist, the author would be in exceedingly bad form to take the narrow view. The Anthropological Forefathers fought and died for the Sacred Right of silencing chauvinistic arguments, often by referring to a perhaps exotic but undeniable instance among some outré group which would countermand any obviously distasteful view. The writer is exercising these rights of the initiate, but not without pointing out that even among contemporary semanticists this problem in definition is ambiguous.
The dictionary was selected as an impartial reference. Webster’s New World Dictionary, Elementary Edition, 1966, was chosen due to the unusual verve of its illustrations. Note the following:
mail, n. 1. letters, packages, etc. carried and delivered by a post office 2. the system of picking up and delivering letters, etc., postal system [Send it by mail.]
mail, n. armor for the body, made of small metal rings or overlapping plates so that it will bend easily.
Compare this with the following definition:
correspondence, n. 1. the fact of corresponding; agreement or sameness. 2. the
writing and receiving of letters [to engage in correspondence]. 3. the letters written or received [the correspondence on the Acme contract].
In the first example, “mail” is defined as something to wear or to send. In the second, both the fact of agreement or the sending and receiving of letters is mentioned. There you have it. It is obvious that in this paper the widest definition of the subject matter has been selected. This was done not because the author wished to play fast and loose with the subject, but rather as this approach seemed consistent with the discipline imposed upon the data.
(1) So the “what” of correspondence art has been seen to include a variety of media and activities from bits of stone, bone, shells, varieties of paper and cloth, paint, mud, ink, shouts, prayers, painted lines and images, as well as postal systems. In the beginning was the word, and the word was also line and picture.
(2) There is a second aspect to this category: namely art. There’s the rub; a rub which must include the rub of a paintbrush across parchment as well as the rubber stamp on a Xerox copy. Perhaps the Anthropology Game will guide us to develop an understanding of the problem of definition in this instance.
In the first place, a comparison of probable instances of “art” across cultures will illustrate the implausibility of “Art is…” Yet the frequency with which this form of definition is tried is amazing. It appears that “art” is actually an open category, and this calls for an extensive definition depending upon the situation at hand. One man’s art is another man’s kitsch. If you think the author is making all this up willy-nilly, a quick perusal of Wittgenstein should alert on to the seriousness of this problem (Wittgenstein, 1953: no. 65ff.). To stop here with a definition of art would leave us with an endless list of denotations in the definiendum, which is intellectually painful. This state often leads to a bad case of what noted psychologists have analyzed as “cognitive dissonance.”
Such related concepts as “taste,” “style,” “friend,” and “game” are difficult in the same way that art is problematic. Aesthetic-like ethical concepts are not purely descriptive or verifiable as are scientific terms. To define art is like defining “friend.” You must include an open-ended list of qualities and not seek closure, for that would distort the reality of the original phenomena under consideration our for special or honorific attention. This act implies a kind of value statement or appraisal of the object or phenomenon.
Such considerations lead us into deep water, but the trip may be worth the effort. Another curious thing is that concepts such as these are articulated or constituted out of the various qualities which themselves serve as criteria for the application of the concept in the first place. Please read that sentence twice. That is, one justifies the use of the appraisal “artful” by citing examples of qualities such as those which comprise the definition in one’s own thinking. These reasons form the rationale for and make the aesthetic judgment something other than an emotional statement. If you say to me that mail art is artful, you should not merely add, “because I like it.” You should be able – if called upon – to tell me which qualities justify this appraisal.
Furthermore, one can always contest your appraisal, and only the persuasiveness of the criteria which you summon could close down the debate. Art is a risky business, and art criticism the most esoteric of semantic skills and insight.
Assume that you assert that mail art is artful. If it were possible to ask each of you to reveal the criteria of your judgment about the artful qualities of mail art, your answers would structure a more objective understanding of the community of experience which you actually share. This exercise would also help us to learn which kinds of visual phenomena intrinsic to many examples of mail art are more successful in widely eliciting aesthetic responses; and the art form itself might presumably be improved by incorporating these criteria as suggested. If questions could be sent in a clockwise motion, and answers in a clockwise motion, and answers in a counterclockwise motion, a kind of Kula Ring or International Mail Art Expertise Exchange Bank could be established.
To avoid the Scylla of limiting definitions as well as the Charybdis of trying endlessly to list examples of what is considered as artful in categorizing the aesthetic, we might take a different stance. Let us try to activate the concept by pointing to what art does. Art communicates and arouses aesthetic experiences at the same time. That is, the artful must include some system of stimuli by object of phenomenon which elicits aesthetic responses in the receiver. For a long time in the Occident, thinkers about art were insistent upon defining art as “expression.” This may involve a kind of truism, and at the same time allows one to forget about the other end of the continuum which is the receiver or spectator. If one thinks about art as a kind of communication, then the sender, the message, and the receiver are necessarily included in on systemic relationship.
The author has dealt in greater with some of these issues elsewhere and will be brief here (Ravicz, 1974: passim). Across time and space art has raised man’s awareness of his physical, social, and psychological environment in a special way. It is man’s way of saying to himself, “look at this and consider its meaning.”
Art succeeds in raising man’s awareness by (1) selecting a medium and a message about some aspect of the environment (perceptive as well as proprioceptive); and (2) phrasing or structuring stimuli in such a way that their reception is special, that is, aesthetic.
What arouses aesthetic experiences in the percipient varies as to content and style. This is why an anthropological or art historical attempt to compare the formal aspect of art creations across societies, without placing them carefully in their cultural context, is doomed to triviality or failure. Yet some of the same structural characteristics may be present cross-culturally. Research seems to indicate that aesthetic-arousing stimuli rest on being perceived novel, surprising, interesting, complex, and perhaps ambiguous, either singly or in combination (Berlyne, 1971). Color, sound, form, symbolic imagery, movement, words, and texture are ecological variables which are manipulated by artists to become the kind of stimuli which will elicit aesthetic experiences in those who attend to them. Since the background experience in part defines what is novel or interesting, not all set of stimuli as packaged by an artist will be equally stimulating or arousing to all percipients. The work of the artist is, on one hand, like play (to which art has sometimes been compared, as an imaginative manipulation of the self and the environment), and one the other hand like that of the ritual practitioner (who calls attention to social and psychological needs or imbalances, and ceremoniously works to their resolution through dramaturgical means) (Ravicz, 1974, loc. cit.).
Much of the success or failure of correspondence art depends then first upon the quality of its manipulation of the formal elements of a visual nature. Secondly, it depends upon the quality of the actual message of the communication itself. These are interrelated inextricably in this art form.
This directive must also entail a brief discussion of what is meant by the communication or message part of mail art. The literature on communication theory and semantics cannot be reviewed here, although like the driest of British novels, it contains the best dully writing in the world. Communication is a kind of ultimate element in social acts. Indeed, the prehistory in this article was meant to intimate that it is the social act par excellence upon which community itself is built. The prerequisites of successful communication are eidetic to the ground rules for human interrelationships.
Since all interaction depends upon predictability and planning, communication facilitates this through sharing a fund of meaning learned from past experience. Communication requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. If the receiver can always predict what the next signal will be a state of redundancy obtains, and the receiver tunes out. A signal with no surprise will cease to be meaningful. A total absence of redundancy will leave the receiver without any power of predictability, however, and it will be impossible to establish the difference between noise and potential information.
Communication is the sending and receiving of information, and this requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable, that is, the stability of equilibrium. The balance between order and disorder is a prerequisite for communication and human behavior, or there would be no predictability and planning on the one hand, nor the possibility of change on the other.
Correspondence art as communication suddenly can be seen to be very complex social phenomenon. It has a double level of meaning and multi-level connotations. As communication, it must be comprised of messages, whether of symbols or words, striking a balance between redundancy and noise, and carrying real information. As art, it must be comprised of formal visual aspects which become stimuli capable of eliciting an aesthetic response. Formal visual elements and such aspects as color, form, texture, and kinesthetic involvement (opening, folding, or feeling), are as important as the semantic considerations of the words and images therein. This implies a complex packaging of cognitive and perceptual characteristics carefully selected and conjoined.
What is the When of Correspondence Art?
The answer here is remarkably and mercifully simple. Anytime the delivery systems and creative impulses of sender/receiver are operational.
What is the Where of Correspondence Art?
The answer here too is terse. The strictures of financial and geographical considerations and temporal limitations, along with the vagaries of the postal or other delivery systems must be considered to define the parameters of this category.
What is the Why of Correspondence Art?
Here we shall not escape so lightly, “why” being one of the favorite bastions of an author in he face of a semi-captive audience.
To a social scientist, nothing which is patterned in human can be considered as accidental or spurious. Social patterns incite abstruse investigations for precedents and concomitants of the patterned activity, hoping o gain a better understanding of its meaning by analyzing its context. How does this come to bear on the contemporary manifestations of correspondence art?
(1) Correspondence has always entailed a call to communication, to shared discourse and experience. Man the Humner and Man the Technologue have some of the same fears and needs regarding human relationships and communication. Man has a fewer approaching dread of venturing too far from the known order of things, and delights in rearranging the familiar aspects of his ecological niche. The more predictable man’s environment becomes, the more free time he has to spend on non-essentials. But just let the environment become experientially redundant, and man is off on an exploratory frenzy: pushing, pulling, inventing, creating, rearranging, sending messages, thinking, dreaming, and communicating the results to his peers.
It seems that these two behavioral trends are reflected in the biological organization of the nervous system itself. The brain itself evolved attending to the delicate balance of nuances in the environment, whether of visual, aural or textural import. Indeed, man’s life depended upon his success in perceiving and interpreting environmental cues. The entire central nervous system is structured to cope with the sending and receiving of messages so that their perceptual, conceptual, and kinesthetic implications can be handled in almost infinite numbers. The brain itself is analogous to a communication network, the cybernetic nature of which utilizes computer-like processes for storing and maintaining coded units ready for retrieval and transmission. The ability to compare the stored and coded units first on the neurological level and then on the psychological level is basic to memory and learning. And, of course, learning is basic to prediction and making one’s way in the world.
When man moves toward a control and understanding of his environment, the trend toward an appreciation of organization and predictability predominates. When control over some aspect of the environment of oneself is lost, new methods are sought to change it or readapt. Old habits must be eliminated and/or the ecological niche redesigned. Man constantly reaffirms his biological and social values since they are intrinsic to survival on all levels. The work of art has long been one important way of dealing with the affirmation of the environment, or the creative change and destruction of it as well.
For example, during World War I and recently, the call to discourse represented in some art–centered activities appears similar in some respects. Although they are not the same, some correspondence art activities are reminiscent of the early data and lettriste use of form, word, and deliberate shock to create novel and surprising reactions. The data messages especially were full of the hatred of bourgeois pomposity, warmongering, and the negative aspects of technological profiteering. They also reacted against the widespread complicity among academics, politicians, and the wealthy to control the art world, and to restrict art to the sheltered environments which they considered as suitable. Culture had become Kultur. These dada and other artists selected the printed word a variety of media to communicate their messages. Among these media were: the printed word in a variety of publications; drama; performance; and a good deal of raucous pamphleteering. Messages were couched to epater le bourgeois, or to gain arousal –even disgust – through humor, satire, or the nonsensical. They attempted to create a community and a climate for reform.
Some similar motivations and characteristics live on in correspondence/mail art today. This is not to say that these analogies represent the same phenomena, however. Correspondence art of today is less a series of guidebook manifestos in negation, and more a multifaceted attempt to invoke this sense of distance by using the familiar in unfamiliar ways. The use of the entire postal system in a kind of gigantic subversion of its bureaucratic capabilities is also as stake. To deal with the replicable and impersonal in an aesthetic and personal way is one important method and goal of correspondence art. To communicate new ideas for consideration through the novel use of words and images is another. The ideas are often of a sociotropic or a critical nature.
(2) Correspondence art represents a call to creativity; a throwing down of the gauntlet to innovate with the givens of the urban environment in a time when the logistics of personal communication have become monumental problems in time a when the and geography. It calls to the person through a personal touch of line and form. It tries to hurl a message across miles and to shape the intervening space into a path of conscious appreciative energy. Through the work of concepts and imagination, it creates a community, not of contiguous habitats in the traditional sense, nor of true believers in the religious sense, but of cohorts in the literal sense of groups moving and working together.
(3) Sometimes it seems as if correspondence art is like a ritual call to game or play. It embodies the impetus to innovate, to toy with the shared meanings and the formal aspects of visual stimuli. Mail art may embody a system of suggestions, commands, or ideas about ideal comportment in a world of urban networks and media noise. It may deal predominantly with humor or fanciful narrative. By focusing creative energy on the redundancies of contemporary life, mail art seeks to claim noise and transform it into meaningful information.
(4) And finally, correspondence/mail art is also a part of contemporary awareness that the artist and the recipient are acting in a kind of complicity to erase the distance between life and art. It is a call to deal with everyday language and the common image. Inasmuch as it deals with words to be seen and images to be read, it is unusual in the western tradition of art. It stands as its own visual metaphor. Mail art is open to anyone. It is consistent with a wider human tradition of art which is close to community and a part of daily life.
When art and life art separate, it would seem to signify the real or symbolic death of each. The fullest exercise of man’s perceptual and conceptual capabilities is consistent with the innovativeness and creativeness of art as communication.
Since the earliest scratches on bone and painting in caves, art was usually a community matter, a structuring of stimuli calculated to raise man’s awareness of his environment so that is could be reappraised and valued. Rather than being distant from life and reality, art functioned to call attention to it.
Throughout must of the world, the artist is also a farmer, curer, trader, wife, mother, fisherman, and so on. What art no longer represented a reality which was basic, art retaliated. In this case, art retaliated by taking the environment of empty words and images and the invisible impersonal network of postal systems and reshaping them to the communication needs of a group which enjoys them.
In the beginning was the word, and the word is still with us as our basic medium of exchange. Correspondence art endows this medium with visual concreteness and dimensions which make an aesthetic appreciation of their meaning imperative. Long live correspondence art!
Transcribed from live radio broadcast on the Pacifica Network's Artbreaking, on WBAI-FM in New York hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.
Charlie Finch: You're listening to WBAI-FM 99.5 on your dial. Commercial-free, listener-sponsored radio. Welcome to Artbreaking, the Thursday afternoon arts magazine. Knight, why don't you introduce our guests live in the studio.
Knight Landesman: I have a lot of guests that I'm thrilled are here. In the Artforum upcoming we have a bunch of recollections of Ray Johnson from six people who knew him. We have two of them in the studio today and we also have two other people who knew Ray very well. So I'd like to talk about Ray and what his art was about and what his life was about. I'll ask our guests to tell us who Ray Johnson was because they can do it much better than I will.
I'm pleased to have in the studio today the marvellous painter Chuck Close, Jill Johnston, Richard Feigen, Mark Bloch and our host Charlie Finch, who knew Ray a little bit in relationship to this show.
Charlie Finch: Ray was a fan, I'm happy to say. Later on we'll be able to hear some messages. Mark Bloch has brought some tape.
Knight Landesman: Great! So we'll actually be able to hear the voice of Ray. Why Ray Johnson? Who was Ray Johnson for you? Let's go around the table and have everyone talk about who Ray was for them. Was he important? Who is he? Lets start with Chuck.
Chuck Close: Ray was a much more important artist than was generally recognized by the art world. He was an idiosyncratic figure. I think he was very inventive in bringing his work, through his collages, and things that he's known for, actually, predating Pop Art with the use of pop subject matter before Lichtenstein and Warhol. But, probably, he is best known to the general public as the inventor of the Correspondence School and of mail art.
Knight Landesman: How would you describe mail art? Was it something than an artist would make and send to other people?
Chuck Close: Well, alot of it was generated by Ray. That is, he sent things out and he sort of orchestrated a path for each of these things. He would send something to me and say 'add to and send to so and so' and you were supposed to send it on. We didn't always do it because sometimes we liked the stuff so much. We wanted to keep it. But eventually, it would make its circuitous way to wherever Ray had decided it should go.
Knight Landesman: When did he start to do mail art?
Chuck Close: I'm not sure exactly when he did start. In the 60s I think.
Mark Bloch: Well he founded his New York Correspondance School in 1962 though it offically started in 1968. But I noticed there was a correspondence with his friend Arthur Secuda who is a working artist, still. That was as early as 1943, where he was decorating his envelopes and playing around with the mail.
Knight Landesman: That's Mark Bloch speaking. A multi media artist who works with performance, computers, and video and also does mail art. How did you first know Ray and tell us about your relationship with him.
Mark Bloch: Ray is a very legendary person and he was only a legend to me when I was living in Southern Califoirnia in the late 70s. I was involved with mail art. I didn't know that he still did mail so I just started playing around, saying that I was Ray Johnson and I had changed my name to Ray Jones. And I started this thing called the God Jones Surf Club and all these spin-offs on Ray. If you knew Ray you would know that this delighted him and he sought me out tryed to find out who I was and what I was doing and and why. So that when I moved to New York in 1982 we began a correspondence. Eventually I met him at a party. He cornered me and just started asking lots of questions and we've been friends every since-- on the phone and in the mail.
Knight Landesman: Richard Feigen has been a dealer in New York for many years and also in Chicago. When did you first meet Ray?
Richard Feigen: I became aware of Ray's work probably at the end of the 50s. I was still in Chicago and I was very much involved with Surrealism at the time. I don't remember when I actually met Ray for the first time but I do remember seeing some of his collages. I wasn't as aware of his role or place as a kind of cult figure. Artist friends of mine told me that when they arrived in New York, there was this strange fellow down on the Lower East Side selling these little collages. He was here before anyone got here. And I reacted really visually.
Knight Landesman: You just liked what you saw?
Richard Feigen: My first reaction to something is I get very inquisitive. I want the thing. I saw these early Shirley Temple things and just wanted to own them. Later on all this sort of information about Ray accreted. I opened my New York gallery in 63. I can't remember when I started representing him. I know I find records of shows we had in, I think, '66 but alot of that stuff has been lost. But when I met him I realized that his personality was very much on the same wavelength as another artist whom I was very much involved with and who I admired-- Joseph Cornell. These two guys were on the same planet, but it wasn't this planet! I remember not long after I started to represent Ray, he wanted me to hire an airplane and drop 100 pounds of link sausages over Riker's Island. Things like that. His personality came after the work though. I still own my Ray Johnsons, and I don't want to give them up. They're extraordinarily beautiful things. And as mysterious and weird and poetic as they are, I think he was a seminal figure. I always did and it was hopeless in thirty-odd years to try and get him known. Because only the artists seemed to know who he was.
Knight Landesman: Did you continually represent him over those 30 years? Did you feel you were his art dealer?
Richard Feigen: Yes. And when I had my public gallery close in 1973 I opened up a more private space here. We still had a gallery in Chicago and still showed his work. But Ray didn't have a gallery as such. You had to work with Ray on his own terms. For instance, in recent years in Chicago we've been trying to have a show of his work. We've been trying to get him better known. Ray wanted to have a show with nothing in it!
Then I finally put my Chicago director on the case. I loved Ray, but it was an all-day, full time thing with Ray. You didn't just have a short conversation. You didn't really resolve it. He was very much like Cornell. That's why l was so, in a way, startled when he called me a few days before he died and asked me if I was interested in buying his James Dean collage which is a very famous work in Ray Johnson Land. Ray never wanted to sell anything! Looking back I don't know what he was trying to tell me.
Chuck Close: He didn't need the money, for he had considerable savings.
Richard Feigen: He was just like Joseph Cornell, who had annual reports stacked up on the porch of his home on Utopia Parkway. Both of them were very similar.
Knight Landesman: Did they know each other Cornell and Ray?
Mark Bloch: Ray went out to Cornell's on Utopia Parkway and I wish I could remember the story he told me but I don't. I only know Ray repeated over and over that Cornell spent the whole time sitting on the radiator, sobbing!
Knight Landesman: So people can understand why we're speaking about Ray in the past tense, on January 13, 1995, Ray Johnson jumped from a highway bridge into Sag Harbor Cove on Long Island and was seen backstroking away from land. His body was found the following afternoon having washed ashore nearby. All the people who knew him were very touched by him.
Knight Landesman: Jill Johnston, the emminent critic, can you tell us about your relationship with Ray?
Jill Johnston: I didn't have much of a relationship. Of course I knew Ray, everybody did in the 60s. I don't remember when I met him or even if I did meet him. As Richard said, Ray was kind of an alien. I was at a Fluxus-type performance. He was a very Fluxuxs type of artist then. I asked somebody why he never was a Fluxus artist and they said he just couldn't join anything. He was always a loner. But it was a small auditorium full of people, and I remember Ray running around the outside of the audience with Albert Fine. Just running around and creating his own event.
Knight Landesman: A kind of ecstatic joke...
Jill Johnston: I don't know that it was ecstatic. It was disruptive. One noticed. That's what I remember. I didn't correspond with Ray because he scared me. I found him extremely intense. I considered him an integral part of our scene-- one of the crazier ones. I heard from him before he died. I believe he commited suicide. Many people, apparently, had various kinds of messages from him before he died. His message to me was, ''Jill, Ronald Feldman sold the 'I'd Love to Turn You On' work, which has my hand lettering of your words in it to a charming California art dealer or something." Then I looked up the piece to see what words of mine he had appropriated, that he had hand written in 1969. My piece was called 'Casting for 69', it was published in the Village Voice, January 9, 1969. The first line of my piece was, "My story begins with some unfamiliar handwriting on an envelope." and of course, Ray copied that. He copied the first 452 words in a collage that he made. I found in this piece this line of mine which Ray had appropriated: "Then, at some age or other, for lack of any good reason to go on living, he commited suicide." At the end of these 452 words I had written 'You 've got to have something to be dismembered by.' Anybody who's into psychic phenomenon and stuff... Ive been thinking about it. That kind of resonated.
Mark Bloch: Yeah, I don't know if its psychic. I think it's a literal use of what you wrote to come back and haunt us, as it were. Alot of the things that I've been finding in my own correspondence with Ray and in collecting stuff from other people... and I'd like to talk to each of you about it, also... These clues are everywhere. There's lots of references to death, of course, and evertything else.
Knight Landesman: I'm curious if Chuck and Richard feel this way. Did you have premonitions that Ray would end his life in that way?
Richard Feigen: I didn't have any premonitions. But in retrospect all these clues are turning up and they did get more intense toward the end. One of these I just old you. He asked me if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage. Well he never wanted to sell anything. He never talked about that. I didn't take it as a clue. A few days later it looked like one. My colleague Francis Beattly had a call from Ray and I don't remember what it was but it indicated that he did have this in mind. So it seems obvious to me that he orchestrated this thing.
Jill Johnston: For what purpose?
Richard Feigen: I think its part of a whole effort, like a whole performance. I don't know. I don't think pragmatically to get himself better known, though it certainly has done that.
Jill Johnston: You don't think there was an emotional component at all in this?
Richard Feigen: Put it this way: I don't think Toby Spiselman, who was very close to him, knows. Or Bill Wilson. I really don't think anyone was that close to Ray. I don't think you can really know what was going on in his head but you can begin to piece it together retrospectively. By the way, I do want to say this: I found Ray as I say, on another planet. But I always found him a very gentle, benign personality.
Chuck Close: He looked scarier than he was.
Jill Johnston: That's right yeah.
Knight Landesman: Chuck, you weren't scared of him, right?
Chuck Close: No. (laughs)
Richard Feigen: No, because he had a shaved head? No!! He was very benign. He got frightened when Andy Warhol, his friend, got shot. He ran out to Locust Valley, Long Island for the rest of his life. He ran away.
Chuck Close: He moved out of the city and never came back.
Richard Feigen: He was harmless.
Chuck Close: He looked like a biker.
Richard Feigen: Yeah, I mean, he wore those black leather suits. Things like that. But he was a completely benign character.
Knight Landesman: Chuck, did you have premonitions of his death?
Chuck Close: As a matter of fact, I have a little trouble with gleaning clues now in retrospect. I think you can prove that aImost anyone died on purpose. If you want to sift through, you can find some references to death or whatever. Of course, he was obsessed with Natalie Wood's drowning. There is something about returning to the water, I suppose, that one could look for. I spoke to him several days before he dled, and we spoke regularly on the phone. As a matter of fact, Ray sounded very optimistic about the future and was talking about having shows. He had just put a new roof on his house.
Jill Johnston: Do you disagree with Richard that he orchestrated this?
Chuck Close: I also believe that he was very close to Toby Spiselman... it's just inconceivable to me. Although I do think that he committed suicide, I don't think it was as planned out, and a performance piece. Because I just don't think that he would do that to Toby and do that to people that he cared so much for.
Richard Feigen: I asked Toby this because I had alot of remorse. Because when he asked if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage, I said 'Of course I do Ray. But let me think about it.' I didn't know what kind of price. Who knows what Ray Johnson prices are! And I said #39;I'll call you back.#39; I got tied up I didn't call him back for a couple days and then I left for England. And I was there when I heard that he had drowned. So when I got back I said 'Toby, my god, I hope I didn't contriute to depressing him by not calling him back.' And she said 'No, no,' and then she gave me this whole litany of things that decisely meant that he was going to do this anyway. She was sure this whole thing was planned out. That he was sending out clues and there was nothing I could have done that would've changed his mind. And the same thing with this business that my colleague Francis Beatty was confronted with, with Ray. I don't remember what it was but it was on his mind.
Chuck Close: I think people who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, not because they want to boost their careers.
Jill Johnston: I was trying to suggest that.
Knight Landesman: I want to go around the table and ask people where they think Ray and his art will stand in in time in relationship to the other art of our time.
Chuck Close: I think that's hard, at this time, to really access. Ray had profound ambivalence about everything-- even about living-- from the looks of it. He wore his outsider status both as a badge of honor, and he also was incredibly pissed-off. He made things difficult, and yet he wanted attention desperately. He streaked his own lecture! It was like, how can you screw yourself up? It's so much a part of him.
Knight Landesman: Richard where do you think he'll be seen as an artist?
Richard Feigen: Well I haven't changed my mind in 30-odd years. I think he's at the very very top rank of seminal artists of the second half of the 20th century. I mean, this is what I do for a living so I think I have a perspective. I think I do. There's been never any question. His collage works, more than the the correspondence things, are of an extraordinary high order, aesthetically. Forget the fact that they are earlier than everybody else . They're just beautiful, beautiful things and they are very important. One of the clues, maybe, and I dont need any clues, is: we're borrowing works from Jasper Johns. I don't know, Chuck, if your lending, but we're borrowing stuff from all these artists. That's who knew Ray. That's who kept his work. Somebody like Jasper is a real collector. He's passionate about it.
Jill Johnston: Why are you borrowing these things?
Richard Feigen: We're borrowing it for our memorial exhibition.
Knight Landesman: Richard's doing a show that will open April 27. It's a memorial show for Ray Johnson. How long will it be up, Richard?
Richard Feigen: I don't remember. It will be up for a quite a while. What's happened now, since he died: I was at the National Gallery in Washington, recently, talking to its contemporary art curator, Mark Rosenthal. Before Ray died, it was like screaming into a wind tunnel trying to get a major museum to acquire a work of Ray Johnson's. Now, all of a sudden, he died and it's all over the press. Here's Artforum. The National Gallery wants one. And it's not going to be difficult to place Ray Johnson in these museums. And I'm talking now as an art dealer. I would submit if I'd been succesful in having a... getting Ray to cooperate and have a show in Chicago with my gallery, which we were trying to do for several years, I wonder if Artforum would have reviewed it. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn't have. You certainly wouldn't be doing a huge article like this one. So there's no question that he's going to get known now and get placed in these museums and now collectors are going to start coming out of the woodwork and want his works. I have no doubt of it.
Knight Landesman: Mark, where do you see him fitting in?
Mark Bloch: I personally feel thast he's one of the most important artists of the century. I really do. And perhaps the most important one since Duchamp. Here's why: any young person who is doing mail art, who is doing zines or involved with cyberspace... these are all influenced by Ray Johnson. By correspondence, by highlighting the process as the art as opposed to the art object. His relationship to the art market is one thing. But when you look at someebody who was involved with a long lasting influence... we're talking about thousands of artists in over 50 countries who are still involved with mail art some thirty years after he began it. I can't think of an art movement that's lasted longer. I think his influence is huge. And like Richard said, the early pop art works are not only beautiuful but important because he was the first artist to ever work with a celebrity that I can find. I don't know of any other artist who took a celebrity and made that the subject of the art. I think as they look back on our century and they try to figure out what was happening, who did it first, I think they'll come up with Ray. Not to mention all the nothings and weird stuff that he did-- which was among the earliest performance work.
Jill Johnston: I think possibly his ambivalence, which Chuck pointed out, could pursue him into his after life. He needs a good explicator. He needs an in-depth, huge show collecting examples of his work, behind glass, of correspondence. And let's just say a book following correspondence with one person and annotated. That's the way I see it.
Chuck Close: He was, I think, a profoundly unique and idiosyncratic person. We don't do too well, as a country, as a culture, recognizing idiosyncratic people. We very much look for people in the mainstream. It'll take what Jill was suggesting, I think, that is, an interpreter to pull things together and point out to the rest of the world what artists have always known about Ray. Which is that there was a major contribution.
Knight Landesman: Charlie, you knew Ray briefly, right?
Charlie Finch: My friend Walter Robinson was, of course, a correspondent with Ray and was featured in a number of his bunny head pieces and I got one of Ray's last pieces of mail art right before he died, because Ray was a fan of my radio show and was nice enough to leave Mark Bloch a message on his answering machine about it. Let's hear Ray's voice on tapes that he made for Mark.(Voice of Ray Johnson:) Mark, do you have Beatrice Wood 's phone number or address? Yes, no? (Click.)
Mark, Ray Johnson. I 'm looking at the photo in the New York Times of the collapsed roof on Delancey and Eldridge Streeet, near the lumber yard. (Click.)
Mark, Ray Johnson. Have you heard this one? It's President Bush talking about recession. They have this music in the backgroundwith it. I don't know who did it but its pretty good. Can you hear it? Can you hear it? (Click.)
Hi, Mark, this is Whoopie Goldberg, again.(Click.)
Hi Mark. I guess you're out on your honeymoon. Could you call me? (Click.)
Mark, it's Ray Johnson. The Sandra Gehring opening I told you about is on December 3rd from six to eight. (Click.)
Hi Mark. I'm listening to the Charlie Finch Show, he has a very nice voice. (Click.)
Hi Mark I like this big color xerox you sent me. (Click.)
Richard Feigen: I wish I'd taped some of those things.
Knight Landesman: Who do people think would be the right person to put a Ray Johnson show together? To curate such a show?
Richard Feigen: I don't know. Maybe Bill Wilson?
Jill Johnston: I think David Bourdon.
Richard Feigen: We borrowed 38 things from Bill Wilson and David Bourdon. I don't think many people know that much about Ray's work.
Knight Landesman: Do you think about him alot?
Richard Feigen: Yeah I do. I was very fond of him You couldn't get too involved with Ray or it was a full time thing. I loved the guy. But if you got on the phone with him, when we did reperesent him, it was all day long. You couldn't just do anything else. You couldn't represent anybody else. But in a lot of the conversations, for instance, with James Rosenquist... he's on this planet and there's a beginning and an end to what your talking about. He'll let it go as long as you want. There's a point to the conversation. With Ray there generally wasn't. So I honsestly miss him alot. I feel like I should have... I dont know... carried on these conversations more...
Jill Johnston: He still feels guilty.
Chuck Close: I think everybody who knew Ray feels guilty, because everyone was annoyed by him sometimes.
Jill Johnston: I don't feel guilty because I didn't have enough to do with him.
Chuck Close: Sometimes the phone calls came when you really didn't want one. Or send a drawing on to someone else and having to go to the post office became an obligation.
Jill Johnston: What you're saying sounds like he's incredibly lonely, like he was reaching out all the time.
Mark Bloch: I think that was part of his work, though...
Jill Johnston: He lived alone.
Mark Bloch: ...the isolation.
Chuck Close: Yeah. I think it was a ritual. I mean, the fact that... I mean, everyone can have a xerox machine. They're incredibly cheap. But he liked to walk to the post office and put coins in a coin-operated xerox machine.
Mark Bloch: By the way, I think he was the first person to do that, to use the first coin-operated xerox machines in his work. Can anyone think of anyone who did it before Ray?
Knight Landesman: Do you think about him every day, Mark?
Mark Bloch: Yeah as a matter of fact I do. Especially lately. I find a real emptiness exists. And I've talked to other people about this. I used to walk down the street and I'd find something on the street and it would make me laugh. I'd pick it up and I'd send it to Ray. Now I don't know what to do with that stuff. I don't know whether to bother picking it up or what.
Knight Landesman: Chuck, do you find yourself thinking about him even more now that he's dead?
Chuck Close: When the phone rings, every time, for a split second, I think it may be Ray. It's very sad.
Knight Landesman: Many of our listeners maybe haven't seen Ray's work but it often involved language, yes? I'll ask you, Mark, maybe you know it best. Did it always involve language?
Mark Bloch: Nearly always. Sometimes there was language underneath the visual stuff. He'd cut stuff up and recycle it. So yes, I'd say a large portion of it.
Charlie Finch: Thanks to all the guests. I'm sure Ray would have loved it. Maybe somewhere he's listening to it.
Transcribed from live radio broadcast on WBAI's Artbreaking, hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.
above copied from : http://www.panmodern.com/rayjohnson/ray_panel.html
Conducted by Sevim Feschi
April 17, 1968
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Ray Johnson on April 17, 1968. The interview was conducted by Sevim Feschi for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
SEVIM FESCHI: I'd like to start with where you were born. I mean by that your birthplace, your family and religious background, and were your parents artists themselves? You know, just a few words about it.
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. Well, I find whenever one begins a tape like this that it doesn't get interesting until you're into it.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. It's always like that.
RAY JOHNSON: And your beginning questions prompt a certain silence.
SEVIM FESCHI: I mean . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: Thinking of one's childhood as a tape, if one is born and begins to live the way this tape begins, things go very slowly. And in public libraries which I used to find myself in, the different kinds of books are in different sections . If you want biography to be . . . I'm interested in these things that work like tape machines and places like drug stores. I saw a marvelous movie last night that cost five cents.
SEVIM FESCHI: That cost five cents, you mean?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. You put a nickel into it. It's an old nickelodeon. You look into it. And you're able to control the speed. I can go very slowly or very fast. You can make it stop and you can sort of go at it at your own rate of interest. So, in a certain way, my childhood was like that. Many years later . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: I was just interested in asking you these questions because I remember that the last time I saw you you told me that you were from Finland, I think.
RAY JOHNSON: No, my grandparents were from Finland. I was born in Michigan. I'm very much American.
SEVIM FESCHI: I see. And when did you come to New York?
RAY JOHNSON: I'm inclined to think I'm not here.
SEVIM FESCHI: You're not here? In which way do you mean?
RAY JOHNSON: No, you're pursuing a question-and-answer kind of way and . . . well, I mean . . .
[MACHINE TURNED OFF]
SEVIM FESCHI: Okay.
RAY JOHNSON: I was saying that I'm not really very interested. Maybe it's just this time of day that I'm not at all interested in my childhood. I don't have any ideas about it or my ancestry. When I came to New York is of no interest to me because of my ideas of time and space. I think if I said 1912 or 1921 it doesn't really make any difference except for the fool who is going to start dissecting what the truth is, you know, exactly what year it was. I don't know whether you can do that.
SEVIM FESCHI: I understand. But a question I would like to ask you is when you began to be really interested in art yourself? What year . . . was it very early, when you were very young that you wanted always to express yourself through different media?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't think there's any answer to the question.
SEVIM FESCHI: No? I can't understand. But it's entirely up to you what you want to say. But if we talk of the creative process involved in your work, can you tell me a little bit about how you proceed in the creation of a new work? Do you have ideas or visions before you start to work? Or does it come by inspiration? Or how do you proceed in a new work, a new creation?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I have one painting now which interests me very much because it was interrupted near the very end when it logically should be completed and it's related to another work which I will describe and which, of course, gets close to my creative process. I'm doing a portrait of Joan Kornblee and it has her first name in it and then I wanted to have the entire name but it was to be Bornklee rather than Kornblee. (There's a rearrangement like children's blocks.) But what I now have is "Jill Born." And the top half of the painting has nothing at all to do with the bottom. I went away for a week and when I returned I came back to the painting and it could very well . . . the way I'm completing it, it could very well have been completed by someone else.
SEVIM FESCHI: What do you mean by completed by someone else?
RAY JOHNSON: Because the composition was very vacant in one section. And I've now put two things into it: a reproduction of the Magritte shoes which had toes where the shoes are; and I have added to that a leg going from one shoe; and next to that is a photograph of a young boy sitting in a chair and the arm of the chair looks like an animal's claw which relates to the toes of the feet. And these two elements have nothing at all to do with Joan Kornblee. And the title of the painting is "Jill Born." And it's thought of as Miss Kornblee. But I know other people named Jill who've been Born. So when you asked me about my being born . . . to receive in the mail the other day a listing of twenty-five people named Ray Johnson in Minneapolis, each of them having been born at a different time and each one having a different childhood, I'm not really that important. I mean all twenty-five Ray Johnsons should perhaps speak at the same time. I mean my ideas turn this way. I think we're inclined to think of things to be too important; there's so much unimportance among people.
SEVIM FESCHI: Unimportant things you mean?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, theoretically everyone should be interviewed about everything they do. It's like Gertrude Stein said Americans big thick books about page after page after page have to say about everything.
SEVIM FESCHI: But it seems to me that you have a very rich eye. Wherever you go are you always on the alert for visual stimuli? Because in your work, you know, there are so many different things and you must have taken them from so many different sources. I wonder how you perceive them.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, there are only so many things that can happen within the space of a day or an evening or a week. And I simply live the way I do. I'm interested in things and things that disintegrate or fall apart, things that grow or have additions, things that grow out of things and processes of the way things actually happen to me.
SEVIM FESCHI: The way things happen?
RAY JOHNSON: The other work I want to describe in relationship to progress is another uncompleted work which is a portrait of Bruce Naumann who showed at the Castelli Gallery and who is a California artist. I once sent a Brillo box containing small treasures to a California artist -- and I received in reply . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: You knew the artist?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes-s. Well, I knew of him through my friend Gerard Hendy and the exchange for the Brillo box was a photograph of the artist lying on the floor surrounded by the small treasures. He had been photographed after he'd opened the box and investigated the contents. And then quite some time later I found in a catalogue another photograph, a separate photograph of the artist except that the artist wasn't there, it was just the absence of the artist. And in doing the portrait of Bruce Naumann I found a small bamboo frame and in order to write the word "bamboo" I could only write a few of the letters. I could never complete the word. It was this inability to complete the statement. I mean it was like a baby's first words attempting to speak and not really having the experience to say what he wanted to say with the necessary words. So, for a very long time I felt that the word in this painting was "bamboo." And one evening in the subway waiting for a train I looked down and on the floor was a small package of cigarette paper with the trademark "bamboo" but it was spelled B-a-m-b-u, that is with one less letter. And I suddenly remembered my painting. I had considered all possibilities of the spelling of the word. So I think "b-a-m-b-u" is better than "b-a-m-b-o-o." So the whole point of this is that it has taken me a long time to get the balance of one word in the right place. And that is sort of how I make my works. And that is pretty much the way I live my life. It just takes a very long time to feel comfortable in the way things are composed.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. But, in referring to your work, I think there is a great sense of organization and it's very clear the way that everything is disposed.
RAY JOHNSON: But what makes it meaningful?
SEVIM FESCHI: It's what makes it meaningful?
RAY JOHNSON: No, but I say what makes it meaningful?
SEVIM FESCHI: I don't know. I'm asking you.
RAY JOHNSON: I'm sort of throwing the question back at you.
SEVIM FESCHI: But I would like to ask you this question.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I don't know as it has to have any meaning.
SEVIM FESCHI: You don't think so? You mean before you do a work you want it to express something?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, it might be its function to not have meaning. I mean people might be grasping for meaning but meaning is not grasping for the people, or grasping for the meaning. Well, there is order in the work, yes.
SEVIM FESCHI: Very much order, yes, I think so.
RAY JOHNSON: There is a great amount of consideration and planning. And being collages, there are all sorts of possibilities of arrangement -- blocks of material get sorted and rearranged.
SEVIM FESCHI: But I think you are much more interested in ideas. I was thinking now of your "school of correspondence," for instance. Or these Happenings that you call "nothings." All these things I think are much more . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: Well, the "nothings" are now pretty much in the past. I like the idea of nothingness but, having done "nothings," I don't have to re-do them. I've completed them.
SEVIM FESCHI: But you can tell from your works that they are poetical nothingness because I feel there is some poetry in your work.
RAY JOHNSON: The only good poem that I've written lately is my poem to Jack Kerouac. And that was very involved with the process of how it happened to be made because it wasn't a decision to write a poem and I didn't take a piece of paper and sit down and compose it and write it. It came about through chopping up something that I had written because I didn't want it to be seen in the state that it was. And the residue was somehow the poem; it made great sense in the arrangement of the lines and what the words said.
SEVIM FESCHI: The lines?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. It's a five-line poem. The poem simply being my next table had to knock. It's all very mysterious to me.
SEVIM FESCHI: Very mysterious?
RAY JOHNSON: It might not be to others.
SEVIM FESCHI: Now could you tell me a little bit about which artists have influenced you most?
RAY JOHNSON: Artists who've influenced me most?
SEVIM FESCHI: I think you owe quite a lot to the technique of collage.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, there are so many influences I think are really so tenuous that . . . one is influenced . . . I think I'm probably against influences.
SEVIM FESCHI: Against influences? You mean any kind of influence? What do you mean by "you are against influences?"
RAY JOHNSON: Well, you're not just influenced by artists. You're influenced by places and years and other people and irritations and problems. There's no direct threat to any one thing.
SEVIM FESCHI: Do you find, for instance, that it's stimulating for your work to exchange ideas with other artists?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I don't know if it's the artist aspects of the artists that, you know, their personality and what not.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. Or what you say to each other. Is it . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: You mean artists who are one's friends?
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. Among friends, yes, of course.
RAY JOHNSON: Oh! I was going to mention J.M.G. LeClezlo because I mentioned him this morning.
SEVIM FESCHI: Do you know him?
RAY JOHNSON: No. He interests me very much because of a photograph (I know him through photographs) and have never read him but the latest novel is what interests me very much; and especially a Time magazine caption reading "Fire and Ice" because the last three years of my work has been a long period of ice which was suddenly close to fire and produced a flow of water. And I can see that the flow of water is very difficult to handle and channel because and the ice was really very ideal because of its frozen state and it didn't take very much fire to melt the ice and there are all these forms of water to contend with.
SEVIM FESCHI: You saw the book in poems or . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: In what?
SEVIM FESCHI: Does it happen to you when you read a book, when you see his book in poems forms?
RAY JOHNSON: In poems forms?
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. What you mentioned to me last night, you know, abut the gathering of the Quaker . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes.
SEVIM FESCHI: And you said that all these people were looking at all these things are for you like forms And I was very, very surprised by this term.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I don't know how I'd feel about that today. I think it had very much to do with the position in which we were seated and the arrangement of the people because, in discussing them now away from the place, it's sort of difficult to recapture the vitality of the situation.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes, you were very much involved in any moment.
RAY JOHNSON: Back to the very beginning of the tape to not be logical every moment .
SEVIM FESCHI: Every moment?
RAY JOHNSON: Should not really go back to one's immediate ancestry but back to the birth of ancestry which takes us right back to the present moment in time there is a relationship. It is of course of interesting to know people are . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. it helps to understand and especially for an artist to understand his work. Don't you think so?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know if I really have time to understand my work. I think about it a great deal but . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: But you understand it while you are doing it? Is that it? Or is it more kind of, you know, you have a vision in your mind or you're under the spell of inspiration? And after you see it you are surprised at what you did? That can happen.
RAY JOHNSON: Well . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. I think that time for you is very important. You always speak of time. For you is it divided into moments and that you live in the present without your looking back to the past or looking forward to the future?
RAY JOHNSON: Can I have a cigarette?
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. I didn't know you smoked.
[INTERRUPTION TO HAVE A SMOKE]
RAY JOHNSON: By the way, that was the answer to your question about time. It wasn't just on the side; it was the answer to your question.
[MACHINE TURNED OFF]
RAY JOHNSON: You asked about creativity in the process of someone I think making drawings, paintings, collages or something like that. You are not working with language, or words or ideas. You're working with things.
SEVIM FESCHI: With things, you mean?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, with paint or ink, you know. But I happen in my work to use words. And perhaps it's all incorrect that these be looked at in terms of painting or creativity or beauty or whatever. It might very well just be useful objects like an automobile or a chair. And these happen to be things hanging on the wall. And what I wish -- well, it would have to be a great interest -- would be to try to present what goes into the making of I never used to believe in a work of art being bought.
SEVIM FESCHI: Why? What did you believe . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: I thought it should just be made and not cherished or sold. The things that I'm exhibiting now . . . . Of course someone comes in and looks at them in the space of five minutes and perhaps really that's all the time it should be.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: And then they should be just thrown away or not used any more. The thing is that one might want to come back a week later and look again.
SEVIM FESCHI: But what happens when you look at your own paintings? Don't you like to see them on the walls? Or you don't want to see them any more?
RAY JOHNSON: Something that happened today is that a painting of mine was photographed in a magazine and there were two different Xerox techniques made of the photograph. The painting was never intended to be seen in relation to three other paintings by three other people on the page in the magazine. So seeing it gave it a change of scale, and its relation to these other things gave it a different meaning. If the three other things hadn't been there, if there had just been a blank, it would have been closer to the original work which existed by itself. And the Xerox process changed it; it disintegrated in that I saw it in a way that visually it was not . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: What you wanted it to be.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, in a way it didn't actually exist to me.
SEVIM FESCHI: I don't understand.
RAY JOHNSON: Before you said "I understand now" when it was space in which nothing is said .
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: And I think there's great fear of that negation that the spaces in my work are as necessary as the collage elements of the drawings
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. But do you think that the space what you said and what I said I understand there was nothing in that space.
RAY JOHNSON: That's very interesting. I experienced (but this is a psychological situation) -- I experienced that space more pleasingly than the earlier spaces. In the creative process there are probably moments where something is happening, you have awareness that
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: At the beginning of this interview I felt and that sort of has the boredom of You have an idea. You see a sketch again
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: Strive to make this thing into -- somewhere along the way you have some glimpse of the ending, how this will look. It might fail or it might succeed.
SEVIM FESCHI: Because I think that sometimes silence can be much more meaningful than words.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, incompletion is also very difficult to comprehend.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes, that's right.
RAY JOHNSON: One is forever striving to finish, to have a whole experience. I guess it's just natural, but the aesthetic element is probably the realization of how the parts all fit in the composition.
SEVIM FESCHI: It seems to me -- I don't know -- that any acts you do are very important (I was just thinking of that now), that whenever you do something you are in the process of doing it. Do you know what I mean? Now you are at the bottom but you feel you can do it? I don't think I make myself understood. You said that maybe what you create has no meaning for you. But don't you think that when you act in life there is? I mean you put yourself very much in what you are doing? And even the words you say when you mention about silence all these things you feel very strongly.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I have not myself invented these things I've heard other people speak I have read philosophers and seen other works of art this has been experienced by different people. But there are very personal moments in doing one's own work that no one else has I don't think done and historically I remember once I was quite delighted. I was doing very severely geometric paintings based on square units, rectangular and square units which I methodically filled in with color mosaics. And these paintings took me many, many months to complete. And one day, having this pencil drawing groundwork for a painting, I suddenly thought of putting straight pins through the back of the cardboard into my painting, into the picture. And John Cage was a neighbor of mine. When I was doing it I rushed over to show him what I was doing. "I have this terrific idea to put pins through the middle of every square from the back and the pins will all stick through." He was quite shocked because I had changed the idea of what it was I was doing. I had made this foundation that I was going to fill in all these colors and this was to be a painting. And I changed horses in midstream and I was suddenly going to do something else. And he disapproved. I don't know why.
SEVIM FESCHI: But you are free to do it because it's your own work. Don't you think you can change whatever you want?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, perhaps I should not have told. Perhaps I should not have been enthusiastic. I mean maybe what the artist should do is just plow or just sit down and do what you're expected to do, and not come up with brilliant ideas. I thought it was quite terrific. I don't know what John would think of this now. Maybe he would agree that one would not have to just proceed by plans
SEVIM FESCHI: Do you like what he's doing now in his music?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know what he's doing now.
RAY JOHNSON: I would say I like what he's doing.
SEVIM FESCHI: You're not interested in calligraphy?
RAY JOHNSON: Not too much, no. I've never studied it. I haven't looked at it much. I'm more interested in handwriting. Well, I guess you would call it calligraphy but it was on a very small scale; I saw the signature on two different business letters of an administrator and he signed his name differently, depending on the two people that he was addressing. And the one I saw first interested me very much because the simplification of the name looked like a fishhook and very delicate strokes. If one looked very closely one could see the pressure into the paper of the pen and the very fine degrees of . . . well, it was a kind of engraving. It was quite expressive and mysterious. Did you mention my eyes earlier? Were you saying something about my vision, my eyes? The way I see?
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. I said it seems to me that you have a very rich eye. By that I mean that you are very alert to visual stimulants -- or maybe you wouldn't call it "stimulants" -- I don't know what you would call it. But I mean that you are very aware of things surrounding you.
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. Well, I guess that's natural protectiveness.
SEVIM FESCHI: Protectiveness?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, like birds.
SEVIM FESCHI: You mentioned also this book of philosophy that you read. Do you read very much? Or . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: No. Never.
SEVIM FESCHI: Never?
RAY JOHNSON: Including the New York Times.
SEVIM FESCHI: But you mentioned a book of Le Clezio. Do you read also other books?
RAY JOHNSON: I read only the section in the magazine. It was very difficult.
SEVIM FESCHI: I think so, yes; actually you . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: Actually I'm not interested. That requires word-by-word dissection and close examination. I haven't the time. I'm not interested in words .
SEVIM FESCHI: I'm sure you would be very interested in a new novel published in France where each word has a lot of meaning and they are related to each other and they don't tell a story. You know it's a little bit like the book of Le Clezio.
RAY JOHNSON: Yes.
SEVIM FESCHI: But in the words that you put into your work they all mean something; the whole sentence. Or am I right? In the last show, for instance, you wrote a lot of lines. They all mean something with punch, you know.
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. The two punchboards.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes, the punchboards. That I liked very much. But are you interested in words for the sake of words?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I'm interested in words in the sense that -- as I mentioned before, it was "bambu," a four-letter word which is to a three-letter word in all possible meanings. I'm always rushing to my Webster's Third Dictionary. I told you the story of my show being called rude collages so I took the word "rude" . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: I don't understand.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, in The Village Voice they list shows that are current. And it said "Ray Johnson's might be called rude collages." And I have been criticized in the past that my work is over-refined, too sensitive, just too polished. And the "rude" must refer to something in the subject matter which I never thought I was being rude.
SEVIM FESCHI: The subject matter?
RAY JOHNSON: So that was very mysterious to me, very mysterious.
SEVIM FESCHI: So you rushed . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: The caption Because going back to my childhood I have an uncle who was a twin and his first name is Rudy (spelled R-u-d-y) and he's a very strange man who lives in the woods like a hermit and refuses to wear shoes and doesn't see people and is a very strange man. He's an outcast.
SEVIM FESCHI: Does he live in America?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes, he lives in Northern Michigan where they have snow in the winter up this high. I don't know how he exists. I haven't seen him since I was a child.
SEVIM FESCHI: And he still lives there?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. He's a very strange man. Very eccentric. So I had this association of his name to "rude." I thought perhaps since they mentioned my name and my and my work that possibly they were describing my social behavior as criticism of the artist . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: And not his work?
RAY JOHNSON: Maybe his rude social manners influence these very delicate collages, casting a rude look on them. So I did a mental inventory of the things, the rude actions in my previous history. I did find instances where things that I have done or said might be considered rude.
SEVIM FESCHI: And do you think they were referring to that when they made the criticism?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know. I have no way of knowing. It's very mysterious. I know it will find its way into my work. I was just describing one of my paintings in the show which is the true story ring globe Isa, and the second section where it is repeated. But where it would say "this is Isa," Isa is not there. And where the word "Is" is a kind of red blood stains so the person speaking is suddenly executed, assassinated. And in describing this work to someone, they didn't know that in my book The Paper Snake is the original true story and the person in that instance was named Isabel. So the original Isabel, which was simplified to "Isa." And then in the next instalment Isa is not there, so it's a diminishing, a chopping off.
SEVIM FESCHI: I understand, yes.
RAY JOHNSON: So I think in my work I consider every possibility (if it's possible to consider it a possibility) forward and backward: should something be this size or should something be that size? And like Mondrian . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: You use one of his pictures?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. Mondrian reducing elements to straight lines. Even the very edge of the line is very important and the blue horizontal snake which is based on Patricia Johansen's horizontal line . . . . In my case it's wiggly, in hers it's straight.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: In mine it's light and curved but you'd have to look closely to see the degree of curvature.
SEVIM FESCHI: the blue snake you mean . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: What I'm trying to say now is since I do use a lot of sandpaper each piece must appropriately I mean all the students' classic proportions I do work a great deal with rulers measuring; I don't quite calculate the positions. And in the "correspondence school" I spend a great deal of time filing and organizing material to be mailed which is more sketchy than the paintings I exhibit. They're apt to be stuck together with Scotch tape; the edges are quite glued down.
SEVIM FESCHI: Now, I'm sorry, Ray, but I didn't really quite understand this "school of correspondence." What . . . ? No, I mean . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know if I believe you.
SEVIM FESCHI: No, I mean what is the idea behind it?
RAY JOHNSON: What is the idea behind it?
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. I understand the process -- not very much; you explained it to me already.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, there's the possibility . . . . Well, the idea is that it's a way to convey a message or a kind of idea to someone which is not verbal; it is not a confrontation of two people It's an object which is opened in privacy probably and the message is looked at. There are incredible degrees of subtlety of the possibility of interpretation because two people speaking, such as we are doing here, we can say something; I can say something, you can disagree. I cannot agree with something you say; we can bicker; we can argue; we can try to make our point. But you can't do that
SEVIM FESCHI: When you're confronted with an object.
RAY JOHNSON: No. You look at the object and, depending on your degree of interest, it very directly gets across to you what is there, be it visual or object. You know, the most interesting thing is the mouse's ear which I received in the mail.
SEVIM FESCHI: The mouse's ear?!
RAY JOHNSON: A small mouse's ear.
SEVIM FESCHI: And what was your reaction?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I mean if you were sitting on a bus and someone suddenly handed you a mouse's ear, you'd think that was very strange, wouldn't you?
SEVIM FESCHI: Very strange.
RAY JOHNSON: You might find it offensive.
SEVIM FESCHI: No, strange.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, it would depend on the manner, and who was handing you the mouse's ear.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: But to receive this in an envelope neatly packaged and holding it up to the light actually to see what's in it, you get this immediate feeling that there's no explanation. I mean I'm describing this object without explanation.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. There is no explanation?
RAY JOHNSON: Now you cannot experience that in this kind of wall art painting .
SEVIM FESCHI: You mean
RAY JOHNSON: Well, this cullen (?) which is here with the correspondence and everything like that. It doesn't have the psychology of the enclosure in a letter.
SEVIM FESCHI: You mean that there is in a way more mystery?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, it isn't that there's more mystery. But I'm called "the master of the art of correspondence." that show in Nice of "correspondence art" he mentions the blue post cards of Yves Klein and his exhibiting of my imagined letters that I sent to him.
SEVIM FESCHI: That you sent to him?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. And also a listing of other artists George Brecht Bibi Hendricks who lives in New York; and other artists who send objects through the mail. The Fluxus School.
SEVIM FESCHI: The Fluxus School?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. You don't know the Fluxus School?
SEVIM FESCHI: No.
RAY JOHNSON: They're a group of European and American artists who . . . well, it's like Multiples. They sell editions of things, objects . . . .And, well, it isn't every day that one receives a mouse's ear. But a photograph that you would receive Well, it depends on the interest. I was going to say you'd think more of it than what you might happen to see in a collage. There's never been in New York an exhibition of correspondence art. I don't know how it could be organized because just to do it would kill it. It would be like involving this natural thing -- not that it's so natural
SEVIM FESCHI: But, for instance, when you received this mouse's ear, did you send it to somebody else? Or did you keep it?
RAY JOHNSON: No, I still have it. I let my doctor take it but it's still
SEVIM FESCHI: I was just thinking of something: Are you attracted by primitive societies, by the fetishist societies? I thought of that when I was looking at your ring, you know, with this dead hand . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes, I'm wearing this one because I misplaced my three ring which I wish . . . in fact, I wanted to wear all eight rings today but I misplaced these three. But I'm very interested to read . . . I think he's a French anthropologist, Levi-Strauss.
SEVIM FESCHI: Oh, yes, yes. Did you read . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: I have not read his books, no. But I think I will read I want to re-read a not too interesting book on child psychology called which are experimental in teaching children. I did read one very interesting book on . . . well, this was . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: Why teaching children? Are you interested in that?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I'm interested in children and ideas.
SEVIM FESCHI: In the children? Fetishism . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. I think I'm very close to the child's world in my creative process.
SEVIM FESCHI: In which way . . . in the spontaneity?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I respond completely to all my instincts and channel them into the work. Never quite get out of childhood. It's very comfortable.
RAY JOHNSON: Useful.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. And fetishism attracts you very much also?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know because, if it does, it's probably . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: It's the mystery that lies behind all this mask and this . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: Well, it's probably very defined.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes. But there is something behind the thing which attracts you very much your imagination .
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I was accused recently of performing black magic. I think I told you the story of the man I met who was a witch doctor.
SEVIM FESCHI: A witch doctor?!
RAY JOHNSON: Yes. Daniel Spoerri was ill and a friend brought in a witch doctor to exorcise his evil spirits and everything. He burned candles and incense and had bottles of sacred oil and took convulsions and rubbed on alcohol or something and did all sorts of things to cure him.
SEVIM FESCHI: And you had this doctor?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I was there when this all happened.
SEVIM FESCHI: Oh, you were there? There were a few people there?
RAY JOHNSON: Yes, there were about eight people for this ceremony with the witch doctor doing the ceremony. Afterwards, I was sitting on the floor with some colored yarn and was making some kind of an object which I attached to a doorknob and then I tried to attach it to this witch doctor's ankle. He was quite frightened. He thought I was trying to get power over him or something. And I don't know why I was doing this. It was purely instinctive to do this.
SEVIM FESCHI: How did the witch doctor react?
RAY JOHNSON: Oh, he wouldn't allow this thing. He ran away. He wouldn't have anything to do with what I was doing. I don't think he understood what I was doing, why I would be tying something to his ankle and to the doorknob. It was completely illogical. And another time . . . I had so many marvelous times with Daniel when he was in New York. We were at a Christmas party and I was seated in a chair and there were many Christmas strings and wrappings. So Daniel began the way a child would do (in fact I saw a child in the park playing actually put a noose on another child and I'm sure that one child wanted to hang the other one from a limb, hang this kid by the neck). Well, Daniel began tying me to this chair with these strings and ropes. And I just sat there. There were other people in the room and they watched. It was sort of a joke. And he found some more strings and quite industriously and seriously was attaching me to this chair. And I couldn't move. I just sat there. And then he placed two candles on my hands, on the tops of my hands. I just sat there and the candles slowly burned down and the wax was dripping and -- well, it seemed to me to go on for a long time. And we were conversing. And there was a girl there and she suddenly said, "I can't stand it any more!" And she rushed over and blew out the two candles because she didn't want the flame to burn down to my skin. And I was very angry. And I said, "Damn you! You ruined my whole act. I could have got out of here any time I wanted to." And then finally I got cut out of this chair with all the strings tied around me. But part of me knew that I was trapped but another part of me knew that I could get out of that situation if I wanted to. My will is very strong.
SEVIM FESCHI: You mean just by blowing out the candles?
RAY JOHNSON: But it wasn't that hostile a situation. I mean I wasn't really . . . it was just a playful attack on me, I suppose. Because we've had many wild drunken creation periods which involved children's dolls which he attacked and mutilated and pushed around in different ways in a very brutal way.
SEVIM FESCHI: A kind of happening?
RAY JOHNSON: And he had dishes .
SEVIM FESCHI: Where was it? Was it in Paris? Or . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: No, here in New York. And once he came to visit me with a friend and we sat around drinking rum. And I brought out a chair which was a . . . . (I always have these props that I find; I always have lots of subject matter, unusual things.) This was a child's school bench and it had one wooden arm for writing on. I had painted it white or something. And he started doing something with that arm. Later that evening . . . he just ruined the whole thing. He turned it upside down and put it backwards. He destroyed the thing that day. And I was very angry. But I thought, well, since I got the idea to take this entire chair apart. So with a screwdriver I dismantled the whole thing. The structure of the chair was very, very complicated. So I put all the parts into a cardboard box. And I delivered it to him at the Chelsea [Hotel] where he was living. So he received this chair as a gift. Which was very funny because that very same evening the chair (which was a chair like this) suddenly was just all in parts, completely dismantled. So he made some objects out of this chair. And when the Christos first came to New York I presented them with a package of forks.
SEVIM FESCHI: Of forks?! You mean all wrapped?
RAY JOHNSON: That's a "wrapped" story because . . . I've told it to you before.
SEVIM FESCHI: No, I don't think so.
RAY JOHNSON: Oh. Well, then, that is what I would call a wrapped . . . it's the beginning of a story where the story suddenly got wrapped and you'll never know what the story is.
SEVIM FESCHI: I don't understand.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I haven't finished the story of the three or four forks.
SEVIM FESCHI: Oh, I see.
RAY JOHNSON: Because I thought I had told it to you before but since we have the tape here I didn't want to bore you by telling the story again, but I don't remember if I did.
SEVIM FESCHI: No, no, you didn't. Sorry.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, then, I think I'll tell you the story some other time, that specific story about three or four forks.
SEVIM FESCHI: Okay.
RAY JOHNSON: Not that I don't want it to be on tape but I'm keeping Christo's package this will be a story that suddenly wrapped. But that's an interesting idea of the Christo wrappings.
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: I myself for years have made wrappings but they were always pinned to the unwrappings because they were just wrappings . I had a marvelous idea today which is to eventually sell my meetings.
SEVIM FESCHI: Sell your meetings?!
RAY JOHNSON: To sell the meetings as a product. You know, you attended the first meeting. We're planning a second one on May 1 which I hope will have dance aspects to it. I'd like to ask James Waring to do a special New York "correspondence school" dance. And I'd like to have related to the letters of the paintings. And not such a sober meeting as the one we just had church. It will be held somewhere else. A bit more expensive.
SEVIM FESCHI: What do you mean by second meeting?
RAY JOHNSON: Oh, well, I had the idea today (I don't know if anyone is interested to buy this) but the first meeting was given freely, you know. I mean there was no . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: No charge.
RAY JOHNSON: No. That's how we wanted it to be given. And the second one will be done that way, too. But I would like to come up with some sum of money like for ,000 a person can buy a meeting, can buy Ray Johnson, you can buy you. Anyone who . . . you get to purchase one month of my organization and my time and my letters. I mean you don't actually get this but it's like a sponsor, a sponsorship. But the idea is I want to sell the phenomenon. It's like the Beatles. They'll just go out on a street corner and sing their songs to whoever is passing by. They are a packaged product. and I also want for the "correspondence school" for my letters to me just to be put into plastic boxes and sold as objects. Because I think there's a value placed on it which So that interested me as an experiment. And I always loved Yves Klein selling the empty gallery so much empty space.
SEVIM FESCHI: You never did that?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I always wanted to have a show with David Herbert. He had the David Herbert Gallery which is an absolutely empty gallery. But it simply wouldn't pay the rent.
SEVIM FESCHI: And who has to pay the ransom?
RAY JOHNSON: But I think that nothing interest historical. I don't think it's necessary now.
SEVIM FESCHI: That's again the same idea of nothingness in a way; buy empty space. Or is it really empty?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, what I see is just a traditional . . . . People acquire my paintings and drawings. And so far the letters are . . . well, my letters were once put up to auction And they have been sold. I would have preferred they be returned to me or destroyed or something. The Paper Snake de luxe edition sells for twelve and a half dollars. It has original Ray Johnson enclosures in it.
SEVIM FESCHI: There is a . . . .
RAY JOHNSON: It has an envelope in front with one of my small collages in it. That upsets me very much. Because the magic wears off. It gets out of my hands into someone else's hands and I can't really get . . . . You know, it's part of me and I can't get that back without my doing something illegal like So I can't have These meetings can be purchased. I can be hired to . . . .
SEVIM FESCHI: Oh, through them? Or . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: No, it would have to be . . . you'd have to take me just as I am. But like in this interview in talking to me, which I'm very pleased to do, one can get even closer to the creative process through the meeting, the process of the meeting. (I mean this doesn't have anything to do with .
SEVIM FESCHI: No, I understand.
RAY JOHNSON: Of course, I'm doing this as a joke but I should think someone would be very interested to know what the organization of this whole thing is and who you can get for ,000. I mean there are lots of very interesting people around that can be gotten together in one place if I will sell.
SEVIM FESCHI: And are you going to . . . ?
RAY JOHNSON: This meeting the other night was just the most primitive waste of feeling very humble .
SEVIM FESCHI: Yes.
RAY JOHNSON: But I can visualize all those people. They are very interested in art form artforum chronicle
SEVIM FESCHI: But would you be interested yourself to buy somebody else?
RAY JOHNSON: I don't know.
SEVIM FESCHI: You don't know? What do you mean by "buy" because I think the word "buy" is very ambiguous.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, by that I mean when you buy a dozen eggs, I think.
SEVIM FESCHI: You eat them.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I think they candled eggs or something. Sometimes you get one with a double yolk or it's rotten or something. But I'll tell you something very interesting. When you buy something . . . . I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant; it was Wah-Kee's and behind that their kitchen they have a little room. And you can sit in the back and it's very charming. They have a waiter who shouts and screams and brings you the things to eat that you order. It's a very unusual place. But I was having dinner there the other evening. And there was a big tub on the floor and the waiter came back there to get -- he was sloshing out all this liquid which apparently was soup stock. But it looked like an old rain barrel. I mean the way it was sitting on the floor and then these flour bags -- well, it was a Chinese kitchen -- it wasn't a Greek kitchen and it wasn't a French kitchen or whatever. It was extraordinarily messy with bags of flour spilled and you expected to see a rat. But it was that Chinese style of scooping up the soup stock. And we had this marvelous soup. It was very good. But when you're in a restaurant, you know, you think of what's going on in the kitchen. So what is presented to you in a bowl on the table is very different from what's going on in the back. So the purchasing of a meeting -- you would get for about one month, if one is interested, the whole creative process of the creation, the necessity for the form that it eventually takes, like why did this first meeting have to be in that Quaker church? Sure in that place in the city. I think it's all very, very personal. I have my own secret about the whole thing. I mean I have my own very private jokes about this just incredible structure of puns and wit and very witty things of the people and what they do, and who they are, and where they work, and so forth; which was all suggested but not clear because so many people didn't know the other people. And, although they did meet and converse, it was just the most basic introduction so they didn't . . . I as the artist of it had this palette and had gotten those people there, not really knowing what was going to happen. But each meeting would be a different kind of composition, using real live people and what they do. It's very dangerous.
SEVIM FESCHI: It is very dangerous.
SEVIM FESCHI: But let me come back to your idea of -- I think it's an interesting idea: If somebody were to buy you, does he have the right to come in whenever he likes and look at the way you work?
RAY JOHNSON: No. I have all kinds of rules.
SEVIM FESCHI: Oh, you will have rules?
RAY JOHNSON: They would have to be coded request as to what -- I mean, you know, purchasing date in purchasing phenomenon. It's possible that no one could possibly be interested.
SEVIM FESCHI: But the idea itself is interesting.
RAY JOHNSON: Well, something interesting that came up, the first one having been on April Fool's Day, and having the second one on May second, the fourth one will be on July 4, which is traditionally America's firecracker time. It's very exhausting to have to think about it.
SEVIM FESCHI: I can't imagine . . . . Do you ever get involved with some happenings?
RAY JOHNSON: No.
SEVIM FESCHI: Called Happenings.
RAY JOHNSON: Not very much, no.
SEVIM FESCHI: Not really? I was thinking of the Happenings of Oldenburg and Kaprow.
RAY JOHNSON: No. It is mostly audience participation.
SEVIM FESCHI: And you . . . or Happenings?
RAY JOHNSON: Well, I think just being there it depends on the nature or the Happening.
Jim Dine presented at the Judson Gallery a very unknown work. I don't think maybe you ever saw it.
SEVIM FESCHI: No.
RAY JOHNSON: "Rainbow Thoughts." Washington Gallery. A room construction with a door and you went through the door and found yourself in black space. And there was one very tiny light bulb which went off, on, off, on. And above the light bulb was a piece of cardboard with rainbow colors so that all that you saw was the light on the rainbow and the light bulb . You could stay there as long as you wanted to. And you left. That's all it was. I was with a friend of mine. We were in there for about half a minute. And as we were leaving -- the light bulb had that switch -- and she turned it off. So that the next person who walked in would walk into this little black room where nothing would be happening. I thought she was very witty to do that. Because, for the whole day, there was one girl sitting at the desk (she probably never went in there because it was very boring); she probably the light bulb. And it was probably purchased as a new light bulb so that it wasn't apt to burn out. But it implied the possibility of being turned off because any child would have had the impulse to do that. And if he had not had that switch there the girl might then have had the impulse to steal the rainbow cardboard two things. It's hard to know.
SEVIM FESCHI: Well, I thank you. I think we'll stop here.
RAY JOHNSON: Is that it?
END OF INTERVIEW