THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CARLO PITTORE.
Started on: 10-5-1995
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: 22-5-1995
CP : In response to
your query, I began my Network mail art activity in 1978, encouraged by Bern
Porter. Although I had been decorating my letters with pen & ink drawings
and water colors for years, inspired no doubt by Vincents' letters to Theo, I
also learned that drawing on my letters was good practice.
When Bern Porter encouraged me to send an original
postcard off to a mail art exhibition, I was ripe for mail art. Not only had I
been a philatelist as a kid, but I was eager for community, and was an appreciator
of intimate mailed communication.
By 1980, when I published the first issue of ME
Magazine, I was a real part of this expanding Network.
RJ : What was your
ME Magazine about? Is it still alive?
Reply on 6-6-1995
(Carlo's answer came in the form of a
booklet made out of 12 different colors forming the rainbow. He also wrote
below his answer: "I'd like to see you reprint this colorful letter as
CP: I began ME
Magazine in the summer of 1980 after the insult of paying an entrance fee to
participate in an exhibition in Rockport, Maine. Similar work had already been
accepted to hang in an elegant Madison Avenue Gallery in New York City, so when
I went to the exhibition with a friend, I was shocked and humiliated that they
had failed to inform me of rejection & that I was paying for the cheese and
wine at the opening! That their rejection was merely subjective, and not
aesthetic. I wanted everyone to know that I would never pay to exhibit again,
that their decisions were strictly
subjective anyway, and that I no longer would pursue the carrot at the end of
the stick, that in art, I would not allow museum curators to control my life.
Also, I had spent the summer painting selfportraits, and
making selfportrait collages - so it seemed that as I was immersed in myself,
and yet wanted mail art community, I would call my little publication ME
, since it was about ME, yet a put down of ME-ism, and of course, ME is
the postal abbreviation of Maine. I enjoyed the pun, and when I asked
recipients to send me a dollar bill to share in my publication costs, Ray
Johnson was right there, circling the ME in America on the one dollar
bill. Some understood.
I filled the 1st issue of ME with my art collages
on the theme of self portraiture, included pertinent quotes on the self, a
personal reminiscence of Bern Porter (who's home I was spending the summer of
1980 at, at his Institute for Advanced Thinking, in Belfast, Maine) and other items
of concern to me. When I mailed copies of the publication to Maine artists, and
to mail artists, it was the mail artists who responded, not my local friends,
and it was at that time that I realized who my real comrades were....
and when I returned to Manhattan in September, I was a wholly confirmed mail
I opened my mail art gallery, La Galleria dell'Occhio
at 267 East Tenth St. NYC in December 1980 - (the first gallery in what became
the hot East Village art scene) - "a homage to Bern Porter" exhibition,
and after the 2nd issue of ME was published in the spring of 1981,
essentially on the theme of movement (i.e. motion pictures, or moving pictures,
& repetition as in artistamps, I introduced myself, my gallery, my art, and
my correspondents addresses to my readers.
The third issue was a play on the theme of ME , on
the idea of the universal ME. I also enclosed the documentation of the Bern
Porter mail art Exhibition which I curated, and, too, the additional
introduction of my POST ME and Bern Porter Commemorative Stamp Series.
ME = WE.
The 4th issue was an audio cassette letter, of songs,
etc. inspired by Rod Summers. The 5th issue was devoted to ME, ETC , or METC
- to my Maine Art and Mail art communities, with articles by John Evans, John
Jacob, Valery Oisteanu, Mark Petroff, Stephen Petroff, and Roland Legiardi -
Laura; and a document of the International Mail Art Exhibition Salva La
Campagna Romana in Montecelio, Italy, which I curated in the summer of
1982, the Boxing international mail Art Exhibition of February/March
1983, with a critique by critic Judd Tully; a declaration of War against
exhibitions changing entry fees; a statement on Independence as ME and
Community, lists of participating artists, a listing of mail art
exhibitions etc. approaching, and other miscellany.
Issue #6, "International Mail Art is the most
important & most significant Art movement in the world today" was the
document of the Maine International Mail Art exhibition at the Maine
Festival in Brunswick, Maine, August 1983. Included were two sheets of
artistamps, a Cavellini sticker, a Ray Johnson piece, postcards by David Zack,
David Cole, Epistolary Stud Farm, Robert Swiekiewicz, Volker Haman, Ubaldo
Giacommuci, Stephen Petroff and Eric Finlay, with a series of stamps by Michael
Leigh, and Mark Melnicove.
Tony Ferro published issue #7 in Italy, including a piece
that I wrote about the frustration of rejection, following my exhibition of
FIST - boxing painting at Buster Cleveland and Diane Sippellès Gallery in NYC.
I have not yet published issue #8, but I am not prepared
to say it will not happen. But I must add, that I was hurt by Géza Perneczky's
review of ME Magazine in his survey of small Press publications (1993).
His criticism was based on the fact that he failed to perceive the irony in ME,
the pun in ME/Maine, and POST ME (after ME) and the playfulness of the
Even mail artists can be as small minded, rigid and
uptight as the dominant culture, although I would not have expected that from
Géza, of who's art I have the utmost respect. Let's face it, none of us are
perfect, and all of us make mistakes. Even ME.
RJ : How was your
correspondence/dance with Ray Johnson?
Reply on June 18th 1995 "Father's Day"
CP : Dear Ruud, You
ask me about my correspondence/Dance with Ray Johnson, and because of Ray's
exit on January 13th of this year, its been a Season of constant Ray Johnson
thoughts, mentioned as he is in almost every mail art communication; and
between his memorial service, and Feigen Gallery Memorial Exhibition, & all
the articles in the New York Times , Art Forum , etc. , I have
reason to reflect on the public Ray Johnson, and the man I knew.
As I said earlier, my first rememberable Ray Johnson
communication, was a dollar bill with George Washington saying "ME" ,
as they do in cartoons, with a megaphone drawn from the mouth with ME from A ME
RICA captioned . I thought that was pretty clever. Everyone is a ME in A ME
first ME in the word AMERICA in the 'bulb'like
with a cartoon. The second ME in America as a country-sign on the bumper of a
The first time I met Ray was when he came to my East
Tenth Street apartment (Manhattan) to reunion with Bern Porter. Evidently, Bern
had published something with Ray in 1956! , and I don't think they had met up
with one another since then. But as both of them had grown into mature artists,
it may have been a reunion of mutual appreciators. Bern is 17 years older than
Ray, and Ray was always trim and healthy, and he looked like a kid next to
Bern. Indeed, he even exhibited some of that shy, nervous discomfit of being in
the presence of an inquisitive adult.
One time I joined my family in Locust Valley for an
anniversary celebration, and I called Ray to say Hello, and to my surprise, he
came right over to meet me, and all of my extended family. The family was
slightly discomfitted: they knew Ray was not of their ilk. But Ray was very
friendly to them and to me, and he made me feel like his equal. I felt very
flattered. I told the family how great Ray was, and how important an artist he
was, but as they had not heard of him at the time, they were less than suitably
Another time I hosted a mammoth Mail Art party, and who
would have believed it? But Ray came. Mind you, he didn't enter into my
apartment at this time, but remained in the hallway outside my door, holding
court. As everyone wanted to talk with Ray. The Hallway became the epicenter.
He brought the Party to him.
Of course these were the years when the New York mail
artists were all my best friends: Buster Cleveland, Mark Bloch, John Jacob,
John Evans, David Cole, Ed Plunkett, Jim Klein, Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, Ed
Higgins and all those pals who were frequent out-of-town visitors, like Random,
Banville, Cracker, Saunders, et al. What a community! and what a sense
of community! It really was a correspondance - and of course there were
those I met directly through Ray like Curtis Wells, Joseph Towne, Coco Gordon,
Bill Wilson, Andy Warhol, John Russell, and others - including some local East
Village types. Even though he was rarely physically present, the spirit of Ray
Johnson always was. And everyone had their Ray Johnson stories, or recent Ray
conversations to relate. Ray Johnson always hovered over us.
At the opening of his Nassan County Museum exhibition in
February 1984, Ray greeted everyone on the grounds outside the museum wearing a
sweater and blue jeans. And at the same time half the New York art world was
there! Dressed to the nines! All the New York mail artists, all the Fluxus
artists, lots of dealers, critics, painters, pop artists, collectors, and others.
It was a New York Gala 20 miles out of New York; what a testament to Ray's
visual art, and what a testament to his ever-widening correspondance.
I'm trying to think if I ever saw Ray after that... oh
yes, at a Long Island Performance of his; wasn't he funny! He always made a big
deal about doing Nothing. Our sensibilities are very dissimilar - but I always
appreciated him even when failing to appreciate fully his zen-like attitudes.
He hated prose which he saw everywhere stifling art. His was a war against
practicality & the pragmatic. He wanted poetry all the time. Art -all the
Since his apparent suicide, I've read a lot about Ray,
and wrecked my memory, and thought back on our meetings and conversations, his
phone calls to me, especially since I returned to Maine, his mailings, his
influence, his relationship to the world-wide community of artists..... so many
of whom apparently felt very close, humored, inspired, and appreciative of Ray.
If influence determines artistic merit, Ray's influence is quite profound at
the moment. There are many who were part of, and who evidently still feel part
of his correspondance. Was he the father of mail art? His spirit still
emanates and manifests itself throughout the Network.
Of his apparent suicide, one friend thought his act an
act of cowardice, but I don't see it that way at all. Jumping off a high bridge
into frigid January waters, from my point of view, requires far greater courage
than I could imagine mustering.
If his decision was askew, his execution was flawless,
regardless. And I am not in any position to judge him, or his action.
RJ : The mail art
network has grown enormously in the last decades. Is there still this 'sense of
community' as you called it. Or do you see some changes in the network?
Reply on 4-7-1995
CP : Your question
Ruud, is not very simple. If "community" is an ideal, let me say that
as a classically oriented figurative painter (primarily of the nude) living in
Maine, USA, in 1995, I am isolated, if not alienated. The few figurative
painters I know are so damn competitive and self-inflated, that there is no
dialogue whatsoever. In the world in which my body inhabits, painting is
neither chic nor affordable, and complicating this is that it is an extremely
difficult activity. Indeed, drawing is often times more difficult and elusive
then I care to elaborate. In such a situation, I play mail art merely to keep in
touch with my Network pals of almost 20 years.
When I was younger, and more open to whatever I believed
Art to be more inclusive, and I engaged in multi-media activities; newsletter,
magazine & book publishing, movies, gallery operating, poetry performance
art, audio, video, TV, radio, painting & mail-art. It all seemed to be a
As life has become more complicated, and drawing and
painting more time-consuming and difficult, I am more focused on my greatest
obsessive pleasures: drawing and painting.
While I still enjoy playing mail art with old network
buddies of almost 20 years, and some new friends as well, we have all gone in
our own directions, and Art is not as facile as it once was (or as we may have
seen it) and in my own case, I haven't had the money to publish anything I've
done since the middle 1980's ; what monies I have I need to pay the rent and
pay for my art supplies. Postage has become prohibitive. Mail art, as Bern
Porter reminded me for years, is not a vocation, but an avocation (I haven't
been to Europe since 1984, either)
Having said that, let me not overstate my own private
concerns of drawing and painting, nor undervalue my own very important communal
involvement with mail artists. I could easily make a list of a hundred mail artists
I love, a hundred whom I admire, a hundred to whom I am thankful for
inspiration, help, love, concern, encouragement; and there is NO question in my
mind that mail art has been an extremely rewarding, and exhausting
If the "sense of community" is not as it was,
for me, in the early 1980's - it may be that so many friends have moved on,
died, moved away, and too, that mail art has changed, or hasn't changed. Ego,
which has always had a major involvement in mail art, is still unrestrained in
some very active practioners, and art is, as always, RARE, and more wondrous
and desireable than ever. The mail artists I feel closest to are either persons
I love, or whose art I admire, or both. And in the case of my own works, which
has become so problematic, maybe it is too difficult to love, and consequently,
we, as individuals, too difficult to love.
Because art is so fragile, and the artist so insecure, it
is easy to fluff oneself up, to grandstand, & to parade. Maybe, when we
were younger, that's what we were, a parade of grandstanders. Except that some
amongst us have achieved some aesthetic heights. And some of us may have made
Art. Others may have been amusing; others, useful.
Do we today share a common aesthetic? A common goal? A
common heritage? A common concern? Some of us are aesthetes. Some poets, some
intellectuals. Some intuitive..... and all of us aging, & possibly as well,
with diminishing resources, patience, time, etc.
Fifteen years ago, maybe 80% of mail artists would have
read this interview, but now, even if 80% received this interview, how many
will take the time - will have the time - to read this? And rightfully
so. What could I say that is new, fresh, original, energizing, or inspiring?
These are just words I am writing out - PROSE. Who has the time, &/or the
interest? I much prefer original hand made drawings myself, than words.
Printed Matter has overwhelmed all of us in the last decade, and unless it were
a four color glossy with reproductions of our own work, who cares?
And who am I, a solitary, living far away in Maine, to
talk about Community? And what would this "Community" be? For me,
Community would be a community of artists who are different, & yet unique,
and who have artistic respect and admiration for each other. The Community to
whom I feel that "Sense" is out there. Indeed, it may well be you,
dear reader. I can only hope it will also include me.
There are a hundred mail artists with whom I feel that
"Sense of Community"; some of whom I love so much that their art is
acceptable; others of whom their art is so laudable, they are acceptable. And
then there are others who are both, and others who are not loveable, but then
again, they may be useful to the community, and therefore laudable.
Since I do everything by hand, I value those who value
the handmade, those who value the maker of the hand-made (especially those who
love my figurative art) and who sing and celebrate the hand-made, the one-of a
I do not E-mail. I have NO computer. I may never have a
computer. I put my hand into the soil of my backyard and garden and grow
vegetables and flowers. And put my hand around the pencil and draw. And around
the brush and paint. And around the pen, & write.
I am involved in the community that values my
humanistic activity, as I value my friends, and colleagues who ply their
activities with equal integrity. I love poetry, music, sculpture, drawing,
painting, love, beauty and all those who practice it, celebrate it. obsess on
it. They.... (You?) are my community. This is my sense.
RJ : What is a
computer for you?
Reply on 28-7-1995
CP: OK. A computer
for me is a series of electrical circuits designed to simulate (artificial)
intelligence.... and art for me is intuitive, sensual, senvous, and
anti-mechanical. I understand that the computer has great value & uses, but
like the TV - it can also lower standards as well as improve some things.
Letter writing, for instance, is ruined by the telephone and Email. I prefer my
own slow handwriting to the machine.
RJ : Do you still
participate in mail art projects when you get an invitation or have you become
selective in answering your mail?
Reply on 26-8-1995
CP : I always try
to accept personal invitations. It's not selective as such, that determines my
mail art involvement (although who doesn't want some selectivity in where one
puts oneself or ones parts) but usually TIME.
I don't know or understand how time has become so
fleeting, but it has, and perhaps as well, my priorities have also changed. I
always laugh when I tell people that there are only three aspects of life that
interest me: Love, Art & Food, and I think that order is generally correct,
although food goes to 1st place a couple of times a day, and love has very
Mail - the nature of my mail is sometimes very thrilling,
especially if it incorporates love. I am always turned onto a handwritten note,
or a lengthy letter, or something decidedly original, or specifically heartfelt
, but much in the mail has become understandably , cold, printed,
I always appreciate artistic brilliance - even if
mass-produced or xeroxed, but "artistic brilliance" in an ideal,
& since I often fall short of it, I'm not in any position to lament its
demise in others.
One reads in mail art circles how a mail artist is so
isolated & alone, except for the network, & I understand this, &
have felt this, but I am making a concerted effort to relate better with my
local community. I think this is more important, rather than less important.
Mail is a vehicle for communication. but also, perhaps, of NON-involvement, of
selective involvement, of partial disguise.....
RJ : In mail art
there are the unwritten rules, actually written down many times, but it seems
that in the last years more and more rules have been broken. I remember you
used to write sometimes open letters when someone broke these rules. Does it
still bother you?
Reply on 19-9-1995
CP : When I wrote
my angry letter to Ronny Cohen (1984, Franklin Furnace Mail Art Exhibit) I felt
she betrayed us by "editing" the show, putting the classic mail
artists in glass cases, and relegating the others to oblivion. I have not
hesitated in attacking other art critics, when called for, but I have always
been hesitant to attack other artists publicly. It has become quite obvious
that some mail artists are cashing in on the system, however, who can entirely
blame them? Almost any way an artist can survive in this economy today
I do think "mail art" has pretty much run its
course. It is no longer cutting edge, no longer avant garde; it has been
co-opted, and what we are seeing is the end, not a lull. While there are still
some very legitimate exciting
exceptions, mail art is a misnomer. And who knows what art is anymore, anyway?
At a symposium on Public Art in Portland, Maine, last
weekend (September 9th 1995), I heard Lucy Lippard, Suzi Gablik, Suzanne Lacy,
and Mierle Ukeles rail against art as precious object, and art as anything less
than a relationship with the community. No longer is art an eye, Suzi Gablik
said, but an ear. We must learn to listen, and to hear.
Who can argue that mail art is still fulfilling the kind
of need it filled before E-mail, before the end of the communist Empire, before
the death of Ray Johnson?
Mail is still fun, and the exchange is still valuable,
but is it still art? To the believer, the question is irrelevant. One does what
But as for Art? In an age when Mierle Ukeles shakes hands
with 8,500 sanitation workers and calls THAT art, then everything can be art,
and consequently, nothing is art. I do what I like. Art be damned. Is it
community relevant? And anyway Ruud - the breaking of what rules? The
"unwritten" mail art rules of not mixing money & mail art? -
Broken! The "unwritten" mail art rules of "No fee, Exhibition
& documentation" - how many more lists do you need, with your name on it?
Boring! Boring! Boring!
If the art sent is not art, if the exhibition held is not
art, if the documentation provided is not art - is it still art?
If so, what is your definition of Art? And who cares?
RJ : Yes, I realize
that there is a lot of repetition in mail art, especially when I get those same
themes in projects again, and when I get another xeroxed list of a project. But
the advantage of being for a long time in mail art, is that you receive many
invitations and you have the luxury of ignoring the projects you don't like and
can focus on the interesting things in mail art. Mail art still brings me
surprises, and that is why I am still doing it. Mail art still guides me to new
aspects I can integrate in my life. I am not interested in a definition of ART
or in one of the many definitions of MAIL ART. I just want to have a creative
life, but actually sometimes don't really know what I would like to create.
Your paintings, the letters that you write and mail. Why do you do it. What do
you want to create?
Reply on 19-10-1995
CP : You ask me why
I draw & paint, and what do I want to create? Firstly, after drawing and
painting for more than a quarter century, I love it. I don't need a purpose
beyond the joy, excitement and pleasure I feel while drawing and painting. That
isn't the way it has always been, but that is the way it is now, and I assure
you I am most grateful for this condition: of enjoying what I am doing,
enjoying the process (and the letters that I write, too!). It makes me a very
I suppose if I had a purpose, it would be to celebrate
the joy of living, to celebrate life in all its manifestations, to celebrate
goodness, love, care, concern, beauty. I would try to discourage violence,
self-violence, hate, self-hate, bigotry, blindness, ignorance, and detrimental
behaviors. For me, there is a real moral component in art - not that there has
to be - but I feel compelled to celebrate, and compelled to redeem, to save, to
preserve, to defend, to honor, to sustain, to keep, and compelled to fight
against evil, injustice, unkindness.
Maybe the mere making of a drawing &/or painting is
this: a testament of the goodness in life, a celebration of sober humanity. I
want to help create a world where people are motivated by a sense of community,
to celebrate beauty in all its manifestations, to enjoy, to appreciate, to
hear, to see, to touch, to be..... I am happy, I enjoy living, I appreciate
breathe - and I want to share this with others : to love.
Thank you Ruud for your interest in me, & what I
think and feel. Being loving, & supportive, as you are, is most creative.
Blessings to you, and your projects.
RJ : I also want to
thank you, for the sincere answers you gave during this interview and the time
and energy you took for writing down your thoughts and feelings.
RUUD JANSSEN - TAM
4801 BB Breda
Labels: Carlo Pittore, Mail-Interview, Ruud Janssen, USA