Ray/Bay: A New York Travel Diary, Page 2
I called the mail clerk of the Whitney in early January to see if anything was arriving. Forty pieces had been sent at that time. I asked what was being done with the works, and he informed me that they were being forwarded to the Curator of Contemporary Art. At the opening I engaged her in conversation and asked her what was being done with the works. She told me it was being cataloged and would be forwarded to the Richard L. Feigen Gallery, who administer the Estate of Ray Johnson, after the exhibition. I proposed that she curate a Mail Art show in the future, and the look that passed over her face was a mix of disgust and surprise that I would even propose such a preposterous thing. It was a telling moment for me. Even at this crowning moment for Ray Johnson, the father of the movement, his child was still regarded as a brat.
But then something occurs which turns this already major event into a memorable one. Monica Lewinsky, the celebrity of the moment, comes into the exhibition with two of her girlfriends. So much of Johnson's work was about figures of popular culture that he surely would have relished this moment. buZ blurr went up to her and asked to have his picture taken with her, but she politely declined. buZ told me what had occurred, and at that moment, we saw Monica and her friends leave the exhibition, and followed them down the stairs. In the lobby, people seemed numbed by her presence. I went out to have a cigarette, and the Lewinsky party came out soon after. One of her girlfriends was fishing around in her handbag for a light and I offered one. I was literally rubbing shoulders with Monica, shocked as anyone to see her there. I would have loved to have asked her why she was at the show and what she thought of it, but the words wouldn't come. It seemed too much of an imposition.
I went back inside and Picasso and Tim told me they were going down to Printed Matter to put up the window display. As my work there was done, I decided to spend some time at some uptown galleries. I went first to the Reinhold-Brown Gallery, which specializes in historic posters. Years earlier I had seen the famous boxing poster promoting the match between Arthur Craven and Jack Johnson displayed there, an artifact from the past I thought I would never see because of it's rarity.
Most importantly co-owner Robert Brown is the son of my art mentor, the late Jean Brown. After graduating from Syracuse University with a library degree, and working in upstate New York, I visited her often at her Shaker Seed House in Tyringham, Massachusetts. It was there that I was introduced to the intricacies of contemporary art, invited to stay with George Macunias at his nearby rural compound, and was able to witness first-hand primary documents of the avant-garde and hear stories of respected artists that I had only read about.
Robert and I talked about his mother's collection at the Getty Center for the Arts and Humanities, and the shabby treatment it's received. Jean's other son, Jonathan, is a leading expert in Spanish painting, and is equally concerned about the lack of attention the collection is experiencing. An exhibition and catalog formed from the works of Dada, Surrealistic, and Fluxus and Mail Art materials in the Getty's care, are long overdue.
I walked down the block after visiting Robert and Susan to go to the Ubu Gallery. They were having a show by the Australian artist Richard Tipping, who subverts commercial signage. His fake traffic signs remind me of by Texas buddy Stanley Marsh 3's latest project. I've always admired his Tipping's doorplate reading, "Dadaists and Surrealists Not Allowed," and thought it perfect for the entrance of Printed Matter for the run of the Bay Area Dada show.
After making the purchase, I headed down to Printed Matter. Picasso and Tim had already left for dinner with their relatives out on the Island after putting up the window installation. We had adapted the poster for the show, dropping certain members of the group, depicted as Ray Johnson bunnyheads on postage stamps, displaying them across the windows of the gallery. Quoting from my proposal to Printed Matter, "Prevalent in various art movements (Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus), certain members of the group were "expelled" or in Johnson's' case, 'dropped.'" Our intention was to continue within this tradition of Dada provocation.
David Platzker and I nail the "Dadaists and Surrealists Not Admitted" enameled doorplate on the front entrance to Printed Matter as the final touch to the show.
Friday, January 15, 1999:
With the Printed Matter show installed to our satisfaction, we've made plans to visit Barbara Moore's gallery Bound & Unbound on the 12th Floor of a large building at 601 West 26th Street in Chelsea.. Specializing in Fluxus, and herself a participant in numerous Fluxus events along with her late husband Peter, who was the Fluxus photographer of record, Barbara began art dealing in the mid-seventies as the co-owner of Backworks with Jon Hendricks. I remember purchasing a George Macunias stampsheet there for $15 in 1978, which is today worth some $600, and a copy of Ray Johnson's Paper Snake for it's cover price of $3.47.
When Detroit businessman Gilbert Silverman became interested in collecting Fluxus in the eighties, he not only acquired a great deal of the stock, but the services of Jon Hendricks as well, who became his curator and the author of Fluxus Codex. I waited for years for Fluxus, as I did Ray Johnson, to enter the public consciousness. Both Barbara and Jon toiled tirelessly toward acceptance of Fluxus as a serious art activity. But now I can't afford it. Still, it's always a pleasure to connect with Barbara and see her latest holdings. Her current show is On the Wall: Some Printed Posters of Lawrence Weiner.
Tim and I go to Bound & Unbound and meet Picasso and Joel, who have arrived from their uptown digs. Barbara, who had been very supportive of Gaglione's Stamp Art Gallery, speaks of rubber stamp art show she has been meaning to mount since she opened her new space in Chelsea. The show would run for three or four months and have three rotating components: sections on the Bowery Press, Stempelplaats Gallery, and the Stamp Art Gallery.
I know little about the Bowery Press other than that they published a portfolio of rubber stamp prints by well-known artists, such as Warhol. Stampelplaats Gallery, an Amsterdam, Holland, gallery sponsored by Posthumus rubber stamp company, and directed by Ulises Carrion and Aart Barnevelt, I know intimately, having had the first show there in 1977. Barbara asks for our help with the Stamp Art Gallery component, and requests that I send a checklist of the publications and box set of rubber stamps produced.
While Barbara is busy discussing aspects of the proposed Spring 2000 exhibition with Gaglione, I make a couple of calls. E. F. Higgins is a long time friend, and I want to make sure he's coming to the Printed Matter opening this evening. William Wilson, one of the foremost Johnson scholars and collectors, lives just blocks away, and I ask him if we can come for a visit. He's tied up till 4:00PM, so I tell him that's fine, and I'll be over to see him. Unfortunately there is a reception for the Johnson exhibit tonight at the Whitney, which I can't attend because of the concurrent Printed Matter opening. But I want to see Bill, who I have always admired, and have chatted with about the show over the past few months,
Deborah Solomon, a writer for The New York Times and the author of biographies of Jackson Pollack and Joseph Cornell, is a friend of mine from my Dallas years, and I call to ask her if there is going to be any stories coming out on the Johnson show. She tells me that Holland Cotter has written a piece in today's edition of The Times.
We can't wait to see the article, so we buy a paper after leaving Bound & Unbound and on our way to get some pizza, the preferred New York taste treat of Bay Area Dadaists.
Cotter's article, "Gibes at the Experts From an Enigmatic Chatterbox," fills a half-page in the Weekend section of the paper. Described as, "A mythmaker at once everywhere and nowhere," Cotter explains that his drowning in 1995 attracted Johnson, "the kind of public attention that his art never had," and that, "Like Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein and so may other American thinkers one deeply and permanently loves, he had an ingrained distrust of institutions of all kinds." After explaining his "invention" of mail art, Cotter focuses on "the collages that were Johnson's masterworks. The exalted label is not to grand for them."
But Cotter bemoans the fact that in the Whitney's "glacial, open galleries" the more formal collages look "lonely and adrift. The exception comes in a tight grouping of several pieces owned by William S. Wilson, one of the artist's most discerning critics. Otherwise much of the show's energy rises from vitrines jammed with letters, found objects and other ephemera."
I go back to Village House with Tim, while Gaglione and Rossman go uptown to relax and dress for the Printed Matter opening. While Tim prepares for the opening, I go to visit William Wilson, who has become a good friend over the past coupe of years. I worked with him fairly intensively, when Gaglione and I put on a show of his mother's stampworks at the Stamp Aft Gallery in 1996. Bill is a very thorough fellow, an ex-English professor, and a devoted keeper of Ray Johnson's flame.
Joel Cohen previously informed Wilson of his plans to have a mail art celebration for Ray at the Whitney opening, and Bill was very upset, informing them that he would not attend and advise his children to do likewise. "I'm only now learning something new about Ray's art - that it invites participation by other artists. an artist in California has written that his art is to steal Ray Johnson collages form shows, I guess for aesthetic motives I can only attempt to understand. maybe he'll be at the opening. I am certainly anxious to hear the plans of other artists like him and like yourself."
"I am anxious that Johnson's aesthetic be understood, and so I wonder why you would, in the foreground of a show that subsides into a background for your work, perform an event that contradicts the principles of Johnson's religio-philosophical aesthetic, at least as I understand it. I'm sure that you have studied his thinking from his point of view, in the light of your mature beliefs, but other people might see his principles of spontaneity and immediacy, the moment of the haiku, compromised by a plan that is not an extemporaneous response."
I dwell on this because, as one privy to the planning of the Whitney exhibition, Wilson had personal knowledge of the palace intrigue going on in preparation for the show. The Whitney had just undergone a drastic change of personnel, it's former Director, David Ross, leaving for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and his replacement by Maxwell Anderson apparently not as enthusiastic as Ross about the prospects on unleashing Johnson on an unprepared public. But Wilson was pleased with the Cotter review in The New York Times and thought it would do much to reassure Anderson of his choice to proceed.
I headed off to Printed Matter, arriving early, and walk down the street to pay a visit to the gallery of David Platzger's wife Susan Inglett. Arriving back at Printed Matter, the celebration begins to gather steam. In no particular order those attending are Honoria and Knut Graf from Austin, Texas, Jonathan Stangroom from Massachusetts, Reed Altmus from Vermont, buZ blurr, his wife, daughter and son-in-law from Arkansas, La Toan Vinh from Montreal, Mel and Mark (Fa Ga Ga Ga) Corrato from Ohio, Ann Britton from the Museum of Modern Art, New Yorkers E. F. Higgins, E. M. Plunkett, Joel Cohen, Roy Arnella, Jon Hendricks, his brother Geoffrey Hendricks, who is having a show at the Emily Harvey Gallery, Sir Rodney Sir, Valery Oistenau, David Cole, recently moved back from Minnesota, prolific writer on the avant-garde Richard Kostelanetz, Marilyn Rosenburg from Upstate new York, my New Jersey friends Michelle Clifford and Bill Landis, editors of Metasex, Liz, Amanda and David from Printed Matter, my brother David and Fred, Tim Mancusi, Picasso Gaglione, Charles Chickadel (arriving in New York an hour before the opening), Joel Rossman, my friend Phyllis Galembo, a photography professor at SUNY Albany, friends of Tim's from Personal Stamp exchange, Beverly Smith and her daughter Lauren, my friend Ian from San Francisco and others unknown.
People enjoyed the show and, of course, it's mostly all a blurr. Too little time, too many friends, to do any of them justice. We get shooed out by David Platzger at 8:00PM and head over to Katz's Deli on the Bowrey in taxis. The same cast is still intact and we're joined by Barbara Moore and Mark Bloch, who have attended the Johnson reception at the Whitney. Mark brings his video camera and interviews some of the people there.
After stuffing ourselves on Jewish delicacies at Katz's, Gaglione, Mancusi, Chickadel Rossman, Phyllis Galembo and I head back to Village House for a none-to quiet victory celebration.
Saturday, January 16, 1999:
Tim and I get some pastries from Balducci's which is right around the corner from Village House on 6th Avenue at 9th. Tim was in there the other day and saw ex-mayor Ed Koch. After we go back to Village House to eat, Tim takes off with his uncle Italo and goes out for a drive on Long Island.
I go up to the Hotel Rhiga and meet Gaglione. From there we go up to the Whitney, where we have an appointment with Arthur Secunda, Ray Johnson's old high school chum from Detroit. We meet at the front entrance and walk down the street to find a restaurant. On our way there, a cell phone rings and Secunda turns to the person holding it and asks if the call's for him.
Over lunch, Secunda tells us that he has just come from Washington where he presented a workshop to NASA astronauts on tactility and perception. Most of the conversation focuses on Secunda's high school years with Johnson. Together with Harry Katchadorian, they formed a close circle of friends. Although Secunda visited Ray at Black Mountain College, their contact lessened over the years. Nevertheless, Johnson's illustrated letters to Secunda, some of them displayed in the Whitney show, exemplify his earliest mail art endeavors.
After lunch, Gaglione, Secunda and myself go through the Johnson exhibit. I stop first at the bookstore to see how our Ray Johnson Miscellany is selling, and I'm told that they are sold out. Most of them have been purchased by the Museum staff. I'm asked if I can send more copies when I return to San Francisco.
The first thing I notice when I enter the show is a new glass case set up at the entrance that displays some of the mail art sent in response to the invitation I mailed out soliciting work in honor of Johnson. I guess that my talk with the Whitney curator had some effect after all.
After spending an hour at the show Secunda, Gaglione and I take a taxi down to Printed Matter. While Secunda looks around and talks to David Platzker, I busy myself packing up the Bay Area Dada materials that didn't make it into the show for shipment back to San Francisco. We are met at Printed Matter by Charles Chickadel, and after saying our farewells to Secunda, Gaglione, Chickadel and I walk to the Chelsea studio of Phyllis Galembo.
It turns out that Phyllis shares a studio space with Peter Schuyff, a painter and collector of Johnson's work, who has also donated materials to the Whitney exhibition. He's working on a new series of paintings, so I don't want to disturb him, but we do manage to have a brief talk about Ray.
At Phyllis' studio, we are joined by Joel Rossman. After finishing her assignment, Phyllis lines up Gaglione, Chickadel, Rossman and myself for a portrait of the Bay Area Dadaists. Afterwards, the others take off and I accompany Phyllis back to her apartment to prepare for a small dinner party. Phyllis has traveled extensively in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Nigeria and her apartment reflects this. Her latest book is Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti, published by Ten Speed Press. Most of the guests at her party are involved in Vodou in some way including a curator at the Natural History Museum, and an Italian woman who authored a book on Harry Smith.
Back to Village House.
Sunday, January 17, 1999:
Check out of Village House. Go uptown to visit brother David, Jill and nephew Jessie. Take taxi to JFK airport. The 4:30PM flight on Tower Air is delayed till 8:00 PM. After five minutes in the air, the flight turns around due to a fire in the engine. We are told to prepare for an emergency landing. As the plane descends, all sixteen stewardesses are chanting, "Head down. Hands on ankles." Back at JFK, it's a very smooth landing and the fire engines are shooed away. Then we go straight to airport hell and wait till 3:00AM while our flight bookings are changed, hotel reservations made, and ground transportation provided for. Check into the JFK Hilton.
Monday, January 18, 1999:
Complimentary breakfast and lunch at JFK Hilton. Call work and explain the situation. Article in the New York Post about yesterday's air emergency and resulting turmoil in the terminal. Take 4:00 PM Tower Air flight. Back to San Francisco at 10:00 PM.
The Ray Johnson Miscellany continued selling out at the Whitney. Michael Lagios, the bookstore manager, called and ordered twenty more copies. Two weeks later, he ordered forty more.
The Bay Area Dada show at Printed Matter received mention in a New York Times article written by Holland Cotter, "Changes Aside, SoHo Is Still Very Much SoHo," calling the exhibition, "an engaging archival survey." Cotter went on to note that "The show includes a tribute to Johnson, supplementing his current Whitney Museum retrospective, and from it one gets a keen sense of what his lifelong dedication to ephemerality, cultural community, verbal overload and serious whimsy was all about."
Charles Chickadel, together with Joe DeMarco, a high school buddy of Gaglione's, set up a website with an illustrated listing of the Bay Area Dada publications.
The address is
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