Interview with John Held, Jr.July 18, 2012
Patricia Maloney: How did you become involved in producing and collecting mail art?
John Held, Jr.: I was in upstate New York in the mid-1970s. I had just graduated from college and was starting a family and beginning an art career—although at the time, I didn’t consider it a career. There was no one in the area to discuss contemporary art with. I had gone to Europe for the first time and discovered rubber stamps. I thought I had discovered the wheel. I didn’t know of any other artists using rubber stamps at that time. I was working at a reference library—I had just graduated with a MLS from Syracuse University—so I did some research there on how rubber stamps were being used by contemporary artists and found a New York Times article about a rubber stamp company in Rhode Island called Bizarre Rubber Stamps. I wrote to them and asked them if they knew of any other contemporary artists using rubber stamps in their fine art practices. They told me to write to Ray Johnson and Ed Plunkett, who was the man who gave Ray Johnson’s postal activities the name “The New York Correspondence School” in 1962. Ray Johnson was the father of mail art and probably one of the most interesting artists I’ve ever met in my lifetime.
I wrote to Johnson, and he wrote back immediately. We kept writing to each other, which I later found out was a bit unusual, that he was so heavily invested in his correspondence with me. Soon after we started corresponding, he came up to the area and had a show at Hamilton College, and we sat down for an interview. This was about 1977 or ’78, and it was one of the rare interviews that he consented to in his lifetime; there are maybe four or five of them.
At the same time, I met Jean Brown, who became a mentor to me. She had a collection of dadaist and surrealist ephemera and went on to collect Fluxus art. She lived in a Shaker seed house in Tyringham, Massachusetts, which was about two hours away from me in upstate New York, so I used to visit her once a month for a period of three or four years.
PM: In addition to being a collector, she was also a fellow librarian/archivist, wasn’t she?
JH: Exactly. I don’t think she had a library degree, but she worked at the nearby Lee Public Library. She started her collection with her husband Leonard in the early ’50s, when nobody was paying attention to dadaist and surrealist ephemera. They couldn’t afford the paintings, so they collected the posters, magazines, correspondence, and the photographs. It was an incredible collection. After Leonard died, she was taken to a Fluxus performance in New York, and she became known as the den mother of Fluxus. George Maciunas, who was the impresario of Fluxus and was headquartered in New York, was a huge presence in her collection. She supported a lot of those artists. She didn’t have a big income. Leonard was an insurance guy, so she did have some money and she put it all into this art collection.
PM: Jean Brown and her husband were collecting ephemera when there wasn’t a lot of weight given to that material. At the same time, mail art was in its heyday. What was your perception of your own activities and her collection at that point in time, in terms of its purpose, value, and use?
JH: It was a study collection. People from all over the world were making pilgrimages to the Shaker seed house, which Maciunas transformed into an archive. All of the drawers were built into the walls, with little knobs and a big Shaker table down the middle of the room where she had Fluxus boxes and that type of thing out.
A lot of people came to see the collection, including Yoko Ono and John Lennon. It was a very important study collection of Fluxus and the biggest in the country at the time. You could just rummage through these drawers. It was like an amazing smorgasbord of postwar avant-garde art.
She picked up on mail art really early and supported a lot of mail-art projects. One in particular was called the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, started by a Turkish artist, Plinio Mesculium, in Milan, Italy. You would do something on a sheet of his letterhead and send it back to him with a list of twelve names and addresses. Then he would color-Xerox it, which was rare at that time, and send out twelve copies to the twelve people you indicated. It was a way to get in touch with all those art-world people in a very mysterious way. I was sending things to Nam June Paik and the Fluxus people.
Most people only saw what was sent to them directly. But Jean Brown had the whole run of all the units. There were, like, two thousand units sent out. She backed Mesculium, and so he made fifteen copies of the work: sending out twelve copies, plus one for the person who made it, a copy for himself, and a copy for Jean Brown. It’s that type of thing that I was getting from her: the firsthand experience of all of these people who were very fond of her.
Liz Glass: Can you describe one of these letters? What did you write and to whom?
JH: I didn’t write anything; they were purely visual. There would be his letterhead—Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication—on which you would do a collage that he would type over with the names of the twelve people and an assigned unit number, like “Unit no. 261 of John Held, Jr.” So those twelve people knew it came from John Held, Jr., via the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication.
It was just an incredible project, and there are a lot of long-duration, very single-minded projects like that in mail art. Another is by the Japanese artist Ryosuke Cohen who has been producing Brain Cells since 1985. Again, he assigns unit numbers to each piece that goes out, and when he gets maybe forty contributions from people in seven or eight countries, he transfers an image from each of their correspondences onto a single page using a gocco printing method. There are symbols for all the mail artists on this page, and he has a separate page listing their names and addresses. It’s one way that the whole network expands upon itself because you receive one of the Brain Cells with the names of the contributors on it.
LG: It’s interesting for me to think about this centralized kind of method. I hadn’t really considered that, in terms of the way that mail art was disseminated at that time.
JH: I wouldn’t say centralized…it’s decentralized. It’s all of these individuals working on a continuous project, but there are lots of people working on continuous projects. There’s no centralized way to find out about mail art. You’re not going to get the idea of mail art by just looking at a Mesculium piece or a Ryosuke Cohen piece. They’re part of a network, but they are not the network. There’s not one person who is the network.
PM: But it sounds, from your description, that they’re acting as these nodes in a network through which people in disparate circumstances who would have no face-to-face connection could suddenly find themselves in correspondence with each other or at least have the ability to correspond with each other.
JH: That’s what it’s all about: nodes and the network and people contributing in the way they want to with different energy and proficiency and age levels. These nodes are located worldwide. That’s one of the reasons why I really enjoyed mail art, specifically in the ’70s, because I was able to write to all of these artists in Eastern Europe who had no other way of communicating. They had travel restrictions; they couldn’t move around, so the post office was the only open channel that they could use to communicate with their colleagues in the West. Because of universal laws for postal regulations and freedom of postal activity, even repressive governments in Eastern Europe and in South America had to allow the mail to go through.
PM: That actually prompts a question about your intersection with Franklin Furnace, whose policy was to accept any artist book. In our interview, Martha Wilson talked about how they received things from Argentina during its military dictatorship that looked like complete gibberish to the government censors, but at Franklin Furnace, they recognized them as gestures of protest. It sounds as if mail art was operating in a similar way, in terms of trying to thwart power structures.
JH: There was no difference between mail art and Franklin Furnace. They were very much linked into everything, and Martha got a lot of her material through the mail-art network. She had one of the only institutions in the country during the mid- to late ’70s where you could see work like that. Printed Matter was doing similar things although it was the commercial arm of the artist’s-book revolution. Franklin Furnace was the archival arm.
But Martha Wilson was important to me as I was getting my feet wet, and I was in several of the Franklin Furnace shows in the late ’70s. She was crucial for the whole field. It was so diffused, and there weren’t many physical places where you could see mail art besides Franklin Furnace and Printed Matter. La Mamelle in San Francisco was extremely important. Carl Loeffler had some of the first mail-art and rubber-stamp shows in the world, here in San Francisco. Mail art in the United States is a dadaist activity, but in Europe it tended to be a more theoretical discourse. At the head of that was Ulises Carrion in Amsterdam, who is very important for artist’s books and also for mail art in conceptualizing its importance. I spent some time there with him, and that’s how I developed into an artist/historian.
LG: I don’t want to jump forward too much, but you just brought up La Mamelle and Carl Loeffler in San Francisco. When did you come out here and establish your own gallery to show this kind of work? Who you were corresponding with on the West Coast, and what was the cross-country connection?
JH: I started talking to La Mamelle in 1977-1978. It was a center for this type of activity, and I could get a connection from them to what was happening on the West Coast. There was a big scene in San Francisco with the Bay Area Dada Group, Monty Cazzaza, Anna Banana, and Tim Mancusi. I was in contact with them and also with Bill Gaglione, who was married to Anna Banana at one point in the ’70s. He ran a rubber-stamp company in San Francisco, which became a center for mail-art activity in the area. I had moved from New York State to Dallas, Texas, where I became an art librarian at the Dallas Public Library. While there, I also started a gallery called Modern Realism. We had the first exhibition of Ray Johnson’s letters, in addition to performances by Anna Banana and exhibitions of Fluxus art and artists' postage stamps. I was in Dallas from 1980 to 1995, and I was getting tired of it. Gaglione asked if I wanted to be a curator at his gallery, the Stamp Art Gallery, so I cashed out of Dallas and moved here in 1995. We did the most amazing things in a two-year period. We would have three exhibitions a month—of rubber stamps, of postage stamps, and of mail art—and we would usually have catalogues for all three of those shows. Then, as an edition, we would make these box sets of rubber stamps with images from the shows. Over two years, we did over sixty catalogues, which are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
The Stamp Art Gallery went bankrupt in 1997. I combined my interest in mail art and my professional interest in librarianship to start cataloging aspects of my mail-art collection, which was huge. I was writing maybe twenty to thirty letters a day because I had the resources of the library. When I was posted at the reference desk, I was writing letters. I was using their mailroom. I was using their photocopy services. I don’t think there was anybody more active in the mail-art world than I was in the ’80s to mid-’90s. I had the archive to prove it. A lot of people will paper their house with the mail art they receive, but I’m a very careful, organized librarian type, so I keep everything.
The first collection I put together was of mail-art exhibition catalogues, posters, and exhibition documentation. That was sold to the Getty Museum for more money than I had in a while so I was able to concentrate on putting together the next collection on mail-art periodicals; that went to MoMA. I know what librarians are looking for so I’m able to put together a collection that they’ll find interesting. I do all the cataloging so they don’t have to do any of the work. I save them years of staff time by doing the work myself.
PM: How many letters are you writing these days? Are you still doing it on a daily basis?
JH: No, I don’t do it on a daily basis. I have a post-office box, which I visit pretty infrequently, actually. But when I do go there, I’ll have thirty or forty letters waiting for me.
PM: But if you’re receiving that volume of letters, the collection must be pretty large at this point.
JH: It’s huge! Boxes take up half of the room we’re sitting in right now, and this is just a small portion of it. I have a storage space that has two hundred fifty storage boxes in it. I just can’t get in it anymore! So now the boxes are beginning to pile up around the house. But out of the collection, I did take out the exhibition catalogues, the periodicals, and all the stamp sheets. I had a huge collection of four thousand stamp sheets from eight hundred artists in thirty-five countries, which a private individual bought. The next collection I really want to put together is an artist’s book collection. I have a feeling that I could probably pull maybe three to four thousand artist’s books from my collection.
PM: There seems to be this contradictory impulse within mail art. On one end, there’s an alignment with the ephemerality of Fluxus. On the other end, there’s what you just described, which seems to be this appeal to the archivist impulse because of its tangible form. How have you spawned these two impulses in yourself and resolved them?
JH: I’m a bit conflicted at times. I think mail art should continue circulating, of course. Ray Johnson was well known for writing on his letters, “Add and send to” (somebody else). The work is supposed to be kept in circulation, but when it comes to me, I stop it. A lot of people think harshly of me because of it. They don’t think the stuff should be documented; it’s like stopping a thing in flight. But I think people react to what they receive differently. People hang mail art as wallpaper in their house or have outdoor exhibitions of it, leaving it in the rain for it to disintegrate. I’m quite comfortable with that aesthetic; it’s just not my aesthetic. My aesthetic, my background, my objective is to collect this stuff because to me it’s an important record of artistic activity, my own artistic activity and that of others.
PM: Jean Brown showed the work in her collection in a space that promoted immediacy and intimacy, but the library at MoMA is much more limited in the ways they can grant access to the public. So if you’re taking mail art out of circulation, what are your thoughts about how you can still present it to a public?
JH: There’s both a private face and a public face of mail art. The private is the correspondence between the respective artists. The public face is a mail-art exhibition. For a long time I dismissed the exhibition possibility for mail art. I just thought it should be a private thing, but then I went to Los Angeles in 1982 and met one of my correspondents, Lon Spiegelman. He entered every mail-art show he could and as a result built up this incredible collection of mail-art show catalogues. When I saw it, I almost got physically sick, quite frankly, because I wanted it, too. From that point on, I started collecting those catalogues.
Mail-art shows were a good way to expand the network because before the Internet, it was very difficult to find out about mail art. It was a private underground activity, and the mail-art shows, which usually were presented at non-commercial places like university galleries and libraries, were the few public places to see it.
LG: My first interactions with mail art were in Steven Leiber’s collection, and when we were organizing God Only Knows Who the Audience Is, we were in the archive of La Mamelle at Stanford University. And in 2010 in Sao Paulo, we saw this really great show of Brazilian mail art. I’m interested in mail art’s relevance to this moment in contemporary curating, where we are looking back quite seriously at the ’70s. What is the status of the network today? It seems like it’s packaged as a movement that’s over, that we can put in an archive or in a museum, but is it really something that’s over and done with?
JH: Well, it’s probably bigger now than it’s ever been. I know it is. Whereas there were very few ways you could find out about mail art in the ’70s or ’80s unless you just stumbled into it, you knew somebody who did it, or maybe you saw an exhibition, now you can just Google "mail art" and bring up whatever you want. I think it’s bigger than ever. But I’m not sure it’s as challenging as ever, you know? All things tend to run down.
I see mail art as probably the largest avant-garde art movement that’s been, and I consider it a radical avant-garde movement, maybe the last one of the twentieth century.
PM: What are the terms by which you define it as a radical avant-garde movement?
JH: Mail art is not about the postal system. It’s about the exchange of aesthetic information and how aesthetic information can be distributed. That’s a concept that’s still being explored today, especially with the Internet. Mail art is still relevant because it’s exploring that communication potential. What happens in these things is that the avant-garde aspects begin to run down, and it becomes more craft-like. And that’s what’s happened to mail art, really.
I don’t mean to be putting this down by saying it’s turned into craft because the purpose of the avant-garde is to be ahead of the game, and you can’t always be ahead of the game. You show what’s out there on the battlefield, and then people pick up on it and they do with it what they will. They’re on the battlefield with you, but you want to get off and go to the next one while a lot of people stay in that same place.
LG: It seems like a lot of contemporary art is very nostalgic, in a way. It’s interesting to hear you define craft in a circular manner, as what the avant-garde becomes when it becomes a nostalgic action. It becomes craft rather than something else.
JH: Well, letter writing is just an everyday activity, you know? It’s a postmodern art activity. Mixing the everyday with aesthetics is very much in the mold of Fluxus because that’s what they were trying to do: to not have separate art shows or art activities but to blend this into the everyday.
John Held, Jr. is a staff writer for San Francisco Arts Quarterly and has an interview with Bay Area dance pioneer Anna Halprin in Issue 9. He is also an adjunct curator for Ever Gold gallery in San Francisco, having curated Debris from the Underground in 2010 (reviewed in Artforum [January 2011]) and Beat by the Bay: San Francisco Artists and Galleries of the Fifties in December 2011. He is currently researching the Japanese art movement Gutai for forthcoming writing and exhbition.