Monday, January 30, 2012

Ray Johnson, Mail Art, and Bob Boxes

The name Ray Johnson tickled the back of my brain as I walked through the Matrix exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum. I overheard the curator say the word, "silhouette" which caused me to back away from the framed collages and see a cupid. The collages were obviously finished pieces, carefully done, apparently worked on over many years. But the title of the show, "Tables of Content: Ray Johnson & Robert Warner Bob Box Archive" suggested that the collages were supplemental to the main event. (You can download the exhibition brochure at that link.)

Thirteen "Bob" boxes were arranged on the wall and meant to be a map, of sorts, to tables in the gallery. The only problem was that the boxes and tables were perpendicular. Where, exactly was "Bob Box #1?" Which end was up? A sign or labels would have been helpful. I moved to the tables, the main focus. On each table were the contents of one of the boxes sent from Ray Johnson to collagist and former optician Robert "Bob" Warner. Warner had arranged the objects: the belts in a box marked "snakes;" empty picture frames; a white cotton glove with writing on it indicating that this was the last we would see of Michael Jackson; tennis balls; a pack of Camel candy cigarettes; bits of clothing; a poster of Olympic gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz; a few crude drawings; and stacks and stacks of envelopes that revealed certain names, notable names, famous names. Johnson had contacted Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, among others, and many were friends of his. The mail should have been the clue.

Mail art. Ray Johnson is considered to be the father of mail art. He began making art to mail in the 1950s, and in 1962 founded the New York Correspondance School, with incorrect spelling (likely on purpose) to refer to the dance between people rather than the actual mailed art itself. The accompanying brochure refers to the "school," but says little else about this passion. The mail art was often a multiple, sent to many people with the request to alter it and send it on to a specified address or back to him.

Warner, Johnson's friend and recipient of the boxes, gave a brief talk at BAM on Friday, January 27, 2012, which included a performance using what I believe was glue in a squirt bottle and glitter to spell "Ray" on a clean pizza box in reference to an action performed by many boys in the snow and sand. Warner told us, among other things, that the twine around the boxes was tied by Johnson and that Johnson liked wordplay. Upon a celebration of the opening of Warner's eyeglasses store Johnson sent a bouquet of irises. In regards to the performance, Johnson would likely have been pleased and amused at the optician making a spectacle of himself.

An interesting fact I discovered doing later research: Robert Warner is the master letterpress printer for Bowne & Co. Since he is a collagist and a self-described "gatherer" it makes sense to me that he likes to hand set individual pieces of type. Another optician interested in objects and arranging things is the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose exhibit is still on view until February 26 at the de Young Museum. Is everything connected?

There was some attempt made to connect this exhibit with the previous Kurt Schwitters exhibit and the show of James Castle's work, but aside from collecting material from everyday life, these three artists approached their art completely differently. If two people are painters are they the same? Schwitters felt he was "painting" with his ephemera: he used it to make formal abstract compositions. James Castle was deaf and it was unknown if he could read; he created his work to communicate perhaps, perhaps to understand the world around him, perhaps because he just loved to make art. Johnson seemed to be throwing out notes in bottles, hoping to connect with individuals, but even more than that, to create ways to make people interact, more like theater or improvisation than visual art.

I was frankly disappointed with the exhibit, but definitely enjoyed unearthing these fascinating facts and stories from the detritus of the tables and later, from the internet.

A far more interesting project that looks at personal effects in containers is currently in progress by photographer Jon Crispin. The photographer was given permission to document the left behind suitcases of people who were admitted to the Willard Psychiatric Center between 1910-1960 (suitcases now belong to the New York State Museum). Of course, the people never left. One post says: "You can see the bird droppings from when it was stored in the attic before they were [sic] saved by the museum." The valises are all wrapped in archival paper and Crispin photographs the wrappers, then unwraps them without knowing what is inside. While these, like the Bob Boxes, were things left behind, they are more mysterious and some are heartbreaking. The objects were important to someone and were repeatedly a part of their lives: I believe this is our way in. We want to either identify with or just connect with the personal.

After stewing about the Johnson/Warner exhibit for a few days, in my head I've created the show I would like to see. The tables are separated as islands, each box included with its contents, some things in the box, some things out and arranged. Maybe not everything is shown.  Photographs of various arrangements are on the walls, challenging the viewer to go back and forth between image and reality, two and three dimension, and to hunt for certain objects, which may or may not be visible. That which is hidden often sparks the viewer's curiosity. Perhaps include a large map with pins and flags showing the addresses where Johnson lived and where he sent his mail art, perhaps include photos of the recipients, if known. Then, in the spirit of give-aways, publish a catalogue that includes an artifact or facsimile of one object with every purchase, or perhaps a packet of stationery that encourages alteration and mailing out.

At the very least, the exhibit made me pull out a few bags of collected ephemera and begin sorting by theme, assembling envelopes, and thinking about sending mail art again like I did in the 1980s. So, even a show that did not resonate with me inspired me to make art. I was able to back away and see with fresh eyes. Success? Failure? Who can say?

I've never done this before, and I may not do it again, but I am offering an envelope of oddments to the first three people who reply to this post and desire some mail art…


Penny said...

I would love some oddments, mail art is fascinating and I love reading your blog.

AES said...

I'd love some mail art :)


p.s. I have your book and love it!

dinahmow said...

As I read this, I got to thinking about asking one or two friends if they'd like to send a decorated envelope to my friend(and mother-in-law) now living in a retirement home.Though she no longer writes letters, she loves to have be on the receiving end of mail and the connection goes a little further as other residents hear about "Mary's painted letters" and pop into her room to see them.
It *is* all about connecting, isn't it?

Alisa said...

"Mary's painted letters" sounds terrific.

Thank you Penny, AES, and dinahmow.

If you three go to my website for my contact info, then email me with the snailmail address to which you'd like some mail art sent, I'll get something ready. Then, watch your mailboxes…something should arrive by the end of February.

oldlibraryman said...

I decorate most of the snail mail I send out to friends and family, 20 during January, 2012. My wife says it is a little much to decorate the bills. I am very selective about that. My mother-in-law loved my mail art,which was returned to me when she passed away. I have become a follower of your blog.

Alisa said...

Welcome, oldlibraryman!
What a great tradition—I love it.

Anonymous said...

Robert Warner is sleeping with scissors

Alisa said...

Thank you, anonymous, for your mysterious comment. My curiosity led me to a reference to a 2007 exhibit in which Robert Warner showed a series of 100 collages with "Sleeping with Scissors" as the title.

found the reference here: