Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter XII - Mail Art

I feel that Johnson’s mail art must be delved into slightly here as it ties into other areas of his work.  While this area of his art may be considered a separate entity from his performances, what it may actually be is the longest lasting, largest performance piece ever, involving hundreds of people throughout the world and the global postal system.  His mail art would come to be known as the New York Correspondence School, or NYCS, a term that was coined by artist Ed Plunkett.[1]  Johnson changed the spelling of correspondence to correspondance to suggest movement and play.[2]  His extensive network evolved into an ever expanding entity that always retained the one on one intimacy that was Johnson's signature.  Artist James Rosenquist, who corresponded with Johnson, compared Johnson's work to that of his contemporaries, "Ray's work had a different kind of feeling than, say, Roy Lichtenstein's or Andy Warhol's or mine.  It was a much more personal, private experience."[3]  What other way of viewing art could be more private and personal than viewing a piece that was made especially for you alone in your own home? 
            It is not only the intimacy that this method of distributing his art embraced; it also let in other elements that interested Johnson.  Mail meant that Johnson could get his art out there and viewed by people of his choosing and this type of distribution of his work was making art a part of an everyday act.  He described his process of opening and responding to his mail art as being, "like prayer, it's a ritual for me, a ceremony."[4]  The mail art really speaks to the importance that Johnson put on having art permeate every part of life just as a religious devotee would have their beliefs as part of everything in life.  He brought art into areas of life where people generally do not think about art.  Mail art was able to successfully combine Johnson’s interests in control, the ephemeral, interconnectedness, the involvement of art in everyday life and humor.
             Many of Johnson’s mail pieces were collages or small drawings which he made with instructions to add something and send it on.  For example, in the late 1960s he sent out flyers requesting that people send slips to art critic and historian Lucy Lippard, and included her address at the bottom of the page. (fig. 12)  In an essay Lippard wrote on Johnson she recalled how she did receive slips including a silk one, and was unsure of why her name had been linked with the word slips by Johnson.[5]  She later heard from a friend that it had been due to a time that he had seen her dancing although she still was unsure if it was because she slipped or because she was not wearing a slip.[6]               
            Johnson was not the only artist who was working with mail art and it gained a bit of celebrity after File Magazine publicized this form of art which led to some other articles being published on the subject, especially one in Rolling Stone.  This publicity led Johnson to decide that the NYCS was dead.  He sent an obituary in to the New York Times in 1972 which read:
            Dear Deaths,
                       The New York Corraspondence [sic] School, described by critic 
                       Thomas Albright in "Rolling Stone" as the "oldest and most influential" 
                       died this afternoon before sunset on a beach where a large Canadian 
                       goose had settled down on it's Happy Hunting Ground,
                       was sitting there obviously very tired and ill and I said to it "Oh, 
                      you poor thing". It mustered up whatever strength it had and waddled 
                      away from me. "How Beautiful!" I thought. "How like a bird- about to 
                      die and yet having some courage to try to go on". And then it lifted it's
                      wings and shit out some black shit it was a large heavy bird it 
                      flapped it's [sic] wings and I studied the curve of the wings I thought
                     Anne Wilson would like to see them. It just wanted to be alone to die 
                     without a human standing there talking to it. I felt so bad. So it flew off 
                     and soon I was aware I couldn't see it anymore it had gone. Maybe
                     if I go back tomorrow, the tide will have washed up it's feathery body.
After this Johnson referred to his mail art as Buddha University.[8]     
            Johnson did not only send paper through the mail, he once sent Coco Gordon six cartons of correspondences along with various objects.  Along with these he included instructions that she was to float all of the wooden objects from the cartons out onto Huntington Bay in Long Island.  This was a performance piece directed off-site by Johnson and executed by Gordon.  The wood would eventually float away and nothing would be left in sight.[9]  Floating objects were another recurring subject in Johnson's art but still coming back to his concern with change and transformation.  Water is never completely still, anything floating on it is in constant motion and offers the possibilities of sinking or of floating off never to be seen again.  Gordon recalled a time when Johnson spoke about reading a newspaper article on a man who committed suicide by floating out into the Harbor.  Johnson had said that that image was so beautiful to him.[10]  Floating objects fascinated Johnson.  Unknown to any of his friends at the time was how that fascination would later relate to his suicide by drowning.
The instructions that Johnson sent out in his mail art are reminiscent of the wedding gift that Marcel Duchamp sent to his sister, The Unhappy Readymade.  The gift was a letter with instructions on how to execute and display a Ready-made, which consisted of a geometry book that was to be hung up by strings on the balcony of the newly-weds’ apartment.[11]  The wind could then, "go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages."[12] (fig. 13)  It would eventually be destroyed by the elements which must have been appealing to Johnson’s love of the concepts of nothing and change. 

[1] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[2] Email from Alanna Phelon of Richard L. Feigen & Co., November 11, 2008.
[3] Wallach, 2.
[4] Spodarek, 3.
[5] Lippard, 1999, 148.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. 131.
[8] Ibid. 9.
[9] Email from Coco Gordon, May 29, 2007.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp, "Affecteusement Marcel: Ten Letters from Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1982, 13, (accessed Septembe 13, 2008).
[12] Ibid.

No comments:

Post a Comment