THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH NORMAN SOLOMON (Mr. Postcards).
(With the sending of the retyped answers I sometimes made typing-errors to which Norman Solomon reacted. Some of the reactions are worth mentioning, and I have done so with the footnotes)
Started on 21-3-1997
Ruud: 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 8-4-1997
(Together with the invitation I sent a copy of the text of Ray Johnson’s unfinished interview. Norman sent me a photo of Ray Johnson at New York Harbor in 1958, and his answer is a reaction to Ray’s answers as well).
NS : Reply on : 21-11-94 RAY : THE MNO QP (mirror view) kind. What about Mimsy Star. She got pinched in the astor bar. RUUD: Was it a mistake that she got pinched………..
“Have you heard that Mimmsie Starr
Just got pinched in the Astor Bar?”
is by Cole Porter. The song “Well, Did You Evah?” was written, words and music, by CP in 1940 for a musical comedy, “DuBarry Was a Lady.” It was featured in a movie, “High Society” in 1956. WDYE was sung in “High Society” by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The drinking in the study scene. The Astor Bar referred to was the one at the old Hotel Astor, owned by Vincent Astor, on Broadway near Times Square in new York City. this was not the newer hotel, the Waldorf-Atoria on Park Avenue. Vincent Astor, the well-known society playboy was a descendent of John Jacob Astor who founded the family’s fortunes hundreds of years ago trading trinkets to the Indians of Western Canada for furs, mainly beavers, whose pelts the British had learned to diminish for the making of felt for fine hats. The Astor family, later, continued their fortune-making wit holdings in New York real estate and banks.
In the 1950’s , Ray Johnson and Norman Solomon went to a lot of moviex together. They went to the Roxie, the Paramount, the Beekman, the 8th Street Playhouse and other famous theatres of that time. They probably saw “High Society”at the Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway.
Pinched had a double meaning here. It meant having a bit of one’s flesh held between a thumb and a forefinger which then got squeezed together hard. This might elicit a screech or a scream or an “ouch!” Or, maybe, not. Pinched also meant getting nabbed by the police, run in, arrested. If Mimmsie Starr got pinched in the Astor Bar by the police, for instance, she might have got her ass, or a small part of it squeezed (as above), or, she might have been for drunken, boisterous, outrageous behavior, or, more likely, for attempting to solicit an act of prostitution. It was, in any event, all in fun.
I have always depended on strange kindnesses for the nothings that I receive in the mails and I hope I can depend upon you to continue the same.
Ruud: When was the last time you talked to Ray? What did you discuss then?
next answer on 25-4-1997
(With his answer he sent a copy of a photo of Ray Johnson and Willem de Kooning, back in 1959, New York. Also the letter held some small papers with comments like: “Don’t make any corrections, Ruud. The mistakes are all part of the story……” and a photo from Ruth Kligman)
NS : Interview. II (pas de tout)
The last time I talked with Ray was the last time I saw Paris.
The Last Time I Saw Paris was the title of a book by Elliot Paul, an American newspaper person. It was published here during the early stages of WW-II ; there was a nostalgia kick. I read it then. EP wrote extensively about an upstairs Left Bank restaurant on the Rue de la Chat Qui Peche, which I visited in 1944. I had biftek and salad and wine and got so pissed that I threw it all up in the street. There still were cobble-stoned pavings.
I sent all of my Army money home to my poor mother. But, I could sell my PX ration of cigarettes for enough francs to enable me to eat well and to drink terribly. I was living, apperently, beyond my experience.
The Last Time I Saw Paris was used, then, as a title and theme for a song sung mostly by Hildegarde . She and it got famous and well-played together.
The Last Time I Saw Paris was made a movie in 1954. It starred Van Heflin and Elizabeth Taylor. They and it were dreadful. Walter Pidgeon, Eva Gabor (whose mother just died) and Donna Reed were featured in it. MGM had apparently decided that since An American in Paris had been such a great success and big hit in 1951, that they could redo the experience. They were wrong and they could not have been wronger. TLTISP was three minutes longer in running time than AAIP had been, but that didn’t help. Dreadful.
What Ray and I had discussed mostly at that time was that people, especially MGM movie stars, were looking puffy. Puffy, apparently, was coming in.
We also discussed the carers of Franz Kline and Bill de Kooning and the interstitial relationship of those artists with Ruth Kligman, and of hers with Jackson Pollock. I had photographed Ruth after she emerged from the hospital, from the crash results of 1956, and we recalled, looking at my pictures, how the stitches in her face had improved upon nature. She had begun to look like Susan Hayward. Beautiful.
We also discussed Ralph Di Padova. Now Ralph wanted to be a gangster, you know. He had also applied for employment to the CIA and to the FBI. They, neither of them, took him on, but — it was just as well. Gangsterdom was his first love, as a vocation. Ralph had an old-time Packard sedan that he sometimes took us around in. It was rather grand and very gangster. Ralph also had a sweet girl-friend of whom he took great and good care. She’d needed surgical operations for her bone problems and he took care of all that.
I notice, I should mention, some misprints or typical graphic errors in the Interview, I.
“fortune-making wit holdings” of course should have been “with” holdings though it obviously took much wit to make fortunes. All great fortunes are founded on great crimes, of course, but — what aren’t?
“went to a lot of moview” got printed for “went to a lot of moviex.”
See how simple it is?
Ray Johnson and Norman Solomon read a lot. They talked often and together about what they were reading and what it meant to them. Books of the 1950’s that got into their fields of vision were Zen intros by R.H. Blyth and Daisetz T. Suzuki. They read all of the early issues of the Evergreen Review, and discussed the cover designs of Grove Press books by Roy Kuhlman. They read Alice B. Toklas and they read Gertude Stein and they read Isak Dinesen. They read Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County. They read everything and anything by Yukio Mishima. They read the poetry of William Carlos Williams and even more by Wallace Stevens. They read the Story of O.
Djuna Barnes impressed them and something by somebody called Susie von Freulinghausen.
They went to a lot of movies.
In addition to Hollywood fare, they’d watch anything by Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa. They went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw a history of World film. This was two shows a week for three years. They liked particularly the early German Expressionism, especially the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which got incorporated into their work and attitudes. They saw everything French from 1925-1931. But, the very best of all, was everything ever made by Carl Dreyer and by Robert Bresson. They both considered The Diary of a Country Priest to have been one of the best movies ever made.
Their favorite painter was Mondrian. De Kooning called Mondrian “merciless” in his approach. Norman and Ray studied Mondrian’s Piers and Water, noting the movements of the little fishes.
They hung out with composers, musicians and dancers. John Cage. Merce Cunningham. James Waring. Katie Litz.Lucia Dlugaszewski. Morty Feldman. Earle Brown. Norman knew a lot of jazz musicians: Charlie Parker; Sonny Rollins; Bud Powell. Ray did not know any. Norman had connections in the world of Negro music. Ray had not, and did not care to. Often their worlds overlapped, but not always.
There was congruence and confluence and con alma. But not always. Although often enough. Ray sought out Butterfly McQueen and seemed somtimes to be talking endlessly about her. Norman could not have cared less.
Did Ray play games or music? Well, maybe not conventionally so. Norman played chess, drums and poker. For a while, there was a kitten at his studio. Once, after Ray had visited, the kitten was nowhere to be found. Finally, by crying, it revealed its whereabouts. It was inside a drum. Ray played jokes.
Ray enjoyed talking about the power plays in prison movies. Such as who’d be carrying the shit-bucket to be emptied in the morning, before, during, and after a relationship. Ray was also fascinated and open to discussing at any time, whipping, whipping and ritual torture.
Ray Johnson’s favorite dish (they had experimented at many of New Yorks’s international restaurants) was fetishini.
But, besides food, movies, clothing, make-up, morés, books, painters, paintings and the price of soap, they’d talk about other people.
They visited a lot of studios together. They saw the work of established artists, the know and the unknown, the promising students whom word had got around about and the up and the coming. And Ray would talk long afterward about studio details, not the art but the furniture, the light, the placements.
Ruud: In the current mail art network, the name Ray Johnson is often mentioned. Since I started in the mail art network in 1980, the history of mail art sometimes is difficult to find. I used the modern research tools from now (like the Internet) to find out who Norman Solomon is. There seem to be a lot of Norman Solomons out there. So of course my next question is, which one are you?
(together with the next question I sent some papers which consist of things written by Norman Solomon. I find them on the internet, but as it turns out this is another Norman Solomon……I also sent him a photo of the opening-screen of my computer, which shows the image of the unfinished last painting by Mondrian)
next answer on 12-05-1997
NS : The one who is not out there.
“Sorry, I couldn’t really understand your question. I don’t remember knowing anyone named Ray Johnson”
Using the modern research tools, like the Internet, is like asking if Mae Marsh liked grapefruit.
I thought that you’d be asking questions of greater interest, like what was the price of soap?
Or did that grapefruit, from Mae Marsh, elicit les frissons?
Do you think that it was Djuna Barnes that went to a lot of movies?
What did she see there?
She lived near the Loew’s Sheridan Theatre and the Eight Street Playhouse.
She lived across the street from New York City’s Women’s Prison, at the site of the old Jefferson Square Courthouse.
When, how and where did you first meet Ray Johnson, and what was he wearing?
Media Beat. Not courtesy of Turn Left. Check, but Turn Left Cheek.
The Victory Boogie-Woogie does not appear on your screen. Nor does it appear on anyone’s. What you think that you may be seeing is actually a copy of a copy. The Broadway Boogie-Woogie doesn’t either. You are looking at pictures of pictures of pictures.
And no one “out there” has ever seen PM’s “Times Square”.
05.02.97 , III. Pas des trois. It’s all in the spirit of inquiry.
(to) RJ-II : I noticed that you rearranged the numerals in my letter-headings to you. Is this some personal affliction?
“It’s all in the spirit of inquiry.” What does that exactly mean?
One reads or hears, for instance, so many questions regarding the nature of identity. “Who am I?” “Who is he?” and so forth. Are these in the quest for satisfaction of a scientific curiousity? Or are they a part of the ego-bound eternity of pre-recognition?
Mark Rothko (1905-70) was named by his parents, Marcus Rothkovich.
In the summer of 1954, one day, Mark Rothko and I were standing in the sunshine and on the grass, waiting for lunch. We were discussing the higher things. A pretty girl came up to us and spoke to him. “Mr. Rothko. I’ve heard so much about you! What are your paintings like?”
“My dear,” he answered, “I have devoted my life to beautiful women and I paint the same.”
The Groucho Marx of modern art.
Ray Johnson was always asking me, “Who are you, Norman Solomon?”
“Will the real mark Rothko please stand up?”
It is certainly something, the quest for identities.
When I am asked “Who are you?”
I can only think “Yes. Who am I?”
Ray Johnson and Norman Solomon were in complete and total agreement: that all so-called “identities” were synthetic.
“It’s Only Make-Believe.” “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
There was a teacher in India, Ramana Maharshi, who postulated that, among other things, he was not his hair, was not his fingernails, and so on down the list of physical attributes. He then presented another self-portrait, the list of the mental qualities, each time denying that the one in particular focus was him. “So. What am I?”, he questioned. “I am not this; I am not that. What then?”
Ruud, I ask you, are we our names?
Here I should follow with the tale of the king and the corpse.
But, it’s getting late. There is a book, however. The King and the Corpse. It was written by Heinrich Zimmer. You could look it up.
Ruud: Yes, I can look it up and so can the readers of the published interview. I still wonder who you are, Norman, not that I am expecting a simple answer, but I tried to look in the books I have here where to place you. In the recently published Dossiers-issue from Black Mountain College I read a small note you wrote on your memories on Ray Johnson, so now I know that you went to the Black Mountain College as well. Looking back at that time now, what did you learn there?
next answer on 9-6-1997
NS : How to write, probably. We used to write notes in lipstick on paper napkins to be passed to each other under the dining tables. It was a great thrill to feel someone else’s fingers putting their notes between one’s legs there. When we got up from dining, we’d watch each other’s legs there looking for lipstick’s traces.
Ruud: Is writing still exciting for you?
next answer received on 24-6-1997
NS : Yes, writing is exciting for me. To write is to breathe. I don’t know what you mean by “still.” Writing is a practice. Writing gets better for me every day, each day that I write. Writing never stops. If writing stops, I stop.
The great Truman Capote said that “There’s writing and there’s typewriting.” Do you know what he means?
A flip slogan of recent years, often seen here as graffiti or on bumper stickers and such, said “Question Authority!” This was a statement which I questioned in itself, because: What was meant by “authority”? Hierarchisch Übermenschen, in this case, as ‘others’. I thought that it was a slogan by, of and for, victims. Like: “Step on me, please.”
I think that the ultimate authority in anyone’s life is one’s self. Therefore, starting at the top, in life and in art there is only one question and that is to question one’s self.
Now, this is where the craft of writing transcends the mechanics of typing: It’s all in the wrist. It’s all in the wrist of the mind. It’s the ability to question one’s self while in the midst of the process of writing. It is, this writing thing, the ability to edit. And, edit one must. One must edit one’s own production, in form and in content, and not be dependent on the doing of it for one by other persons.
As the delegation of authority increases, authority of self diminishes and self-authority becomes increasingly diluted. At the finality of examination, there is the question: “Who’s writing this stuff, anyway?”
In my case, my write is me. Any questions? Why do you ask?
Ruud: I ask questions because I want to learn. I have been doing so ever since I learned to talk. I have learned already that people can be divided into two groups (…..only two groups…? just one of the ways one can make groups, if one wants to generalize….). Group one: the ones that want to keep learning, and — group two — the ones that are just repeating themselves AFTER a learning-process.
But you tricked me, you started to ask me questions. Why do you ask questions?
(On 3-7-1997 I received a postcard from Norman Solomon with on it the rubberstamp “Who Killed Ray Johnson?”. Norman wrote that he had a small back injury and that his answer to my last question is delayed. He also wrote; Don’t give up! I’m not finished yet. Maybe next week. Until then.)
next answer on 9-7-1997
NS : You ask why I question and I ask what I question and what is a question.
Is a question an event?
Is a question a tool? An instrument? A piano?
Is a question a possibility? A chance? A change? A portent? A portion?
A start? An ending? A way out? A way in? A persuasion? An evasion? A vision?
Is a question any point on the brink of the abyss?
Is a question a thought? An investment? An answer to itself?
A portal to the universe? A stone in the road? A cry? A laugh?
A hole in space? A seek before a find?
Is a question an act of love? A green dance of fire?
A burn? A yearn? A turn?
Is a question one side of a triangle?
A ray of darkness in the light?
When is a question not a question?
What is a question not? And when?
Ruud: A question is something that comes up in me, a need to learn, a way to explore why I do what I do (or do not). I guess I am curious by nature, and I like to know more of the world I live in.
You Live in Berkeley now. You Lived a long time in New York. Why did you move?
reply on 28-7-1997
(With Normon Solomon’s answer he sent a copy of a photo of Ray Johnson in NY – NY – 1960)
NS : 1. New York was a movie I had seen and now it was time to go to the lobby in order to have some delicious treats.
2. New York was a school, The New York School, from which I had graduated and now it was time to go out into the world in order to seek my fortune.
3. In October 1966 I went to Sweden to paint stage sets for Ingmar Bergman’s opera company. That did not happen. I then went to London and made some paintings which were used as a set decoration for John Cage’s talk at the St. James Theatre. I sat with Yoko Ono. Her young daughter, Kyoko, was making a lot of noise. Yoko was on the macrobiotic diet and we talked about the price of brown rice. Later, she invited me to the opening of her small show at the Indica gallery where I read the November ARTFORUM magazine. ARTFORUM had started in San Francisco and then relocated to Los Angeles. The ARTFORUM San Francisco premises were advertised for rent. I bought airplane tickets for California and flew there to have some delicious treats and to seek my fortune.
Ruud: So, when you got to San Francisco, did you find your fortune there?
(After my vacation in Germany I found several pieces of mail from Norman Solomon. One of them was a box, a metal tea-box with on it the word FORTUNE. The tea-box contained also a large collection of ‘fortune-cookies’)
(In another envelope he writes: “Ruud, let’s make the game more interesting. Let’s raise it to a higher level. And he sends me “a long list of the kind of questions I should be asking him”. This was his reaction to my remark that I might ask in the future some more questions about Ray. John Cage, and other things………. The list is interesting, 4 pages long, and I am tempted to ask him all of these questions…….)
(On September 19th I received another sending of Norman , a copy of 700 small texts which look like fortune-tellings which are printed in some kind of book).
next answer on 19-9-1997
NS : Yes, I found my fortunes, many. Here are 700 of them. Please enjoy the pleasure of the printing. The 700 aphorisms: they are all answers. One thing that you could do with them would be to publish them as a project.
(1) Provide the most appropriate questions to these answers.
(2) Provide the least appropriate question to these answers.
They are sure to make someone happy.
They might even contribute towards enlightment.
Ruud: What makes you happy?
next answer on 14-10-1997
(Before Norman sent me his written answer, he sent me a postcard with a collage on it about cartoon-figures asking questions, and his text-collage: “is it possible that 3-4 pages of questions is for laughs and is not questions but a statement?)
NS : The sunrises in the mornings and sunny days and cloudy days and rainy days. The moon at night and starry skies and stormy nights at sea.
A good movie, if there is such a thing.
Reading anything about Ray Johnson.
Walking through the downtown area without getting hit by traffic.
My prick. Shiny, gleaming, glistening and inside her hot and juicy cunt, the pulsations of which enable me to experience a sense of participation with the undulation of the Universe and a sharing of the great Cosmic Joke.
Knowing that the means is an end in itself.
Knowing that the world is perfect and that there’s a place for everything in it and that everything’s in its right place.
Ruud: Do you laugh a lot lately?
Next answer on 27-10-1997
NS : Yes. yes, I do. In fact, I am laughing now.
LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH LAUGH
Ruud: Do you also laugh when you get your mail in the morning? Is this a special moment of the day for you?
next answer on 14-11-1997
NS : 1. Why, should I?
2. Why should I?
3. Why, should it be?
4. Why should it be?
(Below the answer there were three columns of texts in Japanese language, three identical texts. Also Norman Solomon sent with this answer the footnote on the Indica gallery, which I typed into the interview. It also included a newspaper article about “Yoko Ono’s Art defaced after -touch- quote” which hit the news last week. He also sent me Yoko Ono’s address. It triggered me to invite her for an interview as well).
[illustration with the three identical texts]
Ruud: Well, I just wondered if you think of yourself as a mail artist? You played along in Ray Johnson’s games through the mail…… So, I just wondered. Do you?
next answer on 26-11-1997
NS : Well, you know. Life is but a dream, yes?
Ruud: What did you dream today?
next answer on 8-1-1998 (and a copy on 31-1-1998)
(A prompt reply is its own reward. Normal mailed the copy because I was so late to answer the original. He thought it might have got lost in the mails – NS)
NS : It was a dream within a dream.
I met Ray Johnson in the F.W. Woolworth’s variety store at 37th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City where I had gone to purchase some factory-made ephemera. This was during the noon hour of March 17th , 1951. Ray had been on his way to the matinee premiere of Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera House and had stopped at the Woolworth’s for lunch.
The following year, 1952, Ray and I were both living on Monroe Street in New York’s lower East Side, although in separate buildings.
Each of us soon moved to other places, Ray to Dover Street and myself to Greene Street, but by the late 1950’s we were both at 176 Suffolk Street, occupying different apartments.
Our similarity of interests had brought us close together quite quickly and we studied and practiced what we loved. What we particularly loved, what we particularly threw ourselves into in the attempt to be proximate to and confluent with, were Chinese poetry, such as Li Po’s , the Japanese poetry, Haiku, and the Chinese and Japanese philosophies and religions: Confucianism , Taoism, Zen Buddhism.
We read everything that we could find of these, attended classes of D.T. Suzuki’s at Columbia University, and learned, also, what to eat and how to order in New York’s Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
We were eating Asia up!
We read that Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly and that when he woke up he was Chuang Tzu.
“Last night I dreamed that I was a butterfly,” he said. “Was I then Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or am I today a butterfly dreaming that he is Chuang Tzu?”
Ruud: When you would go to a restaurant , Chinese or Japanese , what would you order now?
next answer on 2-3-1998.
NS : In Chinese restaurants: dim sum with Jasmine tea.
In Japanese restaurants: sushi, any style; miso soup; hot or cold sake, for a light and simple meal; green tea.
A complex Japanese meal would be known as ksi-seki ryõri. Not every place can make this special presentation and they differ from this place to that. I won’t attempt to descibe kai-seki, but it is something which would be a shame to have missed experimenting in one’s lifetime, given the opportunity.
(the next question was sent 7 weeks later, on April 22nd 1998, because I took a small break in all the interviews I am doing).
Ruud: My best experience with Japanese food was in Kopenhagen (Danmark) , where I and a friend (Made Balbat , a mail artist from Estonia) ate a 7 course meal in a Japanese restaurant where we were the only not-Japanese visitors and we could sit on the only table they had, provided we took of our shoes and followed the rules in this restaurant. I always enjoy to experience other cultures and ways of living, but only by taking part of it , not feeling too much as a tourist. What the name was of the dish we ate in that restaurant I don’t know. We ordered a traditional dish that the Japanese waitress recommended. This was about 4 years ago.
Next question for you, Norman , What did you do on the day you received this mail from me?
On Fridag 15th September I received an e-mail in which I was informed that on August 1st, –exacltly five years after his doctors had given him six months to live – 2000 he died quietly at peace. Mrs. Postcards informed me that Mr. Postcard (Norman Solomon) informed her that he would like the interview –unfinished—to be published posthumously – as it stood.
NORMAN SOLOMON (died August 1st 2000)
1805 Delaware Street
BERKELEY , CA 94703 ,