Started on 25-3-1996
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 12-4-1996
TM: My involvement with mail art began directly and abruptly in February, 1969. I was 18 years old and a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. As an assignment in my Environmental Arts Class our teacher, Stephen Kaltenbach asked us "to find out who Ray Johnson is and get involved with his art". At the time Ray was represented at the Feigen Gallery which was a subway ride away from class. I remember being really impressed with his collages which were embellished with cursive text done with a crow quill pen loaded with India ink. He would also distress the surface of his collages with sandpaper. At that time I believe Ray had just moved from his Suffolk Street address in N.Y. to his Glen Cove address on Long Island, about 20 minutes from my home town.
I remember telling Stephen Kaltenbach at the end of the school year in May '69 that I was really glad he gave us this assignment and that I believed it would continue after the semester was over. Little did I know that it would continue for 26 years until Ray's death in January 1995. Or that it would put me in touch with hundreds of artists around the world and be the reason I'm currently involved with a career in rubber stamps.
RJ: More students besides you got the same assignment. Did they became all active mail artists? If not, why did you?
Reply on 29-4-1996
TM: As far as I can tell, almost all of the students in my class probably stopped corresponding with Ray after the Spring semester ended. Although there must have been more, I know of only one student, Mike Mahoney who kept involved in mail art for a few years.
In fact one evening in June, 1972 Mike, Bill Gaglione and myself visited Ray at the Pink House in Locust Valley. Why I continued corresponding while most students faded away is probably simply the odds. I loved the process and I loved Ray's drawings, plus it was fun.
RJ: How did you get involved with rubber stamps?
TM: Once again, I can trace my interest in rubber stamps to Ray Johnson. He would often add to his mailings with a stamped expression, usually a one line pun referring to someone he knew in the art world. These stamps were typeset (almost always in 12pt. Helvetica) and stamped in red, blue or purple. What I liked about them was that "stamped" look - uneven coverage, a little blurry, perfectly imperfect.
After I moved from Levittown, N.Y. to San Francisco, I worked with my cousin, Bill Gaglione in an art supply store. Across the street was Patrick's Office Supply store. It was there, that Bill and I had our first rubber stamps made. (The stamp division at Patrick's was run by Bob Grimes, who years later, would be made famous by Leavenworth Jackson). In June 1970, I had Patrick's make 3 different images of clouds I had drawn into rubber stamps. Soon after I drew 2 more, the man on the moon and the planet Saturn for Herve Fischer's early anthology of international stamp art. It was a precursor of an industry yet to come.
In 1979 a friend, Joel Rossman, bought a small vulcanizer and we all started making stamps like crazy. This collaboration among Joel, Bill and myself led to the publication of STAMP ART which was a compilation of rubber stamped artwork mailed to contributors. The legacy of STAMP ART is that it led directly to the formation of 2 of the world's most successful rubber stamp manufacturers - Gaglione's Stamp Francisco, and the company I work for, Rossman's Personal Stamp Exchange.
RJ: Your move to San Francisco, the Bay Area, I also bring in connection to the "Bay Area Dadaists". What happened there?
Reply on 1-6-1996
TM: What happened in San Francisco was a convergence of creative energy in a place and time that discouraged limitations. The sky was the limit. With an affinity for dadaism, not just as a period of art but as a way of living Bill, myself and other artist friends, (in particular Steve Caravello, Charles Chickadel and Monte Cazazza) used the City as a backdrop for our numerous activities. We would mail and/or hand out invitations to strangers in the street to come to our gallery openings, group photo's, performances, parties and other events. Anyone who asked us "What's mail art?" soon found themselves corresponding with Ray Johnson, The Northwest Mounted Valise, General Idea, The Western Front and other mail artists throughout Europe and Central America.
Mail art was exploding at the time and we found it easier to keep up with it all by having our collages, statements and drawings printed in small runs of 50 or 100 copies. We were the originators of what Ant Farm called "Quikcopy Art" and we stretched the limits of paper plate printing technology.
Through the years, various artists would visit the Bay Area and join in the art-making. For example, Anna Banana came down from Canada in 1973, stayed, married Bill and contributed immensely throughout the 70's to the Bay Area Dada Scene. The people, the events, the happenings, in retrospect are almost too numerous to record in such an interview as this. I could go on for pages but I'll end it here so you can ask another question.
RJ: What is the story about the Weekly Breeder? Do you know how it got started, and can you tell me what it "was all about".....
Reply on 17-6-1996
(Together with Tim Mancusi's answer he sent me 3 original copies of the Weekly Breeder to illustrate in full detail what the magazine was all about. The magazines were also meant as a gift to the TAM-Archive! Thanks Tim!)
TM: The New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder as it was originally called was started by Ken Friedman in 1970 or '71. Keep in mind that the name "New York Correspondence School" was invented by Ray Johnson as a pun on the "New York School" which referred to that group of painters living and showing in New York during the 50's. Ray Johnson knew these artists and also experimented early in his career with abstract expressionism. So as the concept of mail art was coalescing Ray probably thought it would be funny to stick the word "correspondence" (or sometimes "corresondance") in the middle of New York School to give what he was doing both an identity and validity. There was always an underlying "tongue-in-cheek" aspect to his motives.
Current art scholars consider Johnson's art to be the numerous collages he made and showed mainly at the Feigen Gallery in New York City. His invention of mail art is still considered by the powers that be in the art world as an interesting sideline but not a true art movement. And I'm sure Ray was aware of that at the time. So he was just having fun with this thing that he knew was both very powerful but also invisible. At least this is my theory on how and why Ray identified his postal endeavors as "The New York Correspondence School" and it explains half of the Weekly Breeder's name.
Ken Friedman was a teenager when he became interested in the activities of the international group of artists known as Fluxus, who had their heyday mainly in the early 60's. Ken identified with the Fluxus artists and formed Fluxus West which was not any real organization or group. It was just him. Ken was eventually turned on to what Ray was doing probably via Fluxus artists. Dick Higgins, Both Fluxus and the NYCS shared the commonality of a Zen sensibility and it was in that spirit that Ken started printing and mailing out his single sheet NYCS Weekly Breeder. (The 'Weekly Breeder' part of the title is a take off on the Weekly Reader which was a current affairs newsletter distributed to American public school children). It was also a way for Ken to align himself with Ray's increasing popularity. So Ken published about 10 of these sheets and actually mailed them out every week. In 1971, for whatever reason he asked Stu Horn in Cherry Hill, New Jersey if he would continue to put it out. Stu, an excellent mail artist who corresponded as "The Northwest Mounted Valise" added an extra page or two and continued publishing it for another 6 months or so. The NYCS Weekly Breeder at that time looked like a page from a dadaist scrapbook. Mainly short, absurd articles and weird pictures taken from the daily newspaper and collaged together. Similar to the type of xeroxed pages Ray might enclose in his envelopes, just more structured. When Stu decided to travel to Europe for the summer he wrote and asked me if I would continue to publish the Breeder. I was thrilled and jumped on the opportunity.
I put out our first issue in May of 1972. It was 2 pages with a staple in the upper left hand corner. We printed 200 copies and mailed them out to whoever was on mine and Gaglione's combined list. Because we split the printing costs we each got half of what remained after mailing. And of course Bill was assistant editor. That issue was the first time we referred to ourselves as "the Bay Area Dadaists". The second issue was 6 pages long with 2 staples on the left side. The staples were significant because now it was becoming a "zine". Our third issue was about 15 pages. Each issue got bigger and more expensive to print. It was no longer weekly and months would go by between issues.
The Weekly Breeder gave me an opportunity to merge my interests in dada and mail art with my skills in graphic arts. I could draw like an underground cartoonist, do interesting designs with type and lettering, make Max Ernst-type collages all while poking fun at politics and religion. We would also invite other artists to contribute a page or two like Lowell Darling, Robert Cumming, Futzie Nutzle, Bill Griffith, Jeff Berner, Monte Cazazza, General Idea, etc. And, of course Ray would occasionally send a page. We would print, collate and bind the issues at our expense and mail them out free to contributors and newcomers. One of my favorite issues was from May, 1973 (although dated 1953 just to be dada). I did the lettering for the headmast, Steve Caravello did the collage on the cover and Gaglione did about 20 pages of great collages for the guts. It takes hours just to absorb that one issue.
So, there were 3 basic eras to The Weekly Breeder. Ken Friedman's, Stu Horn's, and the Bay Area Dadaists'. I believe our version was the first true dadazine and influenced other mail artists to publish their own. There have been somewhat similar publications and other commercially published books and magazines, not to mention Grant funded periodicals but the Breeder was self-published, limited to 200 copies and always free. We put out a total of 7 issues over a 2 and a half year period. I'm sure most of those copies are now lost or sleeping in land fills.
RJ: It is fun to look back at things, but how is the mail art network nowadays? Is it still fun being a mail artist?
Reply on 13-7-1996
TM: It is more fun than ever. Obviously, I wish I could still mail stuff to Ray but the fact that the network exists at all is a testament to his vision and diligence. And for me, merely continuing in mail art acts as a tribute to him. Today there are more kinds of mail art than there was in the late 60's and early 70's. I correspond with many people who consider themselves mail artists (which they are) but who have never heard of Ray Johnson. These are the decorative envelope and postcard people who populate the pages of RUBBERSTAMPMADNESS. Their mail art is centered around rubber stamps. There are some really fantastic artists of this genre, people like Janet Hofacker, Rusty Clark, Toby Galinkin, etc. Not to mention the hand-carved eraser crowd which is a whole other category. Then there's the more traditional type of mail artists like Adda Dada, Mike Dyar, Buster Cleveland and Rocola. And, of course hundreds of others. Another offshoot of mail art is the incredible production of artistamps (Perforation is Power). The boundaries between the various styles of mail art can get blurry and that's one of its pluses. I do not compare one type of mail art as being better than another although I believe all current forms evolved from the New York Correspondence School.
Obviously, as an employee of PSX (Personal Stamp Exchange) I owe a lot to the decorative card and envelope group of mail artists. But I also like the more conceptual or process-oriented "add on and mail to...." type of correspondence. I especially love those daring people who try to mail postcards and envelopes with counterfeit postage just to see if they can get away with it. I recently received a small disposable camera (with the film built in) from La Toan Vinh in Montreal. It was originally sent out by ex posto facto in Texas with one rule: take a picture of your mail box, repackage it and mail it out to someone else. I sent it off to Graffiti Grafix. Eventually after the film runs out it will be mailed back to ex posto facto. The whole process will probably take 2 years and involve about 24 people - not to mention the actual photographs. Now that's mail art!
In the late 1970's I found myself getting bored with the mail I was receiving. It was slowly being dominated by a lot of minimal-effort, obscure and impersonal photocopied sheets, slapped together with what seemed to be a "just get it out" mentality. In retrospect I see this as a result of the continuing growth of mail art at that time. It was starting to get watered down by people who saw the excitement in it but thought it necessary to reach everybody on every list. There was a lot of "chain-mail art" at the time which I refused to answer. One of the things that I have always liked about mail art is that anyone could do it. I have often encouraged my non-artist friends to take a chance with the network to see what happens, to see where it might lead. But by 1979 after a full decade of activity, my enthusiasm was waning. It had become more of a chore. So, except for my occasional piece to Ray, Bill or Rocola or a camera-ready page mailed to a zine, I was not an active mail artist during the 1980's. I followed my employer, PSX from San Francisco up to Petaluma in 1983 which made it inconvenient to continue to do things with Bill. As a result I never attended any of the Congresses and kept on making art right on through that Art Strike. I was simply unaware of it.
Many months or years would go by in between visits with Bill and Darlene. It wasn't until Jan., 1992 when my brother and I had dinner with them in the city that I would begin to get back seriously into mail art. At that dinner I mentioned that it would be 20 years in May since we put out our first Weekly Breeder. I suggested that we publish a Special 20th Anniversary issue and asked Bill to invite whomever he thought might enjoy contributing to it. From that list of Bill's coupled with the remnants of my own list evolved my current list of correspondents. Plus those people that are always suggesting that I send something to someone they enjoy corresponding with. And the network continues to widen. Since 1992 I have answered every piece of mail sent to me. I absolutely love the fact that when I come home from work there waiting in my mailbox could be something from someone new that will blow my mind. And that my response back to them will start an escalating volley that will lead to a place neither of us knows and might even involve other creative people. Mail art is truly a unique experience the nature of which most people will never know.
Ah, but then there is the Internet. Which is basically digital mail art and no less valid than Ray's traditional form. Its physical and tactile limitations are offset by its immediacy and awesome pervasiveness. I recently bought a MAC computer and have installed some graphic applications. Along with a color ink jet printer I have found it to be an incredible efficient tool for generating mail art. It lends itself to personalization and is still something that I can stick in an envelope and send off into that old fashioned postal system. I intend to purchase a modem eventually mainly to download software upgrades but not as my main source of mail. Obviously E-mail and home sites will replace the mailbox and probably the telephone in the next century but I hope that takes awhile. First class mail will probably go first leaving Third class and Express services as the most lucrative for the Postal Services. So, instead of me mailing you an actual print from a hand carved stamp of M.B. Corbett you would download that image from the print I had scanned and placed in your web site. No longer would your copy be a unique, one of a kind print. Instead it would be digitally identical to everyone else's varying only by your printers settings.
When I first got into mail art a postage stamp was .08c (US). Today its .32c. Tomorrow it will be on my phone bill. It is with the knowledge that our grandchildren may never experience licking a stamp that I gleefully keep up this tradition.
RJ: Well, how could you know that on the day I received your answer, I just had started with my own web site, and that all the interviews that are finished are now online thanks to the help of Jas W. Felter in Canada. But like you, I still prefer the paper-work and at the same time am open to the new developments. When I first met you, you had this exhibition in Hagen, Germany, with your larger artworks where you included the rubber stamping as well. The small rubber stamp is too small for you?
Reply on 31-8-96
TM: It's not that the typical commercial rubber stamp is too small for me, it's just that I have always realized other potential uses of the act of rubber stamping. A rubber stamp transfers ink onto paper. Being someone who likes to draw and paint I knew that I could use that basic concept to make images that hadn't been done before. The large stamped pieces that I exhibited at the Stempel Mekka in hagen (Germany) in September 1994 represent a combination of the various mediums that I enjoy exploring; drawing, painting and print-making all under the umbrella of rubber stamps. But the birth of those pieces began at that very same dinner with Bill and Darlene in january 1992 when I asked Bill if I could exhibit at his Stamp Art Gallery. The show was eventually scheduled for July 1993. So, with the opportunity provided by Bill to exhibit and the means to make the type of rubber stamps I had in mind provided by PSX I set out to produce about 20 large pieces of rubber stamp art.
These rubber stamp "paintings" were made in the following manner; I started with a series of small rubber stamps that I cut out of various dot and line patterns from Letrona sheets from Letraset . These were in circular, square and triangular shapes ranging in size from 1 square inch to 5 square inches. I used these stamps in combination with extensive masking techniques the way an airbrush artist might. I would draw in pencil a light picture of a scene I had in mind and mask off parts of the background and foreground to build up color. I used light-fast fabric inks exclusively so that the pieces would not fade when exposed to light over time. I wanted to go beyond the mere "scene-making" that can be accomplished with a tree stamp here and a cow stamp there. For the average stamp user stuff like that is fun but for me it became rudimentary around 1971. So, even though I used small rubber stamps I knew that by combining the airbrush masking techniques with my knowledge of halftones and color that I could make very large paintings. The paintings were large but the stamps were actually small.
When Diana Arsenal and Wolfgang Hein of HEINDESIGN were in the Bay Area in July 1993, they visited PSX and also saw my exhibit at the Stamp Art Gallery. They asked me if I would show at their Stempel Mekka the following year in Hagen. I added 5 new pieces for the Stempel Mekka show. These were on wood and even larger than the previous years paintings. That trip to Germany, where I met you and Elke Freed and Siggi Wille and Tom Nelson and so many others will always be a special memory.
RJ: Yes, those first stempel-Mekka's were really a pleasure to be at. Just today, as I write this next question, the 5th Stempel Mekka is taking place in Hagen now. It has grown into a large international event with lots of stamp firms and is now located at a place inside a museum (with an original exhibition with stamp-cards to go with it). But the commercial aspect has taken over a lot of the Stempel Mekka. The same goes for the larger rubber stamp magazines (like RubberstampMadness and National Stampagraphic) which have become more commercial glossy zines instead of meeting points for creative people/artist. What do you think of this development?
Reply on 21-9-1996
TM: This is a very complex question. But my years in the industry make me as qualified as anyone to answer it. It was 1970 when I had those 3 cloud drawings made into stamps. I remember when Joel Rossman bought his first small vulcanizer in 1979 and a couple of years later we delivered our first shipment of cable car stamps (worth about $ 25) to Woolworth's in San Francisco. We walked out of there simply ecstatic. So today it is absolutely amazing for me to walk through our current factory and say "good morning" to an employee who wasn't even born when I was mailing postcards of my stamped clouds to Ray Johnson, Richard C., May Wilson, et al.
But the commercialization of the rubber stamp industry was inevitable. And its potential wasn't realized by me or Gaglione or Personal Stamp Exchange. The first true rubber stamp companies were All Night Media, Hero Arts and Rubberstampede. What I do find significant is that all the major companies are located in the Bay Area. That rubber stamps became commercial is in and of itself value neutral. If I may get a little political, let me say that I prefer capitalism over socialism as long as its "capitalism with a human face". But I remember when brand names used to be sewn on the inside of clothing - not on the outside. I'm more upset by the commercialization of sporting events than I am of the rubber stamp industry. I don't want to see corporate logos on baseball and football uniforms like I see on European and latin American Soccer uniforms. But, I'm sure before too long I'll be cheering on the Intel 49ers rather than the San Francisco 49ers.
Not only was the commercialization inevitable but also beneficial. Just taking PSX as an example I can attest to the fact that over the past 15 years we have employed probably over 1,000 people which has enabled about 100 people to purchase new automobiles and a couple of dozen people to move from renting to buying their homes. Think about the subsequent ripple effect of those activities on other industries. And its all centered around the act of rubber stamping which is a fun and good and basic activity. There are worse things to fret about.
And concerning publications such as Rubberstampmadness and National Stampagraphic, I don't lament the over abundance of advertising. I have some early RSMs from around 1980 when Lowry Thompson was editor. Those early issues were definably more mail art oriented and more fun than current issues but I am still impressed with the skillful management of that magazine by the current editor, Rubberta Sterling and her husband. They've helped promote the industry and have also created many jobs, I'm sure in the Corvallis area. And their classified section is still a great meeting place for rubber stamp pen pals (although not as hip a crowd as one might find in Global Mail). I personally like National Stampagraphic if only because they had the gumption to publish John Held Jr.'s tribute to Ray Johnson after his death. RSM only mentioned him obliquely and I doubt if they understand or appreciate that aspect of traditional mail art. But that's okay. They all serve their purpose.
In the mid 1980s we used to wonder "when's the bubble going to burst?" It may someday but not for awhile, I think. Rubber stamps are now a mainstay of the gift, craft and stationery industry. Remember that in the 19th century the greeting card industry grew out of something that was very personal and hand made. Cards used to be made by regular folks and were part of Folk art. Now there is Hallmark and here in the late 20th century they worry about loosing some business because people use rubber stamps to make their own cards. It's ironic. The thing about the rubber stamp industry is that almost anyone can start their own business. Not anyone can start their own car company or decide to start manufacturing refrigerators. So there will always be new, small companies coming into the industry and pushing the older, bigger companies into more precision marketing and efficient assembly.
RJ: You seem to enjoy carving the portraits of other people, and I am happy to receive the prints of the results. How do you choose "the subjects" and why do you use rubber (on this large size) instead of e.g. wood or linoleum?
Reply on 30-10-1996
(During my travel to San Francisco & California in October/November 1996, one of the people I visited was Tim Mancusi in Rohnert Park. The first day I was there Tim handed me the next question which he had typed and printed with his computer. I took the answer with me and am retyping it in Tilburg. Because we had lots of other things to discuss besides this interview, I sent the next question end of November from the Netherlands. It was very nice indeed to meet Tim for a second time!)
TM: The "subjects" I choose for my hand-carved portraits are usually my friends and fellow mail artists. Occasionally someone will ask me to carve a portrait of a relative, usually a child and, of course I will occasionally ask the people. I ask the people I correspond with to send me a photo of themselves so I can "immortalize them in rubber". And I do this as a means to motivate myself to make art. One of the problems I've always had as an artist is in motivation. There is never any lack of ideas - I have more ideas for all kinds of art than I'll ever have time to complete. But I will always finish the art that I promise to make for others. In other words, I have no problem breaking a commitment to myself but not a commitment to anyone else. Once I promise someone that I will carve their portrait there is no doubt that I will complete it. I would have done one of you but your own hand-carved portrait is so good that I doubt if I could improve on it.
I carve in rubber simply because I want these prints to come under the category of "Rubber Stamp Prints". It's a technicality. And once I adhere the carved rubber onto a block of wood it becomes a true rubber stamp. A few of the prints I displayed at the Stempel Mekka were so large that they probably should have been carved in wood or linoleum. In my opinion, one of the things that distinguishes a rubber stamp print from a traditional linoleum or wood block print is that the stamp is held in the hand and stamped on to paper. Traditional printmaking is usually done in an opposite fashion - the carved block is placed on a table and the paper is laced over it and, with the aid of a precise mechanical device comes in contact with the block.
I intend in the future to buy a small press that would enable me to make large, multi-color prints from linoleum. (But then they could never be considered as "Stamp Art" which I feel still needs to be legitimized as a valid form of art.) One of the disappointing aspects of the type of rubber I currently use is that the surface deteriorates when inked with solvent based inks which, over time ruins the edge of the line. There are some good permanent, water-based inks that have recently been released by the various ink manufacturers. I have often thought back to the slicon type of rubber that you experimented with and showed me in Hagen. I believe it had a more resilient surface than the rubber I carve in.
RJ: Funny you mention that carved portrait of me that I use on my post. I was carved by Joy E. McManus from Texas, USA who did that one for me years ago as a surprise-present for me. Yes, she did a good job, and I always like to use that stamp. The stamp is a symbol on its own now.....
Another question. You have been doing mail art for a long time now, but haven't kept all the mail art you got in. What eventually will happen with the mail art that is circulating around the globe?
Reply on 5-1-1997
(together with his answer Tim sent reprints of photo's he took of me while I was visiting him in Rohnert Part, November 1996. Also some artworks which mostly are portraits of (mail-) artists he knows).
TM: That's a difficult question to answer. I don't think anyone really knows what will happen to all that mail art although I can give you anecdotal examples of what has happened to some mail art. Back in my early days I sent out some really neat pieces that I remember were quite good. I would be shocked, and flattered to find out that even one recipient of that mail thought enough of it to save it. Over the years, as time and mailings accumulate some people started saving their mail, putting it in boxes, recording what came in and what went out. It became, for some a thing to do - perfectly suited for humans' natural organization tendencies. And, with the advent of personal computers, what was starting to get unruly became more manageable. Computers could enable mail artists to keep more precise records of mail art activity. No one knows that better than you.
Ironically, the most important force in creating an awareness of the need to archive mail art came from Ray Johnson's suicide in January, 1995. And, with the Walker Museum's "Spirit of Fluxus" exhibition that toured internationally a couple of years ago it isn't that wild to imagine that mail art, as an off-shoot (or "distant-cousin") of Fluxus activity might be worthy to students of modern art of a deeper examination. If that interest can be generated then all those boxes of mail art that a lot of people have stashed in closets, attics and garages will become the main source of exploration and assimilation. I know, for example that Patricia Tavenner of Oakland, California has saved almost all of the mail art she has received since the early 1970's. Maybe you saw some during your stay with her this past Autumn.
Sometime around 1977 after about 8 years of accumulating mail from all over the world (and with the previously described boredom setting in) I wound up donating a few hundred pieces of mail to the Oakland Museum. If I remember it correctly, Rick Solloway got me in touch with Michael Bell who was working at the Museum at the time. I gave him a foot locker filled with envelopes and small-press publications, and most of my Ray Johnson mail which I now regret. I kept about 20 or 25 pieces from Ray that were particularly personal. Those pieces of mail, along with a few boxes of other ephemera were later sold to Stephen Lieber (who previously had bought Jeff Berner's collection of Fluxus Art and then sold it to the Walker in Minneapolis). It was Gaglione who got me in touch with Lieber in May, 1992 while we were putting together the 20th Anniversary issue of The NYCS Weekly Breeder. Stephen was mainly interested in Ray's early mail art up until 1975. I find it interesting that Lieber considers Ray's mailings after 1975 to be of less significance. In a way it truly defines a Golden Age.
Now, there is some controversy centered around the ethicalness of selling mail art. I was unaware of this controversy at the time, having just gotten back into mail art but in retrospect I don't think that would have stopped me. It's a personal decision and I'm glad I did it. I was surprised by what Lieber offered me and decided the time was right. For years I had, from apartment to apartment moved all these dusty, old boxes of mail art - occasionally questioning why. And suddenly, here's this collector who not only is going to pay me for my archiving diligent but will, in all likelihood promote and help legitimize mail art. And that will benefit everyone.
I sometimes become weary of those mail art purists who look down their noses at others who sell their collections. During the 3 year period between when I sold the majority of my collection and Ray's death I continued to send and to receive mail from him. He was fully aware of what I had done and never expressed to me any consternation. In fact I believe our best exchanges were during this period. And, besides it's nice to recoup some of the money I had spent over all those years. Not to mention the time spent making a lot of great, little, one of a kind pieces designed to blow the minds of a single recipient.
So, I guess you can break down the eventual fate of all these pieces of mail into the following categories:
- Some mail art is archived and put away in boxes.
- Some mail art is organized in exhibitions and either enjoyed or not understood by its observers.
- Some mail art is thrown away.
- Some mail art is lost and may turn up later.
- Some mail art is destroyed (as was the case in the mid 1970s with the Italian Postal System).
- Some mail art is added on to by other mail artists and kept going in the network.
- Some mail art is framed and displayed on the walls of certain individuals.
- Some mail art is never opened and some is never answered.
My hope is that enough will be saved so that future generations will know that this was and continues to be an exciting, expressive endeavor that gives people joy in both its giving and receiving.
RJ: Most of the categories you mentioned are quite logical. I only wondered about the part "as was the case in the mid 1970s with the Italian Postal System". Since I only started with mail art in 1980, I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about that. The history of mail art isn't always easy to find in books yet........
Reply on 22-3-1997
TM: In 1975 Bill Gaglione, Anna Banana and myself had met Arturo Swartz at a dinner in San Francisco. Arturo owned a gallery in Milan, Italy where he exhibited dadaist and Fluxus art. In 1976 Bill had the idea to schedule a show for Anna Banana at Arturo's gallery unbeknownst to him. Bill designed a phoney poster announcing the exhibit (called "Hosannah Banana") and mailed it out soliciting mail art at the gallery's address. Arturo was not phased by Bill's unsanctioned exhibition and welcomed the contributions. But, Bill was later informed by Arturo that the show unfortunately coincided with a labor strike by Italian postal workers. During the strike mail was not delivered and continued to pile up. After a few months most of that mail, both domestic and international was destroyed.
Also, I can tell you for a fact that, during the Vietnam War years of the late 1960s and early 1970s Federal officials in the U.S.A. routinely collected and opened any mail to certain destinations that had any political messages on the envelope or just looked weird to them. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that, at one time a file was kept on me (and other mail artists) by the F.B.I. based on my envelopes of that time.
RJ: Do you like to 'provoke' the system with your (mail-) art?
Reply on 19-4-1997
TM: If, by the word "system" you mean the postal system then, yes I like to provoke them. But one of the definitions of provoke means "to anger" and I certainly wouldn't want to do that. But I do like to bemuse them. It is a tenuous relationship we mail artists have with the postal system. We want to push the limits of the process of mail delivery but not to the point of making it so difficult that we impede this process. That would be self defeating.
I am constantly amazed at some of the mail that shows up in my mailbox since it is sometimes near impossible to find the actual address. I worked for the U.S. Postal System in 1970 and I can tell you that all they want from us is to see a clear written address. In the U.S. the Post Office consists of mail handlers and mail carriers. It is the job of the mail handlers to get the mail to that point in the system where the mail carriers can sort the mail for delivery along their route. We all know where the address and return address should appear on an envelope and any deviation from that begins to annoy them. I, personally try not to make it hard to deliver my mail. I want it there as fast as possible. But, if I am going to provoke the Postal System I want it to be in a non-vicious, conceptual way.
Some of the most extreme examples of this were the exchanges I had a couple of years ago with Graffiti Grafix and Bianca Jarvis, a teenager who goes by the name of "Mysterious X". In fact, in my last telephone conversation with ray Johnson he told me that Bianca had mailed him a Hostess "Snowball" which, for those who may not know is a commercially baked type of cupcake. She simply wrote his address on the package, stuck some stamps on it and sent it across the country, as is exposed to the system. I think she was 13 at the time. Graffiti Grafix once mailed me an artificial banana and I mailed her back an artificial cucumber. We had several fruit and vegetable mailings for awhile. All of them unpackaged. I once sent her a stenciled portrait of herself spray-painted on plywood. It was 2ft. by 3ft. and I wanted it to be a gigantic postcard. When I took it into the Post Office the clerk behind the counter said "Don't you want to package this first?" I said "No, that would be missing the point." (you don't package a postcard). "But it might get damaged" she said. "Yes, it might" I replied. The next day it arrived without a problem.
I once mailed her a postcard that consisted of nineteen 1 cent stamps (a postcard was 19 cents at the time). I placed them on a card rows high and 4 columns wide. In the center, in small but clear print was her address contained within the dimensions of a single stamp.
One of my pieces to her was a postcard that consisted of a clear, see- through piece of thin plastic. All that was on it was my return address, her address (both written with a laundry marker) and a stamp. Bill gaglione did this 25 years earlier for his first wife, Linda. It is very dada to pay for postage so that you can send nothing. What does the letter carrier think as he delivers a clear piece of mail with no apparent message? It is pure process.
As a preliminary act to answering this question you posed I recently sent you a postcard that had a small envelope glued to one side of it. On the other side was your address and in the message portion it said "This postcard is really a letter". When you turn over the card and open the envelope inside is a letter that says "This letter is really a postcard". So, in actuality I was able to send you a letter, but at the postcard rate. To me this is very provocative and I consider it to be one of my best conceptual mail art pieces.
RJ: Yes, that postcard (or was it a letter?) arrived at my address without any problems, and I liked it a lot too. Sometimes with the large amount of mail I get in, I do miss the humor in the mail, and I notice that for you this is still an essential part. This humor normally develops best in one-to-one mail- contacts that are built up over the years, where mail-art contacts become close friends. Do you experience this as well?
Reply on 3-7-1997
(With his answer Tim sent me a copy of the "Eraser Carvers Quarterly" #4, a special edition with the portraiture of Tim Mancusi. Also a copy of the National Stampagraphic Volume XV , Number 3 , Spring 1997 , in which a special about Tim's portrait-stamps , and two prints of his most recent carvings of "The Sticker Dude" - Joel S. Cohen and Buz Blurr).
TM: Yes, humor is a strong aspect to my art and sometimes my approach to life. It is an inherent part of my personality and I think it is why I'm drawn to dada and Surrealism. Ray Johnson could not have brought about modern mail art without humor. It is a wry, ironic, zen type of humor and when one can occasionally capture it in an envelope to send along to a friend or stranger that's a special event. The three main components of mail art that I have observed over the years seem to be humor first with politics and sex tied for seconds.
What I find interesting is that it doesn't always take that long to establish a comfortable rapport through the mail. I have corresponded with all types of people - kids, adults, men, women, straight and gay. And since many mail artists often use "nick names" you initially have no information at all about the person on the other end. Humor can be a great way to broaden the kind of mail art you send and receive. But, because that humor is in the form of correspondence and you are not there in person to add something subtle via body language or a facial expression, the ironic point you were hoping to make may be misinterpreted. I had this problem a couple of years ago with Mallory, the Moadster of Fresno (California), and as a result we no longer exchange mail. Which is sad because her stuff was great. And she's an excellent eraser carver, too. (Now that I think about it, maybe I'll mail her something this week!) You talk about becoming close friends - in one of Mallory's last letters to me she mentioned that she had met her (then) current boyfriend through mail art. That has to be the ultimate satisfaction of answering mail; to actually establish a real relationship with someone. Of course as in any relationship a close proximity helps.
Sometimes I'll correspond with someone for awhile and then I get a postcard or a letter and they'll mention that they'll be visiting the bay area in the near future and we finally meet. Last September I met Sugar Irmer from Berlin and this October I'll be meeting Toby Galinkin from North Carolina. And, as you know its fun to show them around.
RJ: Yes, I sure remember the time in beginning November of last year, where you even took two half days off from your work, to show me the sunny sides of Norther California and introduced me to Jeff Berner. Time sure flies, and this interview is now going on for more then a year. So, I guess it is time to come to an end. Normally I ask if I forgot to ask you something. So, did I?
Reply on 28-7-1997
TM: No, I don't believe so. And I am very appreciative of the fact that the questions you asked gave me the opportunity to record my early memories of mail art, dadazines and rubber stamps. And also to express my opinions. Thanks for your diligence and especially for posting this interview on the internet.
RJ: Thanks for your time and energy as well Tim!
- END -
Mail-artist: Tim Mancusi, 153 Verde Circle, Rohnert Park, CA 94928,
Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, NETHERLANDS