One week left to catch Ray Johnson and the art of Mail Art in the exhibition:
“Correspondances” running until the 5th of May 2013
at the Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel on the Champs-Elysées, Paris, France.
Just imagine… It’s 1956 and you’ve received an envelope from an artist acquaintance named Ray Johnson. Upon opening it you find an odd conglomeration of cut-out ads, collage, drawings and customized rubber stamps. The seemingly nonsensical phrases vaguely remind you of a conversation you may or may not have had with this quirky artist, recently out of the legendary Black Mountain College. Somewhere between a snipped-out Lucky Strike logo and a James Dean clipping stamped “Claude Picasso Fan Club”, there’s a little bunny-faced drawing that seems to instruct you: “DETACH AND SEND TO JIM ROSENQUIST” followed by the world-famous painter’s home address…
What you would have in your hands would be the very birth of a strange little underground art movement. One that has flourished over the years and grown into the worldwide practice known as “Mail Art.”
That very type of thing happened to dozens of unsuspecting people who crossed paths with Ray Johnson, the man who started what he called the “New York Correpondance School” (spelled that way purposefully.) He did his correspond-dance with friends and acquaintances virtually non-stop until his mysterious death in 1995. Of course Johnson wasn’t the first artist to send his work through the post. Here’s a charming postcard drawn by Pablo Picasso and sent in 1905 to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire in Amsterdam.
I was lucky enough to come across this gem at the Museum of Letters & Manuscripts in Brussels recently. (Review coming soon.)
So Johnson wasn’t doing something that hadn’t been done before, he was just doing it in a way that was very different from virtually anything that had been seen previously, and he seemed to be using the Post Office and the recipients as part of the work itself so that it wasn’t actually “art” until after it was mailed.
The multitude of connections made during this process spawned a vast and varied series of chain reactions that is nearly impossible to track, but the spirit and influence of Ray Johnson’s mail art haunts the work of many artists that followed and continues to do so today, even with artists who never encountered Johnson.
This unique exhibition has gathered together works from twelve different artists, many of which were never initially intended to be seen in a gallery context. And the Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel is certainly not your typical Paris art gallery. It can be accessed through the main showroom or via a (less commercial) side entrance, but both routes take you up to the show in a “sensory deprivation elevator” which some may find a bit scary, but it serves a wonderful purpose. This light and sound-free ascension chamber, operated by an attendant, seems to purge the mind of noise and clutter from the commercial surface of the Champs-Élysées, and transports one skyward to “another level,” enabling visitors to experience the artistic creations with fresh senses. It is reminiscent of the custom, in Japanese cuisine, of chewing Gari (pickled, young ginger) to cleanse the palate between dishes.
Greeting you first is a large display including several glass cases filled with works by Ray Johnson, who has rarely been exhibited in France. Seeing these little, groundbreaking pieces is truly a satisfying experience. They offer a peek into the personal, creative interactions and inspirations that started the Mail Art movement.
Much of it has a very Dada feel and seems fairly indecipherable, precisely because it was intended to be somewhat of an “inside joke” between Ray and receiver. Some humorous references are evident and often scathing, but the true genius lies in the ephemeral nature of each individual piece. You must force yourself to remember that someone had the honor of retrieving every one of these little mind-benders from their mailbox and viewing it for the very first time, and then had the sensibility to hang on to it for all these years.
Many different artists have taken Johnson’s Mail Art idea and run with it. Eleven of them are included in this show. Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn has sent several of his large, collaged Airmail Paintings, one portraying a fictional correspondence between Ray Johnson and the French poet Ronsard.
There is a lovely triptych by Jan Dibbets, from Amsterdam, of his Halifax Diary, showing photographs of the artist on a train, alongside postcards sent during the journey .
American artist Eleanor Antin’s piece entitled 100 BOOTS includes a series of 51 ominous photographs showing (what else) 100 black boots arranged in different ways at different locations, and sent out as post cards to 1000 addresses over a two year period. This work serves to spotlight one of the major purposes of most Mail Art; circumventing the entire “art scene” and connecting on an individual basis with the addressee.
Vittotio Santoro, who lives and works both in Paris and Zurich was represented by a graphically diverse installation showing dozens of letters he received after mailing out invitations for people to send him a letter including the phrase: “Silence destroys consequences.”
Walead Beshty has included two of his large polished copper cubes. These monolithic, minimalist boxes still shine in places beneath the accumulated labels, handprints, scuff marks and dings, due to their FedEx transport from the artist’s home city of Los Angeles.
There are four pieces by Italian conceptual artist and member of the Arte Povera movement, Alighiero Boetti, (December 16, 1940 – February 24, 1994.) These works he sent through the mail to his daughter and wife as he traveled through Afganistan in the 70s & 80s. They incorporate various different stamp placement compositions, continuing the theme of permutation he used in much of his other work throughout his life.
Perhaps the strongest piece in this show is by New York artist Stephen Antonakos. His Package Project is displayed in a store window at ground level near the Louis Vuitton entrance. In 1971, during an artist’s residency in Fresno, California, Antonakos sent requests to about 100 artist friends, asking them: “Would you please send me something in a package for a project I am doing . . . “
Antonakos signed and dated each one of the packages when he received them and, according to his original plan, they have never been opened. They are always to be displayed with the addresses facing the viewer. Some of the notable packages included are from Ray Johnson, Judy Chicago, Christo, Connor Everts, Ruth Vollmer and Robert Indiana.
These worn and weathered packages strike the viewer with wonder at what could possibly be inside each of these 40+ year-old time capsules, destined to stay sealed precisely because the wonder is the best part of it all.
Also included in the exhibition is a film by Clarisse Hahn, in collaboration with Thomas Clerc, combining a fictional correspondance with video footage shot in Mexico; Poignant letters translated by the father of Vietnamese artist Danh Vò; Decorative Invoice by wine merchant and “undomesticated artist” Kurt Ryslavy (in catalog only?); and a colorful mail-ish installation by French artist Guillaume Lablon presenting sections of residential “Entrance Doors” with their mail slots included.
Mail Art, like the more popular “Street Art” has been a way for traditional artists to experiment with non-traditional methods and has also been a way for emerging and amateur artists to make meaningful connections, get feedback and feed off the ideas of others. Today there are many groups that have evolved around the practice of Mail Art. The International Union of Mail-Artists claims to have nearly 2000 members and the Flickr “Mail Art” group has more than 13,500 images in it’s pool.
In short, this exhibit is not to be missed. It is a chance to view some rare and innovative work that is highly underrepresented in most galleries. Admission is free and there is also a wonderful free hardback catalog of the show (while supplies last.)
So stop reading and get going. The exhibit closes May 5, 2013.
IF YOU GO:
Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel Website: http://www.louisvuitton-espaceculturel.com/index_GB.html
Mobile version: http://correspondances.louisvuitton-espaceculturel.com/
phone + 33 1 53 57 52 03
Main entrance: 60, rue de Bassano – 75008 Paris
Entrance by the Louis Vuitton shop: 101, avenue des Champs Elysées – 75008 Paris
Monday to Saturday, 12am to 7pm;
Sunday, 11am to 7pm
all text and images © Lance Aram Rothstein 2013