Ruud Janssen with Carlo Pittore
TAM Mail-Interview Project
Started on: 10-5-1995
RJ: Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditionalquestion. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
CP: In response to your query, I began my Network mail art activity in1978, encouraged by Bern Porter. Although I had been decorating myletters with pen & ink drawings and water colors for years, inspired nodoubt by Vincents’ letters to Theo, I also learned that drawing on myletters was good practice.
When Bern Porter encouraged me to send an original postcard off to amail art exhibition, I was ripe for mail art. Not only had I been aphilatelist as a kid, but I was eager for community, and was anappreciator of intimate mailed communication.
By 1980, when I published the first issue of ME Magazine, I was a realpart of this expanding Network.
RJ: What was your ME Magazine about? Is it still alive?
Reply on 6-6-1995
(Carlo’s answer came in the form of a booklet made out of 12 different colors forming the rainbow. He also wrote below his answer: “I’d like tosee you reprint this colorful letter as sent…..what?”)
CP: I began ME Magazine in the summer of 1980 after the insult ofpaying an entrance fee to participate in an exhibition in Rockport,Maine. Similar work had already been accepted to hang in an elegantMadison Avenue Gallery in New York City, so when I went to theexhibition with a friend, I was shocked and humiliated that they hadfailed to inform me of rejection & that I was paying for the cheese andwine at the opening! That their rejection was merely subjective, and notaesthetic. I wanted everyone to know that I would never pay to exhibitagain, that their decisions were strictly subjective anyway, and that I nolonger would pursue the carrot at the end of the stick, that in art, Iwould not allow museum curators to control my life.
Also, I had spent the summer painting self-portraits, and makingself-portrait collages – so it seemed that as I was immersed in myself,and yet wanted mail art community, I would call my little publicationME, since it was about ME, yet a put down of ME-ism, and of course,ME is the postal abbreviation of Maine. I enjoyed the pun, and when Iasked recipients to send me a dollar bill to share in my publicationcosts, Ray Johnson was right there, circling the ME in America on theone dollar bill. Some understood.
I filled the 1st issue of ME with my art collages on the theme of selfportraiture, included pertinent quotes on the self, a personalreminiscence of Bern Porter (who’s home I was spending the summer of1980 at, at his Institute for Advanced Thinking, in Belfast, Maine) andother items of concern to me. When I mailed copies of the publicationto Maine artists, and to mail artists, it was the mail artists whoresponded, not my local friends, and it was at that time that I realizedwho my real comrades were…. and when I returned to Manhattan inSeptember, I was a wholly confirmed mail artist.
I opened my mail art gallery, La Galleria dell’Occhio at 267 East TenthSt. NYC in December 1980 – (the first gallery in what became the hotEast Village art scene) – “a homage to Bern Porter” exhibition, andafter the 2nd issue of ME was published in the spring of 1981,essentially on the theme of movement (i.e. motion pictures, or movingpictures, & repetition as in artistamps, I introduced myself, my gallery,my art, and my correspondents addresses to my readers.
The third issue was a play on the theme of ME, on the idea of theuniversal ME. I also enclosed the documentation of the Bern Portermail art Exhibition which I curated, and, too, the additionalintroduction of my POST ME and Bern Porter Commemorative StampSeries. ME = WE.
The 4th issue was an audio cassette letter, of songs, etc. inspired byRod Summers. The 5th issue was devoted to ME, ETC, or METC – tomy Maine Art and Mail art communities, with articles by John Evans,John Jacob, Valery Oisteanu, Mark Petroff, Stephen Petroff, andRoland Legiardi – Laura; and a document of the International Mail ArtExhibition Salva La Campagna Romana in Montecelio, Italy, which Icurated in the summer of 1982, the Boxing international mail ArtExhibition of February/March 1983, with a critique by critic Judd Tully;a declaration of War against exhibitions changing entry fees; astatement on Independence as ME and Community, lists of participatingartists, a listing of mail art exhibitions etc. approaching, and othermiscellany.
Issue #6, “International Mail Art is the most important & mostsignificant Art movement in the world today” was the document of theMaine International Mail Art exhibition at the Maine Festival inBrunswick, Maine, August 1983. Included were two sheets of artistamps,a Cavellini sticker, a Ray Johnson piece, postcards by David Zack,David Cole, Epistolary Stud Farm, Robert Swiekiewicz, Volker Haman,Ubaldo Giacommuci, Stephen Petroff and Eric Finlay, with a series ofstamps by Michael Leigh, and Mark Melnicove.
Tony Ferro published issue #7 in Italy, including a piece that I wroteabout the frustration of rejection, following my exhibition of FIST -boxing painting at Buster Cleveland and Diane Sippell’s Gallery inNYC.
I have not yet published issue #8, but I am not prepared to say it willnot happen. But I must add, that I was hurt by Géza Perneczky’s reviewof ME Magazine in his survey of small Press publications (1993). Hiscriticism was based on the fact that he failed to perceive the irony inME, the pun in ME/Maine, and POST ME (after ME) and theplayfulness of the entire endeavor.
Even mail artists can be as small minded, rigid and uptight as thedominant culture, although I would not have expected that from Géza,of who’s art I have the utmost respect. Let’s face it, none of us areperfect, and all of us make mistakes. Even ME.
RJ: How was your correspondence/dance with Ray Johnson?
Reply on June 18th 1995 “Father’s Day”
CP: Dear Ruud, You ask me about my correspondence/Dance with RayJohnson, and because of Ray’s exit on January 13th of this year, its beena Season of constant Ray Johnson thoughts, mentioned as he is inalmost every mail art communication; and between his memorialservice, and Feigen Gallery Memorial Exhibition, & all the articles inthe New York Times, Art Forum, etc., I have reason to reflect on thepublic Ray Johnson, and the man I knew.
As I said earlier, my first rememberable Ray Johnson communication,was a dollar bill with George Washington saying “ME”, as they do incartoons, with a megaphone drawn from the mouth with ME from A MERICA captioned . I thought that was pretty clever. Everyone is a ME inA ME RICA, first ME in the word AMERICA in the ‘bulb’like with a cartoon. The second ME in America as a country-sign on the bumper of a car.
The first time I met Ray was when he came to my East Tenth Streetapartment (Manhattan) to reunion with Bern Porter. Evidently, Bernhad published something with Ray in 1956!, and I don’t think they hadmet up with one another since then. But as both of them had grown intomature artists, it may have been a reunion of mutual appreciators. Bernis 17 years older than Ray, and Ray was always trim and healthy, and helooked like a kid next to Bern. Indeed, he even exhibited some of thatshy, nervous discomfit of being in the presence of an inquisitive adult.
One time I joined my family in Locust Valley for an anniversarycelebration, and I called Ray to say Hello, and to my surprise, he cameright over to meet me, and all of my extended family. The family wasslightly discomfitted: they knew Ray was not of their ilk. But Ray wasvery friendly to them and to me, and he made me feel like his equal. Ifelt very flattered. I told the family how great Ray was, and howimportant an artist he was, but as they had not heard of him at the time,they were less than suitably impressed.
Another time I hosted a mammoth Mail Art party, and who would havebelieved it? But Ray came. Mind you, he didn’t enter into my apartmentat this time, but remained in the hallway outside my door, holdingcourt. As everyone wanted to talk with Ray. The Hallway became theepicenter. He brought the Party to him.
Of course these were the years when the New York mail artists were allmy best friends: Buster Cleveland, Mark Bloch, John Jacob, John Evans,David Cole, Ed Plunkett, Jim Klein, Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, EdHiggins and all those pals who were frequent out-of-town visitors, likeRandom, Banville, Cracker, Saunders, et al. What a community! andwhat a sense of community! It really was a correspondance – and ofcourse there were those I met directly through Ray like Curtis Wells,Joseph Towne, Coco Gordon, Bill Wilson, Andy Warhol, John Russell,and others – including some local East Village types. Even though hewas rarely physically present, the spirit of Ray Johnson always was. Andeveryone had their Ray Johnson stories, or recent Ray conversations torelate. Ray Johnson always hovered over us.
At the opening of his Nassan County Museum exhibition in February1984, Ray greeted everyone on the grounds outside the museum wearinga sweater and blue jeans. And at the same time half the New York artworld was there! Dressed to the nines! All the New York mail artists,all the Fluxus artists, lots of dealers, critics, painters, pop artists,collectors, and others. It was a New York Gala 20 miles out of NewYork; what a testament to Ray’s visual art, and what a testament to hisever-widening correspondance.
I’m trying to think if I ever saw Ray after that… oh yes, at a Long IslandPerformance of his; wasn’t he funny! He always made a big deal aboutdoing Nothing. Our sensibilities are very dissimilar – but I alwaysappreciated him even when failing to appreciate fully his zen-likeattitudes. He hated prose which he saw everywhere stifling art. His wasa war against practicality & the pragmatic. He wanted poetry all thetime. Art -all the time. BRAVO!
Since his apparent suicide, I’ve read a lot about Ray, and wrecked mymemory, and thought back on our meetings and conversations, hisphone calls to me, especially since I returned to Maine, his mailings, hisinfluence, his relationship to the world-wide community of artists….. somany of whom apparently felt very close, humored, inspired, andappreciative of Ray. If influence determines artistic merit, Ray’sinfluence is quite profound at the moment. There are many who werepart of, and who evidently still feel part of his correspondance. Was hethe father of mail art? His spirit still emanates and manifests itselfthroughout the Network.
Of his apparent suicide, one friend thought his act an act of cowardice,but I don’t see it that way at all. Jumping off a high bridge into frigidJanuary waters, from my point of view, requires far greater couragethan I could imagine mustering.
If his decision was askew, his execution was flawless, regardless. And Iam not in any position to judge him, or his action.
RJ: The mail art network has grown enormously in the last decades. Isthere still this ‘sense of community’ as you called it. Or do you see somechanges in the network?
Reply on 4-7-1995
CP: Your question Ruud, is not very simple. If “community” is an ideal,let me say that as a classically oriented figurative painter (primarily ofthe nude) living in Maine, USA, in 1995, I am isolated, if not alienated.The few figurative painters I know are so damn competitive and self-inflated, that there is no dialogue whatsoever. In the world in which mybody inhabits, painting is neither chic nor affordable, and complicatingthis is that it is an extremely difficult activity. Indeed, drawing is oftentimes more difficult and elusive then I care to elaborate. In such asituation, I play mail art merely to keep in touch with my Network palsof almost 20 years.
When I was younger, and more open to whatever I believed Art to bemore inclusive, and I engaged in multi-media activities; newsletter,magazine & book publishing, movies, gallery operating, poetryperformance art, audio, video, TV, radio, painting & mail-art. It allseemed to be a unit.
As life has become more complicated, and drawing and painting moretime-consuming and difficult, I am more focused on my greatestobsessive pleasures: drawing and painting.
While I still enjoy playing mail art with old network buddies of almost20 years, and some new friends as well, we have all gone in our owndirections, and Art is not as facile as it once was (or as we may haveseen it) and in my own case, I haven’t had the money to publish anythingI’ve done since the middle 1980’s ; what monies I have I need to pay therent and pay for my art supplies. Postage has become prohibitive. Mailart, as Bern Porter reminded me for years, is not a vocation, but anavocation (I haven’t been to Europe since 1984, either)
Having said that, let me not overstate my own private concerns ofdrawing and painting, nor undervalue my own very important communalinvolvement with mail artists. I could easily make a list of a hundredmail artists I love, a hundred whom I admire, a hundred to whom I amthankful for inspiration, help, love, concern, encouragement; and thereis NO question in my mind that mail art has been an extremelyrewarding, and exhausting activity.
If the “sense of community” is not as it was, for me, in the early 1980’s -it may be that so many friends have moved on, died, moved away, andtoo, that mail art has changed, or hasn’t changed. Ego, which has alwayshad a major involvement in mail art, is still unrestrained in some veryactive practioners, and art is, as always, RARE, and more wondrous anddesireable than ever. The mail artists I feel closest to are eitherpersons I love, or whose art I admire, or both. And in the case of myown works, which has become so problematic, maybe it is too difficultto love, and consequently, we, as individuals, too difficult to love.
Because art is so fragile, and the artist so insecure, it is easy to fluffoneself up, to grandstand, & to parade. Maybe, when we were younger,that’s what we were, a parade of grandstanders. Except that someamongst us have achieved some aesthetic heights. And some of us mayhave made Art. Others may have been amusing; others, useful.
Do we today share a common aesthetic? A common goal? A commonheritage? A common concern? Some of us are aesthetes. Some poets,some intellectuals. Some intuitive….. and all of us aging, & possibly aswell, with diminishing resources, patience, time, etc.
Fifteen years ago, maybe 80% of mail artists would have read thisinterview, but now, even if 80% received this interview, how many willtake the time – will have the time – to read this? And rightfully so. Whatcould I say that is new, fresh, original, energizing, or inspiring? Theseare just words I am writing out – PROSE. Who has the time, &/or theinterest? I much prefer original hand made drawings myself, than words.Printed Matter has overwhelmed all of us in the last decade, and unlessit were a four color glossy with reproductions of our own work, whocares?
And who am I, a solitary, living far away in Maine, to talk aboutCommunity? And what would this “Community” be? For me, Communitywould be a community of artists who are different, & yet unique, andwho have artistic respect and admiration for each other. TheCommunity to whom I feel that “Sense” is out there. Indeed, it may wellbe you, dear reader. I can only hope it will also include me.
There are a hundred mail artists with whom I feel that “Sense ofCommunity”; some of whom I love so much that their art is acceptable;others of whom their art is so laudable, they are acceptable. And thenthere are others who are both, and others who are not loveable, butthen again, they may be useful to the community, and thereforelaudable.
Since I do everything by hand, I value those who value the handmade,those who value the maker of the hand-made (especially those who lovemy figurative art) and who sing and celebrate the hand-made, the one-ofa kind.
I do not E-mail. I have NO computer. I may never have a computer. Iput my hand into the soil of my backyard and garden and growvegetables and flowers. And put my hand around the pencil and draw.And around the brush and paint. And around the pen, & write.
I am involved in the community that values my humanistic activity, as Ivalue my friends, and colleagues who ply their activities with equalintegrity. I love poetry, music, sculpture, drawing, painting, love, beautyand all those who practice it, celebrate it. obsess on it. They…. (You?)are my community. This is my sense.
RJ: What is a computer for you?
Reply on 28-7-1995
CP: OK. A computer for me is a series of electrical circuits designed tosimulate (artificial) intelligence…. and art for me is intuitive, sensual,senvous, and anti-mechanical. I understand that the computer has greatvalue & uses, but like the TV – it can also lower standards as well asimprove some things. Letter writing, for instance, is ruined by thetelephone and Email. I prefer my own slow handwriting to the machine.
RJ: Do you still participate in mail art projects when you get aninvitation or have you become selective in answering your mail?
Reply on 26-8-1995
CP: I always try to accept personal invitations. It’s not selective assuch, that determines my mail art involvement (although who doesn’twant some selectivity in where one puts oneself or ones parts) butusually TIME.
I don’t know or understand how time has become so fleeting, but it has,and perhaps as well, my priorities have also changed. I always laughwhen I tell people that there are only three aspects of life that interestme: Love, Art & Food, and I think that order is generally correct,although food goes to 1st place a couple of times a day, and love hasvery indefinite borders.
Mail – the nature of my mail is sometimes very thrilling, especially if itincorporates love. I am always turned onto a handwritten note, or alengthy letter, or something decidedly original, or specifically heartfelt, but much in the mail has become understandably, cold, printed, mass-produced…. alas.
I always appreciate artistic brilliance – even if mass-produced orxeroxed, but “artistic brilliance” in an ideal, & since I often fall short ofit, I’m not in any position to lament its demise in others.
One reads in mail art circles how a mail artist is so isolated & alone,except for the network, & I understand this, & have felt this, but I ammaking a concerted effort to relate better with my local community. Ithink this is more important, rather than less important. Mail is avehicle for communication. but also, perhaps, of NON-involvement, ofselective involvement, of partial disguise…..
RJ: In mail art there are the unwritten rules, actually written downmany times, but it seems that in the last years more and more rules havebeen broken. I remember you used to write sometimes open letterswhen someone broke these rules. Does it still bother you?
Reply on 19-9-1995
CP: When I wrote my angry letter to Ronny Cohen (1984, FranklinFurnace Mail Art Exhibit) I felt she betrayed us by “editing” the show,putting the classic mail artists in glass cases, and relegating the othersto oblivion. I have not hesitated in attacking other art critics, whencalled for, but I have always been hesitant to attack other artistspublicly. It has become quite obvious that some mail artists are cashingin on the system, however, who can entirely blame them? Almost anyway an artist can survive in this economy today is acceptable.
I do think “mail art” has pretty much run its course. It is no longercutting edge, no longer avant garde; it has been co-opted, and what weare seeing is the end, not a lull. While there are still some verylegitimate exciting exceptions, mail art is a misnomer. And who knowswhat art is anymore, anyway?
At a symposium on Public Art in Portland, Maine, last weekend(September 9th 1995), I heard Lucy Lippard, Suzi Gablik, SuzanneLacy, and Mierle Ukeles rail against art as precious object, and art asanything less than a relationship with the community. No longer is artan eye, Suzi Gablik said, but an ear. We must learn to listen, and tohear.
Who can argue that mail art is still fulfilling the kind of need it filledbefore E-mail, before the end of the communist Empire, before thedeath of Ray Johnson?
Mail is still fun, and the exchange is still valuable, but is it still art? Tothe believer, the question is irrelevant. One does what one likes.
But as for Art? In an age when Mierle Ukeles shakes hands with 8,500sanitation workers and calls THAT art, then everything can be art, andconsequently, nothing is art. I do what I like. Art be damned. Is itcommunity relevant? And anyway Ruud – the breaking of what rules?The “unwritten” mail art rules of not mixing money & mail art? -Broken! The “unwritten” mail art rules of “No fee, Exhibition &documentation” – how many more lists do you need, with your name onit? Boring! Boring! Boring!
If the art sent is not art, if the exhibition held is not art, if thedocumentation provided is not art – is it still art?
If so, what is your definition of Art? And who cares?
RJ: Yes, I realize that there is a lot of repetition in mail art, especiallywhen I get those same themes in projects again, and when I get anotherxeroxed list of a project. But the advantage of being for a long time inmail art, is that you receive many invitations and you have the luxury ofignoring the projects you don’t like and can focus on the interestingthings in mail art. Mail art still brings me surprises, and that is why Iam still doing it. Mail art still guides me to new aspects I can integratein my life. I am not interested in a definition of ART or in one of themany definitions of MAIL ART. I just want to have a creative life, butactually sometimes don’t really know what I would like to create. Yourpaintings, the letters that you write and mail. Why do you do it. What doyou want to create?
Reply on 19-10-1995
CP: You ask me why I draw & paint, and what do I want to create?Firstly, after drawing and painting for more than a quarter century, Ilove it. I don’t need a purpose beyond the joy, excitement and pleasure Ifeel while drawing and painting. That isn’t the way it has always been,but that is the way it is now, and I assure you I am most grateful for thiscondition: of enjoying what I am doing, enjoying the process (and theletters that I write, too!). It makes me a very happy man.
I suppose if I had a purpose, it would be to celebrate the joy of living,to celebrate life in all its manifestations, to celebrate goodness, love,care, concern, beauty. I would try to discourage violence, self-violence,hate, self-hate, bigotry, blindness, ignorance, and detrimentalbehaviors. For me, there is a real moral component in art – not thatthere has to be – but I feel compelled to celebrate, and compelled toredeem, to save, to preserve, to defend, to honor, to sustain, to keep,and compelled to fight against evil, injustice, unkindness.
Maybe the mere making of a drawing &/or painting is this: a testamentof the goodness in life, a celebration of sober humanity. I want to helpcreate a world where people are motivated by a sense of community, tocelebrate beauty in all its manifestations, to enjoy, to appreciate, tohear, to see, to touch, to be….. I am happy, I enjoy living, I appreciatebreathe – and I want to share this with others: to love.
Thank you Ruud for your interest in me, & what I think and feel. Beingloving, & supportive, as you are, is most creative. Blessings to you, andyour projects.
RJ: I also want to thank you, for the sincere answers you gave duringthis interview and the time and energy you took for writing down yourthoughts and feelings.
– END –
one of the answers….
Reproduced with the permission of
TAM, Further reproduction without the written consent of
Ruud Janssen and the Artist is prohibited.
Mail-artist: Carlo Pittore, P.O.Box 182, Bowdoinhan, ME, USA 04008-0182
Interviewer: Ruud Janssen – TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, Netherlands