THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CLIVE PHILLPOT 77
Started on 26-05-1997
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 28-8-97
CP : Dear Ruud: I guess I got involved in 1972 when I started writing a column in Studio International , the London art magazine. I was supposed to review things that nobody else reviewed – like exhibition catalogues , magazines , artist books , etc.
In the first column I mentioned Thomas Albright’s two articles on ‘Correspondence Art’ in Rolling Stone , also in 1972.
Slowly, in 1972 + 1973, I began to hear from the L.A. Artists’Publication , File Magazine , the Fluxshoe people , the Bay Area Dadaist / Dadaland , Ecart , and received mail art pieces as well as publications from them…….
RJ : Was this also the moment you started to consider yourself a ‘mail artist’?
reply on 10-9-1997
CP : Aha! Mail artist! I don’t think that I have ever consider myself a mail artist. I have corresponded with many mail artists, but usually about mail art. Though now & again I would correspond with something other than the regular letter. (I have responded to a few calls for mail art exhibitions…..)
The closest I might have come to this desciption might be as a sparring partner for Ray Johnson, mostly in the late eighties + early nineties. He kind of nudged me into mail art responses to his mail art.
RJ : The term ‘sparring partner’ is interesting. What kind of ‘punches’ did Ray send to you?
next answer on 22-9-1997
CP : Given your reaction, perhaps a boxing metaphor was not exactly right. What I had in mind by ‘sparring partner’ was along the lines of a champion needing lesser lights to keep him sharp and in shape – even if they couldn’t keep up with him over ten rounds. Sometimes , in sparring with Ray, I might raise my game to his level – other times not.
RJ : Maybe my question wasn’t specific enough either, With ‘punches’ I was actually asking for maybe a few examples of some ‘correspondances’ you had with Ray.
next answer on 1-11-1997
CP : OK, here’s one where I came off quite well. At some point, on the phone, Ray asked me if I knew who Anna May Wong was? Perhaps he had included an image of her in a mailing? I said I had no idea. He told me she was a 30’s (?) movie star.
After that Ray would refer to her – in mailings , or in conversation – because of my ignorance.
Then a while later, in 1992, he sent me a mailing of a bunny head with the words Anna May Shun in it, plus the question: “Who is Anna May Shun?”
I let the question run round my head for a day or two, then responded with a sheet on which I stuck a xerox of a photo of Chou-En Lai – with some additions – and the phrase: “Anna May Shun is the half-sister of Chou-En Gum!”
In the next mail I got a sheet with two bunny heads + a self-photo of Ray. The heads said: Judy Garland (upside down!) and Chou-En Gum! There was also a note telling me to call him about this. When I did, I asked him why he had put Chou-En Gum with Judy Garland? He said it was because Judy Garland’s real name (or her sister’s?) was Frances Gumm!!!
RJ : Ray was always interested in the names of movie stars and played a lot with names and images. Do you know where the use of the ‘bunny’ originated from?
next answer on 19-11-1997
(With the written answer Clive Phillpot sent a copy of the text he wrote for the catalog of Ray Johnson’s exhibition at the Goldie Paley Gallery at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia – Pennsylvania in 1991 , which contains a very good list of principal sources).
CP : No, I can’t remember Ray ever explaining their origins. In one sense , they just grew. When I was working on the catalog of Ray’s 1991 exhibition in Philadelphia, I assembled an evolutionary chart – derived from the letters in the 1976 North Carolina Museum publication.
He did tell me once that when he signed a letter with a bunny head, it was a self-portrait. But when others drew his bunny-heads, they became their self-portraits.
Then there was another shift at the end of the eighties, when the black scared-looking-bunny-heads began to include people’s names within their outlines. These heads have now become a kind of Ray Johnson icon.
RJ : In the beginning of the interview you mentioned that in 1972 you started with reviewing artists’ books. At the moment you are even lecturing about artists’ books. What is so fascinating about this form of art?
next answer on 1-12-1997
CP : The other worlds that books contain are fascinating – these worlds can be conjured up through words or images or both. And sometimes such books are visual, or verbi-visual, works of art.
The idea that some books can be hand-held movies also appeals to me, as well as the book as a random-access artwork.
Thinking about books as art in the context of mail art , I would say that their similar non-institutionalization is also appealing. For me, the multiple – usually printed – artists’ books are most interesting because they are conceived to be disseminated to a wide audience. Also books printed in editions can slip into bookstores very easily, but surprise people browsing because of their often unusual content.
RJ : You were the Director of the Library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where there are lots of artist’s books as well. Do they also have a mail art collection?
next answer on 17-12-1997
CP : Yeah – that’s right. I had the pleasure of buying the Franklin Furnace artist book collection just before I left the USA and leaving it to be merged with the one I built from 1977-1994.
As for mail art in the library, there is some. For example, there are a few pieces from Ray Johnson that go back a bit. (He wrote to many of the curators over the years, and some of them passed pages, etc. , on to the library). But on the whole there is not a lot particularly because I thought it more appropriate for the library to be collecting documentation (as well as multiple art , like artists’ books).
So I bought a fair number of catalogues of mail art exhibitions, plus a lot of artist magazines, some of which were related to mail art. Of course, Ray Johnson managed to subvert all this :-
We had worked together on a little book during 1986-88 which was published by the Nassau County Museum in Long Island. After this, when I was writing a piece about him for the Philadelphia exhibition, he suggested that he create a book which would be made up of 26 parts (chapters?) , each of 26 pages, + that he would send me a few pages at a time through the mail.
In due course this is what happened – in 1990. Before the book petered out in the summer, I received about 50 pages at the library – of “A Book About Modern Art” – plus some short sequels.
This book is quite unique – so it went against my normal policy for mail art + for artists’ books! Trust Ray to be different.
RJ : I think that – unlike Fluxus – mail art is still quite unknown in the “official” art world. Is this true and will it stay like that?
next answer on 11-2-1998
CP : Yes, I am sure it is – in the official sense. But, on the other hand, Ray – who I keep coming back to (as my exemplar) – sent his mailings to so many critics , curators , directors & trustees of museums, that even if they could not recognize it , they experienced mail art.
I think that mail art will surface in museum exhibitions occasionally. When Ray gets the big retrospective that he deserves, surely mail art will become visible then?
But we must not forget that even as far back as 1970 , mail art was featured in a major museum , the Whitney Museum of Modern Art , thanks to Ray and to Marcia Tucker!
Perhaps a more important question is whether the acceptance of mail art by the “official” art world would be a good thing or a bad thing? Is mail art not more intersting as a personal expression in a guerilla relationship with museums? Museum shows might coopt mail art? Kill it?
RJ : Yes, you might be right there. I must confess that when I visited mail art exhibitions in galleries or museums (especially the postal museums DO exhibit nowadays) I was always more interested in the visitors (sometimes only mail artists….) than in the exhibited mail art. Did you also meet some of the mail artists you were in correspondence with?
(It took some time before I heard from Clive again, so I sent him another copy of the question. It turned out he had moved to another address)
next answer on 24-11-1998
CP : Yes, I did. Inevitably most were from New York and the East Coast; people such as Buster Cleveland, Carlo Pittore, and Crackerjack Kid, but also FaGaGaGa, Steve Perkins, and John Held. Plus artists from abroad such as Ulises Carrion.
Then there are all the fluxus artists. I have met most of them – except for three of the best, George Maciunas, George Brecht and Robert Filliou.
And one time, 1992 I think, I kinda hosted a congress that started at the Museum of Modern Art and finished at the Hilton Hotel in mid-town Manhattan, especially for Angela and Peter Netmail.
RJ : You mention both Fluxus-artists and Mail-Artists. Is the connection really that strong as some Mail-Artists like to make it?
next answer on 04-01-1999
(with the answer Clive Phillpot sent me a brochure of the exhibition “Artist/Author Contemporary Artists’Books” , an exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts at several locations during 1998 and 1999 in the USA. In the brochure there was a text by Clive Phillpot: “A Concise History Of Artists’ Books”. Together with Cornelia Lauf he curated the exhibition).
CP : Well, when I think of Fluxus I don’t think of Mail-Art (except perhaps for the stamps of Georg Maciunas and Bob Watts), but when I think of Mail-Art I do think of Robert Filliou and George Brecht, of correspondence, and of their origination of the idea of “The Eternal Network” in 1968.
The postal system was vital to Fluxus as the principal means for distributing their art, but I don’t think that this means that they necessarily created Mail-Art. Fluxus is much more relevant to the histories of the multiple and performance. However, I think that Ben Vautier’s ‘Postman’s Choice’ postcard is a Mail-Art classic.
RJ : Are there more “Mail-Art classics” you remember right now?
next answer on 2-2-1999
CP : One that I think of as a classic, was something from Ray Johnson to me. I would guess that it wasn’t the first – or last – time that he used the idea, but, as ever, he responded specifically to the occasion.
In 1987 Ray asked me to join him is documenting a performance that he had done at the Nassau County Museum just outside New York. He told me about the event, showed me photos, and suggested that I ask him some questions. later I did just this, and sent him some questions in the mail. He responded subsequently with what seemed to me to be nonsensical answers. I had to admit to him on the phone that I didn’t understand his response.
The next thing that happened was that I got a piece of paper folded like a kid’s airplane in an envelope from Ray. On unfolding the plane, I found that it was a photocopy from a book on Picasso’s work. Ray had underlined odd passages, thereby revealing to me the origins of his mysterious answers. (Though not exactly what he had meant by them.)
Then a week or so later I got a letter in the mail that had been sent to “Monsieur Picasso” at an address in Paris. It was inscribed “inconnu” and stamped “return to sender” (in French). The reason why I got it – since I never sent a letter to Picasso, even when he was alive – was that the return address in the top left corner of the envelope was MINE!
I guess it’s an old trick. But a neat one. A letter sent from Long Island had been sent on a long journey via Paris to me in New York, thanks to the efficiency of the post office, and the kindness of the people now living at Picasso’s old address.
I was very amused by Ray’s manoeuvre. But the final piece of my story took me several more weeks to unravel.
Some time later I looked again at the xerox from the Picasso book. Then the penny dropped. The work illustrated was a cubist work of 1912 entitled “The Letter”. But even through the fragmented plane of the painting I was able to make out that the painted letter was addressed to “Monsieur Picasso” at the very same address to which Ray had despatched his letter for me!
I am so glad I got to know Ray.
RJ : Did you save the items you received from Ray or are they in some kind of archive?
(Clive Phillpot’s answer came after a few months because he was in New York, to give a lecture on artist books at the New York Public Library.)
next answer on 18-5-1999
CP : Yes, I have saved everything Ray sent me, from 1981 to late 1994 a few months before his suicide. They are part of my own archives. I also have notes of his phone calls over many years – I still need to transcribe and expand these…..
As well as sending things to me personally he also sent a few things to me especially for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with specific instructions that they were for the Library collections. He even asked me to send him letters confirming that these pieces were safely in the Museum. The principal piece was the Book About Modern Art, which was made up of several mailings of three or four sheets each.
RJ : You mentioned your Archives. What do they look like?
next answer on 23-5-1999
CP : Well, I guess they look much like other people’s , you know lots of files. As for their contents and arrangements, I imagine that they too are not very different from other people’s solutions.
There is a section on my writing comprising typescripts and photocopies (plus all the eventual books, catalogs and magazines in my library). There are many files of correspondence with artists, and about art. Also artist files – which include announcements of exhibitions, press releases, cuttings and reproductions of articles, essays, etc. There are also some specific files on artist books, and about book artists. And as well as these art-related files there are some others on miscellaneous things, and correspondence from friends and relatives. And if you really want the nitty-gritty of their organization, I think most of these are organized by name and/or by date. (There are only so many ways to skin a cat.)
I suppose that I should add that I have discs that archive most of what I have written on the computer, plus some email messages.
RJ : Yes, that computer. Do you like working with computers?
next answer on 31-8-1999
CP : I like working with some computers. At home I have an old Macintosh; I really enjoy the simplicity and logic of its software. But at work I have a Windows-based PC. Ugh! I find it amazing that this cluncky software rules the world. Business has won out over technology.
Much as I enjoy computers, the thing that has really changed the way I work – and maybe think – is word-processing. In fact word-processing helps one to write more like one thinks. I can hardly believe that I once used a typewriter with carbonpaper, witeout, etc.
And almost as important as that facility is email. When I moved back to England I felt so cut off for the few months it took me to settle down, and before I set up email again. When one has friends – and work opportunities – in many countries, email is unsurpassed for keeping in touch, though there are still times when letter writing is important.
RJ : How did you become so interested in letter writing? Is it just connected to your work in which you communicate with so many different people worldwide, or is it the other way round? (So that you got interested in communicating worldwide through letter writing)
(It might look like a strange question, but I wonder because in my case I learned through my father -at the age of 7- the thrills of communications worldwide and because of doing the same stumbled onto the mail-art network)
(answer on 9-10-1999)
CP : I guess I always wrote letters to friends and relatives whom I couldn’t see regularly. Similarly when I moved to New York in 1977 the simplest way to keep in touch with people overseas, and across the USA, (since email was not an option) was through letters.
When I moved back to England I left a lot of friends in the USA, so letterwriting continues, and not just to the USA, plus a great deal more email.
Finally I think I quite enjoy the time one gives to thinking about a communication when writing letters, and to shaping the language of the communication. Since telephone, for example, is a medium for talking, this is a very different kind of exercise.
(because of a break in the whole mail-interview project, the next question only went out a long time later. Giving an extra time-dimension to this interview).
RJ : Was there anything I forgot to ask you?
(answer on 4-3-2001)
CP : Yes, you didn’t ask me about Solong
RJ : What would you like to tell about Solong?
(answer on 10-3-2001)
CP : So long it’s been good to know you! Thanks for the interview, I hope it will be useful. Cheers. Clive.
RJ : Thanks for the interview as well. The readers will judge if it is useful. I sure did enjoy it.
Address interviewed person:
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